January 18, 2023
By Lefty Kreh
This article originally appeared in the May 2001 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Knots connect us to fish. Yet, surprisingly few anglers pay much attention to them. Let's examine the materials we use to build knots, then review how to tie the knots fly fishermen need. No knot breaks until it slips. A poorly designed knot pulled down firmly will usually outperform an improperly tied, well-designed knot. The need to burn a knot to prevent it from slipping indicates that it is a weak knot or that you are not closing it tightly enough. Burning can also weaken the knot or the monofilament if care is not taken. Once a knot is securely drawn down, the ends should be clipped. Stubs protruding from a leader may catch the tippet, fly, or vegetation, resulting in a lost fly or fish.
Lubricating a knot with silicone, spittle, or water aids in properly closing it. But unless great care is taken when closing the knot, silicone will allow it to slip and fail.
Gluing a knot with commercial knot glues makes them stronger and more durable.
(Click here for a video demonstration on how to tie important fly-fishing knots.)
It is difficult to tighten a knot properly if one line is a stiff or "hard" monofilament and the other line is limp. Laboratory tests indicate that few knots tied with monofilament stronger than 15-pound-test can be pulled to maximum tightness with bare hands. Gloves or a device are needed to pull the knot completely tight. For best results when building tapered leaders, use monofilament of the same manufacturer or apparent limpness.
The number of turns in a knot are important. If a knot requires five turns with the tag and you use four, you may not have enough friction to keep it from slipping. If you use more than five turns, you may not be able to draw it closed properly. The number of turns is deter mined by the strength or diameter of the line. For example, in a non-slip loop, when using 6-pound-test or lighter, seven turns should give maximum strength. But if you use 30-pound-test, only four turns are sufficient.
Some knots should not be used with certain strong monofilaments. For example, the improved clinch knot often does poorly in line testing more than 20-pound-tcst and the surgeon's knot performs poorly in line testing 60- pound-test or stronger.
Most knots are made from a clinch, nail, or overhand knot, or a combination of these. For example, a blood or barrel knot is comprised of two clinch knots, and a Uni Knot or Duncan loop is a form of clinch knot. To ensure that a clinch knot closes correctly, you should draw the tag end down so that it lies against the spirals around the main line before tightening.
Monofilament retains its strength for a long time if stored properly. Sunlight, ultraviolet light, fluorescent lights, and heat will harm monofilament. Keep your spools of mono at about room temperature and in a dark place. I have line that is more than ten years old stored in a small closet, and it's as good as new.
Many years ago I tied 90 blood knots and tested 30 of them immediately on my machine that measures knot breaking strengths. Six weeks later I tested 30 more, and a year later I tested the remaining 30. I wanted to see if the knots deteriorated under knot tension. There was almost no difference between the first 30 broken and the last 30. Of course, the knots need to be stored properly if you want to maintain their strength.
Knots to hold a fly are generally stronger if the line is passed through the hook eye two times. This is one reason why the Trilene and Palomar knots give almost full line strength; they have two strands of mono through the hook eye.
When constructing knots, don't allow one strand to cross over another. Make sure that all strands lie side by side. If one strand crosses over another, the knot will be weakened and will likely fail at that spot.
Fluorocarbon lines are harder than monofilament and require greater care when closing a knot or they will come loose. Secure all fluorocarbon knots extra tight.
Finally, to tie good knots, practice them at home until you can do them without looking at instructions and they hold when tested. On the water is not the time to learn to tie your knots.
The following knots are the ones fly fishers need. Learn them all, and you will be ready for any conditions you meet in fresh or salt water.
Non-slip Loop: Use this knot to tie on most streamers, nymphs, and popping bugs, but don't use it for dry flies. The loop lets. the fly swing more freely. However, on flies smaller than #12, the loop is too large, so I don't use it. For me, the non-slip loop has replaced the improved clinch knot for flies that I want to look lively in the water. If I need to tie a loop in the end of monofilament, I choose this knot over other loop knots. The knot can be used for braided wire; only one turn around the standing end is needed.
To get maximum strength with mono, you must make the required turns around the standing end. Here are the recommended turns for various mono line tests.
- 8X to 6-pound-test: 7 turns
- 8- to 12-pound-test: 5 turns
- 15- to 40-pound-test: 4 turns
- 50- to 60-pound-test: 3 turns
- More than 60-pound-test: 2 turns
For gel-spun and braided lines, use six turns. For plastic coated braided wire, use one turn. During final closure, you must pull on the fly, the standing line, and the tag end to close the knot firmly.
There is a trick to making the loop small. After the line has been passed through the hook eye and then back through the overhand knot, grip the lines and gently pull on the main line. This will reduce the overhand knot to the desired size. Then, still holding the lines, gently pull on the tag end, which will feed the overhand knot down the hook eye, permitting you to make a small knot.
Surgeon's Knot: This highly versatile knot allows you to connect two similar or dissimilar diameters of monofilament, or monofilament to braided wire. You must tighten firmly all four ends or a weak knot results. It is often used to build tapered leaders.
Tube Nail Knot: Use this knot to connect a leader butt to the fly line. It is also useful for placing a nail knot on your fly line as an indicator.
George Harvey Dry-fly Knot: Of all the knots used to attach a leader to a dry fly, this one works best for me. Use it on turned-down hook eyes; it does not tie well to ring-eye hooks. It is very strong and has the added advantage of not allowing the fly to cant to one side, as some knots do.
Albright Knot: This is perhaps the single most useful knot to connect lines of different diameters or materials. Use it to connect fly liJ1e to backing, braided or solid wire to monofilament, and a thin strand of mono to a thick bite leader.
Trilene Knot: One of the strongest and easiest knots to tie is the Trilene Knot. Make sure you close it firmly.
Figure 8 Knot: Don't use this knot for monofilament. It is strictly for attaching braided wire to a hook or swivel. The most important consideration is that when the knot is pulled tight, tension should be applied only on the tag end. If you pull on the main line, it will draw any kinked wire in front of the hook eye, causing the fly to wobble and spin unnaturally on the retrieve. All kinks should be pulled from the tag encl, where they can be clipped off.
Whipped Loop: I have used whipped loops on the backs and fronts of all my lines for many years. These loops are rounded and flow through the guides without catching. They allow quick line and leader changes. Some people use a nail knot to attach a leader butt to the line and then tie a loop in the butt section, but I don't recommend doing that. A whipped loop is smaller, smoother, and stronger than a nail knot or any other knot, so I recommend it.
There are several ways to make a loop. You need only a bobbin, some thread, and a little glue. The drawing shows how to make a whipped loop. The faster you swing the bobbin, the tighter you'll make the wraps. Always check the loop's strength after you have completed it by putting a thin, round object in the loop (a nail or dowel works) and pulling hard on the line. If it holds, no fish will ever open it. Coat the whipped section with flexible glue, such as Pliobond or Softex.
Testing Your Knots
You can compare your own knots by making a simple test with a box of strong hooks, some monofilament, and two identical pairs of pliers.
Take two strong hooks from the same box. Cut a foot or two of monofilament. Using your favorite knot, tie one end of the mono to one hook. Tie the other end of the mono to the second hook using a different knot. Make sure you close both knots firmly and correctly. If you use a lubricant, apply it to both knots. Grip the two hooks with the pliers and then jerk your hands apart. Jerking on a knot will cause it to break more quickly than applying a steady pull. The weaker of the two knots will break unless they are stronger than the force you apply. Make this test ten times, and you'll know which knot is stronger.
Lefty Kreh was a Fly Fisherman Editor-atLarge and author of several fly-fishing books, including Practical Fishing Knots II (with Mark Sosin) and Solving Fly-casting Problems.