August 11, 2020
By Landon Mayer | Illustrations by Joe Mahler
This article was originally titled "Line Management: How to strip line, set the hook, and mend for the perfect drift. It first appeared in the Fly Fishing Made Easy 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman.
This line control is one of the unique aspects of fly fishing. With conventional tackle you use the reel and the rod tip to move your bait or lure, but in fly fishing you use the rod and your hands to move and manage the line.
After the cast, the first thing you need to do is immediately place the fly line under the index finger of your rod hand. By trapping the line with your trigger finger this way, you can use the rod to control the line or set the hook on a fish. You can also slightly release the pressure on your trigger finger and use the other hand to draw line toward you, removing slack from the line or moving the fly. This is called “stripping” line.
If you don’t trap the line with your trigger finger, you’ll forever be grasping for loose line with your left hand, you’ll have to look away from your target while trying to “find” line with your left hand, and most of the time, you won’t have adequate control of the line when you need to set the hook. Keep the line under control and under that trigger finger at all times—trout have an uncanny ability to eat the fly at just the wrong moment.
To set the hook, pinch the line tightly against the cork with your finger and lift the rod tip upward to remove slack from the line and stick the fly in the roof or corner of the fish’s mouth. This is most often the best way to set the hook, particularly in trout fishing, where you are dealing with small flies and light tippet. Using this method you can quickly remove slack from the line, and you place the rod in the best position to bend from the tip, both cushioning the tippet and preventing the hook from tearing out. There are many exceptions to this rule, especially when dealing with large gamefish with hard mouths, but for most trout fishing in moving waters, the pinch and lift is the way to go.
Pinching with the trigger finger is important when you are applying tension and setting the hook, but when the fish makes a mad dash you must quickly release the tension with that trigger finger to allow the line to slide. If you aren’t quick enough on this tension release, the fish will break the tippet. In a perfect scenario, the fish will take line until all the slack is removed from your hands and you can play the fish from the reel—in other words, when the fish runs, it takes line from the reel, and you use the reel to gain back line.
With smaller fish (and sometimes with large fish that wallow instead of running) the fish doesn’t take enough line to get the reel involved, and you must strip line and/or let line slide under your finger to play and eventually land the fish. In these situations, the reel never gets used. It’s all up to you and the way you manage the line tension with your hands and that all-important trigger finger.
Some types of trout foods are strong swimmers. Chubs, sculpins, dace, and other small fish can all swim against the current, and when you use flies that imitate these foods, you strip line under your index finger (and/or move the rod tip) to make the flies come alive and move in the water.
Most aquatic insects, however, cannot swim or are poor swimmers and they merely drift along in a river at the same speed as the current. When you use these types of flies—submerged or floating on the surface—you want what’s known as a “dead drift.” Matching your fly speed to the current speed is one of the most important skills you can learn as a fly fisher, and it’s very often the difference between catching a few trout and a lot of trout.
To get this dead drift, you need to introduce slack into the line, and “mending” the line is how fly fishers create slack in specific areas of the line to defeat the effect of the current on the line, and allow the fly to drift unencumbered by the pull and tug of the fly line. “Mending” really just means lifting the rod and line and placing or creating an arc of slack line facing in a specific direction.
For instance, if you are standing in slow water and casting your fly into fast water, you will likely need to mend the line downstream so the fly line can keep pace with the leader and the fly and allow a dead drift. If you are standing in fast water and casting into slower water in a seam or along the bank—a very common situation—you may need to mend the line upstream to counteract the effect of the fast water on the rear portion of the fly line.
In many situations, you will have to make multiple mends to make that dead drift last or “extend” the drift. That might mean you make an upstream mend, the current pushes and begins to straighten the line, so you make another upstream mend, and then another to continually work against the current and allow the fly to drift at just the same speed as the water.
In complex situations where the current between you and the target is fast, slow, fast, and slower again, you might have to make complex mends, for instance mending the tip of the fly line upstream and the rear portion downstream. Complex water like this with many breaks and changes in current speeds is often excellent feeding water for trout, and to catch these trout your mending needs to be on point.
Basic mending calls for you to raise the rod high, lift the line close to you off the surface of the water, and then reposition the line on the water with an upstream or downstream arc. By carefully lifting before the mend, you prevent pulling the line and unintentionally moving the fly or pulling it away from the trout. This works well when you are high-stick nymphing and already trying to keep the line off the water, and it’s the easiest way to manage the line and create slack at short to medium distances.
To put a slack mend into the rod at medium to long distances, you might have to raise the rod and then roll cast a portion of the line to mend the tip of the fly line. This roll cast is especially helpful when there are obstructions between you and your target, and you have to roll the line up over or around an obstacle such as a midstream boulder.
In tight quarters with short drifts, you often need to make small mends very quickly to counteract the ebb and flow of complicated currents. Often a regular lift and mend takes too long and introduces too much slack. When I want to make small mends quickly, I use what Doug Swisher called the “micro second wrist” in the classic video Scientific Anglers Advanced Fly Casting. I can still hear his voice in my head every time I use his techniques.
When casting, turn your wrist up- or downriver with the bottom of the reel pointing in the direction you want to mend. If you want to make an upstream mend, the reel is pointing upstream and your thumb is on the opposite side of the cork so you can push in that direction. With the rod in front of you, follow the flies through the drift and when you need a small mend, quickly flick your wrist and the rod tip like your are throwing a small cast up- or downriver. This shoots a loop of line like a small cast. Using this “micro second wrist” you can shoot two or three quick mends into a drift in rapid succession.
Most of what we’ve discussed so far is upstream or downstream mending, and these techniques are most useful when you are presenting the fly across currents. But one of the best presentation angles is from a position upstream of the trout. This way, the first thing the trout sees is the fly, and not the line, leader, or tippet. To introduce slack from this position—and keep the fly drifting down toward the trout without dragging—I use what I call a kick mend. This is also sometimes called a vertical mend or a stack mend.
Starting with the rod just above water level, use your wrist to snap the rod up and down, and at the same time, release tension from under your trigger finger, using the rod to feed line from the rod tip and onto the water. Repeat this motion as much as needed, throwing loose line onto the water close to you without disturbing the water or fish. By introducing this slack line, your fly should drift drag-free toward the target.
Once you learn how to mend, the next big question becomes “How do I know exactly when to mend?” You cannot wait for your fly to drag and then mend. You have to learn to anticipate the currents and how they will affect the drift of your fly. One of my favorite analogies is the 1980s game Pac-Man. While in the maze avoiding ghosts, your eyes track the dotted line two or three turns ahead. The same visual tracking is a great way to approach line control. You have to stay two or three turns ahead. Visualize the drift through fast and slow water speeds before you make the cast, and use mends to stay ahead of that current and keep the fly drifting at just the right speed.
Landon Mayer is a Colorado fly-fishing guide and Fly Fisherman contributing editor. He lives with his wife Michelle and their four children in Florissant, Colorado. His most recent book is The Hunt for Giant Trout: 25 Best Places in the United States to Catch a Trophy (Stackpole Books, 2018).