July 22, 2021
The fly that remains in the water the longest catches the most fish. On most days, this is an unavoidable truth. As a guide, and former competitor and coach for Fly Fishing Team USA, I’ve learned that angler efficiency and time management make a huge difference when it comes to being more productive on the water. Tying faster knots is one of the many skills I’m always trying to improve, with the goal of keeping my flies in the water longer.
In a culture obsessed with time hacking, I want to be clear that what I’m about to write is not a hack or a shortcut. Instead, these are very simple concepts, principles, and alternative methods that will cut down on your streamside knot-tying time. These tips will help you increase your fishing time, but to reap the dividends, you’ll need to practice these knots at home.
The most important way you can save time tying knots is to reduce the number of times you need to tie knots. There are many ways to do this—reducing the number of flies you donate to the stream bottom is just one way to avoid tying new knots. Another good practice is to reduce waste. Anytime you waste leader or tippet material, your leader becomes incrementally shorter. The more material you waste, the faster you’ll have add new material and tie new knots. If you reduce the amount of tippet you waste with each fly change, you reduce the number of times you have to add tippet.
Have you ever tied a tippet knot and noticed you had to trim 3" of excess tag material? I make this simple mistake when I get excited and rush my knots. By slowing down while tying the knot, I make more accurate measurements and reduce waste. Sometimes slower is faster.
Let’s say your tippet length should remain a minimum of 24" and you start with 30" to provide wiggle room to tie multiple knots. At the burn rate of 2" of waste after each knot, it only takes three fly changes before you need to add another tippet section.
However, if you practice taking your time, and work on only wasting a half-inch section, then you’ve just multiplied your tippet lifespan. By honing this skill, I can fish several hours, make a handful of fly changes, and never have to change the tippet. In addition to reducing waste, a properly tied tippet-to-fly knot may create a tag end short enough that it doesn’t need trimming at all.
To reduce waste, I live by the carpenter’s rule, “measure twice and cut once.” To achieve less waste after each knot, I’ve slowed down my hand movements to work on control, with the hopes of creating less waste. Previously, my knot-tying speed was slightly faster, but it came at the cost of wasting too much material.
It now takes me several seconds longer to tie each knot but my waste is less, and I spend less time overall with my flies out of the water. As legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden once said, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” In short, develop good knot-tying fundamentals, and only then begin to work on speed.
Another commonsense tip for tippet-to-fly connections is to cut the tippet at roughly a 45-degree angle. This creates a finer point at the tippet edge, giving you easier tippet-to-hook-eye entry when threading material through smaller or clogged hook eyes.
Also, using dull nippers or your teeth to cut tippet will likely create a rough surface on the tippet end, and decrease the ease of passing tippet through small hook eyes. Using your teeth definitely doesn’t save time when you’re dealing with small flies.
When fishing small patterns, sharp nippers are worth their weight in gold. Use sharp nippers and cut the tippet at a 45-degree angle, and you’ll have less frustration passing tippet through the hook eye.
Another recommendation is to hold the tippet as close to the tip as you can before inserting it into the hook eye. Shorter sections are stiffer compared to longer and limper sections. It’s a simple concept most people learn on their own, but you’d be surprised how many people I see trying to thread a 1" section of tippet through the hook eye.
A shorter, stiffer tippet end creates greater force to push the tippet through the hook eye, and it’s especially important for crowded or clogged hook eyes. Normally, I pinch my tippet with only a quarter inch or less outside my grasp. Pinpoint accuracy and control will help you thread the needle quickly.
Tying faster knots has a lot to do with practice, and controlling the tag ends precisely with your fingertips, but some knots are faster than others because they require fewer steps.
Clinch knot. I do not use the improved clinch knot because it doesn’t improve the overall strength of the knot, and it requires an extra step. I’ve read conflicting reports regarding the strength of the clinch knot versus the improved clinch knot, but my experience has been the standard clinch knot is just as strong. Lefty Kreh always said “A knot always slips before it fails,” and I find the knot jams tighter with a standard clinch knot. Also, the improved clinch knot uses more material than the regular clinch. I’m always striving to reduce waste and save time, so I use a regular five-turn clinch knot for all large to medium-size hooks. A seven- or eight-turn clinch knot takes more time, and requires more friction to seat the knot properly. A five-turn clinch jams tightly with less effort when pulling the knot tight.
I think one key to a faster clinch knot is keeping your hands as close together as possible—sometimes even touching—while twisting or turning tippet to make the knot. For example, when tying the clinch knot, my knuckles and fingertips are close together or even touching. This reduces the radius and the amount of movement it takes for both hands and fingers to twist or turn the tippet material around itself. Also, this creates a solid base while my hands are in motion. For example, after you’ve made five turns and are ready to redirect the tip section through the loop immediately in front of the hook eye, the most difficult part is keeping the loop open. I believe constant tension solves this problem. I maintain this tension by keeping my hands close together, with both middle fingers touching and pushing slightly away from each other. This constant tension keeps the loop near the hook eye open for easy tippet passage.
Davy knot. My friend Davy Wotton created this knot because he found other knots too complicated. Today, the Davy knot is one of the most popular knots in competitive fly fishing, as it is strong, fast to tie, and uses less material. The Davy knot is basically a figure 8 knot.
The Davy Knot is my go-to knot when fishing flies on size 18 and smaller hooks. The Davy knot creates a smaller footprint than a five-turn clinch, giving the fly a more natural appearance with pressured fish. Have you noticed how large a five-turn clinch knot with 6X looks on a size 20 hook? Sometimes the knot is a quarter the size of the fly. For this reason alone, I use the Davy knot exclusively with smaller patterns.
Again, the key with the Davy knot is keeping your hands close together so your fingertips touch when both hands turn to form the figure 8. With fingertips touching, constant tension (created when both hands are pushing slightly away from each other) allows better loop control while turning and threading the loop with the tippet end. I find the Davy knot is difficult to finish if I don’t have that tension. Davy Wotton is one of most brilliant anglers I’ve met, and over the years his knot has helped me immensely.
Finger clinch. The best way to fish multiple nymphs is by using droppers. Compared to connecting flies to the bend of the previous hook, droppers on the tag ends of tippet knots create more natural movement. Also, with droppers you foul-hook fewer fish.
To create my droppers, I leave a 4" to 6" downward tag from a surgeon’s knot. After several fly changes, this tag end becomes too short, so you’ll need to create another tag to continue fishing a dropper nymph. Instead of starting over and connecting two fresh pieces of tippet, I use a finger clinch to add a dropper.
First, trim the original surgeon tag end flush with the leader, so it’s just a knot. This knot will function as a stopper knot for the finger clinch. Cut a new 10" section of tippet, and use both hands to create a clinch knot with a large, open loop.
Drop the existing nymph rig and tippet down through this large loop until you pass the original surgeon’s knot. Once you pass the knot, you can tighten the clinch knot above it. Trim the short tag end, and simply slide the knot down against the stopper knot. The knot prevents the tag from sliding down closer to the point fly. Also, this knot directs the tag end outward at a 90-degree angle, reducing the likelihood of the dropper tangling around the main line.
>>Learn how to tie the finger Clinch knot and Davy knot: youtube.com/flyfishermanmagazine
Tying knots is a motor skill that takes time to develop. Your brain can’t just tell your hands what to do and expect them to perform without practice. Knots don’t have to be difficult, but it does require practice on your part. And when I say practice, I mean practice off the water. If you’re new to fly fishing, ten minutes of practice per day will pay huge rewards on the water.
George Daniel is the author of the best-selling Dynamic Nymphing and most recently Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole, 2018). He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and owner of Livin’ on the Fly, an educational/guide company in Pennsylvania. He was a coach for both the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team and Fly Fishing Team USA, and is a two-time U.S. National Fly Fishing Champion.