Mending Line

Most of the time when trout fishing with dry flies or nymphs, you try to achieve a drag-free drift. This is also known as a dead drift. Essentially, what this means is you try to make your fly drift at the same speed as the current. That would be simple if the fly was drifting independently down the river. But it’s not. It’s attached to your line. Consequently, line management is a vital skill when it comes to fly fishing success and mending line is a big part of that skill set.

If your leader, or especially your fly line, is in a different current speed than the fly, it will pull or stop the fly when the line tightens. The term we use for this is drag. If your fly is dragging, you won’t catch many trout because it doesn’t look natural. Not only will the trout typically refuse to eat your fly when it has drag, they will often spook. This is especially true when you repeatedly drag a fly over a fish.

When you’re fishing small creeks and/or pocket water, you can often get closer to the fish because the broken currents help conceal you. In those instances, you can usually prevent drag by just keeping most of the line off the water. The less line on the water, the less there is to pull the fly.

But in slower pools or in bigger, deeper water, you may not be able to get as close to the fish. This forces you to make longer casts. As a result, you’ll have more line on the water. The more line you have on the water, the more currents you’ll have pulling it at different speeds.

Fly Casting Upstream
Casting Upstream

When possible, I like to cast mostly upstream when I’m fishing bigger water. This allows me to stay behind the fish and it puts my fly and line more in the same speed of current. When the fly and line are in the same current speed, line management is much simpler. You mainly just have to strip the slack in as it drift back to you.

However, sometimes a particular run won’t allow for a practical upstream cast. It could be that the depth of the water won’t allow you to get in the proper position. Or maybe it’s a slick with really spooky fish and you’re concerned about casting your line across them. You may decide to get above them and cast downstream.

Fly Casting Downstream
Casting Downstream

You have to be careful with this approach because you’re moving into their direct line of sight, and anything you stir up while wading will drift down to them. Excessive debris or a big mud cloud will send them running. The other challenge casting downstream is the drift.

Using S-curves for a Downstream Drift
Downstream Presentation

If you make a straight, fully extended cast downstream, your fly will start to drag almost immediately because the tight line will prevent the fly from going anywhere. It just drags in the water. I see a lot of people try to feed line at this point. But if the line is tight from the start, you’re just feeding a dragging fly. The trick is to land your cast with slack in the line. Using something like a pile cast will allow the line to land with little s-curves in it. You’ll be able to achieve a good dead drift while the s-curves straighten out. And if you want it to drift farther, feed line while you have those s-curves to get a nice, long drag-free drift.

The big challenge is when you have to make a longer cast across the river. It’s something I avoid if I can, but often, especially on large rivers, you have no choice. Casting across the river will almost always put your line and fly in different current speeds. And the longer the cast, the more different current speeds your likely to find.

Fly Fishing Mending
Initial Cast Across River

So, let’s say you have a nice, slow current on the other side of a wide run. There’s a fast current between you and the slow current. When you cast your fly into the slow current, your line will lay across the fast the current. Consequently, the fast current pulls the line, the line pulls the fly and you have drag. This is a scenario when you need to mend line.

Fly Fishing Mending
Drag Setting In

Mending line means that I am going to manipulate the line in such a way that I put it upstream of the fly. By the time the faster current moves the line past the fly, the fly has had an opportunity to naturally drift through the target area. You can make this mend during the cast with what’s called a reach cast. This is known as an aerial mend. Or you can make the mend after the cast has landed by using the rod to flip the belly of the line upstream. Sometimes, longer casts or longer drifts may require you to do both. Longer drifts may also require you to make multiple mends.

Fly Fishing Mending
Drift After Upstream Mend

Let’s pose a similar scenario, but this time you’re casting across a slower current and the fly is landing in a faster current. Consequently, the fly will move ahead of the line, tighten and swing (drag) out of the drift lane.  In this situation, you want the line downstream of the fly to give the fly time to drift before it overtakes the line. You would use a downstream mend. Like before, this could be achieved with a reach cast and/or by flipping the line downstream after it’s on the water. 

Fly Fishing Mending
Drag Setting In
Fly Fishing Mending
Drift After Downstream Mend

Mending is not easy and requires some practice because a lot of it has to do with anticipation and timing. If you wait until the fly starts to drag before you mend, you’ll move the fly out of the drift lane. You need to anticipate that the fly will drag and make your mend before, while you still have slack. This will disrupt the fly’s drift very little, if at all. Again, it will just take some practice.

Fly Fishing Mending
Side to Side Mending Motion

The other big key is how you mend the line. I see a lot of people keep the rod on a level plane and make a side-to-side motion to mend the line. As a result, the line pulls through the water and drags the fly. Instead, point your rod down and toward the line you want to move and make a sweeping, semi-circle motion to move the line. The idea is to essentially pick the line up and place it in a different position… without moving the fly.

Fly Fishing Mending
Semi-circle Mending Motion

How much line you have to move will determine how big of a semi-circle you make. For instance, a big mend with a short line will likely pick the line and the fly up off the water. You don’t want that. A small mend with a long line likely won’t pick up the entire line belly, and you’ll still have drag.

As I mentioned before, it will take some practice. But it is an essential skill when drifting dry flies or nymphs to trout, especially on bigger water. Keep messing with it and before you know it, it will be second nature.

On the Fly – Perfection Loop

Loop knots have many uses in fly fishing, and there are probably just as many types of knots as there are uses. While it has other uses, the Perfection Loop is my favorite knot for putting a loop in the butt of a leader. Because the Perfection Loop keeps the leader “in line” with the loop, it allows for more accurate casting. Other loop knots often leave the leader at a slight angle from the loop.

Most commercial leaders already have a Perfection Loop tied in the butt section when you buy them. But if you are thinking of making your own leaders or just need to make a repair in the field, this is a great knot to know. Near the end of the video, you’ll also see how to make a loop to loop connection to attach the leader to the fly line.

On the Fly is a segment of my monthly newsletter featuring simple tips for fly fishing.

Tying the Perfection Loop

March Fishing Forecast

East Bradley Fork, NC
Nymphing a riffle in early spring

Smoky Mountains

Fishing will likely be hit and miss in the Smokies this month. Of course, we’re starting the month off with very high water. Additional large amounts of rainfall in March could really shut things down. Hopefully, we can “regroup” with a stretch of dry weather.

Water temperatures are the other issue this month. They tend to rise and fall significantly in March, creating wild swings in fish activity. We’re looking for water temps to get in the 50’s for the better part of the day, for at least a few days in a row. More than likely, that will begin to happen at the mid to late part of the month.

When that does occur, not only will you find more active fish, you’ll begin to encounter some of the better hatches of the year. Small black caddis and stoneflies will hatch sporadically through the month and you should begin seeing better hatches of Quill Gordon and Blue Quill mayflies toward the end of the month.

Clinch River

Spilling at Norris Dam, TN
Spilling at Norris Dam

I honestly just can’t imagine much happening on the Clinch or other Tennessee tailwaters this month. After all of the flooding, most dams are currently spilling. That will likely be followed by weeks of heavy generation. Let’s look at the Clinch again next month!

The Effect of Severe Weather on Trout

In the wake of our recent flooding in East Tennessee, I’ve been hearing the same question that always surfaces after a severe weather event. What does this do to the trout? It depends. It depends on the fishery and it depends on the fish.

First, let me clarify that what I’m going to talk about here is severe conditions. For instance, a few hot days and a little bit of low water does not constitute drought. Those conditions have to persist over a longer period of time. Similarly, a few days of high water doesn’t equal severe flooding. What we’ve had this February (2019) is severe flooding.

Bald River Falls, TN
Bald River Falls after last week’s floods

In general, when you get severe conditions as described above, you’re going to lose some fish. A major drought is harmful to all trout but tends to impact the bigger fish. Low, hot water depletes oxygen and bigger fish require more oxygen. A major flooding event will have the greatest impact on younger, smaller trout because they don’t know where to go. Stocked trout are also very vulnerable to high water events for the same reason young wild trout are. They just don’t know what to do.

Nearly 20 years ago, we had a major flood and were catching large brown trout around the picnic tables at Metcalf Bottoms. However, I should point out that it wasn’t a guide trip. Rather, it was a group of very experienced Smoky Mountain trout fishermen who all knew the area VERY well. In other words, don’t try this at home! But the point is, the bigger, older wild fish knew where to go to get out of the heavy currents. In that case, it was under a normally dry picnic table!

Flooded Little River, TN
Little River in the trees

So, you are absolutely going to lose some fish, maybe a lot, when these sorts of things happen. For some fisheries, it can be devastating. In a small, stocked stream, you may have some really crappy fishing until they stock again. For the Smokies, it tends to be a good thing in the long run.

As I’ve discussed before, the streams in the Smokies are very healthy as far as fish populations, but they are nutrient poor. Nutrient poor streams have a far less dense population of aquatic insects. When you have trout streams with very healthy fish populations but an inadequate food supply, you end up with a lot of small fish. So, when you get a major drought or flooding event that “thins the herd,” there is more food for the survivors and they get bigger.  In the Smokies, this is especially true for the rainbows and brook trout.

Years ago, we had a major drought in the Smokies. Prior to the drought, we averaged 4000 fish per mile. Following the drought, the number dropped to an average of 2000 fish per mile. Half of the fish were gone! Local fishermen learned about this and started pulling their hair out thinking fishing in the Smokies was going to be terrible.

Instead, in the year or two after the drought, they found that they still caught about the same number of fish they always did, but the fish averaged an inch or two bigger. After all, you’re only going to catch so many in a pool before you spook it. So, you may only catch six fish out of a pool whether it has fifty fish in it or one hundred.

Abrams Creek Rainbow
A really nice park rainbow

The impact drought has on fish size is not usually apparent for a year or two. But the impact that floods have on fish size are often more immediate. You tend to find noticeable differences that same year and significant differences the following year.

In other words, if you fish the Smokies this year and next year, don’t be surprised if the rainbows you catch aren’t a little bigger!