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The Tie That Binds

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Ronan's report


Thursday 9th October, 2008

Everyone has their favourite knots, so this could be a bit of a touchy subject. I'm going to tell you what my favourites are, just to give you something to get started with. If you don't like them, feel free to experiment with others.

First I'll start off with my used-to-be-but-no-longer favourite knot. Well, I'm not sure it was ever a favourite knot, just one I could remember how to tie and which seemed to work pretty well. That proper name for the knot is probably the half blood knot, but I used to call it a blood knot and have also heard it called a clinch or barrel knot. There is a version called the improved clinch knot, which is supposed to be a bit better, although that wasn't my experience. This is the knot I used for tying on flies.

One day my half blood knots started failing at a higher proportion than usual, which was probably about 10%. It seemed like half of my knots were now failing, most when I tested them and some on fish. I thought my tippet might have got a bit old, so I tried some new stuff. I was tying them the same way I'd always tied them. I just couldn't figure it out. I guess somehow I'd lost my half blood knot knack. Plenty of people seem happy with this knot, but for me it just stopped working. I tried the improved version, and that wasn't much better.

On the advice of my brother (a marine biologist and keen sea fisherman) I tried the Uni knot, also known as the Duncan loop. I haven't looked back. I don't even have the same 10% failure rate I used to have with half blood knots when everything was going well. It's maybe 2% at worst. Occasionally one will fail when I test it or one I really should have retied will break, but it's pretty rare. My normal nymph fishing rig uses 7 Uni knots, so if I was going to have problems with it I definitely would have noticed.

I find the Uni knot much easier to tie than a half blood knot, especially when my fingers are cold or the fly doesn't give very good access to the eye. The Uni knot is a loop knot, giving a similar result to a hangmans noose. This is great for a few reasons. One is that you can tie the knot well away from the eye. You never have to worry about access to the eye or parts of the fly getting tangled up in the knot. Another good thing is that you can tie it in such a way that it isn't fiddly. You can use a big first loop and then a long tail or tag end, so if you're feeling clumsy it's still easy to tie without frustration. Even with good eyesight I used to get frustrated trying to get the tag of a half blood knot through the first loop. It's also handy if you tend to get the "I'm tying on a fly and a fish is right there" jitters, and it's pretty easy to tie in the dark.

A lot of the times when I'm fishing my rig will be what is called "NZ style", which is similar to John Barr's "Hopper-Dropper-Copper" approach. What this entails is having a dry fly with a nymph (or two) attached to it by a piece of tippet which is tied to the bend of the dry fly's hook. The dry fly serves both it's traditional purpose as a surface fly and also as an indicator. If a fish takes the nymph below then you can see it because the dry fly will move. A Uni knot is ideal for tying tippet to the bend of the hook, again because it's like a noose. You can tie the knot away from hook, put the hook through the loop and then tighten down the knot. This is far easier than trying to tie a half blood knot at the bend. I haven't noticed that the tippet tied to the bend stops the fish getting hooked, in case you were wondering.

Not all knots suit all leader or tippet materials. A knot which is good for mono may not be good for fluoro. Although the Uni knot is not supposed to be quite so good with fluoro as for mono, I have found it strong with both. If I'm at all worried I use a Trilene knot for fluoro. The Trilene isn't so good for smaller flies because you have to pass the tippet twice through the eye.

For lake fishing I often tie up leaders with a couple of droppers, for fishing multiple flies. The entire leader is made up from three different sections of line. I usually use heavier line for the first section and lighter line for the other two. The tag ends of the knots used to join the first and second sections become the droppers. I use a knot called an inline dropper knot for this, but I can't find anything online about it to show you. Instead I'll suggest a water knot, which is a popular knot for forming droppers. You can also use it for joining tippet to your leader, although I use tippet rings and Uni knots for that myself.

So let's say you're joining the first and second sections of your leader and want to make a dropper. We want the dropper to be the tag end of the first section. You always want the dropper to be formed from the section of line closer to the fly line, as opposed to the tip of the leader, because it's much stronger. Place the ends of the two sections of line together, and then move the end of the second section about 6 inches or so up the first section. Tie your knot here and you should have a good length of the first section left over to form the dropper. Trim the tag of the second section, not the first. I tie up several of these leaders at once and keep them in zip lock backs so I don't have to do it by the water.

Leader diagram

The last couple of knots I use are for making loops. In the leader diagram above I would have tied the loop using a knot like the overhand loop knot. Occasionally I will need to tie loops in thick line, like the end of a tapered leader. The previous type of knot is too bulky for that, so I use a perfection loop. I've only had to tie that a few times though.

To sum up, the knot I mainly use is the Uni knot, which I use for tying on flies and with tippet rings. Sometimes I will use a Trilene knot with fluoro. I use a knot similar to a water knot for making leaders with droppers, and when I need to tie a loop I use a knot similar to the overhand loop knot. That's just a few knots to learn, and they're all pretty easy to tie. As I said at the beginning, people often have their own favourite knots for various purposes, and these are mine.

It takes me a little while to learn new knots, so I like to practice them. When I'm trying to learn one I keep a piece or cord by the couch and tie knots round a pen while watching TV. It's a lot better than trying to remember them down at the river.

You should always lubricate knots well before tightening them up. I use saliva i.e. I lick them or run them through my mouth. When you're tightening up a knot you can cause quite a bit of friction which causes heat and that can cause a knot to fail. Lubrication minimises friction and helps the knot bed down tightly. With a Uni knot I first lubricate the knot before I tighten it up, and then I lubricate the two bits of line running to the eye before I slide the knot down to it.

Try not to rush tying knots. On the occasions I have, or when I've thought "That wasn't such a good knot" and not bothered to retie it, I've almost invariably lost fish. The fish might be right there as you're tying on, but if you don't tie a good knot it probably won't be hanging around for long if you hook it.

Don't be shy about retying knots. After landing a fish check the tippet for abrasion and if it looks like it needs it, replace it or snip it back to a good bit. If I've caught a fish which has put up any sort of a fight I'll retie at least the fly and test the other knots. If I've had a real tussle I may retie more of the knots. If I come across a better than average looking fish and I've already had a few others I will retie the knots and/or replace tippet. You always feel like such an idiot when you and the fish part company prematurely and you find the tippet has broken at a knot.

When trimming the tag end of your knots don't trim it right hard to knot. Leave a little bit. I usually leave at least two millimetres or 3/16". This remaining tag is a sort of safety backup. If your knot isn't quite pulled down tight and slips a bit when it comes under tension the remaining tag should allow for that slippage and keep body and soul together (the body of the knot and your soul).

Finally, I always test my knots after tying them. Don't strain any muscles, just give a brief firm pull. If a knot is going to fail it will usually fail straight off.

In other news, Mel Krieger passed away yesterday. I've never met him but by all accounts he was a great guy and his passion and enthusiasm for flyfishing, expressed through his teaching, books and DVDs, has and will continue to be an inspiration to many in our sport. The testimony in this thread on the Board is a more fitting tribute than I can make.

Jo


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