How To Tie Fly Fishing Knots

The most expensive fly fishing tackle won’t be worth a hill of beans without the right knots used in the right places. Just as the sport of fly fishing differs significantly from ordinary hook and line fishing, so does the terminal tackle and the knots used to tie everything together. Regardless of whether you’re using a delicate 5 weight rod for small stream brook trout or a stout 9 weight rod for bonefish on the saltwater flats, the knots will be the same. The knots you will need to learn are a basic part of the sport that you will need to master regardless of your level of involvement or expertise.

We will begin with the first knot you’ll need to tie – the one that connects your Dacron backing line to the fly reel. Now before you say “I’m just catching panfish, I don’t need backing. let me explain why ALL fly reels should have the Dacron backing line. The first reason is to fill the reel so that each crank on the reel handle will bring in more line. That is to say – the larger diameter of the backing line + fly line equals more line brought in with each turn of the reel.

Unlike conventional spinning or casting reels that multiply each revolution of the handle to bring in the line at 3 or 4 times the size of the spool, a fly reel is single action – one turn of the handle brings in one turn of line. Think of a bicycle wheel with multiple sprockets, the small sprocket turns the wheel more times than the large sprocket; therefore the backing will make reeling in your line easier. The other reasons for using backing are related to playing and landing larger fish, but even if you just go after bluegills or small stream trout you never know when you might hook a large bass or brown trout.

When you do you’ll be glad you took the time to put backing line on your reel. When you hook a large fish it will often take out all of the relatively short fly line. Without backing, the next thing that happens is the leader breaks and you loose the possible fish of a lifetime! With Dacron backing line you’ll have another hundred yards or so of line to play the fish on when the fly line has been taken out. And lastly, when you’re playing a heavy fish on your backing line the Dacron absorbs the pressure of being spooled on under load.

If you were to spool fly line onto the reel under such pressure without the cushion of Dacron you could crush the reel arbor (spool). This is the reason level wind reels used for deep-sea big game fishing all use Dacron backing. Considering the fact that a decent fly reel can cost several hundred dollars it makes sense to use a few dollars worth of Dacron line to protect your investment.

Ok, so you’ve gone back to the store and purchased a spool of Dacron line that you didn’t know you needed, now we can connect it to the reel. This will be the easiest of all the knots you’ll need to learn. With the reel connected to the pole in the reel seat, you should grasp the pole as you would when fishing with the reel at the bottom of the pole handle (pointing towards the ground). Now pass the end of the Dacron line into the reel from the front to the back going over the top of the arbor and pulling it out of the bottom front of the reel.

Tie a simple overhand knot (the one you use when tying your shoes) in the end of the line, this will act as a stopper for the next knot we will tie. Now pass the end of the line (with the stopper knot) over the line that is going into the top of the reel and tie an over hand knot to the bottom line. This is a basic slip knot that will snug up against the arbor when the top line is pulled tight. Because the line goes over the top of the arbor with the knot tied at the bottom, the knot holds fast as the line is reeled in.

If we tied it with the line going under rather than over the arbor the knot would slip and we wouldn’t be able to reel in the line. Now fill the reel under tension with enough Dacron line to bring you to within a 1/4 inch of the edge of the reel spool. This will leave you plenty of room for adding the fly line and leader. If you want to make sure you completely fill the spool with all the backing it will hold it then you need to do these steps in reverse.

First, you connect the leader end of the fly line (if it’s not a level type it will have a leading end and a butt end) to the reel, then the butt to the backing and fill the spool. When it’s full, cut the backing, pull all the backing and fly line off the spool, and then reattach the backing as described above and reel in everything under tension. When you get to the end of the fly line you will have a completely full spool.

The next knot we need to tie is the nail knot. This connects the Dacron backing to the fly line. This is an important knot because if you’re into the backing while playing a fish you’ve definitely got a trophy on the end of your line! While other knots (such as the surgeons knot) are easier to tie and might work, they are inferior for reasons I will disclose later. The good news is this is a knot you’ll only need to tie once so you can do it at home rather than stream side and take your time and get it right before you go fishing.

The nail knot is used to tie lines of different diameter, such as the Dacron and fly line. It’s called a nail knot because you can use a nail to help you tie it. A better tool to help tie this knot is a drinking straw but they probably didn’t have straws when this knot was invented. The first step is to lay the end of the Dacron on your workbench. Now take the butt end (not the leader end) of your fly line and lay it next to the Dacron so the end of the fly line is a few inches from the end of the Dacron and the two are parallel to one another. Now take a one inch piece of drinking straw and place it in-between the two lines.

Next take the end of the Dacron and begin to wrap it around the two lines and straw working your way back towards the end of the fly line. After you’ve made about five loops around the two lines and straw, pass the end of the Dacron through the straw so that its end protrudes opposite the end of the fly line. Carefully remove the straw and then pull on the 2 ends of the Dacron that extend out of the loops. Be very careful to keep the loops in order (just like a hangman’s noose) as you pull the knot tight.

Keeping the loops in order is the hardest part of tying this knot and can lead to considerable frustration. Before you settle for a sloppy nail knot with the loops bunched on top of each other you should know that having a good, straight knot with the loops in order is absolutely imperative to the functionality of this knot. In order to achieve this I don’t use a straw or a nail when tying this knot. Instead I hold the parallel lines between my thumb and forefinger and then stack the loops, one on top of the other, into my pinched fingers.

Then I feed the line through the loops, grab the tag end with my teeth and pull the other end with my free hand all the while holding everything in order in my pinched fingers. As I slowly draw up the tension I keep checking the loops straightening them up as needed. It may take a few tries but eventually you will end up with a nice smooth knot. Trim the tag ends of the lines close to the knot. The smoothness of this knot is critical because it will pass through the rod’s eyelets when being pulled out by a fish or when being reeled in during the battle.

A surgeon’s knot (or any other knot used to tie lines of different diameters) will not accomplish this streamlined effect and will invariably get hung up on the eyelet’s, at the worst possible moment no less! If you expect to regularly get into your backing (such as during steelhead or saltwater fly fishing) you can further improve the streamlining of the nail knot by applying a drop or two of epoxy or fly head cement to the body of the knot. This will give you a smooth bead where the lines meet that will glide through the eyelets.

The next knot in the system is the leader to fly line. The right knot here is also the dreaded nail knot. But wait, didn’t I say you would only have to tie it once? We’ll the idea is to only tie it once at home at the workbench and then not have to try to tie such a difficult knot in the field. So really you’ll have to tie it twice but that should do – for a while at least. And that brings us to next knot connecting leader to tippet – the barrel knot. This is a step many people neglect altogether.

The reasoning is I have a tapered leader, why do I need a tippet?Well, unless you enjoy tying the nail knot, which you’ll tie often as your leader will constantly be shortened from tying on flies and will therefore need frequent replacement, you should use a tippet. Not to mention tapered leaders cost a few bucks each and tippet material will be much less expensive. By using a tippet my tapered leaders typically last an entire season, hence only tying the nail knot once per season.

The barrel knot is used to tie lines of equal diameter so you need to match your tippet to your leader. This is generally chosen by the size of the fly as well as the size of the fish one expects to encounter. The barrel knot is another seamless type knot that creates a smooth transition from leader to the tippet. This is critically important for getting the fly to turn over properly during a cast. A smooth knot also minimizes drag in the water. The barrel knot is tricky but well worth the effort needed to master it.

You start by placing the ends of the tippet and leader across each other forming an X with the tips extending about 2 inches. Now twist the tippet end around the leader 5 or 6 times. Then twist the leader end around the tippet 5 or 6 times. Next, make a gap between the lines in the center of the twists. This can be accomplished by inserting a pencil between the lines.

Now put the tippet end through the gap. Then you place the leader end through the gap going the opposite direction of the tippet end. Wet the knot and pull on the main lines of the tippet and leader drawing the knot tight. This will create a barrel of loops with the tag ends extending out of the middle. Trim the tag ends close to the barrel.

Finally you need to tie your fly to the tippet. There are a multitude of different knots that can be used, each with their own strengths based on application. A separate article could be devoted to this subject alone. Therefore I will only describe the one knot that I consider the best all around fly to tippet knot. No, it is not the improved clinch knot that most anglers use. I recommend using the Palomar knot for one simple reason – breaking strength.

The clinch knot and improved clinch knot both leave a lot to be desired in this area. A poorly tied clinch knot may only have half the breaking strength of the line test being used! On the other hand, the Palomar knot is actually stronger than the line being used. This is possible because the line is doubled through the hook eye – effectively doubling its strength. It is also one of the simplest knots to tie.

Start this knot by folding 2 or 3 inches of the end of the tippet back over on itself. Push the center of the doubled line through the hook eye. Then tie an over hand knot in the doubled line but don’t pull it tight. Next pass the entire fly through the loop of the doubled line that extends out of the overhand knot. Wet the knot and pull the tag end tight, drawing the loop down on the hook eye. Trim the tag end close to the knot.

I certainly realize that trying to learn how to tie a knot based solely on a verbal description is at best an arduous task. Please be aware that there is a wealth of good knot diagrams available in print and on the World Wide Web. Hopefully, by using these step by step instructions you will be able to not only tie these selected knots but also understand the correct knot to choose and why.

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