Ten Tips to Improve Your Short Game

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IGGING ISN’T SEXY.  In fly fishing, casting gets all the attention (including recently in this space).  But even if chicks do dig the long ball, as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine famously informed us back in the Nineties, the way you rig and handle your terminal tackle is what will actually catch you fish.  It’s the “short game” of fly-fishing; you may drive for show, but you still have to putt for dough.  It does you no good, after all, to drop a cast exactly where you want it, only to have your fly sail above the fish in the current, all because it couldn’t get down to the proper depth.  The following are ten simple rigging tricks to help you set up your tackle; from knots to line and gear concepts, these will help you feed fish and then stay connected after the eat.

#1 Weight your Leaders

In nymphing, ever since the advent of bead-headed nymphs, and especially these days with the heavy tungsten beads now widely available, there has been a tendency to simply tie the fly on the tippet and let the weight of the fly itself help it sink to the fish’s level.  This is wrong-headed on several levels. Most importantly, there’s a lot more to presenting a nymph to a fish than simply getting it in the general vicinity of that open mouth.  Like Chewbacca, you need your impostor nymph to “fly casual” if you’re going to have any success in sneaking into the fish’s habitat.

Heavy nymphs like this weighted stonefly must be handled appropriately.

From a trout’s perspective, a weighted nymph suspended from the water’s surface by an indicator float will bounce along the water column with all the subtlety of a hot air balloon floating over our own heads.  Because it is on a tether, such a nymph setup tends to swing in the current, dragging this way and that in an unusual, and for fish unnerving, fashion.  The solution to this conundrum is to pinch on a lead weight several inches above the fly itself, between the fly and the indicator.  Let this weight take the slack out of the system and act as the pendulum swinging from the indicator.  That way, the tippet connecting the fly to the lead weight can flutter in the current, horizontally to the bottom in a much more natural manner.  The nymph will now be freed to move with the current, and when the fish eats, the only slack in the system will be the distance from the fly to the weight; a few inches, max.

#2 Cut and Re-tie your Leaders

Tapered leaders are excellent at turning flies over, and very poor at keeping split-shot lead weights in position.  Think about it; they taper.  That means one end is always slightly smaller than the other.  If you crimp on a lead weight and then send it careening around the landscape at close to the speed of sound, that’s a lot of stress to put on that weakly crimped connection.  The fix for this is to cut the leader and re-tie it, leaving a knot which can act as a buttress and prevent the lead weight from sliding all the way down to hug your fly.

Even better, if you can handle the leader length, instead of cutting a production leader and breaking up its taper, try adding two or three feet of level tippet to the end–this will get you your buttress knot to stop the split shot from sliding, and also give you all the benefits of the tapered leader.

#3 Ignore the Old Guys

Fly-fishing has been around for a long time, and along the way it’s accrued a certain number of marginal techniques which were originally invented to address the deficiencies of older tackle, or perhaps to assist an angler struggling to cast effectively.  Over time, a lot of this dross has acquired a nostalgic caché; almost as though because it was once considered necessary, it must somehow be better than the technological solutions we have today.

Two of the most notable of these antiquated techniques are braided (or “furled”) leaders and home-tied leaders.  In certain circles, these methods are routinely foisted upon unsuspecting newbies, who aren’t yet able to recognize a hobby horse when they see it.

Braided leaders do slightly assist in turnover of a heavy fly, by maintaining greater rigidity and also offering greater mass in the leader, thus functionally extending the front taper of a fly line so as to transfer the maximum amount of casting energy all the way to the tip of the line.  Back when lines were level, having no taper at all, or only very simply tapered, these kinds of leaders functioned as a de facto forward taper and in fact helped the angler quite a lot.  But today, these leaders are totally unnecessary; the lines themselves are built with very complex tapers, computer-tested and optimized for different casting situations, and any caster should be able to turn over a fly without that kind of assistance. (If you can’t, the solution is practice, not a crutch). The disadvantages of a braided leader, meanwhile, are legion: braided leaders throw water over the target area as they unroll; they also have a higher refractive index due to their extra surface area, and thus they are easier to see; they are expensive and typically irreparable on the water if damaged; finally they represent an inviolate section of line which you cannot use to attach indicators, cut into, or the like.  In other words, they make you less flexible.

Home-tied leaders are the country cousin of a braided leader.  Many anglers believe their home-tied leaders to be superior to the tapered leaders they can buy in the store.  These anglers are kidding themselves; not only are they unable to achieve the kind mathematical precision in tapering a piece of monofilament to maximize energy transfer that a computer-controlled extrusion machine can produce, but they also add a high number of knots to the system in the course of tying their leaders out of many small bits of tippet.  Knots weaken monofilament, period.  They also (again) add surface area, increasing visibility, and most unfortunately they catch debris.  The debris is the real killer; you might as well have intentionally tied a bunch of marking flags to your leader before trying to sneak up on a wise brown trout. Stick with tapered leaders and add only a section or two of tippet; if you find yourself having to rebuild a leader on the water, fine, but replace it as soon as possible with a new tapered leader.

#4 Know When to Use Monofilament Versus Fluorocarbon

Monofilament is nothing more than a single-thickness nylon thread.  Nylon, which was invented by Dupont just before World War II and originally marketed for toothbrush bristles and ladies’ hosiery, is made by mixing a plastic polyamide polymer and melting it, then extruding it through a die tip as a single strand, which may vary in size, to make different thicknesses and thus different break strengths once it cools.

Fluorocarbon is similar to nylon in construction, but is made of a different chemical structure (polyvinylidene fluoride) which has slightly different properties.  First and foremost monofilament will break down when subjected to UV light or simply due to age; throw out your old monofilament spools every three or so years.  Fluorocarbon, at least in theory, is forever.

Secondly, fluorocarbon has a lower refractive index, meaning it’s clearer than monofilament because it allows more light to pass directly through it rather than scattering it everywhere as white light.

Finally, fluorocarbon is denser than monofilament. Density is the amount of “mass” or weight crammed in a given volume, or space.  The denser something is, the faster it will sink in water. (We’re going to come back to this in a minute).  “Density-compensation” is a technique developed by line companies which make sinking lines.  In the old days, a sinking line would all be the same density from one end to the other; this resulted in the mid-section of the line sinking at the same rate as the front and rear sections.  Of course, the rear was, in any fishing situation, always being held up by the angler.  The result was a U-shaped bend as the line went down and the thick midsection sank fastest; not ideal for stripping streamers.  Once they were invented, density-compensated lines placed denser material closer to the tip, in some cases by literally sprinkling in more tungsten dust.  This made the tip section sink faster and thus resulted in a nice even sinking profile, more of a straight diagonal line from the angler to the fly.

You can adopt this same principle when it comes to choosing your tippet and constructing your nymphing or streamer-fishing rig: by placing fluorocarbon tippet at the tip end of a (less dense) monofilament leader, you add density-compensation to the system by putting the fastest-sinking material at the very tip, and you also get the benefit of a more-invisible tippet section adjacent your fly.  So, always use fluorocarbon as your final connection.  Because you don’t want the U-bend problem that non-density compensated sinking lines all have, it actually makes both financial and fishing sense to stick with ordinary monofilament tapered leaders, employing fluorocarbon only for the final two or three feet.

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Eyes crossing yet?

#5 Density Versus Weight, or “Sink Tips are Confusing”

Still with me? Sinking lines are very confusing.  This is because anglers have multiple competing weights and measures to consider when trying to dial in how exactly to get that fly to sink six feet underwater, which really doesn’t seem like such a hard problem, does it?

It helps to understand, again, the difference between density and weight.  Fly lines are marketed by line weight, for example, an “eight weight” line.  This is a measurement of how many “grains” of weight the front thirty feet of a line has  (a “grain” is an old term borrowed from the ammunition industry, where one grain weighs about two one-thousandths of an ounce).  Although there are standards as to what number of grains of weight in the front thirty feet constitutes such-and-such a “line weight”, for these purposes you only need to remember that how much a line weighs has nothing to do with how fast it sinks.

After all, you can buy a “12 weight” line that floats, even if it might snap a 2 weight rod if you were daring enough to try to cast such a heavy line on such a light rod.  Sink rate, instead of being a measurement of how much the line weighs, is a function of how dense the line is.  In other words, how much mass is crammed into a given amount of volume.

See, volume is the key, here: a 2 weight floating line is very, very skinny, whereas a 12 weight floater is as thick as dry macaroni.  Although it may be heavy, that thick floating line contains enough air in the form of hollow glass microspheres to remain afloat, sort of like a heavy metal battleship.  A sinking line, meanwhile, is always very narrow, even in a 12-weight size.  This is why sinking lines across the board are narrower than floating lines; not only do they have less volume than a floater, but what volume they do have is packed with heavy metal dust (typically tungsten) instead of empty, hollow spheres.

When picking out a sinking line, follow a two-step process.  First, match the “line weight” to the rod weight; for example, a modern eight weight sinking line should go with a modern eight weight fly rod.  Now that the line is matched to the rod for casting purposes, you can throw out all further consideration of weight, and instead consider how fast you want the line to sink.  Type VI sink tips are very dense, and thus sink at a faster rate than Type I sink tips, which are not as dense.  Generally speaking the swifter or deeper the water, the faster the sinking line you will need.

#6 Dollar Dollar General, Y’all

The best indicator for a nymph-and-indicator rig is a child’s water balloon.  Specifically, an orange one.  Originally “discovered” by guides in Colorado who got sick of watching their sports send Palsa foam bits flying, the balloon-indicator rig became so popular for a while that people started imitating it with “improvements” like the Thing-a-ma-bobber.  Truly, the original is still the best.  Softly inflate a water balloon just to the point where the rubber begins to stretch, then tie it off with an overhand knot.  It should be about the size of a marble.  Make a half-hitch loop in your leader at the desired tie-in spot, place the balloon’s knot through the loop you made, then tighten.  Cut or rip off the floppy valve-end of the balloon.  Boom; done–and only two cents at Dollar General if you’re smart enough to stock up in the summer (unlike me; I am running short about now).

Balloon indicators have a lot of advantages: they stretch, so they can stand up to even Spey casting; they cannot possibly wet out and sink, unlike foam; they are lightweight, unlike the Thing-a-ma-bobber contraption; because they stretch they are less prone to pirouetting, and finally they can be repositioned by loosening the half-hitch or, if you’re done with them, easily removed by puncturing the balloon and pulling on the knot to slide them through the half-hitch loop.  They are the best indicator out there, if you have to have one.

#7 Small Knots for Small Flies

Small flies require small knots; this isn’t all that difficult.  And yet, many anglers only know or feel comfortable tying one knot!  (Most typically, it’s a five-turn Clinch Knot, which isn’t even all that strong).  The very best small knot you can tie is the Davy Knot, which is so simple, it looks like it runs on witchcraft.  Watch the following video for instructions:

#8 Open Knots for Streamers

Similarly, large flies call for larger knots; not because the knot needs to have some especially-huge architecture, but because a streamer fly will benefit the most from being able to show its stuff by moving naturally in the water.  It’s difficult to do that if the streamer is held, vise-like, by an inflexible knot tied with thick, hard monofilament.  The fix is to tie an open loop knot for all streamers; like this:

#9 Handling Hopper-Dropper Setups

Sometimes you really need to run two flies; either a tandem streamer, to simulate a little competition, or a classic hopper-dropper, or even a two-nymph rig.  On my thirtieth birthday a few years back I decided to try to catch thirty trout, on Arkansas’s White River.  The water was low, so I fished a two-nymph rig with a jelly egg at the top (which also doubled as a weight since they are pretty heavy) and a Trout Crack at the point.  I wound up catching exactly fifteen rainbows and fifteen browns, and all the rainbows came on the egg, while all the browns came on the nymph!  Pretty nifty, right?

The problem with the two-fly rig from a setup standpoint is usually getting the tippet attached to the back of the first fly.  Some folks like to leave a really long tag end dangling from the knot, but I find this impractical to tie, prone to tangling, and a little goofy when the fly ends up canted at a weird angle off the tippet.  Instead, I use a super fast and easy version of a Clinch Knot to attach the tippet to the back of the first hook; as shown in this video:

#10 Don’t be Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish

One of the biggest revelations of my fly-fishing life came the day I made a very simple decision: by God, I thought to myself, I was going to pull enough tippet off to tie the knot I wanted to tie and I was not going to worry about how much I wasted.  Fly fishing gear is expensive, and it may feel just a little wrong to wind up cutting eight inches of expensive fluorocarbon off both ends of a Double Surgeon’s knot, but remember: you are here to catch fish.  You’ll save a lot more money in the long run by tying a good knot the first time, and you’ll also be a lot happier with yourself when those knots hold.

To quote a Rob Lowe commercial, don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish me.  Be wasteful, happy, fish-landing me.  And who knows; once those knots start tying themselves correctly every time, you might wind up being able to go back to those two-inch tag-ends anyway.

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