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Article: Stripping Baskets on a Trout Stream?

Stripping Baskets on a Trout Stream?
by Zach Matthews
First Published October 1, 2003 | General Fly Fishing

“How’s the streamer fishing?” the well-accoutred young angler asked as I waded out of the river.

“Terrible,” I responded, noting that he was oblivious to the dry-and-dropper rig I was reeling in as I flipped my basket around to the rear and grabbed a limb to step onto the bank. “Why do you ask?”

“The basket, man,” he glanced down and looked slightly embarrassed for me. “Surf’s thataway,” he shot over his shoulder as he and his two partners clumsily made their way upriver, snickering.

Surf’s thataway. Betcha need those long casts on this little stream, eh buddy? Hey, man, caught any striper in that trout stream? I’ve heard them all. They’re referring, of course, to my stripping basket, which I take with me whenever I fish, just about no matter what.

My awakening to the stripping basket came in the standard way. I was learning to throw heads, getting ready for a big beach trip. I figured I needed some extra distance and I’d seen a lot of cool magazine pictures of guys on the East Coast with tubs around their legs. I went down to Wal-Mart and constructed myself a cheap basket which worked great (more on that later.) Then I took it out to the yard to try it out.

The author with his basket in a Yellowstone spring creek.

Many of you are familiar with the Nixon-era “[expletive deleted]” politeness. Suffice it to say that I would have worn that phrase out recounting my thoughts that afternoon. The basket was a miserable failure. No, I was the miserable failure for not knowing how to work this [expletive deleted] basket. My hand was hitting the box on every strip, I couldn’t strip in as much line as before, and I was just discovering the ongoing headache that is basket line management and the tangles you get when you disregard it. I used the basket for about thirty minutes, then threw it in my car and washed my hands of it.

Ironically, I ended up wading wet on the big beach trip and leaving the basket stowed. (Matter of fact, I’d argue that surf fishing is one of the least effective uses of a stripping basket to this day.) I didn’t need as much distance as I’d thought, and the basket would surely have swamped in the chest-deep water I was fishing. I caught plenty of fish anyway and forgot about the basket for several months.

And then one day it hit me. I was standing on my favorite shoal struggling with long-line nymphing and the annoying problem of having twenty feet of doubled-up line getting pulled downriver by the current as I tried to retie a fly. I’m sure you are familiar with this. No thank you, river, I’d rather unstring my rod myself. Whoops, excuse me trout, just ignore that line, it’s out of bounds. Certainly don’t use it as cover in which to tangle me when I try to land you. It’s for your own good, you know. I had just begun to become a truly effective nymph fisher and the line was really getting me down. ‘You know what you need?’ I told myself. ‘You need a way to keep all this line off the water.’

Note the home-made basket strapped to the rear.

The solution was pretty clear. I had made my stripping basket and never really used it. I remembered not liking the thing 'cause it got in the way of my big hauls and long strips as I brought the saltwater flies back. Maybe I could give it a try on the smaller water of the trout stream.

I did just that. Better yet, I quickly found out that most of my stripping basket woes were my own doing. On the trout stream you don’t make twelve inch return strips. You have time to ease the line into the basket, and you don’t have one hundred feet out to tangle in the bottom. In short, trout fishing is the perfect way to learn to use a stripping basket.

But it goes further than that. Within three months I was totally at ease with the basket. My strips were limited to the short jerks they should have been all along. I learned to stack the back of the line first and to distribute the line evenly in the bottom of the basket. Where before I had let it pile up any way it wanted, I learned the crucial tip that loops which stick up are loops which tangle. Finally I got some great advice about keeping water in the bottom to slick the line up and reduce tangles.

Today I use the stripping basket almost every time I go fishing. I have become completely intolerant of having line around my feet. If I need the basket out of the way I can flip it around behind me in a wink. When its time to strip I flip it back around to the front. While casting it rests on my left hip, perfect for staying out of the way and a good location for shooting line at the end of the cast. I never have line trouble when landing a fish. I am able to very effectively long line nymph out to seventy feet because I can take it out and put it back into the basket if I want to fish closer or further away. When I fight a fish by hand, I pull the line into the basket instead of the water, then when the fish is to hand I can flip it all around behind me and out of the way.

Moreover, learning to use the basket effectively on a trout stream made it a breeze to apply to the salt. I learned good line management skills and smaller hand motions up front. The final realization came when I figured out how to do the two-handed strip. Basically you Jim Abbot your rod up under your casting arm pit, then begin to strip hand over hand into the basket. Here’s the trick: move your line hand straight forward and straight back like always, but move your rod hand in a circle as you retrieve line. You can move your hands so fast they blur this way, without getting them into the way of each other. Above all, you can flat pick up line. I can reel all one hundred feet of a line back to my basket in four seconds seconds.

Additional benefits not to be overlooked include learning skills that make line management in a belly boat or pontoon a breeze.

I recommend at least getting comfortable with a stripping basket to everyone. Build one for cheap (any minute now, I promise) and throw it in your car. The next time you come to the river only to realize it’s up, or you’re going to be night fishing, or you need a long streamer cast, or you’re going to be doing a lot of switching between close and long nymphing, you’ll have it to hand and ready to go. Get comfortable with it on the trout stream and then use it to bust some amazing casts on big water. Wow your friends and scare your enemies. But don’t forget: stripping baskets ain’t just for streamers any more.

Build It Yourself

You don't need to spend $40 on a basket, although most retail baskets are very nice. For several years I was quite happy with my homemade basket. I went to Wal-Mart and purchased a Sterilite white plastic sundries basket for about $1. I heated up a knife with a handle flame and made belt loop incisions on all four corners, two incisions to each corner. Then I ran some backpack strapping available at a local climbing store through the "belt loops," and attached a buckle. Finally I epoxied in foam ear plugs to make fingers in the bottom. My total cost was about $10.

If you don't like the foam fingers idea as much, there are commercially available finger inserts (though this gets your basket into the retail price range.) Carter Simcoe, an Arkansas fisherman famous for his unusual pursuit of rough species on the fly, uses zip ties run through two closely punched holes in the bottom of the basket to make some very effective fingers. He has mentioned epoxying the holes shut for smoothness, but I don't know if he'll ever get around to it.

You may want your basket to float or you might want it to drain. A lot depends on the conditions you fish in. The best thing about a homemade basket is you get what you want.


- One Sterlite or Rubbermaid basket from Wal-Mart or the equivalent, approximately 12" x 16" x 9" deep.

- One hot knife, heated by candle or lighter flame

- 3" backpack strapping, available at climbing stores

- One backpack buckle for 3" webbing, also at climbing stores

- Zip ties or foam earplugs

- Five minute epoxy


Total Cost: About Ten Bucks

For more information on building your own stripping basket, stripping basket technique, or the skills involved in distance casting and longline nymphing, visit The Itinerant Angler Bulletin Board.


I'm actually surprised that they didn't just make fun of your basket but also of that styling pink shirt : )

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