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April 24, 2014

Fly Fishing: Line Handling

Proper line management means the difference between making a shot or blowing it.

With all the different types, tapers and sink rates, fly lines rank as one of the most variable pieces of ­equipment in an angler’s arsenal. Though each configuration boasts distinctive attributes, they all share one ­common ­annoyance: Fly line is sneaky.

Even on the calmest days during lulls in activity, line stripped onto the deck of a boat has a funny — if not ­mysterious — way of somehow snaking itself around every possible cast-obstructing object one could ­imagine, be it a trolling motor or your own toes. And when the lull in activity abruptly ends when your target species gives up its position, a snagged fly line does nothing more than decrease your odds. Not to worry — a little ­pregame prep and a couple of tools pay big dividends when the magic moment arises.

Sense of Urgency

In saltwater environments, anglers need to have a sense of urgency. In other words, your first shot is always your best shot. So when that fish gives up its presence, shaving fractions of a second off the span between spotting the fish and making the presentation makes a huge difference. More often than not, the time it takes for you to make sense of a tangle means the difference between having a shot and not having one. But time is not the only factor with a snag. Untangling a snag forces you to take your eyes off the target and focus on the mess. In addition to costing you critical time, you’ve now lost sight of the target, which means you’ll have to spend time finding it again after the line is free and clear to cast. On top of these two hindrances, untangling a line forces you to step from the deck into the cockpit, or step up and step down to release the line from a baggy pant leg or to free it from a pesky toe. Any fish within casting range should be treated with the utmost caution, and moving your feet inevitably causes noise and surface disturbance. So this little snag not only has cost you critical time and the loss of visibility, but it also has ­compromised your stealthy ­approach. 

Clean and Stretch

Proper line management starts prior to getting on the water. Just like boats, rods and reels, fly lines get dirty and encrusted with salt and, therefore, like all other gear, should be clean — 

always. You’d be surprised by how much a thorough cleaning of your fly line will do for keeping tangles out. A slick line not only has a hard time tangling on itself, but it also adds distance to your cast. It may be unnecessary to clean your line after every use, but doing so every few trips is a good habit to get into. The time required to strip off the fly line and clean it with a pad or cleaner box is well worth the improvement in performance.

Once you’re on the water, fly-line memory needs to be taken care of. Even large arbor reels aren’t wide enough to eliminate the coils that develop in line stored on the spool. Coils intertwine with each other and quickly ­create rat’s nests in the ever-critical shooting portion of the line. To remedy this unavoidable phenomenon, strip your line off the reel and stretch it in segments as long as your arm span. A stretched, clean line is much less ­susceptible to tangles and snags in the heat of the moment. 

Buckets and Mats

A clean, stretched line hasn’t made it out of the woods yet — especially in windy conditions. Stripping buckets and stripping mats in conjunction with a clean, stretched line save the day in terms of line management. The bucket is more or less an open-ended cylinder into which the angler is meant to strip his line, while the mat is a device with upright prongs to catch stripped fly line. While the function of both tools is the same, it’s a personal preference as to which one works best for you. As much of a lifesaver as they might be, anglers must be cautious when using them.

For example, when you first set foot on the deck and strip your line into the bucket to get ready for the first fish, it’s simple: Pull the desired amount of line off the reel and let it naturally fall inside the bucket. Now you are poised for a snag-free presentation. But what happens if you make a bad first cast or the fish doesn’t eat on the first shot? It’s easy to strip your line into the bucket initially because you aren’t concentrating on a fish within casting range. ­During the fish-feeding sequence, anglers concentrate on the fish, not making sure the stripped line makes it inside the bucket or onto the mat.

After the fish has come and gone, resist the urge to gather the strewn line by the handful and haphazardly drop it into the bucket or onto the mat. The best thing to do is to cast all of the line out on the water, then strip it back into place with the thin running line on the bottom, and the fatter belly of the line on top. Then when you false-cast and feed line for the required distance, the line comes off the top of the pile smoothly, without tangling.