What sets fly fishing apart from other forms of fishing is the cast. As you know, the cast of a fly rod uses the weight of the fly line to get your fly to water. Fly line, leader, and tippet work in harmony to land your fly exactly where you aim your rod. Without these components, your fly rod is pretty useless. The combinations of lines, working as one unit, let you deliver your fly to a waiting trout. What holds these lines together is the heart of this system, and that, of course, is the knots. There are 4 knots to learn for fly fishing that makes all the difference.
The 4 knots to learn for fly fishing. The 4 knots are the Arbor knot, the Albright knot, either the Surgeon’s knot or the Blood knot, and Clinch knots. Of the 4 knots, the Arbor knot secures line to the reel and the Albright knot, fly line to Backing material. Surgeon’s and Blood knots are used to tie the leader to tippet and tippet to tippet. Clinch knots secure your fly to the tippet. These are the knots, I believe, you need to know and to learn how to tie, with two imparticular.
Changing flies is a common occurrence of fly fishing. Each fly selection made means tying the fly onto the tippet. This knot, we tie more often than all others. The other knot most often used, ties leader to tippet or tippet to the tippet. The 4 knots to learn for fly fishing actually comes down to a choice between two knots for each of the above purposes. So which will it be? How about we take a closer look at knots.
The Knots of Fly Fishing
It is worth going through the knots used in fly fishing because each has its place and purpose. Starting with your reel and ending with the fly, a series of knots are used to set up the entire system. Many of these knots are commonly used and a couple of other knots you may use once or twice, but at least knowing about them won’t hurt and is good fly fishing knowledge to have.
The Arbor Knot
When setting up your fly rod the first time, adding a line to your reel is the first step. The backing is the first component and connecting the backing material to the reel itself is the first step. The backing is used to add a line to your reel to help fill the spool, and in some cases, to provide an additional line when a fish goes on a long run. Filling the spool is important because this keeps the fly line from wrapping too tightly around the spool. If the fly line is wrapped too tightly it forms coils or “memory”. Larger coils help reduce or avoid memory.
When attaching backing material to the reel an Arbor knot is most widely used. The Arbor knot can be used for baitcasting, spinning reels and fly reels. It’s tied using a small loop and knot to secure it in place. The main function of the Arbor knot is to hold tight in the event all the line should come off the reel. Not to fight a fish but to keep the line secure enough to hold to the reel.
The Albright Knot
The Albright Knot is a useful and versatile knot with a wide range of applications. It is suitable for joining fishing lines of different thickness or diameter and of differing materials, such as monofilament, braid or wire. For fly fishing, it is used, most commonly, for attaching backing material to fly line. Once tied the knot joins the two lines together in an almost seamless manner and can pass through eyelets easily.
The Nail Knot, Also Known As The Tube Knot Or Gryp Knot
I didn’t include the Nail knot on my list because I don’t use a nail knot. But I included it here because it is an important knot to know about. It is a common knot with many uses. The nail knot is a strong knot and is why it is used often for tying different diameters of line together. It is used to tie the leader to the fly line typically. The way a nail knot joins line is by squeezing down onto the joined lines using a series of loops, 5 or more. Once tied, it is a smooth, flat knot and passes through guides easily.
The Nail knot received its name because a nail was often used during the tying process to provide a space for the tag end of the line to pass through and tighten the loops. This knot is also called a “tube” or “gryp” knot. Instead of the nail, a straw was often used. Today, a tool, called, you guessed it, a “nail knot tool” is used to tie the knot. (I recommend you get this tool for tying the Nail Knot, click here)
Surgeon’s Knot And The Blood Knot
We will look at these knots in greater detail below but for now, these are the knots used frequently for tying leader material to tippet material. Both are good solid knots for this purposes and often it comes down to personal choice as to which an angler prefers to tie.
Clinch And Improved Clinch Knots
Lastly, the two knots for tying a fly to the tippet are the Clinch and Improved clinch knots. These are time-tested knots and a popular choice. I use the Clinch knot for smaller flies sizes 20+ and for everything else I use the Improved Clinch knot.
We have looked at the 4 knots to learn for fly fishing but the reality is we only need 2 of these four, for our everyday fishing. I’ll explain what I mean so follow along.
Everyday Fishing Only Needs Two Knots
When I wrote the above subheading I could hear in the back of my mind someone saying “Oh yeah, really”? But I thought about my fishing habits and realized I use two knots all the time, the Improved Clinch knot and a Blood knot. One exception is the clinch knot which I use for smaller flies, otherwise, an Improved clinch, the majority of the time.
What helped narrow it down to just two knots is, an Arbor knot or Albright knot are only used once and for a specific purpose. Unlike, the knots connecting leader and tippet, which are being tied frequently. And, of course, tying tippet to fly. Two Knots.
Tying tippet material to a leader or tippet to tippet is a constant occurrence. True, I don’t tie tippet to leader every time out, but often enough to fit the “every time” scenario. As an example, I like to streamer fish and nymph fish. Often my approach to fishing a creek is to “streamer” my way down a stream and to nymph my way back.
I found when using a streamer, a 7 1/2 foot leader works best for me. The shorter leader helps me “swim” the streamer around rocks or through the current better. I have more casting control too.
But to fish a nymph, I like having a longer leader of around 9 feet. To lengthen my leader I add another foot or so of tippet material. For example, a 5x leader to a 5x tippet or a 6x tippet. (using a 4x wt rod, 8.5 ft).
If I need to change back to a streamer, I remove the extra tippet to get back to around 7.5 feet again. (why use tapered)
Adding Tippet is Normal
Another situation that often happens is adding more tippet. For example, adding 7x to my 6x in order to help the nymph sink faster or to fish a smaller nymph is a help. Adding a tippet to replace a shorten tippet from changing flies is a common occurrence. This constant change means learning a knot you’ll be able to comfortably tie. For this purpose either a Surgeon’s knot or Blood knot are the knots, you will need to learn. We’ll get to that in a second.
The Changing Of The Fly
Nothing in fly fishing is as regular as changing flies. In comparison, spinner guys may change a spinner once or twice in the course of a day and bait guys rarely need to change a hook. But for fly fishermen, changing flies often is the life of a fly fisherman. Because of this, the more flies are tied on and removed the more tippet material is reduced. Eventually, as the tippet is shortened it reaches the leader and must be replaced.
The biggest flaw in this situation for the fly guys is a poorly tied knot. If the knot fails you’ve lost your fish and your favorite fly. Learning to tie solid, strong knots and tying them right is a must. So, that said, I have narrowed down knot tying to 2 knots.
The reason I have chosen two knots is a Surgeon’s knot or Blood knot is more a matter of choice by the individual. Personally, I prefer the Blood knot for connecting tippet to leader and tippet to tippet. But, many say a Surgeon’s knot is easier to tie and pick it over the Blood knot. Many a discussion has been waged over which knot is better, but both are good strong knots. So it’s a matter of choice. Let’s take a closer look at both of these knots.
Blood And Surgeon’s Knots
My favorite knot is the Blood Knot. I like the way it looks and its strength. Of the two, the Surgeon’s knot and Blood knot, the Blood knot is probably a bit more difficult to tie. The Blood Knot is thinner in diameter than a Surgeon’s Knot and once tied it aligns the connected lines in a straight line, unlike the Surgeon’s knot which off-sets the lines.
As for strength, the Blood Knot is dependent on making at least five, and up to seven turns on each side of the center. Personally, I gage the number of turns based on the tippet material’s size. If the smaller of the two materials is 6x then I like to take 8 or 9 turns to per side. In other words, two to three turns more than the tippet’s diameter.
Note: I can only speak to using these knots on lines for trout and trout stream fishing. I almost never have a reason in Pennsylvania to use a leader thicker than 5x with Steelhead fishing being a possible exception.
The Surgeons Knot, as you can imagine, came out of the medical field. It was named for its use on sutures. As a medical knot, the need for tension as it is tied is what makes it a good knot. Tension is needed to pull the skin together. When it comes to its use for fly fishing, the knot gives more area to clamp which eliminates slippage.
The biggest advantage of the Surgeon’s Knot is the ease of tying. It too is useful for joining two lines of moderately unequal size (for example, a 6x tippet to a 5x leader) and usually two pieces of monofilament. It is one of the easiest knots to learn but is bulkier than the Blood Knot. Also is seems to “off-set” the lines creating a slight angle in the line. A variation, the Double Surgeon’s knot, follows the same tying steps as you would use to tie the Surgeon’s knot. The exception is, you pass your leader and tippet through a second time to add additional strength. A word of caution when tying the Double surgeon’s knot, if a Double surgeon’s knot doesn’t tighten correctly it can be significantly weaker.
The Clinch Knot
The Clinch knot may be the standard knot used by many and for me is it is my go-to knot for small flies, size 20+. I like using it for the small flies because it doesn’t “top-heavy” the fly by being bulky. This knot is fast to tie and simple too. I find when I tie it I try to use as little turns as I can, but 4-7 turns are the normal number.
Also when tying this knot it is important to pull the longer end to tighten the knot. If you pull the short end it has a tendency to not allow the knot to “seat” well. This takes us back to something I said earlier, if you don’t tie your knots with care, they will fail. The clinch knot is one knot that needs care when tying it. If not done properly it will fail. But tied correctly it’s a great strong knot.
The Improved Clinch Knot
This is “the” knot for me. What sets it apart is the modification which lets the knot clinch down on itself holding it securely. I have used this knot for everything from flies to spinners to crankbaits. It is a strong almost fail-proof knot. It too is an easy knot to tie and can be tied quickly.
Most of the flies I fish are in sizes 18 and bigger. I like the Improved Clinch for all of these flies. I clip the tag end as close as possible to the knot. This gives the knot a clean look and almost disappears. By clipping the tag the knots seem to become part of the head of the fly which makes for a smooth transition between the fly and the tippet. I can’t say whether trout can see something as small as the knot on a fly but I could give a good argument to the notion. Trout find and eat flies in the 22 -26 range and how they see those I often wonder. So it stands to reason they may have the capability to see something as simple as the knot.
The Knots of the Day
I have come to trust the Blood knot and the Improved clinch knot as the two knots I most often use. In fact, they could be 98% of my knot usage once on the creek. When I decided to write this article, “The 4 knots to learn for fly fishing”, I was hoping to keep things simple for someone new to fly fishing, but at the same time, be realistic with successfully proven knots.
As I stated earlier, I use two knots more often than any other knots, Improved Clinch knot and the Blood Knot. These for me are all I really need. Now I know the title of this article is “4 Knots To Learn For Fly Fishing” and considering the Arbor knot and the Albright knot you have the four knots I would recommend using.
Additionally, I mentioned for smaller flies I use the Clinch knot and would add it to your knots to learn along with the Surgeon’s knot. The Surgeon’s knot is easier to tie than the Blood knot. Both take some practice to learn, but the Surgeon’s knot is easier. I think either knot is a good choice and after you tie each and use each then it will be up to you, of course, to choose the one you like best.
Fly fishing depends on the fly line to cast a fly. As energy is transferred down the line during a cast, having a smooth transition from a thicker line to a smaller line becomes crucial for turnover and presentation. Therefore, how we connect these lines becomes equally, if not more important, than the line itself. As the old saying goes, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. This is true for knots as well. Tie a bad knot somewhere in the system and that will be the first place for failure to occur.
My advice is to learn a basic set of knots for the tasks at hand. Connecting leader to tippet or tippet to tippet only needs one knot. Connecting your tippet to the fly only needs one knot too. Take your time when tying knots and be deliberate as you tie them. Then test, test, test, making sure they are tied correctly and hold. It is far better to have a knot fail while testing than to have it fail while fighting a fish. Fish on!
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What is the difference between tippet and leader?
Most leaders are tapered monofilament nylon, meaning they are a larger diameter at the butt end, which attaches to the fly line, and a smaller diameter at the tip, where the tippet or fly is tied. Tippet is a specific gauge monofilament line that is attached to the end of the leader, to which you tie the fly