I’m Knot Messin’ Around Here!

For our first official Amateur Hour post, I’d like to chat about a topic that I feel often goes overlooked when introducing people to fly fishing: knots. While doing so, I’ll try my best to knot get too tied up with puns and will just attempt to clinch my speaking points. Ha, OK, I’m done.

MI Fly_Knots

It’s fluorocarbon, so you probably can’t even see the knot.

I feel that when most people take up fly fishing, they assume knots aren’t that big of a deal.  After all, they’ve been fishing since their days in Underoos, and already know how to tie a clinch knot. And that may be so. But rigging up a fly rod poses a whole new set of challenges if all you’ve done is tied Trilene to Rapalas and crawler harnesses (not to say hardware guys are incompetent at tying knots…I’m just saying…well….yeah, let’s…let’s just not). You have to deal with tying super thin tippet material to impossibly small eyes on size 100 hooks that always seem to be trying to impale you while you are seating your knots. You also need to know your way around several different types of line-to-line connections that have ominous words in their names like “blood,” “nail,” “perfection” or “albright” (which is Latin for “good luck holding onto all those wraps, loser!”).

Fluorocarbon tippet is also a must now, which means dealing with the line self-destructing every time it turns over on itself. (You do use fluorocarbon tippets, right? I mean, everyone uses fluorocarbon. I heard the DNR is trying to outlaw it because it works so well. I’m pretty sure it was designed by NASA to tether their space ships to space stations). And, in the end, every single one of these knots needs to be as close to perfection as possible when you rely on them to hold as you try to put the brakes on that solid slab of river-current trained muscle making a hard run downstream for the safety of a submerged Forest of Fangorn (NERD!).

So, now that we’ve established how important knots are, let’s talk about how you can step up your knot game.

Use the knot in which you have the most CONFIDENCE, and that you can CONSISTENTLY tie well in ALL conditions and scenarios.

This amazingly wise piece of advice was shared with me by our very own Chief Rocka (and was probably followed by “Please stop messaging me at 3 a.m. with questions about knots.”). Sure, some people with a lot of time on their hands have said the San Diego Jam knot is the strongest terminal knot in the universe, but if you can’t tie it to near perfection after being on the river all day in cold rain with a belly full of Fireball, you won’t be able to use it. A well-tied clinch knot is better than a crappy tied SD Jam Knot every time.

Remember that practice really does make perfect.

Being able to tie a good knot in adverse conditions (be it chasing steelies in the rain or smallies under the influence) is a product of muscle memory. My advice for practicing your knots? Find the following items and put them in a big ziplock bag, tupperware container or elegant, hand-crafted, wooden keepsake box:

  • Two, differently sized spools of line. Those old spools of Berkley from your spinning gear days should work. Or, if you are super rich, actual Maxima and a few sizes of tippet.
  • Some old flies with the hooks cut off, and maybe a barrel swivel if you run indie rigs.
  • A good chunk of old fly line (you know you have to change that out eventually, right?)
  • A set of nail clippers. It’s not like you are cutting those Sasquatch toenails, anyway.

Now put that bag/box someplace where you usually have down time, like in front of your Netflix box. When you are sitting there watching The Good Wife and eating cheesy poofs, practice your damn knots. The goal is that by the time you get to Alisha dropping out of the governor’s race due to a scandal, you should be able to tie your preferred knots with ease and confidence. And, when you are on the river tying, try to tie all your knots the exact same way.  Hold the fly the same way, twist your wraps the same number of times, say the same prayer each time, etc…muscle memory is a beautiful thing.


I don’t care if you use nature’s universal lubricant (spit), river water, whiskey or the tears of your fishing partner. Just lube up that line like your life depends on it before you seat it down.

How to teach yourself new knots

As with most problems in life, if you Google it, you will find an answer.  Here are some great resources for learning how to tie knots online.  I didn’t include YouTube in this list, but I also highly recommend searching there if you are struggling to learn from animated pictures.  I will try to link all knots I mention in this post to one of these resources but don’t take that as the end all say all for learning it.

These two sites are the standard for animated, step-by-step knots

Rio has a good library of knot tying videos and in each one show the breaking strength of the knot.
Rio Knot Tying Videos

Also consider finding a printed guide that has your favorite knots in it for keeping in your backpack (or fannypack if that’s how you swing) when on the river.  The Little Red Fishing Knot Book seems to be displayed in every single fly shop I’ve ever been to.  I have two of them.
The Little Red Fishing Knot Book

Bonus link:  The Yellowstone Angler did a very in depth comparison of tippets a few years back and in their lengthy article, had some awesome notes and discussions on various tippet and line-to-line knots I feel are worth the read.
Yellow Stone Anglers Tippet shoot-out

Fluorocarbon lines

Apparently fluorocarbon is super-big-time invisible under water and less susceptible to abrasions. As such, it’s perfect for tippet material. I’m way too cheap to buy actual tippet material in fluro, but I do cheat and buy Seaguar Invizx on a spool and use that, instead. The size difference in diameter is negligible for how I fish (my opinion, calm down, Internet) and after a few years using it, it does seem to be a ton stronger than mono tippets. However, I freaking hate tying knots with it. I don’t understand how something that is so “abrasion resistant” can be so abrasive to itself. I would literally tie the damn knots under water and still have them get all mucked-up. Eventually I realized that you just need to be patient, lube er’ up and SLOW DOWN when you are seating it. I still only ever tie standard clinch knots with Fluorocarbon as all other knots have just been disasters for me. I would like to get to where I have confidence with improved clinches, but I’m still working on that. Speak up in the comments if you are a master of the fluoro. Maybe it’s just me.

Finally, a post on knots wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about actual knots. There are a plethora of knots that are useful in the world of fly fishing, and the ones you need to know will vary depending on what line/gear you are using and how you use it. Since I’m far from an expert here, I’m just going to talk about the ones I regularly use and practice.  Let’s break this down from reel to fly shall we?

Reel to backing

The Arbor knot is the best bet here. Before I knew this existed, I would just throw a bunch of overhand knots on there and call it a day. My thought was, if the fish I’m fighting has taken me all the way down to the end of my backing, it’s probably a done deal, anyways. But it’s worth using the Arbor knot, as it’s fairly easy and will definitely hold better than your shoelace knot.

Backing to fly line

How-to guides or articles almost always seem to say to use an Albright knot here. Maybe a loop-to-loop, but pulling the whole spool of fly line through the backing loop doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve always used the Albright. It’s really a simple knot, with the hardest part being the management of the nine wraps it calls for from laying overtop each other while you stack them up. Otherwise the best tip I have for you (again…credit to Chief here) is to close the gap between the backing wraps and loop in the fly line before you tighten it down by pulling on the standing end of the fly line VERY SLOWLY.  Just leave enough of the loop showing so that when you tighten it down it doesn’t disappear into the wraps of backing.

Fly line to leader
Again, this will vary greatly depending on what fly line you are using and what you are using it for. I see a lot of recommendations for the Nail Knot (with a straw) for this connection, as “apparently” it’s strong and transfers energy really well. I hate this knot, though. First off, you have to have a nail, paper clip or magic tool to tie it (apparently there is a version where you don’t, but I still stand my ground) and even then it’s a pain to get it right, as wrangling the wraps after you remove said nail is nightmare material. Even if it’s tied correctly, the whole principle of how this knot works is crazy to me. You are basically relying on the leader to squeeze down on the fly line hard enough to not slip off under a load. For me, it’s always going to be a loop-to-loop knot. All but one of my fly lines have pre-made welded loops, and once you understand the trick to tying them, perfection loops are a snap. Chuck n’ duckers should be using the blood knot here, but we’ll discuss that in the next section, as the shooting line used in that application is more akin to a heavy leader material than floaty fly line.

Leader to tippet or custom leaders

The blood knot (and if you are insane, the improved blood knot) is widely known and regarded as the strongest line-to-line knot for this scenario. You also need four hands to tie it correctly.  Seriously, if you look at this knot online or in a knot book, it will show you need to pull on two tag ends and two standing lines at the same time in opposite directions..  At the very least, you need three hands since the two tag ends are pulled in the same direction.  They way I’ve gotten around this is to…..all dentists stop reading for a bit….use my front teeth to hold the two tag ends and my hands to pull the standing lines. Depending on what you have going on in the teeth department and the variances in diameter of the two lines you are joining, this may or may not be a good solution. But I have no idea how to make it work otherwise. I pride myself on tying pretty awesome blood knots, but if I’m having an off day, my back up knot is the Double-Uni knot. It’s essentially just two clinch knots tied onto each of the lines that then smash against each other when tightened down. I don’t think it’s as strong as a blood knot but it’s just as streamlined, and (I think) much easier to tie. The Double Surgeon’s knot is also a really strong line for this connection, but it is super bulky and doesn’t traverse through eyelets well.

Leader to fly

And now the bread n’ butter knots: terminal connections. Look, there are SO many knots that can work here, so please re-read my first bullet point about using what you can confidently and consistently tie in all scenarios. I’ve been down a handful of roads here, but have come full circle and with the exception of my trout streamers, always tie either a standard clinch or improved clinch knot. These knots will never come out on top in a terminal knot strength contest but come on, it’s literally called the “fisherperson’s knot,” for Pete’s sake. And as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I bet every single one of you reading this post (all 12 of you) already know how to tie it. For me, I just had to get to the point that I could tie it LIKE A BOSS. I will say that for whatever reason, I still struggle getting the improved version to seat correctly on my heavier leader material. But from a line tensile strength standpoint, my tippets usually break off before that knot comes into play anyway, so I haven’t been super concerned about it. However, I’ve debated going back and mastering the Trilene Knot.  I used to tie it a lot for terminating my leader to swivel for indicator rigs, but lost confidence in it.  For my big nasty trout streamers, I will often tie a Non-Slip Mono Loop for even more dip-in-the-hips action. It’s a fairly simple knot to tie, but again, takes some dedication to get right every time. For me, the struggle has been getting the loop size to not be ridiculous big.  But I’ll get there, as I really like the drunken swagger it gives my streamers.

I’ll end with a quick P.S.A about the line itself. No matter what size or material of line you are using, make sure you are checking it for nicks, frays or extreme kinks frequently throughout your fishing escapades. I know you don’t want to hear this, but if said anomalies are found, you need to change out that section of line as they are DRASTICALLY reducing the tensile strength. Unfortunately I’m speaking from experience here.

Alright! That’s all I have to say about that. I know we aren’t really a heavily comment-orientated blog, but if you are so inclined, I’d love to hear what knots you all run!

Peace out girl scout!


One response

  1. Knot really interested but I think you did a fine job considering no one likes tying knots. I do use a nail knot for fly line to leader I just superglue it so it doesn’t come apart…ever. I’ve still got one stuck to my hand from two summers ago. It gets in the way when I’m, well never mind.


    February 12, 2016 at 10:49 pm

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