Knots You Need to Know

Knots You Need to Know

Big fish can take your breath away and make your knees buckle. It might be a 20-inch rainbow, sucking down size 22, maybe size 24 Blue-Wing Olives, in

  • By: Buzz Bryson
Double surgeon      s loop and blood knot
Big fish can take your breath away and make your knees buckle. It might be a 20-inch rainbow, sucking down size 22, maybe size 24 Blue-Wing Olives, in a glassy smooth run. Or it could be the sight of your first 10-pound bonefish, slowly cruising a huge flat… In the former, you're trying to watch the fish while rummaging for that spool of 7X tippet. In the latter, the guide is whispering-why does his whisper seem to shout at you?-for you to add three feet of 8-pound fluorocarbon to the leader and re-tie the fly.

With the fish of the season-possibly of a lifetime-in front of you, it's not the time to wonder which knot is best, or whether you can tie it correctly. It matters not that you have mastered a curving slack-line cast that settles just above the trout and drifts perfectly into his window. Or that you can make a 70-foot crosswind cast and place that shrimp imitation four feet in front of the bonefish. Not if your knots fail.

Knots are critical to fly-fishing, but few anglers ever bother to expand their repertoire beyond the few they learned when starting out. Furthermore, they rely on these knots for all situations to the exclusion of others that may be better suited to the circumstances.

One doesn't need to know every knot in the universe. Keep it down to a manageable few: Knots that are strong, easily tied and serve your needs. Depending on those needs and preferences, you should have in your knot arsenal both loop knots and "hard" knots. Most of these knots are easy to tie, but you need to practice them to gain proficiency; otherwise, you could find yourself in trouble.

All the knots described here have been shown to have breaking strengths of over 90 percent. (A knot tied using 10-pound test is said to be a "100-percent knot" if it breaks at 10 pounds of pressure; a different knot tied using the same material that breaks at nine pounds of pressure would be a "90-percent knot.") Let's break down knots into locations and criticality-where they are and which are, in fact, the weakest links.

Fly Line to Leader

Nail Knot
The nail knot is the most commonly used connection between line and leader, and with good reason. It is neat (rarely catching in guides), and it is easy to tie, certainly so with a bit of practice. The nail knot holds well on almost all fly lines: The common braided multifilament-cored lines, the less common braided monofilament-cored lines and, with one adjustment, even on solid monofilament-cored lines.
1. Overlap the tip of the fly line and the butt of the leader by approximately 4 to 6 inches.
2. Lay a small "nail" (any number of similar common items work: a straightened paper clip, the plastic toothpick from a Swiss army knife, a ballpoint pen tube, etc.) alongside the overlapping lines.
3. Gripping the overlapping lines and nail between thumb and pointer finger a couple of inches from the end of the fly line, begin wrapping the leader butt back over the fly line and nail, toward the tip of the fly line. Trap the wraps under the thumb and pointer finger.
4. After six wraps, insert the tip of the leader butt into the coils, pushing it out on the side away from the fly line tip.
5. Still keeping light pressure on the coils, pull the leader butt end snug (but not tight) and then pull the long end of the leader snug (but not tight), and slide out the nail.
6. Making sure the knot is tight enough to not come unwound, inspect it to make sure the coils are side-by-side and not overlapping. Slide the knot down to within a half inch or so of the fly-line tip.
7. Moistening the knot, pull both ends simultaneously so that it comes tight and bites into the fly-line coating. Pull it as hard as you can. (I like to hold the butt end of the leader with pliers, and wrap the long end around my hand.)
8. Test the knot by wrapping the fly line around one hand and the leader butt around the other and giving a good pull. The knot should not move. Trim the ends flush and go fishing.

Notes: On monofilament-cored lines, the six-turn nail knot can slip off the line end. Use the pull test to verify. Many anglers coat the nail knot with some sort of flexible cement, to smooth it out so it won't get caught in the guides. I don't do that. The coating material is almost always less buoyant than the line and pulls the line tip under. Plus, a well tied and trimmed nail knot rarely gets caught in the guides and, generally, you don't need the leader knot inside the tip-top guide to land a fish anyway.


Leader and Tippet Knots

Blood Knot
Many anglers still use the blood knot to connect sections of tippet and leader material. The blood knot is simple to tie, is neat and looks good. The problem is that it's not very strong. The blood knot's breaking strength is typically listed as 80 percent to 90 percent of the line strength. That might sound pretty strong, but it's not great, especially when one considers that the breaking strength of the better tippet-to-fly knots are at least 90 percent, which means this knot will break before the fly knot will. Use the blood knot in the middle sections of the leader, where even an 80-percent knot is far stronger than the strongest knot in the tippet section, and it will serve you well.
1. Overlap the two sections of leader to be joined by approximately four inches.
2. Wrap one end around the other line five times, and bring the tag end of the wrapped line back to the beginning of the wraps and hold.
4. Holding the previous wraps, wrap the second tag end around the other line five times.
5. Bring the tag end of the second line back the beginning of those wraps and pass it through the opening in the opposite direction as the first line. Pull the line ends just enough so the wraps snug.
6. Moisten the wraps, and while holding the standing (long) ends, firmly pull the knot tight. Don't jerk or stop part way through to re-grip. The knot should be neat, with the wraps lying parallel, not overlapping.

Surgeon's Knot
Another way to join leader and tippet sections is the surgeon's knot. The surgeon's knot is easier to tie than the blood knot, and it is stronger as well. About the only downside is that it takes somewhat more material. The regular surgeon's works well for joining heavier lines. And compared to the blood knot, the surgeon's is much better for joining dissimilar diameters and materials.
1. Overlap the ends of the tippet and leader.
2. Loosely tie one overhand knot, and then a second.
3. Holding the tag ends and the adjacent leader sections, pull all four sections evenly until the knot seats fully.
4. Trim ends, give the knot a good test pull and you're done. It's that quick and easy.

Note: The surgeon's knot calls for two turns of the overlapping lines. The double surgeon's require four turns.

Tippet-to-Fly Knots

Although all of these knots are important, the knot that ties the fly to the tippet is the most frequently used and, perhaps, the most important knot we tie-at least psychologically. This is the knot you will tie again and again as you frantically search for the perfect pattern. Whatever knot you choose, it better be good and it better be easy to tie.

For the "hard" knots (meaning those that cinch down tight as opposed to knots that create a loop) there are many good choices. The final decision comes down to which one you tie best, and feel confident with.

The most commonly used knot in this category is the improved clinch knot. This was the knot most anglers likely learned when they began fishing; it isn't the strongest knot but it is easy to tie. However, the Trilene knot, which is essentially a clinch knot where the line goes through the hook eye twice instead of once, is even better in terms of strength. Another alternative is the Pitzen knot (also known as the "16-20" or "fisherman's knot"). The Orvis or Becker knot has become a favorite of many. It doesn't use much tippet in the tying process, it is easy to master and it probably holds its strength the best out of all of these. My preference for lighter tippets is the Orvis knot, and for heavier tippets, the Trilene knot.

Orvis Knot

1. Pass the line through the hook eye and bring it under and back over the standing line to form a loop.
2. Pass the tag end through the first loop, and then make two wraps through the loop formed in this step.
3. Moisten the knot, and holding both the tag end and fly, pull the knot snug (not tight).
4. Holding the hook, pull on the standing end to tighten the knot.

Trilene Knot
1. Pass the tippet end (tag end) through the hook eye twice.
2. Make five turns of the tag end around the standing line.
3. Pass the tag end through the two loops formed at the hook eye.
4. Lube the knot well, and pull simultaneously on the tag end, hook and standing end.

Pitzen Knot
1. Pass about five inches of line through the hook eye, and bring it up so it passes behind the standing line and forms a loop.
2. While pinching this loop, take the tag and make five wraps around both lines towards the hook.
3. Bring the tag back up and pass it through the loop at the top.
4. Moisten the coils, and pull them down snug (not tight) against the hook eye.
5. Tighten the knot by pulling on the standing end.

Kreh Loop variation of the Non-Slip Mono Loop
1. Tie a loose overhand knot in the tippet, 4 to 6 inches from the tag end.
2. Pass the tag end through the hook eye, and back through the overhand knot on the same side it came out.
3. Slide the overhand knot down almost to the hook eye, and make the overhand knot fairly small.
4. Wrap the tag end around the standing line. For most trout-size tippet, make seven turns. If you're using 8- to 12-pound tippet, make five turns. If you're using 15- to 20-pound tippet, make three to four turns.
5. Pass the tag end through the gap to the side of the overhand loop instead of through the center as in the conventional non-slip mono loop.
6. Holding the standing end, the tag end and the hook/lure, pull the knot tight.

Note: To control the final loop size, start with the loop a bit smaller than the size you want to finish with. During the final tightening, if you want the loop even smaller, pull more on the tag end. If you want it larger, pull more on the standing end.

Tips on Tying the Knot

1. Connecting Different Materials
For connecting dissimilar materials, such as fluorocarbon tippet with nylon leader, or even different brands of nylon, I've found the surgeon's or double surgeon's knot to work best. Your mileage might vary.

2. Test Your Knots
Want to know if one knot is stronger than another? Well, the process is pretty simple: Take a couple feet of tippet material and tie a fly to one end using Knot A; on the other end tie a fly using Knot B. Grasp both hooks in pliers (for God's sake don't use your hands) and pull. Whichever knot snaps first is the weaker of the two (or you messed up tying it).
If you want to compare which connection knot is stronger, the test is similar: Take a couple feet of leader material and tie on a piece of tippet to one end using Knot A and Knot B on the other. Wrap each tippet end around a pencil and pull until one of the knots breaks.

3. Practice Makes Perfect
Even a 100-percent knot is only 100-percent strong when it is tied perfectly. Cross some wraps, or fail to snug the knot securely, and you might find that 100-percent knot "inexplicably" failing on small fish. The key is to practice the knot so there is no chance of failure on the water. And if you have difficulty tying a particular knot in your den, with good lighting and without the distraction of a rising fish, you won't find it easier to tie while you're on the water.

5. Make Your Knots Neat
Neatness counts when tying leader and tippet section together to minimize picking up aquatic vegetation and to reduce the tippet's profile on the water.

6. Use Lube
Tightening a knot without first lubricating it can significantly weaken it. Some brands of nylon are slicker than others and tighten well with little or no lube. Others are "dry" and "chatter" when tightening. Some form of lubrication almost always helps knots tighten better. Spit works well and is always convenient. For more stubborn nylon, use something slicker like lip balm or fly flotant.