Being “large and in charge” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when it comes to line management.
[By Jason Randall]
OKAY, I ADMIT IT: I’M A CONTROL FREAK.
I’ve only recently come to terms with it, but my wife has known it for years. She just smiled a little when I finally confessed. I can’t help it; I like the feeling of being in control. But don’t we all?
When it comes to fly fishing, being a control freak can be an asset, at least as it applies to line control. Good line control allows us to achieve the best drift possible. The axiom in golf is “drive for show; putt for dough.” For fly fishing, it should be “cast for show; drift for dough.”
I don’t mean you shouldn’t learn to cast proficiently—casting is fun, challenging, and an integral part of the sport, and being a proficient caster can pay off, especially on open water (like the ocean) or in windy conditions. But on rivers, I’ve seen guys who couldn’t cast worth a plug nickel catch fish. In fact, my favorite “zero to hero” moments are when someone’s cast ends up in a pile of slack on the water and a fish strikes while the person is trying to recover line. Ironically, that’s the reason they got the strike in the first place: the inadvertent slack on the water ensured a drag-free drift.
The converse is not always true; excellent casters don’t always catch the most fish. Some try to cast too far and are unable to manage their line without compromising the presentation. So, the golden rule of line control is, Don’t cast more line than you can control.
So what is good line control, anyway? Line control is the management of a fly line to improve the presentation of the flies to fish, and to manage slack for better hook sets and hookups. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it’s not always easy. In fact, it takes a lot of practice.
Presentation is king. It determines how many fish we catch more than any other facet of the sport. In my opinion, even appropriate fly selection takes a backseat to having good presentation skills. You’ll catch more fish with a poorly chosen but well presented fly than you will with one that perfectly matches the hatch but is improperly presented to the fish.
Presentation describes how a fly is offered to trout. In order for our fly to look natural, it should behave in the same manner as the natural foods trout are eating. If we’re imitating free-floating insects, crustaceans, and other species that make up a trout’s diet, the fly needs to float in the same manner.
If we were to simply drop an unattached dry fly on the water’s surface, it would float naturally. That’s the effect we as anglers want to achieve. However, flies don’t simply float by themselves; they’re attached to a leader and flung across competing currents that impart drag—an unnatural influence on the leader or line.
Drag is the enemy, the antithesis of presentation. Drag is the loss of the unrestricted, random movement characteristics of the natural free-floating insect we’re imitating. For a dead drift, a presentation where the fly appears to drift untethered, a fly should move only by the whim of the current, and it should be unimpeded from doing so.
Drag has three negative consequences. First, it repositions the fly, often pulling it from the soft-water side of seams into the faster main current. Second, it changes the speed of the fly, accelerating it to an unnatural pace as the line crosses the faster current. Conversely, sometimes drag slows a fly, like when it floats in fast-moving water and the fly line remains in slower water. Finally, it degrades the presentation by making the fly look unnatural. A size 18 blue-winged olive dry fly waking across the water’s surface like a Jet Ski, or a nymph shooting through the water like a torpedo, isn’t going to convince many trout.
While drag is often apparent on a large scale, such as when a dry fly cuts a wake, sometimes it’s subtle. Small-scale drag doesn’t necessarily move a fly unnaturally, but it does prohibit a fly from interacting with the current. We might not see microdrag, but it’s obvious to trout. To look natural, a fly must be free to navigate the small variations of microcurrents—the tiny whirls, ripples, and thin current seams. That’s why adding a little slack to the line can allow your fly to act like a natural free-floating food item, even when attached to the end of the leader.
Good line control defeats drag. My friend Ed Jaworowski probably put it best when he said there are three opportunities to combat drag—before the cast, during the cast, and after the cast.
One of the most effective countermeasures for drag occurs before anglers even make a cast. In fact, picking a proper casting position—one that’s close to the fish and minimizes the number of competing currents your line has to cross—can make a good opportunity out of a bad situation. Visualize your cast and the presentation that will follow before you put line into the air because sometimes you have only one chance to get it right.
Anticipate the challenges of making a cast. Perhaps there’s a low-hanging tree or tricky currents to deal with. Look around for the best position to make a presentation to fish, relocate, and repeat the visualization process. When you find the best angle of approach, remember, you can still decrease the effects of drag during the cast.
Two of my favorite ways to minimize drag when I’m casting is to use a slack-line cast, which is essentially an overpowered forward stroke that introduces coils of slack in the leader, and a reach cast that compensates for anticipated drag when crossing currents. For the reach cast, move your casting hand in the opposite direction of anticipated drag at the end of the forward stroke, after the “speed up and stop” motion that helps build line acceleration. Done correctly, the line should land in an arc shape counter to the force of the current. Both casting techniques give the angler a bit of time before the line needs other drag-fighting measures, like mending.
Mending is a motion that typically occurs after completing a cast that moves the line into a position on the water that compensates for the effect of current once it touches the fly line. In fact, the phrase “Mend, mend, and mend again” has more or less become the refrain of our sport. Guides repeat the phrase so often, they probably hear it in their sleep. The fact is, mending is one of the most important countermeasures for drag, but it’s also one most anglers usually don’t do often or early enough in the presentation. Which leads me to one of my mending rules: Mend early and often.
The key is mending the line before drag sets in, then continually mending so your presentation looks natural to fish throughout the entire drift. Personally, I find it’s much easier to mend immediately after a cast before the “grip” of the water wraps around the line, adding friction.
To avoid pulling your fly away from the trout, making several “stack” mends early in the drift is better than one large mend made too late. Stack mending involves a repetitive series of mends that keep the line upstream of the fly and as close to the water’s surface as possible, so the fly reaches a trout first before the fish sees the line (and possibly spooks). When trout are temperamental, little things like that can make all the difference.
My second rule for mending is to be sure to readjust any sections of line that will be affected by drag—those points on the line or leader that cross a current seam where the river’s speed changes. If you don’t mend enough line, drag will still spoil the drift, and if you mend too much, you risk pulling the fly out of a fish’s feeding lane.