Lost but Not Gone
Sorry to say, but Uncle Bob was feeding you some malarkey when he said hooks dissolve in fish stomachs in no time. Luckily there are some folks out there who have done real research and gotten to the bottom of the age-old mystery of how long it really takes. Dr. David Kerstetter and his students John Coker and Jesse Secord, at the Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography in Florida, studied the degradation time of various saltwater fishing hooks. The research group found that, “. . . regardless of treatment, the assumption that deeply embedded hooks will degrade completely or to a point where they can be shed in a relatively short amount of time (i.e., days) is unlikely and indicates the need to better understand the effects of longterm presence of fishing hooks.”
Now, this study examined large hooks in saltwater environments (the smallest hook tested was a size 4), which should at least have saltwater anglers on edge, especially if they’re using stainless steel hooks that degrade more slowly by design—and even slower in fresh water versus salt water, as anyone from a coastal town with a rusty Toyota can attest. So stream and lake fly anglers have some cause for concern. But how do Kerstetter, Coker, and Secord’s results relate to small hooks in fresh water? It just so happens Kerstetter grew up fly fishing Western Pennsylvania streams, so I asked for his professional opinion on the degradation time of a size 14 dry fly.
“I would say that it would still take a minimum of four months, likely more than six [to degrade] . . . One might assume that any fly tying material would act as a physical barrier to corrosion, just as any kind of epoxy, bluing, or plating would,” Kerstetter said. “However, anglers could instead focus on what we called functional degradation time, which means how long the hook would take to become weak enough to break off from the fish. This time is likely far faster, because thin hooks become quickly weakened with any kind of degradation.”
One of the worst things about losing a fly is losing time you could be fishing to attach another one. To help you maximize your time on the water, and keep more bugs in your boxes, here are a few quick streamside tips to reduce lost patterns.
Break-offs should occur at the most terminal end of your rig. If you’re breaking above your flies, you are either tying bad knots or not checking your tippet frequently enough.
Adjust your indicator
Try a new style, like the Airflo Airlock, which adjusts with a simple twist of a screw, and allows you to change your depth fast and easy to avoid hang-ups.
If you’re fishing around line-shredding structure like coral reefs or riprap, use fluorocarbon to reduce the risk of break-offs resulting from line abrasion.
Walk down- or upstream of a snag to free it before you start yanking hard. You’ll usually get it unstuck with a few light tugs.
If your streamer lands across a tree limb, learn the timing of the swing as your fly pendulums beneath the branch and pull it up and over when it’s on the leeward side.
There still aren’t any hard numbers on how long it could take a small nymph to dislodge from a fish’s mouth, but other research, like a 2015 Carleton University study, showed that northern pike can spit treble hooks with relative ease in a matter of days, especially if the barbs are pinched. One can only assume that a streamer would become dislodged even faster.
To find out more about the life history of abandoned flies, I asked a few different hook-industry representatives what they know about the degradation of their hooks. Bill Chase of Umpqua said the company has no hard-and-fast information on hook life, and A.J. Gottschalk of Allen Fly Fishing suspects some hook coatings likely inhibit rusting. Rust inhibitors are great for the longevity of flies, but bad for the fish that inevitably break off and wear the hooks.
Lose Fewer Flies
The majority of the fishing trash (coils of old line, worm cans, etc.) is concentrated near parking lots and easily accessible fishing holes. Though preventing the spread of such litter is a great first step, river cleanups are a popular way to give back to your favorite river and they usually focus on the easily accessible spots.
Fly fishermen, however, routinely traverse miles of rattlesnake-infested badlands or float through remote river stretches to fish their secret spots. So it’s a duty upon us to minimize our impacts in the magical places we frequent. The best way we can reduce our impact is to lose fewer flies, and it’s up to us to start thinking about our actions at an individual level.
If nothing else, think about the cost of the flies you may be abandoning. Need some advice on how to lose fewer flies? Charlie Craven of Charlie’s Fly Box suggests, “Drys and streamers usually end up in the bushes, so practice casting for accuracy and watch your line. As far as losing flies in fish, use reasonably sized tippet, don’t grab the reel, and keep the damn rod bent!”
The bend of a rod or the drag of a reel will tire the fish. In addition, consider working your way up to lighter tippet rather than starting with 6X out of the gate. You may find the ultralight tippet sizes are unnecessary if you work on your presentation and stealth. Brian Flechsig adds that, “Learning how to fly cast properly and practicing regularly will catch you more fish and save you money in lost flies.”
“Streamers often take the most time [to tie] and therefore I put more effort into their retrieval, but again my time and money (like everyone else’s) is limited so I try to avoid losing any fly. Most nymphs and drys take two to five minutes to tie, and every one I lose is that many minutes I’m not spending time with my family or spending personal time on the stream,” George Daniel said.
To help preserve that family time, Daniel suggests adopting fluorocarbon, but not for the typical reasons: “I use fluorocarbon not because it’s less visible, but because of abrasion resistance. Although it’s more expensive, anglers will lose [fewer] flies because their leader/tippet frays less.”
So instead of unnecessary postureruining tying sessions, retrieve a few more flies and save your precious time for chasing your kids or dogs around the yard. You’ll help preserve the environment while you’re at it.
To streamer pros, like Corey Haselhuhn and the crew at Schultz Outfitters, lost flies are a rare but occasional occurrence. According to Haselhuhn, “Fish get lost, but flies get saved. We go back for most flies, in trees, underwater, or stuck on rocks. We only give up flies if they’re stuck high in a tree or if they’re bitten clean off by pike.”
For more food for thought, Mike Schultz’s Swingin’ D is an innovative streamer pattern that incorporates a foam head on an articulated streamer body. When fished on a sinking-tip line, you can pull it underwater to accentuate its baitfishlike action, and when a log gets in the way, the angler can stop stripping and the fly will float to the surface where you can yank it over the obstacle and avoid costly hang-ups. The takeaway is that understanding the form and function of your fly can go a long way to keeping it attached to your line.
If we each make a personal goal to lose one or two fewer flies per outing by fishing better tippet, using the right fly for a given situation, and accept a few blown holes, we can collectively make a reduction in the number of flies (and tippet and split shot) abandoned in our treasured rivers and streams each year.
Clarence Fullard is a fly angler, rafter, and a travelling fish biologist. He resides in Denver, Colorado. You can find him in almost any waterway from California to Virginia, accompanied by his dingo dog, River