Fly Fishing Experts
Return to all Experts Articles

Is There a Secret to Untangling Knots?

by Philip Monahan

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at

Question: You’ve written several pieces about which knots to use for terminal tackle, but nothing about the other kind of common fly-fishing knots: the unintended ones you create because of wind or bad casting. A guide once told me that about half his job was untangling other people’s knots. Are there any secrets to the process?

via email

Untangling KnotsAnswer: Well, I don’t know about secrets, but there are certainly some untangling strategies that I learned during my guiding days. That said, when it comes to tangled leaders, I’ve always divided anglers into two camps: cutters and untanglers. Cutters believe that anything but the simplest tangle isn’t worth bothering with, so instead they simply cut above the knot and re-tie the leader. If you’re good with leader knots and have an endless supply of monofilament, this might be a good strategy.

Untanglers—a group to which I belong—see every knot as a challenge to be met head-on. The exception to this rule is that rising fish demand a speedy solution, even if it means cutting a tangle you could undo if you had the time. Rising fish wait for no man.

That said, here are some strategies for detangling your leader.

  1. If you are fishing a tandem rig, immediately cut off the bottom fly at the hook bend of the top fly. If you don’t, you’ll find that the dropper fly keeps wrapping itself around stuff while you’re working on another part of the tangle.
  2. If you are fishing a bushy dry fly or a big streamer, you may want to cut that off, as well. Such a fly is hard to thread through small loops, which is frustrating. For most tangles, I prefer to leave smaller flies attached because they give you a visual reminder of where the end of the line is when you’re working farther up. Plus, the fly gives you some weight to work with when you’re trying to unspin parts of the tangle.
  3. The key thing to remember is this: Things wrap around other things. The vast majority of tangles aren’t really knots, in which the end of the line is actually interwoven with the standing line. What looks like a convoluted mess will become clearer when you start to look for how parts of the tangle are wrapping around each other. If you can unwrap them in the reverse order, you’re golden.
  4. Never pull on the ends of the tangle, even if you think you’re almost done solving it. This may serve to create a smaller, tighter tangle that’s even harder to undo.
  5. Many nippers have a small pick for poking the glue out of hook eyes. Use this to gently pull apart tight parts of the tangle or “wind knots.”
  6. Use your mouth as a third “hand.” By holding parts of the tangle in your mouth, you can use both hands to work elsewhere. However, do not employ this method on streams known for giardia or “beaver fever.”

All of these strategies aside, the best way to deal with tangles is to try not to create them in the first place. That means you must work on becoming a better, smoother caster.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
Bookmark the permalink.
  • Jhjones

    When I was fishing in Oregon my friend showed me his method for untangling knots. He always carries two (or more) safty pins on his vest. Open the pins up and at the knot insert one pin into the the knot, then insert the other pin in the oposite direction into the same knot. Gently separate the two pins and the knot will open up.

  • Joe

    i try to make the loops large enough to get my fingers in and slowly spread the knots apart creating bigger loops to see the  the wraps and ease them apart and unwrap them, sometimes using more than two fingers like you would for making those string “Jacob Ladders” as a child.

  • merkincrab

    Swearing loudly usually helps quite a bit, especially maternal references.

    • Doug Agee

      Thank you merkincrab. An obvious required step that somehow was overlooked.

  • aw#5


  • Ross Kohler

    If you tie a uni knot to your dropper, you can slide the knot back and pull it off your fly. Then cut the dry or inline nymph off, that way you are left with only having to retie once.

  • Yes, the strategies that come with better field experience would ever serve better results! Untanglers, pretty good; an angler who can manage fixing the problem and reverting it to with effective dragging is appreciable! in that, a thought may strike upon “is there a fishing reel or line that would ever need to be just right?

  • Grant Holzworth

    When faced with a jumbled leader I cut the fly off and put all of my fingers through the whole mess like cats-cradle. I then start to separate my fingers, look where the end of the line is and begin to separate more and un-thread the mess. I can usually undo one in a minute or less. If it looks like more than that. I cut off the leader and tie on a new one.

  • mike miller

    Cut the whole off put in your vest and start over. Untangle when you get home!!