A Tangled Subject
GENERALITIES ABOUT KNOTS are generally wrong or, at best, true only part of the time. But we can rely on one general statement: There is no single best knot for attaching every hook to every type of line.
Be wary of claims about the efficiency of knots. When you read that the Reversed Triple Fubar has 97 percent breaking strength — that it retains 97 percent of the strength of the unknotted line — slam on the brakes. Does the author offer any evidence? Or is he merely repeating a figure that he read in an article by an author who heard the claim from a friend? Angling literature is full of numbers that writers have cribbed (sometimes incorrectly) from one another. Besides, fishing knots have more variables than constants, and it makes no sense to say that the Reversed Triple Fubar or anything else is an x percent knot.
Few people have conducted genuinely scientific tests of knots. Think about what’s involved. First, the tester must establish the actual breaking strength of the unknotted line. Then he must tie many samples of a particular knot, all attached to identical hooks. Using very accurate equipment, he must strain each knot until it breaks, recording the results and then computing the average breaking strength. Having done all of this, the tester will have data for that one knot when tied with one size and brand of line, and to one size and model of hook, and by the method that he used to tie it. The knot’s efficiency might change with heavier, lighter, softer, or harder line, or when the knot is attached to a hook made of thicker or finer wire.
Do not blindly accept statements about 95 and 98 percent knots. Even if a claim is the product of rigorous testing, it indicates what a knot can achieve rather than what it will always achieve.
In the field, we sometimes have to think about attributes besides strength. Simplicity matters because it often translates into consistency. This, I think, explains the enduring popularity of the clinch knot. Most of us have used this knot for so many years that we can tie it in poor light and with stiff, half-frozen fingers. On a drizzly late-autumn day, that counts for a lot. Simplicity also matters because we do not all have equally good close-up vision or equally nimble fingers.
The knot can affect a fly’s action. Most of the popular knots tighten against the hook eye, creating a rigid connection. A few knots, however, create loops that provide a free-swinging junction between tippet and fly. Loop knots have several benefits. First, the fly has more freedom of movement. A Clouser Deep Minnow attached with a loop has a more pronounced up-and-down action than one attached with a clinch knot. With a loop knot, a popper or slider has more side-to-side movement. Some emerger and midge patterns should hang at an angle or vertically in the surface film, and a free-swinging connection facilitates this.
A loop also lets a fly sink a little faster, at least in still water. With a flexible connection at its nose, a weighted fly, particularly a beadhead pattern or one with metal eyes, can adopt a nose-down attitude that helps it dive during a pause in the retrieve.
A loop knot doesn’t care about the relative diameters of the line and the hook wire. A nonslip mono loop tied in 5X material is just as strong with a size 1/0 iron as it is with a size 16 dry-fly hook. With many other knots, that’s not true; a clinch knot’s strength is affected by the diameter of the wire against which it’s tied. A good loop knot can let you fish a big fly on a light tippet. That can help in very clear water.
A knot’s economy matters not because fly fishers are cheap, but because we start out with a short piece of terminal tackle. With a plug-casting outfit that holds 180 yards of monofilament, I don’t mind using a Palomar knot that consumes 5 inches of line. A 24-inch tippet is a different matter; I’d like to be able to change flies a few times before replacing it. This is why I clung to the clinch knot even as I learned better knots: I wanted to get the most mileage out of a tippet. But I’ve since learned to use the best knot rather than the one that uses the least line. I go through more tippet material but compensate by drinking cheaper whiskey. One must have priorities.
Other things being equal, it stands to reason that a smaller knot is better than a larger one because the smaller knot is lighter and less visible. If you have a choice, why add a bigger, heavier lump of plastic to the nose of a fly?
Strength is usually the chief consideration with knots, but it’s not the only one. An obsessive neurotic can stay busy for years worrying about this stuff. If knots have so many variables, does an angler have to learn dozens of connections to have any hope of landing fish? Fortunately, no. An angler who masters a few tippet-to-fly knots is ready for anything, at least in fresh water. But he does need more than one, and he does need to master them.
Take It Seriously
Attaching a fly to your tippet deserves as much care as selecting a fly pattern or deciding how to approach a piece of water. Don’t rush the job or treat it as a distraction from fishing.
Operator error is the largest variable in fishing knots. Many anglers doubly handicap themselves by fishing with badly tied second-rate knots. Build every knot carefully. Pretend that you’re rigging a big-game leader for one shot at a world-record tarpon, even if you’re fishing for small bream at a local pond. Mental habits have a lot to do with fishing success.
Some knots seem to require a third hand. The nonslip mono loop, for instance, requires you to pull in three directions: You need to maintain some tension on the standing line (which means that something has to hold the hook) while pulling on the tag end to draw up the wraps before seating the knot. No matter how dexterous they are, ten fingers often have trouble with the job. The solution is to find something that can hold the hook while one hand keeps tension on the standing line and the other pulls the tag end. Try hooking the fly on a D-ring or zipper pull on your fishing vest or tackle bag. Better yet, add “third hands” to your vest, belt pack, and tackle bag. Tie one end of a length of fly-line backing to something secure on your vest or bag (a large D-ring, for instance), and tie a split ring or a large snap swivel to the other end. When it’s time to tighten a nonslip mono loop, hook the fly on the split ring or snap. Now you can keep the standing line taut while pulling on the tag end, and the knot becomes simple to tie. I’ve even clamped hemostats onto my shirt so that I could use one of the finger loops as a third hand.
Lubricate a knot before drawing it tight. Water works fine, and a fisherman always has some handy. Spit also works, but I’m not keen on putting a tippet in my mouth after it has been in a stream or pond. It’s possible to ingest the Giardia intestinal parasite this way. I’ve never had giardiasis, but a few friends have, and it sounds particularly grim. Terminal tackle does not go into my yap.
Hook the fly on something solid to tighten a knot all the way. I’m convinced that many anglers lose fish to incompletely tightened knots. It’s hard to get a good grip on a size 16 Adams, particularly since you don’t want to crush the hackles or mangle the wings. And, of course, holding a fly by the bend of the hook while tightening a knot is an excellent way to puncture a finger. Hook the fly onto one of your forceps’ finger loops to seat the knot. This simple trick alone will prevent many break-offs.
It pays to sacrifice some tippet material at home tying knots and pulling until they break. Try to develop a feel for the strengths of the materials that you use. Then, in the field, you can seat knots firmly — and one that you formed incorrectly will break in your hands rather than in a fish’s mouth.
Determining that the Reversed Triple Fubar knot is 96.74 percent efficient requires better equipment than I have. But learning whether the Reversed Triple Fubar is stronger than the Improved Murtchison when tied with Brand X material requires no equipment. Cut a piece of tippet material. Attach a hook to one end with a Reversed Triple Fubar. At the other end, attach an identical hook with an Improved Murtchison knot. Pull on the hooks until something busts. Repeat the test nine times, recording the results as you go, and you’ll learn which knot is stronger in that material.
It’s a crude method, but it does let you pit knot against knot. You can even set up a play-off: The Reversed Triple Fubar beats the Improved Murtchison, the Humdinger Special beats the Flapdoodle Bend, and then Fubar plays Humdinger in the finals. You’ll discover which knots work best with the materials you use, and you’ll get a lot of practice tying knots.
I did just that with several knots, using various tools and gadgets to pull on the hooks. If you test knots this way, wear eye protection and gloves. No matter how careful you are, every now and then a hook or a piece of line will go flying in an unexpected direction. I’ve had 10-pound-test lines snap and hit my hands hard enough to draw blood.
I broke thousands of test rigs before finishing this chapter. Between my hook-knot tests and my tippet-knot tests, I used about three-quarters of a mile of fishing line. It was all great fun, and it was made affordable by the nice folks at Umpqua Feather Merchants, Scientific Anglers, Orvis, and Frog Hair, who provided many spools of tippet material.
I pulled on each rig until it started to stretch, pulled a little harder, and then broke the rig with a sudden tug. This seems a more useful test than slowly, steadily increasing the pressure until a knot fails. What breaks line in the field is not the fish that swims at a constant speed against the resistance of a smooth and perfectly adjusted drag, but the fish that lunges or thrashes or jumps in the wrong direction. It’s the sudden tug that worries me.
Since I broke knots with muscle power rather than a machine, the rate at which the strain increased must have varied from rig to rig. This, too, seems a good reflection of conditions in the field, where every situation is a little different from the last one.
It might be interesting to know which knots perform best under carefully regulated conditions. But I don’t fish in laboratories. What I want to know is quite simple: Which knots are least likely to fail when little old human me pulls on the line? I don’t pretend that my findings are absolute truth. But neither are they anecdotal evidence based on a couple of lost fish.
No doubt I didn’t test some knots that I should have. Perhaps I left out your favorite connection. So run your own tests. Make up ten knot-versus-knot test rigs with identical hooks, pull on each rig until something gives, and tally up the score. You’ll be out 6 or 8 yards of tippet material and a little time. But you’ll know.
First Things First
Don’t worry about the knot at the hook until you worry about the connection between the leader and the tippet. There’s no point in having 3 pounds of breaking strength at the fly and only 2 pounds where the tippet joins the leader. That’s surprisingly easy to do. If you tie on a fresh 6X nylon tippet with a surgeon’s knot and attach a fly with a nonslip mono loop or Orvis knot, you may well have a rig with 3 pounds of strength at one end and 2 at the other. When you snag a rock or hook a huge fish, you will break off the entire tippet. The Orvis knot’s great strength will have been irrelevant. Much worse, you will have left some durable plastic stuck on the rock or attached to the fish. If you were fishing with a fluorocarbon tippet, you will have left a practically indestructible piece of litter in the stream.
If you persist in attaching tippets with blood knots, surgeon’s knots, or even the Orvis tippet knot, then attach your flies with clinch knots. This way, you will most often break the line at the hook rather than at the top of the tippet. Yes, you will have a much weaker rig than you could have with better connections. But that’s your problem. Broken-off tippets that you leave behind are a problem for other anglers, the fish, and wildlife. Anglers should not add plastic trash to the environment.
If you use the Bimini tippets described in the previous chapter or the ligature knot covered in chapter 3, then you can use better line-to-hook knots — with nylon. With fluorocarbon, which makes poor line-to-line knots, only a Bimini tippet will let you use one of the stronger tippet-to-fly knots.
Please do not combine a superior hook knot with an inferior tippet knot. Such a rig gives you unwarranted confidence and creates more litter where we least want it.
We can distill the essence of modern fly fishing to a single word: plastic. Before World War II, fly fishers used split-cane or metal rods, braided lines, and gut leaders. The best prewar gear worked very well, but it required a lot of maintenance and cost what was then a lot of money. Cheap rods, lines, and leaders persuaded many budding anglers to take up golf or some other foolishness. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, plastics technology brought us inexpensive, durable, and practically maintenance-free rods, lines, and leaders, and it brought fly fishing within the reach of millions of people. There’s some strange irony in here somewhere, but let’s not dwell on it.
Nylon monofilament comes in many varieties, and it remains the most popular type of fishing line. Some nylons are supple and elastic; others are much harder and stiffer. For fly fishing, we generally use mono that ranges from moderately soft to very limp and extra-stretchy, though saltwater anglers and some bass fishermen use harder nylon for leaders and tippets. By and large, good knots are easier to tie in soft, stretchy line than in hard, stiff mono.
The following comments are not a comprehensive treatment of line-to-hook knots. But my suggestions are based on experience, advice from experts, and well over a thousand knot-versus-knot tests. If a typical fly fisher combines the information in this chapter with the suggestions in the previous two, he will almost certainly have terminal tackle that is much stronger than whatever he’s been fishing with.
The Clinch Knot
Bad news first: Of all the knots that I deliberately broke in freshwater tippets, the clinch consistently proved the weakest, with the occasional exception of the Duncan loop. In one small bunch of tests, clinch knots in 6X nylon failed at a paltry 81 percent of the material’s baseline strength. That doesn’t mean that the clinch is always an 80 percent knot — but it does show how poor it can be in light line.
On the other hand, the clinch knot is simple, consistent, and economical. And it’s the responsible choice for an angler who uses a second-rate connection between the leader and tippet.
If you choose to stick with the clinch, tie it well. My tests indicate that a six-turn clinch always beats a five-turn clinch in light nylon. A seven-turn knot is better still, beating the six-turn clinch in 80 percent of my tests.
The line performs some interesting gymnastics as the knot tightens, so always lubricate a clinch before drawing it tight. Pull it up smoothly, not with a jerk, and pull only on the standing line, not on the tag end. Pull hard to seat the knot; it pays to deliberately break a few dozen clinch knots to get a feel for how hard you can pull. Don’t clip the tag end flush; leave a little room for slippage.
The improved clinch knot seems to offer no improvement. In most of my knot-against-knot tests, the standard and improved versions came out about even. When there was a difference, the standard clinch beat the improved one 60 percent of the time. In this case, indoor tests confirmed my experiences in the field over many years.
Pay attention to the relative diameters of the tippet and the hook wire. If you clinch-knot 6X material to larger and larger hooks (made of thicker and thicker wire), you will reach a point at which the knot won’t pull up — it simply slips until it comes undone. If you don’t believe me, try clinch-knotting a very fine tippet to the biggest saltwater fly you can find.
The problem is that somewhere between a size 16 dry fly and a size 6/0 marlin streamer, there is a hook with which 6X material makes a clinch knot that seems okay but is actually much weaker than you expect. A good trout takes the fly and immediately breaks the knot.
The trick is knowing how large a heavy-wire hook you can use with a clinch-knotted tippet. I’ve settled on a rough guideline called the Double the X Rule. Double the X size of the tippet, and you’ll have a good idea how large a wet-fly or nymph hook you can use. That is, with a 5X tippet and a seven-turn clinch knot, you’re probably safe with a size 10 nymph: double 5 and you get 10. With a 6X tippet and the same knot, do not use a nymph or wet fly larger than size 12 (6 times 2). If you want to cast a size 6 streamer and insist on using a clinch knot, use at least a 3X tippet.
Although it performs poorly in light materials, the clinch knot remains useful with heavier tippets. For one thing, you can get it to tighten in virtually any tippet material. The clinch usually works well enough with 0.010-inch and heavier tippets because even a relatively inefficient knot provides enough strength-85 percent of 12-pound-test is still more strain than you can apply with any any rod short of a tarpon stick. In light tippets, though, it’s a poor choice.
The Nonslip Mono Loop
Loop knots have several benefits: more freedom of movement, a slightly faster sink rate, and no worries about the relative diameters of the line and the hook wire. Loops are good; some anglers use them almost exclusively.
The two most popular loop knots for attaching flies are the Duncan loop and the nonslip mono loop described by Lefty Kreh and Mark Sosin in Practical Fishing Knots. I had long used the Duncan loop, because it seemed easier to tie. But my tests revealed that there’s no contest between the two. When it’s tied correctly, the nonslip loop always beats the Duncan loop. Always. In 100 percent of tests. Period. Done.
The nonslip mono loop also beat the clinch knot in 100 percent of my tests, and almost always beat the Palomar and Trilene knots, which are often touted as among the strongest connections. With any nylon that I tried, the nonslip mono loop tied according to Kreh and Sosin’s instructions proved as consistently strong as any other knot; that is, no other knot beat it more than half the time. In test rigs made with two nonslip loops, the knot occasionally achieved 100 percent efficiency with the line breaking somewhere between the two knots. In light nylon, the nonslip mono loop appears to be the strength champion. It doesn’t do particularly well in the economy department, though that’s the least important consideration. It creates no deformation of the line.
With practice, you will make the loop smaller and use less line tying it. When I first tried this knot ten years ago, I used 6 inches of line tying the thing and ended up with a loop 2 inches in length. Now I can make nonslip mono loops less than 1/2 inch long. This knot often calls for a “third hand,” as described earlier in this chapter, since tightening the wraps before seating the knot involves pulling in three directions.
Do not clip the tag end flush. Leave a little stub; 1/16 inch will do. The nonslip loop is a fairly long knot, and it stretches a little under extreme tension.
Do yourself a favor and learn this knot. If you’ve been using the Duncan loop (also known as the uni-knot) with freshwater tippets, stop. The nonslip mono loop is much stronger and more reliable. Instructions are at the end of the chapter.
The 16-20 Knot
I learned this knot by editing an article written by E. Richard Nightingale for American Angler magazine (the piece appeared in the March-April 2002 issue). Mr. Nightingale, the author of a book called Atlantic Salmon Chronicles, discovered the knot on his own, but I suspect that knots, like fly-tying tricks, are “invented” by many people, and this one probably has a dozen originators. In a letter written in early 2004, Lefty Kreh told me that this knot has been around since the 1950s, when he knew it as the fisherman’s knot. Some folks maintain that the 16-20 is the same as the Pitzen knot, which came from Europe. The more anglers you know, the more you believe in synchronicity.
Mr. Nightingale’s name for the knot, the 16-20, derives from “the 16-20 club,” which consists of fly fishers who have caught 20-pound Atlantic salmon on size 16 or smaller hooks. He has performed this unusual feat.
Actually, Mr. Nightingale calls it the 16-20 loop knot, because it begins as a sliding loop and finishes by tightening around the standing line. That’s a nice distinction, but it creates the wrong impression. The 16-20 knot does not form an open, free-swinging joint. Although it tightens around the standing line, it does so against the hook eye. So, I have shortened the name to 16-20, deleting the suggestion of a loop.
The 16-20 has one drawback that doesn’t matter in most trout fishing: It doesn’t work with heavy line. With 3X and lighter nylon, it’s easy to seat properly. Getting a 16-20 knot to seat in 2X and heavier tippets is harder and often impossible. This is a knot for 3X and lighter nylon; you simply can’t tie it in heavy stuff.
So why learn it? Because it’s a superb knot. In the 3X through 6X nylon materials with which I compared knots, only the nonslip mono loop and Orvis knot proved consistently stronger; the 16-20 trounced every other knot. The 16-20 bested the Trilene knot about 90 percent of the time. It beat the clinch knot every single time, and almost always beat the Palomar knot. Like the nonslip loop, it sometimes achieves 100 percent efficiency.
The 16-20 forms a remarkably small knot. With dry flies, emergers, and small nymphs, that’s a good thing. The 16-20 also creates little or no deformation in the line.
Although the 16-20 is a simple knot, it’s awkward to learn. The motions and hand positions are not like those involved in making most other knots. I find the 16-20 easiest to form if I start by pulling about 6 inches of line through the hook eye so that I can tie the knot well above the hook, letting the fly dangle below my left hand. The knot slides down to the hook before it tightens.
Tightening the 16-20 is a three-stage process. After forming the knot, pull gently on the tag end to compact the wraps. Don’t pull too hard, because the next stage is to slide the knot down to the hook eye. Give the tag end another gentle tug to make sure that the wraps are compact (but still not too tight), and then pull hard on the standing line. And I mean hard, because something interesting happens when you pull with enough force. You will feel, and perhaps hear, a click as the knot seats. There’s no mistaking the click — you will feel a jolt in the line. When you feel and hear that pop, the knot is seated and finished. You will also notice that the tag end comes out of the front of the knot nearly parallel with the standing line. That’s your other indicator that the knot has seated properly. Since you need to pull hard to seat the knot, hook the fly on something solid such as a finger loop on your forceps.
You must feel the click and see the tag end exit the front of the knot almost parallel with the standing line. If either of those does not happen, cut the knot and tie another. More often than not, however, an incorrectly formed 16-20 snaps as you try to seat it. In effect, it has a built-in indicator of strength. Once learned, the 16-20 is childishly simple.
The diameter of the hook wire seems to have little effect on the 16-20’s strength. For dry-fly and emerger fishing, where you want a small, tidy connection, the 16-20 knot is remarkably strong and reliable. You’ll find instructions after those for the nonslip loop at the end of the chapter. Just remember to use it with 3X and lighter tippets, and remember the click.
The Orvis Knot
Some years ago, the Orvis Company held a contest in which anglers submitted new line-to-hook knots. A gentleman named Larry Becker won, and the knot he submitted is among the strongest, simplest, and most reliable that a fly fisher can use. The Orvis knot is also very small and light.
In 3X and lighter nylon, the Orvis knot always beats the clinch and virtually always beats the Trilene and Palomar knots. I thought that the 16-20 knot was the strongest tight-to-the eye connection in light nylon until I tested it against the Orvis knot. In fifty tests made with 3X through 6X materials, the 16-20 broke twenty-six times and the Orvis knot broke eleven times. In the remaining thirteen cases, neither knot broke; the line parted somewhere between them.
Unlike the 16-20, the Orvis knot works well in heavier lines. It’s easy to tie in the fairly stiff, 0.011-inch spinning line that I sometimes use for saltwater and heavy bass-fishing tippets. It’s also absurdly simple and almost impossible to screw up.
The Orvis knot does have one drawback: It wants to cock at an angle as it’s tightened. If you begin the knot with the hook upright, the line cocks at an upward angle; if you start with the hook upside down, the line ends up cocked downward. You can easily push or pull the finished knot into correct alignment, but it might cock again while you false-cast. How much this matters depends on the fly and the situation. With a bushy dry fly, a cocked knot might result in a twisted tippet. The problem probably will not occur with a size 6 stonefly nymph.
The Orvis knot’s great strength and simplicity make it worth using for some, if not most, of your fishing. It seems to work well in virtually any tippet material. Instructions are after those for the 16-20 knot.
The Trilene Knot
Since I’d long used this popular knot and always regarded it as strong and secure, I included it my comparisons. For the most part, it justifed my faith. The nonslip mono loop, Orvis knot, and 16-20 consistently beat the Trilene knot in 3X and lighter materials, but the Trilene beat the other knots I tried. In light nylon, it is always stronger than the clinch (winning 100 percent of contests) and usually stronger than the Palomar.
The Trilene knot requires you to pass the tippet through the hook eye twice. That’s a problem with a small fly, but also irrelevant, since other knots work better with fine tippets. With a bigger hook, you’ll have no trouble poking the tippet through the eye twice. And by a happy coincidence, the Trilene knot seems particularly efficient in heavier materials that you’d use with large flies. In the 0.010- through 0.012-inch nylon lines that I’ve tried, the Trilene knot beats the Orvis knot more than half the time, always beats the clinch knot, and comes out about even with the nonslip mono loop. I can’t explain this; I merely report what I’ve observed. For attaching a big bass or saltwater fly to a stout tippet, the Trilene knot is an excellent choice.
Tie it with five turns, wet it before drawing it tight (this reduces the knot’s tendency to deform an inch or so of line), seat it firmly, and leave at least a 1/16-inch tag end. You can find instructions in any number of books and on many websites.
A Small Group of Nylon Knots
If you use a good connection between the leader and tippet, you can safely use several high-strength knots for attaching flies. To make a free-swinging junction, use the nonslip mono loop. If you want a tight-to-the-eye knot with a 3X or lighter nylon tippet, attach the fly with a 16-20 knot or an Orvis knot. Any of these three knots might even let you drop down a size in tippet diameter, and that translates into more strikes. With a heavy tippet, use the Trilene knot to make a tight-to-the-eye connection.
If you decide to stick with a second-rate tippet knot, then attach your flies with a plain old clinch or a Duncan loop. You will avoid breaking off entire tippets and littering the waterways. But be aware that with some materials, you might have a rig that retains as little as 70 percent of the line’s actual breaking strength. I’m not making this stuff up. In one batch of tests made with a digital scale, I watched five consecutive blood knots in 6X nylon fail at an average of 65 percent of the line’s baseline strength. Stick with your old knots if you want, but know that you will lose more fish by doing so.