One of the things we observe new anglers struggle with the most is line management. Line management is a broad term, but to us, it involves controlling the amount of line you have out of the reel while casting, drifting your flies and fighting a fish. Without proper management of your fly line, anglers will struggle with casting, hitting their target, achieving a drag-free drift, quickly setting the hook and fighting a fish. Like everything, line management requires practice and experimentation, but as long as you understand the things to avoid and reasons to manage your line, you will learn much faster.
Casting: This is obvious, but casting requires line and depending on how far you want to cast, you’ll need to adjust the amount of line you have out of your reel. Working with an unnecessary amount of line can be equally damaging as having too little line. Regardless of how far you are trying to cast, you want to have enough line to get your flies to your target, but also have just enough line out so that your line isn’t tight when your fly(s) hit the water. Having a small amount of slack when you make your cast will allow you to mend (we will cover this later) and avoid dragging your flies.
Another common mistake angler’s make when casting is trying to cast with too much line. This isn’t as much of an issue when you’re making 10 – 20 ft casts, but once you start making 30+ ft casts, you’ll need to control your line a bit more. For example, if I’m trying to hit a seam 30 ft away, I’ll have 31 - 33 ft of line pulled out of my reel. Before releasing my flies, I’ll make 1 – 3 false casts (casting without releasing) with only 15 ft of line. When I finally release, the momentum of the fly line will pull the rest of the line that is sitting on the ground/in the water and shoot my flies the full 30 ft. Casting with less line will ultimately help you make cleaner casts, cleaner presentations and decrease your odds of getting tangled. If you’re finding that it is difficult to manage your line at a distance, try wading closer to your target without spooking the fish.
The Drift: One of the first things we seem to learn as anglers is that slack is bad. While this is true to a degree, a manageable amount of slack is necessary to achieve a drag-free drift. Having a small amount of slack in your line will decrease drag and allow your flies to float more naturally in the water. While it may vary depending on the situation, a typical cast is made 45 degrees upstream of the angler. Casting upstream will give you a longer drift but will require constant adjustments to your slack. When you first make your cast, all of your line will be out in order to hit your target. Almost immediately, your flies and line will begin drifting downstream. As this occurs, you’ll need to slowly strip in (don’t reel in) line to avoid having excess line in the water. As your flies get closer to you, continue to strip your line in. Slowly lifting your rod tip up is another method to decrease the amount of slack in the water. As your flies pass you, slowly drop your rod tip down and let some line out. By the end of your drift, you will have as much line out as you did when you made the cast. Controlling your line in this way will help you achieve a long drift and increase your odds of catching trout.
Mending: Mending is an art. It takes constant practice but the better you get at it, the more trout you will catch. So, what is mending? Mending is when you adjust the placement of your line in the water in relation to your flies. Aside from when your flies are above or below you, the goal is to have your fly line aligned with your flies. For example, if your fly line is drifting below your flies, your line will drag your flies downstream. Conversely, if your fly line is above your flies, your flies will pull your line. Both of these scenarios result in unnatural drifts, which will tip-off trout that your flies aren’t real.
To avoid creating drag, you need to mend either upstream or down. To mend, roll the line by flicking your wrist. If you try this and your line doesn’t move, lift the rod tip up slightly and try again. If your line is below your flies, mend up and if your line is above your flies, mend down.
Setting the Hook: Like everything else, slack plays an important role in setting the hook. If you see your indicator or dry fly dip in the water, you want to set the hook. Speed plays an important role in this because there will be a natural delay in not only your personal reaction but also the time it takes to tighten the line and set the hook in the trout’s mouth. The more slack you have in the water, the longer it will take for your flies to react to you flicking your wrist downstream. When you have less slack in the water, your flies will react much quicker, decreasing the time the trout has to spit out your flies (yes this happens). The good thing about this is if you manage your slack well throughout the drift, setting the hook shouldn’t be difficult.
Fighting the Trout: If you’ve ever fished with a guide or an experienced friend, you’ve probably heard them say “keep your tip up!” and “bring in the slack!”. Keeping your tip up and managing your slack both play a role in keeping your line and fly tight in the trout’s mouth. If your fly rod tip is pointed down and/or your line isn’t tight, there won’t be enough pressure on the fly to keep it in the trout’s mouth and the odds of it coming loose increases.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. You can also have the line too tight, which can pull the flies out of the trout’s mouth or break your line. This isn’t a huge issue with smaller trout, but with bigger and stronger trout, it can be a challenge. Our biggest piece of advice is to use and trust your reel. With small trout you can get away with stripping in your line by hand but with stronger trout, you want to use your reel. Getting your line back into your reel will allow your reel to manage the tension on the trout. Assuming you have the drag set appropriately on your reel, your reel will react to the movements of the trout and release line if the trout pulls hard enough. When this happens, let the trout take out line. As soon as the trout stops for a break, reel it in until it starts to pull again. If you do all of this correctly, you’ll find a trout in the bottom of your net.