As with any journey worth taking, there are a number of milestones on the path to fly fishing proficiency. In this article we'll talk about a skill that's critical to jumping from 'competent caster' to 'advanced angler'. True, most of the big breakthroughs are derived from control - control of the loop, control of the rod, control of your body - and maximizing efficiency, using only the energy necessary to get the job done. But loop control and an efficient cast aren’t enough. If I had to pick a single other aptitude that distinguishes the exceptional angler, it's their skill with line management.
Our first job while on the bow of a boat (or wading, or belly-crawling up to a creek) is line management. Many experienced anglers would argue that it’s more important than throwing tight loops, more important than bombing 80 feet, even more important than pinpoint accuracy.
Why? I usually explain it this way. If you throw perfect loops but have a huge knot in your line, the loops don’t matter in that particular moment. The knot matters, and the knot resulted from what? That’s right. Poor line management.
By its very nature, fly line is prone to tangles. In order to cast, we must strip line off the reel, away from an organized state and into a steaming pile of entropy. What strategies has the fly fishing community developed over the years to help us with this perpetual conundrum?
1. Take only what you need
“I learned this tip from Rob Smith at The Fish Hawk. Only keep the line that you’re actually using on the deck of the boat. If you’ve got 70 feet of line out but you’re only making 50 foot casts, reel that slack up off the deck. You’ll get less line twist and have less line underfoot.” - Michael Williams, owner of Nomadic Waters
Stripping line off the reel as you cast might be a viable option in some situations, but it’s often slow, awkward, and results in too many false casts. To combat the big tangled pile problem, keep the pile as small as possible. Start with what I call a ‘working length’ of line. If you can comfortably cast 50 feet, and you’ve got a good platform to organize line on (flat dock, bow of a skiff, etc), then you could strip that much out and have it ready to go. However, that doesn’t mean you should. Are you making long shots to spooky redfish, or are we drifting a nymph rig down a run 20 feet away? Minimize tangles by only stripping off the line necessary for the situation. You can always strip off more if more is needed.
2. Keep it in sight
“Keep your line in the boat! When line leaves the boat it likes to find itself under rocks, in logs - and I don’t like going swimming for it.” - Alex Herrera, Texas Hill Country guide
If you’ve been fly fishing for any length of time, you already know how fly line loves to find stuff to get tangled up on, in, around, under, and through. I often joke that this miraculous ability must have been carefully engineered. What that means for us is we need to develop best practice habits to help keep messes to a minimum. First and foremost of those habits is visually checking the line. While fishing from a boat, this is especially critical. The best anglers I know are constantly checking on their line, keeping it from creeping overboard or wrapping around a projection on deck. A line that ends up in the water and under the boat is exposed to all sorts of dangers, including the boat itself. This is also crucial for anglers fishing from jetties or other similar places without a stripping basket, which leads us to…
3. Use a line control device
These come in many forms and go by many names, some homemade and some commercially available:
Wearable stripping baskets / stripping buckets: usually attached with or to a belt, these are highly-portable and usually make you look incredibly dumb
Ground-based stripping baskets / stripping buckets: from modified trash cans and collapsible leaf bins to purpose-made buckets and boat-mounted structures, you stand over these and strip line into them
Ground-based stripping mats or projections on ground or boat: these are usually made from rubber or foam and sit at your feet, and you strip line down towards them
Belt-mounted plastic clips and other gadgets
Some people swear by their preferred line management solution, and other people abstain from using them at all. The critical ingredient to making one of these work is familiarity. It helps to practice with your system off the water, even if it’s hard to explain to the neighbors.
4. Stay disciplined
“Maintain line control at all times with the non-casting hand. Learn to shoot line while still controlling it with your fingers, rather than letting loose to flop around and hang up on your reel, fighting butt, etc. Don’t move your feet; if you must move, make sure you aren’t now standing on the line or have a loop caught on the buckle of your Chacos. Check. Every. Single. Time.” - Bonner ‘Bones’ Armbruster, guide with All Waters Guide Service
We’ll wrap up with a few more tips that may help to tame the chaos:
While shooting line, maintain tension and control by keeping in contact with the line with your fingers.
Keep line hand and casting hand spread apart to minimize the line wrapping around the reel or fighting butt when clearing line
Turn rod upside down if trying to pass a knot
Go barefoot or sock-foot on deck
Keep a tidy workspace; stow gear in hatches, if you’re around coolers and bags with handles or latches or zippers, face them away from the casting action
Many boats have lots of equipment that will snag fly line; bring towels to cover up what you can’t stow (yes, especially that trolling motor)
In fact, sometimes laying down a wet towel on the deck will be better than nothing!
If you’ve got a line management device, practice using it before you hit the water