Clearing the Line: A Fly Fisherman’s Moment of Truth

Photo by Nick Carter

Hooking a fish on fly gear is sometimes the easiest part of the game; what happens after the fish is hooked is probably more important. Nothing can demonstrate this more than clearing your fly line after a fish has been hooked. This is what I call the “hero-to-zero in three seconds.”

Here is the scenario: you make a 50-foot cast to a school of tuna, a tailing bonefish or a string of tarpon. You begin stripping your fly back toward you, trying to snooker the fish into striking. The fish follows the fly within a few feet of the boat and then strikes. You set the hook, and you’re tight to the fish. The fish makes a lighting-fast run away from the boat. You look down and discover there’s a large pile of fly line at your feet… now what?

Clearing all that fly line from the deck or the stripping basket is now the most critical element in fighting the fish. Fly line tangled up in your feet or wrapped around a cleat on the deck will instantly result in a snapped tippet, and possibly a good line burn on your toes. All the work and patience that brought you to this moment will be a total loss if you can’t get the line cleared and the fish on the reel, and you only have a few seconds to do it.

First, transfer your thinking from the fish to the line. This is easier said than done. Let the fish run; he’s hooked, and if you keep tension on him he’ll stay hooked.

Do not lift your rod tip. Keep the rod angled at 90 degrees to allow line to slide through the guides.

Do not hold the fly line. This practice will result in a broken tippet.

Focus on clearing the line at your feet, while keeping a light grip on the line with your thumb and index finger. Allow line to run through your fingers until the fly line is tight to the reel.

This process may seem to take forever, but it actually takes but a few seconds.

Once the fly line is on the reel, apply positive tension on the fish and begin to fight it.

If, while clearing your line, you notice a knot do not attempt to undo it. Allow the knot to travel through the guides. In most cases, the knot will not hinder the line-clearing process. Deal with the knot after you have landed the fish.

Master the art of clearing the fly-line, and you’ll be considered a greater magician than David Copperfield. It’s the trickiest and most nerve-racking three seconds in the sport.