How to untangle knots in your leader
Tactics and Techniques

Ten Tips for Untangling Knots in Your Leader

I like to begin my articles with a story, but the tales of woe I’ve gathered over the years of untangling knots in my leader are too many and too varied to attempt narrowing them down into a single memorable incident.  I’ve come to accept that the endless tangles and twists in my leaders are the price of admission for this sport we love.  There’s a sort of affection for these frustrating tangles we all must experience if we are to enjoy fly fishing that almost makes them special.  Almost…

What follows is more a list of discoveries than words of advice.  But I have to believe that had I cataloged and utilized these discoveries earlier in my fly fishing journey, I might have saved some precious “time on the water.”  And thus, so might you. 

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | How to Get the Most From Your Time on the Water.

A Quick Assumption: For the purposes of this article “knots in your leader” can be understood to mean everything from the fly line down to the flies, including tippet.

Preventing Tangles

Before diving into the ten tips, I think it’s worth addressing some techniques for avoiding these unavoidable tangles to begin with.  I’ve observed two main trends that have helped me prevent tangles, less stuff on the leader and better casting.

Less Stuff on the Leader

The more stuff I have on my leader, the more I tend to tangle up.  Throw some wind into the mix and all bets are off.  Things like drop shot, tag flies, droppers, strike indicators, and split shot all increase the odds of getting tangled and typically increase the magnitude of the problem when it happens.  

I’m not advocating for giving up on fishing a certain way (or the right way) for a given scenario because it will prevent tangles.  If you think a tag fly and split shot will catch fish, get after it.  Being aware that the possibility of knots tends to rise with the more stuff I have on my leader reminds me to focus more on the second observation when preventing tangles: better casting. 

Better casting

Just cast better, right?  It’s simple. I strive for thoughtful and deliberate casting strokes.  I also strive to minimize false casting. This keeps me fishing more with my flies in the water. It also helps prevent tangles, since most of my tangles descend upon me while casting. It’s not coincidence that the better my casting, the less I tend to tangle, regardless of what’s on my leader.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | The Perfect Cast is Overrated.

In Episode 99 of the Wadeoutthere Podcast, champion caster Audrey Wilson shares some tips on casting that will help with tangles:

1. Identify the Tangle Early

The sooner you can recognize things are going south, the better off you’ll be heading into the detangling process.  Knots in your leader and tippet are only going to get worse by being cast around.  When you identify the tangle early, you can slowly bring in your line and begin untangling before things get worse.

I’ve noticed tangles mid cast and wished I could reach out and take them back.  They didn’t look so bad flying through the air, but they sure were a mess when I brought them back in.  If you pay attention to your rig, especially after getting snagged or catching fish, you’ll notice knots and tangles early.  

2. Assess Whether Untangling is Worth It

Before moving forward with trying to untangle the mess that you have, decide if it’s worth it.  This is an important step and can save you a lot of time and headache.  Sometimes a tangle is too far gone to save.  Fully formed knots in your tippet can be worked with the needle on the back of most nippers, but this can be tricky and the line can be damaged.

Something to consider when making an assessment of whether to bother with trying to untangle your leader is, how’s the fishing?  If fishing is good and my rats nest looks like it will take some time, it may be better to cut the knot out and retie my tippet and flies.  

I will also consider how the flies have been working.  It may be time to change flies anyway if they haven’t been producing fish.  This tactic makes for good timing because you’re only adding one step to what you would already be doing.

Finally, if fishing is slow, I might take longer on a tangle just to embrace the challenge.  But use caution when involving emotion in the untangling of knots in your leader.  I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time fiddling with tangles because I either felt I had invested too much time to give up, or committed to the “challenge” of it.  The ability to cut your losses with your leader is a virtue.

3. Find a Good Spot to Work the Tangle

Waist deep in the current, with the wind in your face is not the optimum spot for untangling your fly line.  Find a place where you can work sheltered from the elements and concentrate on solving the problem without worrying about keeping your balance or gusty winds to complicate things by wrapping up line.

You may also need to set your reel down if you have to unravel things around the rod itself.  I’ve broken a rod trying to reach out and grab my leader.

4. Don’t Make Things Worse

If you could take only one thing away from this article that would help you in untangling knots in your leaders it would be, don’t make things worse. 

Making things worse is the mistake I have most often made when untangling knots in my leader.  I’ve found many ways to accomplish the task of making things worse.  Turns out I like to revisit them from time to time, and I’m sure I still have a few undiscovered gems in my future.  

Here is a list of “don’ts.”  They are things you absolutely do not want to do when untangling knots in your leader, and they apply to every part of the process.  

Don’t shake. 

Shaking always seems like a good idea.  It never is.  That fly hooked precariously on the tippet may look like it would easily shake loose, but you’re more likely to cause the tippet to tangle upstream… making things worse.

Don’t pull. 

When you have knots forming in the leader, pulling on the line someplace else will almost always tighten the knots… making things worse.

Don’t rush. 

Take your time to assess whether you want to untangle the knot, and work patiently until you’ve succeeded or discovered it’s no longer worth it. Speeding just complicates the problem. I’ve had tangles that start out simple, lulling me into a false sense of security that drives me to rush… making things worse.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.

5. Start by Unwrapping

Often the knot in your leader is not a knot at all.  How can this be? 

You might think everything looks so messy that the only logical explanation must be that you are looking at the largest single rat’s nest that has formed in any anglers line on the river that day or more probably all week.  Not so!  It’s very likely that what you have is line wrapped around things.  

Tangles in your fly line caused from line wrapping are often not knots until they’re pulled tight.  Things like your flies will wrap around the line, but also keep an eye for indicators and split shot.  The weight of these objects gives them momentum to wrap up.  Look for the split shot or indicator to be hanging from the middle of the rats nest and see if you can start unwrapping there rather than going straight to the flies.

Often, if I simply handle the wraps in the line I am able to untangle my leader without ever dealing with knots.

6. Keep Everything Loose

If there was a second most important rule of thumb I follow when untangling knots, it would be to keep everything loose. Typically, when you first start out with a tangled leader you haven’t quite gotten to the knots yet.  Especially if you have followed tip number four.   Spreading the line apart gives you room to work the problem and move line and flies through loops if needed.  

When I have tight twists in my tippet, I am sometimes able to pinch the top of the twist and slide my fingers down the line.  This unravels tight twists quickly.  

7. Remove Indicators and Split Shot

Remember all those things we talked about in Preventing Tangles?  Drop shot, tag flies, droppers, strike indicators, and split shot…? Yep.  All those things can slow things up when untangling leaders, especially when line is wrapped around them. Sometimes it’s best to remove these items to help loosen things up.

8. Work Backwards from the Fly

If you start with the flies you can see where the line went.  The end of the line is the last thing you have that you know is good.  Start there and move your eyes up to where the line has gotten mixed up.  Where are the wraps?  Where are the knots or potential knots?  Working backwards from the fly helps me figure out what needs to be unwrapped first and where the big problems are.

9. Push Line Through

I find myself constantly fighting the urge to pull on leaders and tippet when trying to untangle knots in my leader. Maybe it’s because the knot we most often untie is on our shoes and requires only a simple pull on the laces.  Are we subconsciously projecting that lesson onto how we untangle fly line?

Instead of pulling line through loops to unravel knots, try pushing it through.  This helps keep everything loose and avoids line from tightening up.

10. Cut Flies Off

Lots of folks will say start untangling by cutting your flies off.  So why do I save it for the end?  Cutting flies off is a good technique for unraveling knots in your leader.  A really good one.  But it’s not always required, and if I can do the other things first I may be able to unravel without cutting off flies and this saves me time and keeps me fishing. 

The more I experience knots in my leader the more I’m able to unravel things quickly without cutting off flies.

If you do decide cutting flies off is required, try starting with only your tag fly or dropper.  This way you at least salvage the time it takes to tie on one fly.

Not as Pretty as it Looks

Grace.  Beauty.  A trout rising through glistening water to a perfectly presented dry fly (probably an elk hair caddis) in the most picturesque and beautiful mountain scene imaginable (probably Montana.)  Those are the images concurred up by most non-fly fishers when they reflect on what fly fishing is.  But we know better.

Everything seems graceful and beautiful until you have indicators and tippet wrapped up in your leader, and flies twisted around each other.  We tend to skip that part in our imagination. 

Over the years I’ve been forced to develop techniques for dealing with tangles out of necessity.  It’s not something you strive to be practicing all the time, but sometimes we get more practice than we want.  

The good news is that like all of fly fishing you can treat knots in your leader as an opportunity to learn and progress.  I hope these tips help you WadeOutThere.

What tips am I missing? Leave a comment below that might be helpful.


Jason Shemchuk

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  • Reply
    Alan Firth
    December 19, 2022 at 6:19 am

    I totally get this excellent advice and for what it’s worth can I add my little tip …. with the tangle hanging down in front of you hold two large hooks and push them down into any knots and ease them apart until tension is released. It seems obvious but it works and saved me from stringing up a new leader on many occasions.
    Cheers guys. Alan

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      December 19, 2022 at 7:06 am

      Nice. Keeps things loose. I like it. Thanks for reading and for commenting Alan.

  • Reply
    Paul Hallberg
    December 19, 2022 at 8:17 am

    Jason, this article really caught my attention! Your suggestions to untangle knots from the leader make sense and I value many of your well written tips and tricks on your blog. Keep them coming!

    Tight lines,

    Paul from Pennslyvania

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      December 19, 2022 at 10:25 am

      Thanks Paul. I’m glad you’re finding value in it. Thanks for the comment too. I love hearing from folks. Ideas. Techniques. Stories. Keep ‘em coming.

  • Reply
    Darrell Burkey
    December 19, 2022 at 10:13 am

    Good stuff and on the mark. The story of The Gordian Knot preceded fly fishing but it certainly lives on in fly fishing!

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      December 19, 2022 at 10:26 am

      Thanks Darrell. I appreciate you reading and supporting WadeOutThere.

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