I watched the river before I cast. I do that more now. Mostly because it slows me down and lets me appreciate what is in front of me, but also because it makes my cast and presentation more deliberate. This day the water was high and the air was just cold enough to justify waders, although my love for wet wading had me wishing the wind would blow a little softer and the sun might rise a little faster.
This was a new section on a new river. One of my first days on the water since moving to our new home in Utah. I was enjoying the discovery, and the knowing that this day was the beginning of a story with so many memories yet to be made. Good days and bad. Fish caught and lost. All ahead of me. Like shaking hands and knowing you’ve met someone you’ll be friends with for life.
The seam I watched was deep and I smiled to think that so many rivers are so much the same. And still so different.
The current was fast because it was high, but the water was clear enough to see the boulders that made the trough that I would cast to. Not quite pocket water, but brief enough of a bucket that I wanted more split shot to get down. I pulled out line and added a bb sized piece above the other.
The cast was solid. The next was better. I saw the indicator dip quickly and set the hook but there was no fish. Another cast. This time nothing. Another. A missed hook set and the subtle tugs let me know I had had a fish on briefly. A good run of water for sure. Finally, the drift made its way through the river in a way that looked different. If a fish was willing, this would be it. The indicator dipped again. A solid hook set this time and a bent rod. Joy followed by frustration as I felt the stagnant, persistent force on the other end. No fish. Snagged bottom. Now what?
Time on the Water.
How much time on the water are we wasting being snagged? It may happen less frequently as our casting, accuracy, and most importantly, our situational awareness improves, but if we are fishing fearlessly to the parts of the river that trout love to inhabit, we are bound to encounter sticks, rocks, grasses and branches. The answer is not to fish more cautiously. We need to cast to the tight spots and ensure our nymphs are getting deep enough if we want our flies to have a chance of catching fish. Improving our casting accuracy and building awareness on the river can help limit how often we get snagged, but it cannot eliminate it. Learning how to unsnag our flies as efficiently as possible is required if we are to continue to progress as fly fishers.
There are three typical scenarios that occur on the river when our flies and fly line come in contact with something besides the water and the fish within:
Snagging something on the bottom or below the river that you cannot see, typically while nymphing.
Snagging a rock or piece of wood on top of the river while casting or drifting your fly.
Snagging grasses, bushes, or trees on the bank, while casting.
We’ll cover all three.
Step One. Slow Down.
The common first step for all the tips I am about to share is to take it slow. Frustration or impatience only drives the same three step process:
- Snag a branch or rock or stick.
- Immediately yank back on the rod and hope the fly comes free.
- Actually make things worse by digging the fly in or ensnaring it more.
Yanking back immediately on a snagged fly rarely works. We know it. We’ve seen it. We still do it. Why? It is instinct to pull back. To fix what we have done. But it is the exact wrong thing to do. We already know we are snagged. That discovery came the first time we pulled back.
Pulling harder, even from different angles, almost never frees the fly.
It took me a long time to learn this, and I still give in to instinct now and then, but stopping to think versus react has made me much more successful at unsnagging my flies. Consider a thoughtful pause, the first step in every tip discussed.
I learned long ago that you need to get your flies down while nymphing. Fish sit and feed in the buffer of slower water along the river bottom. If you cannot get the fly in front of them, you stand little chance of catching fish. Dancing between not deep enough and a touch too deep has the probable consequence of snagging bottom.
My first move after snagging bottom is upstream. Usually changing the angle of the rod tip is not enough. Wade several steps to help achieve an angle away from the direction that the current carried the fly into the snag. Then, instead of pulling right away, try to get some slack in the line. A roll cast to shoot line away and upstream from the fly along with gentle nudges with the rod tip from an angle upstream gives the river a chance to pull the fly off a rock or boulder. Sending the roll cast upstream and then stripping line with the rod tip low is my next step.
Before I give up and pull back or break off, I wade to where my fly is. This is a decision between breaking off and spooking fish. If the spot is good enough, I will give up on saving my fly, break off, and re-rig. If not, the odds are I am done fishing this spot after I walk into it. It can always be returned to later.
If I have decided to free the fly, my process involves reeling in slack line as I wade towards the snag so all the line is on the reel. This helps with balance as I wade and helps me find the snag. When I arrive at the snag, I reach down and follow the tippet with my hand until I find either the rock or wood or whatever the fly is attached to. Last, I push forward on the fly to edge the hook out of whatever it is stuck in.
If the fly is wrapped up or stuck on a branch, try to break or pull the branch out so that you can unravel the line.
Rocks, Logs, or Sticks on Top of the River.
When we snag something on top of the river we have an advantage because we can typically see the angle at which our fly is snagged and attempt to unsnag it from appropriate opposite angles.
One way to get slack in the line in the opposite direction is to feed line aggressively away from the hook with a roll cast. Sometimes the roll cast itself is enough to pull the hook free. The more aggressive the roll cast the more force the line will have to pull back on the fly. If the force of the roll cast does not free the fly, you can send the roll cast to achieve the slack behind the fly and then with your rod tip down, strip line and attempt to pull the fly from the opposite direction.
A final technique if your rod can reach your fly, is to reel in your line so that the snagged fly is butted up against the tip of your fly rod and then try to push it off whatever it is snagged in. This will not work if the fly is wrapped up though, and you have to use caution and judgement to not break a rod tip.
Grasses, Bushes, or Trees on the Bank.
The highest success rate I have of unsnagging my fly when I have ended up in grasses, bushes or tree branches on the bank is to physically move to a place where I can pull it free. Even flies stuck high in a tree can often be reached by bending the branches down. Trees are bendy, and more than once I have been surprised at how high I can retrieve a fly with this technique.
If I am able to reach the branch or grass I will pull it until I have my fly in reach and then make an assessment. If it is an easy grab, simply remove the fly once in reach. If it is a mess of wrapped line or you are barely able to get to the fly, break off the branch and then work to free your fly. It is important to pull the vegetation itself as rods are meant to bend and you get more leverage from grasping the branch.
Snags in your back cast are easier to reach because you can typically wade back the way you came to retrieve them. Snags out in front are harder to deal with. If you cannot get your hands on your fly either by wading to it, pulling down branches, or breaking of sticks, there is still hope.
I have two tips for getting your fly out of these hard to reach places that have helped save me flies and time over the years. Both techniques were proudly stolen from other angles and both techniques I am proud to share.
Stealing tactics is something I picked up in the fighter squadron and apply with great enthusiasm to fly fishing. As I was taught as a young A-10 Warthog wingman at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, “There is no monopoly on good tactics.”
Casting to the bank of the Yakima River with my father and brother has given me many flies stuck in grassy banks. The Yakima has plenty of them and big trout love to sit tight to them. Tucking flies in close to the bank is a challenge but often what it takes. This means flies stuck in the grass.
The best way I have learned to retrieve flies snagged in grasses this way is to get the line tight, lower the rod tip (sometimes even six to nine inches below the water) and strip down.
Lowering the rod brings the grass down and stripping the fly sometimes slides it off whatever it was snagged on. I have even had a fish take my hopper immediately after this scenario played out. What looks more natural to a trout than watching your fly actually fall from the grass?
I learned this technique from the folks over at Reds Fly Shop. They are conveniently located on the Yakima River and their website is full of great tips and tactics for any river. Here is the video they shared that taught me this technique:
When your fly is stuck in a tree or bush and it becomes apparent you are not going to be able to reach it, a slow and steady technique has saved my fly more and more as I improve at its execution.
This technique involves tightening up the line so that there is just a slight amount of slack, pointing the rod at the snag, and jiggling the rod tip slowly while retrieving line. The goal is to gently unravel the fly line from around the branches without hooking them.
I will admit this is one of the toughest snags to undo and thus one of the reasons I went searching the internet for ways to unsnag it. A YouTube video from Tactical Fly Fisher showed me this tip. Here is the link to that video showing what I described:
We do not always get to get our flies back. Consider it the price we pay for fishing to where the fish are.
After we have tried everything and still cannot elusively remove our fly from the clutches of whatever menacing foliage or granite interrupted our sacred time on the water, in the end, very often, it’s time to break off.
When that time comes, ensure that you either point your rod directly at the snag and pull back straight or take out line and pull the fly line itself. You want all the tension to be on the line and none on the rod. Sometimes you will get lucky and the fly breaks free.
Check Your Rig.
Whether you get your fly back or not, always check for abrasions or knots in the line and integrity of the hook. Often boulders or sticks will damage tippet. Pulling on the line might free a fly at the expense of a bent hook that allowed it to pop free.
Losing a fish because your rig was in bad shape is tough to take. Especially, when it is a big fish that breaks off, as is somehow always the case.
We all get frustrated when we get snagged on the river, but we should never be surprised. It is all part of the journey that leads to progress. Something we are all after at Wadeoutthere. Take a second. Think about how best to unsnag your fly and give that plan a chance before you make things worse or break off and re-rig.
These scenarios are my most commonly encountered and the techniques my most successful tools. Got a scenario I’m leaving out? Any tips I’m missing? Share your story in the comments below, so we can all spend more time fishing our flies and less time being snagged.
I know I’d welcome the knowledge and I think I know some other dedicated anglers that might as well.