June 27th, 2005

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On Knots
By ron P. swegman

Knot me

Knots have challenged me all my life. When I was a preschool boy, I demanded my mom buy me "buckle shoes" because I just could not get the hang of shoestrings. Reflecting on this now, I am convinced the problem stemmed from my being left-handed. My right brain could not follow the "in and out and over and through" directions for the longest time; I was pleased to learn much later that no less a genius than Albert Einstein had suffered from the same problem.

I eventually learned to tie my shoes by following each step in a mirror. The opposite image helped my southpaw point of view follow through so I could wear a pair of hip, brown suede Hush Puppies to kindergarten.

A year later, when I began to fish, knots returned as an issue of contention. Wisps of 6 lb. test line, blown and twisted by the wind, were difficult for my young fingers to control, and unlike my shoestrings, I could not untie and try again. Each time I made a mistake I would have to cut the line and start over. The fish, I noted, were always biting especially well at such times.

I was a big fan of Dr. Seuss back then, and I remember one of his characters that always stated "Not me!" when asked if he (or she or it?) had done something or other. My maternal grandfather, a painter with a quiet and patient manner, was my first fishing guide, and I was neither bold enough nor lazy enough to utter such a defiant line to him, so I never pulled a tantrum or refused to rig up myself under normal conditions. Sometimes, though, the wind or sheer excitement got to me, and in one such instance my first original pun was born when I asked him to "Knot me!" He laughed and helped me out. A sense of humor, I learned, came in handy at the fishing hole.

That summer I learned to tie the two most common, and some would say "best," basic fishing knots - the clinch knot and the improved clinch knot - by practicing with the jute twine my mother used in her vegetable garden. The thick strands were easy to work with, and I soon got the hang of twisting the line several times around itself, followed by threading the loose end through the loop at the base. No bluegill or yellow perch would be safe from my worm.

What wisdom I had yet to absorb was patience along the water. This lesson, perhaps as important as mechanics to knot tying, is tough; I am still learning.

One of my family's favorite fishing destinations was a calm cove of Lake Arthur, a 4,200-acre impoundment situated a few dozen miles north of my home city of Pittsburgh. This lake, then as now, is regionally famous as a trophy catfish and bass lake and is Pennsylvania's best bet for a largemouth bass exceeding eight pounds. Smallmouth bass are found here as well.

My mother and stepfather were wet wading and fly casting their poppers and deer hair bugs among the cove's lily pads as I fished a night crawler beneath a bobber from dry land; my introduction to fly fishing was still several years off, and I was content, as float fishing allowed me time to indulge my junior scientist's interest in birds and the numerous little critters that called the weedy, reedy shoreline home.

The sunfish started biting with abandon near dusk. Excitement filled me. Judgment left me. I missed one hit, which somehow snagged the hook onto a patch of pads. The tenacious stem would not let go, the line snapped, and I reeled in the loose end as quickly as I could. I hurriedly slipped another snelled size 6 Eagle Claw from its pack and, to save precious daylight time, quite foolishly tied it onto my line with the first knot I had mastered - the shoestring bowtie. My next hit was a whopper that pulled my bobber so hard that it made a splash. I pulled back and felt a resistance as forceful and as heavy as the stem had been, but this connection moved with a mind of its own. A largemouth football broke water ten feet in front of me, flipped its rear end in my direction, and broke off at the knot. I dropped my rod and started to cry. Soon my wails were so loud that my parents practically ran into shore, fearing I had injured myself. I was hurt all right. I had been burned, but I had learned . . . sort of!

Knot Sense

There is another kind of knot, the kind angler's study to avoid. Call it a tangle, or more accurately, a bird's nest. These are knots not of seamless strength and beauty, but rather of pure chaos that can make a priest curse.

How do such messes of line form? The answer can be tied - pun intended - once again to patience, or more precisely, a lack thereof. Almost every bird's nest occurs because an angler tries to fish faster than the gear, weather, or water conditions will allow.

A backlash on a bait casting reel usually occurs when the caster is all thumbs in the wrong way. I learned this fishing off the piers along Virginia Beach. When the schools of flounder and spot began their summer evening feeding frenzy, the entire pier buzzed with the electricity of "Fish on!" excitement. Sometimes, at such times, my urge to cast was so strong that some important steps, such as using the casting thumb to control the forward flow of the line, were forgotten. The result was a bird's nest in my hand and a pile of fish in the bushel basket of the person fishing next to me.

Spinning snarls develop for the same reason. Excitement, bragging, or story telling while casting can cause the guilty party to close the bail too quickly, before the bait or lure hits the water. This creates backward momentum, a bird's nest, and all-to-often, new, inventive bad language. Silver lining: If a fish happens to strike while pulling in the length of clipped off monofilament, an angler can receive a crash course in hand lining.

Life experience is telling. I was once a boy spin fishing along Laurel Hill Creek, a limestone stream with freestone characteristics nestled in the green mountains of Southwest Pennsylvania, during an opening day weekend. The first night I had feigned sleep on the cabin's sagging living room couch while the adults nearby played cards around the rickety kitchen table. At one point a whisky voice remarked: "Look at him, sleeping there. I bet he's having dreams of 10-pound rainbows!"

Opening day passed, and dreaming was as close as I came to netting a fish. I had been skunked. I became the joke of the party. Sunday arrived, and we were going to be leaving in a few hours. The rest of the group was content to load up their cars and pickup trucks with the gear and a limit of frozen, stocked, foot-long trout. My immediate family took pity, relieved me of chore duty, and let me fish a little while longer.

I was casting and retrieving a silver Mepps spinner along the rocky ledges of the pool above the cabin, still with no success. The clock was racing and so was my mind. I had to catch one. Just one! I rushed myself, and a bum cast left me with a major snarl. No time to sit on the bank and fiddle-faddle. I clipped the line and started to pull it in hand over hand. Suddenly, the big one hit! Fish and spinner raced upstream, against the current. My charged state somehow kept up with the fish. A crowd gathered. They cheered me on as I lead a 17-inch rainbow trout to shore. Not quite a 10-pounder, but I won the betting pool with that fish, and had no doubt showed up the whisky-soaked wiseguy who had mocked me two nights earlier.

Fly casters encounter knots of the unwanted kind most often along the leader or tippet. I have found that tandem rigs are particularly susceptible. Erratic currents, fast water, and once again, a lack of patience, are the primary causes. If the cast is not allowed to follow through, indicator and dropper will tangle effortlessly together.

Wissahickon Creek, a spring-fed stream within the city limits of Philadelphia, is now my home water. New acquaintances often scoff when I tell them I fly fish for trout there, just a few minutes from Center City, but that's were they will find me on most of my free May and June days. I load up my mountain bike after work and cycle north and west. With a good ride, I can be fishing the stream by six o'clock.

One exceptionally calm and deep green June evening, a hatch started to stir the brown trout at the tail end of one of my favorite pools. I had always desired to score a double header, so I clipped off a foot of fluorocarbon, tied on a small American Pheasant Tail nymph, and attached it all to the bend of my larger Light Cahill. Jitters of excitement filled my stomach, not with butterflies, but with mayflies.

I made one good cast without a take. Another two sips broke the glassy surface. Eagerness replaced good knot sense, and my form on the follow-up suffered. I yanked rather than rolled, which made me groan as I watched nymph and dry fly begin to dance cheek-to-cheek. I found myself with a new "tumbleweed knot" I could have never devised by my own design.

The hatch ebbed and the sun set. I cycled home with more than another fishless story. The Wissahickon had imparted wisdom. A sudden hatch can cease just as quickly as it starts. This is no time to be untangling unwanted knots. Patience is more than a virtue at such moments; it is good fly-fishing. ~ ron

About ron:

ron P. swegman is the author of Philadelphia on the Fly: Tales of an Urban Angler (Frank Amato Publications, 2005). He lives, writes, draws, and casts lines in Philadelphia, PA.

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