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
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
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!
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
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
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.