That large tail waved goodbye, and a sturdy wild brown trout slid back into the flow. It was a good fish for this river, and I texted a couple pictures to Burke — just to remind him that I was fishing and he wasn’t. This is what we do to each other.
I must’ve been a little too gleeful and gloating — chuckled with a little too much gusto when I hit send. Maybe . . . because on the next cast, instant karma sent my leader and flies into the sycamores. And so began the twenty minutes of foolishness that followed.
I looked up through leafless limbs. They refused to block the direct sunlight. Straight into my eyes, no matter the angle I took. The sun was there, blinding me as I looked up to find the flies.
I tugged on the line until one of the branches cracked but then recoiled, leaving a more complicated mess of monofilament and my two flies still buried somewhere in the tree. I pulled again, and one of the flies dangled a half-foot below the thieving branch. My hand-tied fly reached for the river and teased me, still well beyond access but now visible.
Just break it off, I thought. Really, it’s the only thing that makes any sense. Break it off and move on.
It’s hard to let go, isn’t it? My line and my flies lay woven through multiple branches, suspended over a deep section of fast water, and there wasn’t any real hope of getting the rig back. But just before busting it off, I was granted a spark of optimism. A mid-stream rock the size of a five gallon bucket lay just under the greedy branch. It was an invitation to save my leader and flies, so I took it.
Enthusiastically, I waded into the run and climbed aboard the rock. But the platform wasn’t as flat as I’d hoped, and with water rushing through my legs, the balancing act was more difficult. Eventually, I found my center of gravity atop the precarious perch, and I stabilized a bit (though I certainly still looked like a fool). I peered up through the scattered rays of my worn out sunglasses and pulled hard on the line.
Sometimes the limbs hanging over a river are dead and brittle, so they break off easily. This one didn’t. Other times, the tree limbs over a river are thin and flexible, so they bow graciously and offer back the flies they’ve captured. This one didn’t.
I looked around at the rushing water, up at the tree and down at my rock. I tried to scrutinize the situation from a new perspective. Was this worth it? For a moment I thought about climbing down and breaking it all off, but I couldn’t do it.
You’re in too far now, I thought. No sense giving up.
So I took it to the next level.
I turned my rod upside down and grabbed it about four feet into the butt section. Then I lifted the rod and used the reel seat to seize the limb and pull with just enough force to overcome the cantilever, yet not pull the four sections of my rod apart. This dangerous trick has worked for me a hundred times (and I’ve also broken a fly rod this way). I eased the limb down into my second hand, releasing the grip of the reel seat on the limb so I could invert the rod and tuck it under my arm again. This was going quite well now, so I boldly grabbed at the dangling flies until . . .
“And so began the twenty minutes of foolishness that followed.”
My rod slipped and the branch sprung back, using all the stored energy in the flexed limb to drive the #12 hook into the base of my finger. The 6 lb tippet snapped and disconnected. I now had an upside down fly rod in one hand, part of my leader in the other, and a Beadhead Walt’s Worm in my finger.
There’s an upside, I thought. At least I have one of my flies back.
It was the first time in a while that I’d seen a hook mounted that firmly into one of my body parts, and I didn’t like it. Not wanting to think about it too much, I flipped the rod around and stashed it under my arm, grabbed my hemostats and (still perched on the rock) quickly backed the hook out of my flesh. It went surprisingly well. (There’s another good argument for going barbless.)
I looked back to the rest of my rig, still in the timber. Defeated, I climbed down from the rock and sloshed over to the bank, pulling the line along like a kite string still attached to the branches. With one final straight-line pull, I expected to hear the rifle-shot snap of my strong monofilament butt section breaking. Instead I heard the cracking of dry branches, and I turned to watch a large section of sycamore limbs plop into the river — my attached rig floated downstream.
I was so far committed at this point that I couldn’t help myself. I ran downstream through skinny bank-water until I overtook the floating branch. Like a summer lifeguard I waded out into the flow and rescued the branch, my leader and the remaining fly were stuck somewhere within.
I found a streamside log suitable for a good ten-minute bank-sit, and I unthreaded the tangled line. No way I was clipping it off and starting over. You’re in too far now, I thought.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
This would be funny if it weren’t so real. Last time I went fishing I broke two rods, one twice. Don’t ask. But thanks for making me feel slightly less like the only one with such terminal klutziness.
Definitely happens to everyone!
Great story, Dom. As I read it I thought‘no way- did he spy on me?’ As I’ve definitely been there.
Except the hemostats weren’t enough and I had to use the mono loop counter-pull trick.
Best blooper type story since Nick Lyons…
LOL good to see even a seasoned fisherman does inane and dangerous things to retrieve a couple of dollars of flies. I am not alone!
I thought sure you were going to fall in……I would have. I have learned that looking straight up while standing in rushing water is an almost certain way to loose my balance. These days, I do not hesitate to “break ’em off” !
Nah … I fell in last week. 🙂
Ha! This is a very well written article and relatable because it brings us back to when we were in similar fiascos, probably more times than we care to admit. The lengths I have gone to untangle leader/tippet and recover snagged flies is anywhere from darn right comical to straight up dangerous and foolish. They make for good stories, but they usually aren’t good for the blood pressure at the time they are happening. I have seen guys burn glorious holes while they were ripping what seems like the entire forest down to get their flies. Hilarious.
Ironically enough, one of the most valuable things I have learned from you is maximizing efficiency on the water. Most of the time, when faced with tangles and snags that aren’t easily and quickly remedied, I am now committed to cutting or breaking off and starting over almost immediately. When I fish with someone, I am a good 8 times out of 10 significantly faster than the guy trying to save his rig because he insists he’s a master untangler.
Some of these situations create unspeakable tangles of line that simply defy principles of nature, gravity and physics and leave me in wonderment of how it possibly got that messed up. I mean, it’s wrapped around a tinsel steel weed stalk or titanium tree limb six ways from Sunday. How is that even possible on a cast that missed by just 2 inches?
At any rate, when faced with these situations, quickly cutting or breaking off and starting over has been an absolute game changer for me. It just took discipline from me. Efficiency.
Now… that doesn’t mean I don’t fall off the wagon sometimes and foolishly wade into deep and sketchy water going after a fly or grab a spot to sit along the bank to demonstrate my untangling skills. Guilty. And, like you, I just hate leaving my precious rigs and flies up in some tree for someone else to chuckle at, just like I chuckle at the ones I see. When I see tangled line and flies dangling from a limb, I always think to myself that some poor guy was probably literally a couple inches from a whiskey, but instead ended up with a frustrating mess in a tree. Wonder what his story was?
Awesome article, man.
Don’t leave me Hanging! That story can’t end……Yet. I loved it.
Thanks. Glad you liked it. The rest of the story is that the fishing was slow.
Since I catch a high number of trees, I could really relate. I’ve been lucky to have never had a hook embedded under those circumstances but I’ve had some whack me in the head. Beadheads hurt.
I can totally relate to this post.
I blame working the night shift but it was probably more out of stupidity. I had a slow day on the water and my line wrapped around a small sapling near the side of the river. Instead of calmly untangling the fly out of the sapling I just grabbed at it and tried to rip the line and flies from it. I felt a sharp pain like something stung me and sure enough I had a sz18 pheasant tail in my thumb. I left it in there until I got to the car and sure enough a guy wants to talk to me about the fishing. I was embarrassed about the fly in my thumb so the hold time we had a 10min conversation I kept my hand behind my back. I could feel it throbbing and I was like dude shut up so I can get to this fly. The barb wasn’t smashed down but I was able to get it out with out much incident. I’ve been diligent about smashing barbs down ever since.
Great story Dom. Like several others who commented,the description was so accurate, I could feel myself standing on that rock. Have definitely been in similar situations; although I’ve managed to avoid the hook in the thumb to this point.
Thanks for reading, Bill. I think you have the best story, though. I’ve never hooked a duck.
Your ability to educate, and entertain are Emmy award winning. My passion and strong appetite to digest central Pennsylvania fly fishing encounters is never ending. … Looking for some help. My ability to find lodging while on fly fishing trips to the little juniata and pine Creek are very easy. When I fish spring creek I’m stumped on true fish camp lodging. The area has some good camping options I expierence but I haven’t found a fishing lodge atmosphere in the area . It’s either a holiday inn on a 4 lane highway or a campus hotel. If u have some options to share I would highly appreciate it.
Hey, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll talk about locations.
I live a couple of miles from a really popular small stream. The access is very easy so it gets tons of pressure from all grades of anglers. On days when the fishing is slow and its warm enough to wet wade I will work the spots that have overhanging branches and collect flies. Its a fun challenge as long as it isn’t too cold to wade or swim.
Schadenfreude LOL. Come on now. You hijacked this story from watching me fish, didn’t you? Sounds like one of my escapades, almost verbatim. Perched precariously on the wobbly rock out in the flow, looking like a drunk on on roller skates. Part of the rod in the dangling in the tree, the reel and butt sections speedily taking off downstream, line and tippet digging into my hand … Cause you can never, ever, tie another fly don’t ya know. Sheez. Only saving grace I’ve found is that so far I’ve been the only one around to observe such spastic antics.
LOl a drunk on roller skates.
It isn’t really relevant but your adventure made me think of Little Feat’s ‘Time Loves a Hero’; …something about admiring courageous ways. I’ve had those adventures, too. Maddening, aren’t they. My wife would tell you what she tells me when I relate these moments to her: “Look up the definition of a Pyrrhic victory, you’ll see your face alongside it.”
A great before sunrise belly laugh; with you not at you.
The fixation on rescuing a rig is such a tunnel vision moment.
Although I carry multiple pre-tied rigs, I will go to great lengths to salvage a hangup which is typically a nymph on the bottom of the stream. This scenario consists of aggressively probing the stream with my rod from various angles, wading a bit to deep, etc.
So, the actual hang up of the rig in the stream pales in comparison to my mental hang up about retrieving it.
Damn, a lost set up is not a character flaw, pop off, re tie and move on.
You can laugh at me if you want. Ha.
Its always a sycamore (and its large leaves) and over a deep section of water usually inaccessable. The situation is made worse by the inherent casting inaccuracy with the mono leader.
The nice trout like the deep, inaccessable holes and the overhanging branches provide additional security.
Hi Mike. I was with you there until the part about casting inaccuracy with the Mono Rig. I feel like I can actually be MORE accurate with the Mono Rig. I can place the nymphs exactly in the water I want, with the angle I choose.
For me, that control comes by thinking about the rod tip. It starts with a solid stop on the backcast, and a solid stop on the forward cast, feeling the rod tip and casting with it. The accuracy is in the rod tip, really.
I get what you’re saying about under limbs though, too. I usually do a sideways arc and come around at it from the side.
Oh my. I’d have to say I’ve been there many times in my 67 years. Thanks for the smile.
Domenick- for a second there I thought you were describing one of my outings…. Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you!
This is a laughing out loud read. Truly enjoyable. It speaks to a personality trait that I think we share; determination! My wife would rather call it just being stubborn.
“Too real” as the kids say these days. How many times I’ve done this and decided to “blow the hole” in order to avoid breaking off is truly embarrassing. It almost never saves time, so why?!
Ha. I don’t know either, man.
YESSSSS! I am not alone ha ha ha…. Confessions of a newbie…Fly in the lip recently…Thank god I crimped the barb!
Ha! Yeah, barbless helps for sure.
95% of the flies in my box are “guide flies” that i can tie in under 3 minutes, for me it makes it much psychologically easier to just break them off rather than try to rescue the rig…although i think something should be said for trying to “leave no trace” on a stream.
seriously the worst: when you spend 20 min trying to rescue flies/rig and either finally untangle (or end up tying on a new rig with dropper tippet added in as well, trying to tie triple surgeons in with freezing numb fingers) and then the VERY NEXT cast ends up right back in the branches
I think you make a very good point there, about leaving no trace. I’ve fished some guys who break off every single snag, whether it’s in a tree or under the water, because they don’t want to spook the fish and ruin the spot. I’m not really down with that. Imagine what the trees would look like if everyone did that. I don’t get preachy about it, but for me personally, I do my best to get my flies back if I can do it safely.
There’s a tree hanging over the inlet to a favorite Wyoming lake that looks like a Christmas tree with all of the flies and rigging dangling from it. I’m going to shimmy up that tree someday and pad my retirement account.
Not sure why it’s more aggravating to lose a rig and be able to see it hanging somewhere than to lose one completely in heavy brush or high branches. I almost went in reaching my arm shoulder-deep from a bank for a hopper I could see in the flow down below.
Good column. I always appreciate the mix of stories of triumph and frustration with the technical advice on your blog.
Thanks, man. I like to write a lot of different styles.
Hi Dom, I thoroughly enjoy your work here! Just a few quick thoughts. I (like others) have done the exact same maneuver EXCEPT I failed to employ the barbless hook version. A trip to the docs office and a terrific PA (whose father is a great fly guy) actually needed to cut the fly out of my thumb. Upon doing so she asked “do you want the fly back?” “Do I want the fly back”, I asked, “Of course I want the fly back, why do you think I came to see you?”
LOL. That’s a good punchline to a good story.
Yeah what’s is it about taking risks to rescue flies? I think when I’m alone the risks are crazier.
However I’ve enjoyed the bonus flies others have lost in the same branch numerous times. Sometimes some nicely tied flies.
Very relatable. And funny. Usually Happens as soon as another fisherman comes within view. I could have had 100 good casts and drifts, but this guy sees me struggling perched on a rock and losing fly boxes into the stream. He’s thinking “ what a dumb fu*k rookie”. Ha ha.
Thanks for sharing. If this hasn’t happened to you, you haven’t fished that much!!
Deja vu!!! Even down to the talking to oneself!
Logic simply won’t prevail…
It’s only a $2 fly, forget it’.
I could tie another fly on the amount of time I’ve spent trying to retrieve it. Forget it.
I’m wasting time that I should be fishing…. Nope, nope, and nope. I just keep trying.
Glad to hear I’m not the only one afflicted and it’s something ingrained in our genes.
I do wonder what law of physics causes the fly to get caught just 18 inches above the reach of your fly rod. It doesn’t matter if you’re fishing a 7’6”, a 9’ or 10’. It’s always is just, just out of reach!
Thanks for sharing! Have a great holiday.
Glad to hear even the experienced guys do this. I tried the inverted rod trick (after the net proved useless) on one of my first times out thinking I was pretty smart…. But then of course forgot the rod comes apart and had half of it floating down the stream in no time. I’ve also successfully broken off about 10lbs of waterlogged branch only to have it float in heavy water still attached to my 3wt knowing the rod would likely break before the hung leader…… So feel better now that a pro also does stupid stuff.
Great story. I have a tool that I use a lot, used it yesterday as a matter of fact to retrieve a couple of flies that I snagged into a tree branch. I use about 6 inches of coat hanger wire and coil the bottom 3 inches so that it wraps around the bottom tip of my wading stick. The top three inches of the wire I form into a hook. The hook allows me to pull branches down to where I can reach them. Obviously if you have a pull apart type wading stick, this won’t work. I have a stick that is closer to a normal walking stick and can handle the “pull apart” tension. I can pop it on and off of my wading stick in about 10 seconds. Wish I could send you a photo of it
Too funny. On the other hand a very wise angler taught me when I was a kid, that if you’re not getting snags you’re not fishing close enough. So I blame him constantly…
I too have been in riverbank mishaps so after many years of the frustration of the tangles I decided a chainsaw but the Game Officer said put it in the car so that didn’t work.Next try was about 10 yds of 20 pd test and a 6 oz. Weight witch I threw up and over the branch.Not the best idea I’ve ever had as the weight came over towards my head I said oh sh t well after the lump went down and I replaced my perscription glasses Ifigured that cost effectiveness dictates break the line.
Sure made me feel better! 🙂