The Pulley Retrieve (with VIDEO)

by | Dec 19, 2021 | 7 comments

** NOTE ** A video for the Pulley Retrieve appears below.

Recover more line, and recover it smoother. Why not, right? Sounds good.

Last week my friend, Mark, stood calf-deep and fifteen feet off the bank, at the back end of the tailout. Early winter flows were running average, so it was a little low all-around. The water was clear. The trout were spooky, but they remained most active in the shallower sections of the river, not having yet shed their spawning habit to hold in the skinnier stuff. So with the last few trout coming from the edges and the tails, Mark and I had our target zone for the morning.

While tight lining a single nymph with a Mono Rig, the casting range lengthened by five to ten feet in this kind of water, and a fly-first entry with near-perfect position on the sighter from the beginning was the only way to achieve convincing drifts on the long leader.

I stood to the side, on an elevated riverbank, leaning against a leafless sycamore and peering into the pockets, watching one drift after the next and seeing the effects of Mark’s good, better and best casts. Watching the entrance and path of the small and bright orange egg pattern was easy. Half the time, the egg landed with contact, and it dragged immediately downstream a few feet before settling below the midcurrent. Those were the times when Mark landed with contact instead of arcing the fly in with a tuck cast — we were working on it. And when Mark did land a nice tuck, he sometimes struggled to gain control over the position of the sighter. Twice, in the short span of a few minutes, I saw trout flash at the egg while Mark never sensed the strike.

I knew that all of that could be cleaned up by trimming the sighter after entry. So I walked down the bank to show Mark the Pulley Retrieve.

What’s That?

What I call the Pulley Retrieve is a smooth and efficient method of recovering line. It’s useful for both fly line tactics and with a Mono Rig in hand. It’s an ingrained habit for me, and I use it every day that I’m on the water.

The Video

Josh Darling from Wilds Media produced a wonderful piece here to show the Pulley Retrieve.

This is our first film in a series of quick tips, where I’ll show some of my favorite tips and ticks in bite-sized videos of about five minutes or less.

After the video, scroll below for more written details on the Pulley Retrieve.

(Please choose HD quality in the player below.)

Ways To Recover Slack

There are two main methods to recover slack or retrieve line: with the rod tip (by lifting or leading), and by using the line hand.

READ: Troutbitten | Two Ways to Recover Slack

Undoubtedly, the most common line hand retrieve is stripping. Short strips can be just a few inches, while big strips can be as long as the angler’s arm can reach — about three to four feet at most.

Less common is the hand twist. And most anglers eventually learn the slow, steady advantage of what is also called a figure eight retrieve.

(All of these styles are shown in the video above.)

The Hand Twist Retrieve. (Photo by Josh Darling)

The combination of these retrieves with both the rod tip and the line hand will get the job done. But there’s a third, overlooked, method for line recovery with some unique advantages and possibilities . . .

The Pulley Retrieve

In the video above, notice how the line slides around the thumb. The line is anchored to the reel and the slack is pulled under the trigger finger, coming through the rod guides. As the hand moves outward, more line is brought in, and it slides around the thumb. (See why I needed a video to demonstrate this?)

What’s the big deal? Why is this a unique retrieve?

Couple things:

First, imagine a line that’s tight, from the reel to the first rod guide. Now try to make your first strip with the line hand. There’s no way you can get a three-foot first strip because the tight angle to the reel prevents it. That first strip then, is always short, by necessity.

Second, the pulley retrieve allows for longer strips. So, instead of a maximum distance that is limited by the angler’s arm reach, that distance is doubled. Try a full strip compared to a long pulley retrieve, and you’ll see what I mean.

Photo by Josh Darling

When? Where?

Many years ago, I looked down to my line hand to see the Pulley Retrieve happening without thinking about it. Years later, I put a name to it. And in the same way that I accidentally learned to double-haul, I happened upon the Pulley Retrieve. Like most anglers, I’ve found such things with extra time on the water and some curiosity.

I use the Pulley Retrieve all the time. It’s an integrated part of my line recovery and not a specialized technique. I mix it in with all the other ways to recover slack, with a fly line or with a long leader system.

The only legitimate downside of a Mono Rig is the trouble with the hand twist retrieve. Forming small coils in monofilament is not a good way to keep the line flat and sailing through the guides. So I never recommend the figure eight with a Mono Rig. What to do instead? The Pulley Retrieve.

When I showed it to Mark, last week, he quickly worked the Pulley Retrieve into his line maintenance skills. It’s the perfect way to smoothly recover slack and trim the sighter into position after the cast. It’s also a great way to recover line through the drift, with any leader system and keep a smooth, balanced ride all the way through.

Give it a try.

Fish hard, friends.


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** Read more about winter fly fishing here **


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. Beautiful and informative! I’ll try it!

  2. Great tip. Thanks. On an unrelated note, what do you use as a tippet holder?

  3. Excellent instruction, Dom. Is that you on guitar?

  4. Hi Dom. I use the mono rig almost exclusively (learned from you). I morphed into the pulley retrieve combined with raising the rod tip. I would love to see a video of you/someone, using this system as I know of no-one here using this system and have no reference. Kind regards, Dave.

    • Dave,
      My story parallels yours. I sort of stumbled into this retrieve accidentally as a way to recover more slack than can be taken up just by elevating or leading with the rod tip. I find it really useful when you throw at more distance upstream with a mono-rig and nymphs to take up that extra slack before I start to lead the rig. This is especially useful for me when I want to allow the nymphs some time to sink before I start to lead them but still want to be in contact with them. You have to make sure you have the drag set right on the reel though so that your thumb doesn’t pull line off the reel instead of through the guides.

      As a science teacher, I really like Dom’s name for this technique!

  5. What he said

  6. Ha! This is the way I retrieve 90% of the time. I just started doing in naturally. I call it “drawing the bow”.


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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