Webster defines mending as “to repair something that is damaged or broken, restore, piece together, patch, cobble, rehabilitate, renew or renovate.”
In fly fishing it seems that we are always mending something; our waders, our tailing loop, our fly selection, our boat, our approach, our work schedule or a strained relationship with someone who misses us. Some of the things that need fixing have pretty simple solutions. A visit to the local fly shop or a bouquet of flowers is usually sufficient, not to mention some casting practice or a roll of duct tape.
How about repairing a bad drift? Most of the time, if the leader and fly are correct – and the fly is in the proper lane – a bad drift can be repaired by mending the line. In fact, mending is essential to getting the take in most cases. Now, let me qualify that by saying that in stream fishing, proper mending is critical to fooling fish. It is very rare that the currents in a river are non-dynamic, either laterally or vertically. In other words, the varying current speeds and surface hydraulics want to pull on the fly and disrupt your drift. A straight-line cast imparts drag on the fly almost immediately in my experience.
What is mending and how is it done? Mending is moving the fly line in such a way as to eliminate or minimize drag, or not, depending on the situation. Briefly, in most circumstances a “dragging” fly is not a positive in fish catching, but at times a moving or dragging fly can be necessary to imitate a live insect. Consider the caddis, when at times, is a very active bug during hatching or egg-laying. Or one of my favorites, the Yellow Sally, a small, yellow stonefly common to our local waters, is very busy during egg laying flights. Either way, obtaining the best drift is almost always achieved by mending the fly line and leader between angler and fly.
So the question remains, how do we mend and when? Let’s look at mending the fly line before it is on the water and call it “aerial mending”. To accomplish aerial mending, the rod tip is moved after the forward loop has been formed and is travelling towards the desired target. To aerial mend you simply reach to change the angle of the line before it lands. Remember, the fly rod is long and offers a considerable change in the fly line’s angle simply because of its length. Another method is to wiggle or shake the rod back and forth while the line is unfurling or settling towards the water’s surface to create a snaking effect in the line. Once on the water, this will provide slack in the line and should resemble a series of “S” curves, either many or as few as one. It should be noted that when the mend has made for slack in the fly line or leader, that slack line needs to be considered and compensated for if the fish does eat the fly. The compromise between creating slack, mending and controlling slack for hook setting is part of the overall equation that makes this game so interesting and challenging. Practicing aerial mending away from the water is a great way to get a handle on the technique without being overly distracted by the fish. Be sure to use a reasonable leader (not too long or thin) and a target fly to see how your mending is effecting not only the fly placement but how the leader is responding to the aerial mend. Once you have a good feel for this technique, aerial mending will seem like second nature. We do a lot of float fishing and aerial mending is almost always used to get a better drift. In overview, remember whatever the tip does during or after the cast will affect the line after it lands on the water.
Once the fly line and leader are on the water, mending continues to be one of your most potent weapons for catching fish. For conversation’s sake, let us just call this process “mending”. After the fly line is on the water, surface adhesion and tension clings to the line and leader making it tricky to change how the line is in the water without proper mending. Moving the tip without lifting the line out of the water first is ineffective and only pulls the line through the water, creating drag sooner than if you just left the cast alone. Any mending should be done after the line has been elevated above the surface to release it from the grasp of the water. The more line that needs to be mended, the higher the rod tip must be raised to move the line. Oftentimes, the line needs to be mended upstream of the target as so many fish feeding spots are in a seam where the water is slower than the water that the angler is standing in. In some cases, a downstream mend is necessary when the currents dictate. The varying water speeds between the angler and the fly determine the amount and direction of the mend needed to obtain a drag-free drift. Sometimes a series of mends should be deployed during the drift to maintain correct presentation. In each mending action, first lift the line smoothly off the water and swing or flick the line in the desired direction, and then control the slack. At times the caster needs to actually give some line during or after the mend to create the proper effect, or collect slack as is necessary. To add line to the drift I recommend lifting the rod tip and letting the surface tension pull the line out of the rod tip. An action similar to flipping a pancake is close. Not back and forth but up and down, unless a mend is combined with the lengthening of the line. If the angler is below the target, the line is coming towards them and needs to be gathered to control slack and stay in touch with the fly. When using a long drift to cover a long lane, the angler may start with an upstream cast and a series of upstream mends collecting slack as the fly travels towards the angler; as the fly passes by the angler and starts its downstream journey, fly line will need to be added with a series of lifts and mends. I will add that moving the fly slightly with the mend can bring a strike if the fly responds and appears to be fleeing or otherwise alive, like in hopper or ant fishing. While this sounds complicated and scary, after some practice it will all make sense.
Learning and practicing mending away from the water is worth considering, especially when catching fish is one of the main reasons to go fly fishing. A great way to start is to find some grass and tie on a fly with a fairly big hook. Strip out 30 feet of line and secure the fly hook in the grass. Standing at the 30-foot distance, lift the line and gently swing it back and forth above the grass to get a feel for how the weight of the line is used to mend. Experiment with larger and smaller mends as well as varying heights to learn how execute the desired mend. Try flipping the line back and forth with small mends in a series, rolling the line left and right. Pay attention to letting a bit of line out during mends to keep the leader on the grass, or mending the line all the way to the fly. Between mends it is a good idea to lower the rod as to not continually pull on the line thereby defeating the mending process.
Once you have a good feel for the mending action, try it on the water and pay attention to the way the line and fly respond to varying angles and length of line relative to the fly.
One important consideration for effective mending is the condition of the fly line, especially floating lines. I like to keep my line clean and use floatant to keep the line buoyant. I want my floating line on the water, not in it. The better a line floats, the easier it is to mend. Most fly lines today are designed to float well, but none of them float well when they are soiled. Any water you fish in has microscopic detrital matter that tends to cling to everything in the water, including fly lines and leaders. I also treat my leader with floatant, especially fluorocarbon as it tends to not float well. I do not treat the last part of the tippet as I want that very end section to not be pressing on the water surface creating an unnatural appearance that would alert the fish to something out of order. I keep some paper towels in my kit and use Albolene (a makeup remover) as floatant and cleaner by pulling the line and leader through the paper towel with Albolene applied to it. You will be surprised how well this works at keeping the fly line and leader clean and floating well. I suspect some blowback on this as I use a product that is not marketed or labeled as fly/fly line floatant. During the course of the day, I treat the line and leader when mending becomes more difficult. Another advantage to a clean line that floats well is that when picking up the line for a new cast it disturbs the water far less, and stealth is always to be considered.
As a fly shop owner and guide I have watched many novice anglers who cast and wait and cast and wait. No mending and very few fish. Learning to properly and effectively mend will greatly increase your success at fooling and catching fish. As far as ‘mending’ your old truck, you are on your own.
Big Hole River, 2016
David Decker owns and manages the Complete Fly Fisher in Wise River, Montana with his wife, Christine. A former commercial fly tier, David has guided for nearly 40 years. If it has to do with bugs, rods, or chasing fish of all descriptions – David is your man. Check out the Complete Fly Fisher: http://www.completeflyfisher.com/#
Photos, top to bottom: David Decker, fix.com, Matt Guymon.