I think it’s time again to talk about fly fishing knots. I don’t know why, but there seems to be a mystique about them. Fly fishers tend to make it more difficult than they need to. Perhaps it’s because of the variety of fly fishing knots available today. Whatever the case, my advice to you is just keep it simple. Here are my thoughts for a simple strategy for fly fishing knots.

Davy Knot | www.johnkreft.com

Today’s post will discuss the knots I use, the importance of tying a secure knot, and my simple system to extend the use of a tapered leader.

Most of today’s fly lines have loop connections built into them for easy attachment of leaders. And guess what? Leaders from most major brands include a perfection loop already tied in the butt, the end which attaches to the fly line. Just attach the leader by sliding the leader loop over the fly line and threading the small end of leader through the fly line loop. Pull the fly line and leader snug and you’re ready to fish.

Keeping it simple, you only need to learn a couple other knots – one to attach more tippet to the leader and another to tie on your fly.

Here’s the fly fishing knots I use on a regular basis:

I use these knots almost exclusively. I tie these a lot and am very confident they are tied correctly.

Here are two options to connect different size monofilament together – a surgeon or a blood knot.

I used to tie blood knots to build leaders or attach more tippet material to my leader. Most of the time, the knot worked just fine. A few years ago I started using a surgeon knot and I like it much better for two reasons. It is simple, quick to tie knot and has a much smaller profile.

Most of the time, I use a Davy knot to attach my fly. I’ve found tying it to larger flies like size 10 and larger I have problems with it slipping out. I tie the improved clinch knot for these larger flies.

Let’s discuss tying a secure knot and the importance to eliminate slippage.

Whenever a knot is tied and trimmed, a tag remains. If a knot isn’t “seated” properly, it will fail at the most inopportune time, when coming tight on something – namely hooking a fish. If the knot isn’t tight, or “seated”, the leader will slip through the wraps created when tying a knot. Not a good thing. Ever have a curly cue where your fly was tied on? That’s what I’m talking about.

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. Several years ago my wife and I decided to get into lake fly fishing. Back then, I tied all the knots…no need to do that anymore! She ties strong knots. Anyway, I’d heard that fluorocarbon leader and tippet were THE thing for lakes because it is nearly invisible to the fish. OK I thought, I need every advantage I can get! I’ll give it a try.

We didn’t need a full tapered leader, just a short one so I pulled out a couple of spools of tippet material and used my trusty blood knot to join them together. And we fished…and we hooked fish…and we lost fish. There was a curly cue at the end of the line, a telltale sign the knot slipped out. So I tied more blood knots, checking each knot carefully and lost more BIG fish. Did I mention I was tying knots for my wife…and she was losing BIG fish. I felt bad.

Well, that was when I learned about the surgeon knot. It’s easier to tie, doesn’t slip as bad and you know what? We landed those BIG fish. 

Do I use a blood knot anymore? Very seldom. I only use it when I decide to tie my own leaders. It’s a good knot for the thicker sections.

What do I use now? My knot of choice is a triple surgeon for tying on tippet to my leader. Triple surgeon vs double surgeon. I don’t have any data if an additional wrap works better, but it makes me feel better when I’m tying 5x to 6x. And it works!

When tying good, strong fly fishing knots, two key points that can’t be stressed enough:

  • moisten the knot
  • draw the knot tight

Why moisten a knot? Doing so will prevent the leader from overheating when the knot is pulled tight, which may cause it to weaken and fail.

As mentioned above, drawing the knot tight or “seating” the knot is very important. Slowly tighten the knot. You may not need to pull on both ends…just one end. Follow the directions for tying each knot.

I’ll use the improved clinch knot to highlight drawing the knot tight.

Don’t pull on the running line and tag. If you do, it will look like this:

Improved Clinch Knot|www.johnkreft.com

To tighten the improved clinch knot, hold onto the fly and pull on the running line. It begins to tighten and looks like this:

Improved Clinch Knot|www.johnkreft.com

But don’t stop there. Continue pulling on the running line. The finished improved clinch knot will look like:

Improved Clinch Knot|www.johnkreft.com

Remember, if the knot doesn’t “seat” properly, the tag end has a good chance of slipping out when the knot does tighten…like on a fish. Too late then!

I wonder what the fish sees with that knot. Sure looks clunky to me, but it’s really a size 16 Sparkle Dun and 6X leader.

As I mentioned above, I use a Davy knot most days. Here is what the knot looks like attached to the fly.

Davy Knot | www.johnkreft.com

Look back at the fly attached with an improved clinch knot. The Davy knot provides a much smaller profile.

Lastly, here is the system I use to make your fly fishing leader last longer.

The problem: you connect a standard 9′ leader to your fly line and go fishing. How many times do you change flies? If you’re lucky, you catch fish on the first fly tied on the line. That normally doesn’t happen to me!

Instead, I change flies trying to find the “magic” fly. Every time you change flies, the tippet length gets shorter. What do I mean?

Well, a standard out-of-the-package leader is tapered. It’s thicker at the fly line and tapers down in diameter so it’s smaller where the fly is tied on. It’s designed in that manner to “turn the fly over” and continue the job of the fly line. The last section of a tapered leader is called the tippet. Generally, it’s about 20″ long. What happens when you change flies? You reduce the tippet length. Change flies often and that 20″ tippet is gone. It’s time to replace the tippet or some people replace the whole leader.

Let’s take an example: I generally use a 6X tapered leader for the spring creek waters I fish. The “X” designates the tippet diameter (larger the number, smaller diameter). When I change flies, I cut off tippet material. Do that enough times and I don’t have any tippet remaining. I end up in the 5X or 4X section of my leader. And yes, I still tie my fly on and fish it. That’s not what I want to do. I decided earlier to use 6X and I’m now fishing with a 5X or 4X leader.

I could never determine where the taper changes. I needed a different solution.

Here’s what I did.

If my goal is to fish with 6X tippet, I’ll purchase a 9′ 5X tapered leader. Upon attaching it to my fly line, I’ll cut off 12″. Yup, that’s right. I’ve already cut my new leader off! Next, I cut a 3′ length of 6X tippet and attach it using a triple surgeon’s knot.

Why? I want to continue the leader taper to my fly and using 20″ (that’s the normal tippet length) is too long. If I add additional tippet material to the 20″, the fly won’t turn over properly. By cutting off 12″, my taper is reduced to 8″. That’s where I add the 3′ section of 6X. I now have a total leader length of around 11′.

Fish bigger water and don’t need that long of leader? Purchase a 7 1/2′ 3X leader and cut off 12″. Add a 2′ section of 4X tippet and you’re fishing with an 8 1/2′ leader.

Now I start fishing…and changing flies…and fishing…and changing flies. You get my drift. Every time I change flies, I get closer to the surgeon’s knot. I know EXACTLY where the taper changes. My practice is to wait until I get about 12″ from the knot and I cut off the tippet at the knot and start over. Attach another 3′ section of tippet.

With this method, I’ve don’t purchase near as many leaders as I used to. They last much longer. I hope your’s will as well.

Those are my thoughts about a simple strategy for fly fishing knots.

Settle on a few of your favorite fly fishing knots and become an expert tying those knots.

Enjoy…go fish!

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  1. John, I have had problems with the Davy knot slipping on thicker tippets. Went to the double Davy……problem solved !!


  2. John, good stuff on knots! 2 additional ideas for attaching tippet: loop to loop and tippet rings. Both will somewhat significantly increase the “disturbance” that the leader/tippet make on the water, so I’d go with your recommendations for places like the Metolius where stealth and presentation are so important. For larger flies, like the salmon flies or other big drys, the tippet ring will eliminate cutting back the main leader at all (you will lose some of the leader each time you add to the tippet section in your examples). A pre-looped section of tippet will make adding it even quicker on the stream – especially useful on these cold days!

  3. John.. do you think there is a reason to use a loop knot for attaching flies? Common thought is it adds some “life” to the fly….. I agree with all your other knots. Really like the Davy, especially on the smaller flies.

    1. Ron

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I use a non-slip loop knot for streamers to allow movement of the fly. It’s a good knot and one I highlighted in a post I wrote – Fishing Knots. Just use the SEARCH field with the word “knots” and you’ll be able to find it.


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