Voices from the River: Tangled up in blue

By Randy Scholfield, TU communications director for the Southwest.  Is there anything worse than tangles? They happen so suddenly, and advance so diabolically, just when things seem to be going so right with our fishing day.

An all-too-common scenario: I come upon an inviting stretch of water, with a sudden rise or hatch breaking out all around me, and in my feverish haste to cast, I lurch the line back and forth and—in a microsecond!—my carefully crafted rig is reduced to a satanic web of entanglements that mock my visions of fly-fishing simplicity.

What too often follows, if I am alone, is a slow-building but unstoppable and obscenity-laced howl of rage and despair that issues from deep within my soul and carries far across the landscape with a force that I’m sure has unnerved nearby anglers and perhaps stampeded large ungulates.

Of course, my own foolish haste is to blame for many, if not most, of these technical and emotional breakdowns. Yes, it takes two to tangle.

The tangle is there to humble us and remind us that we’re fallible, hopeless creatures, filled with pride and all of those other deadly sins.

They remind us, too, of the primacy of patience in fishing.

The tangle is most often the result of an overpowered, rushed and graceless cast.

And the odds of Tanglepocalpyse increase in direct proportion to the number of flies you greedily string on your rig. I have spent long minutes slowly and painstakingly constructing a two- or (madness) three-fly rig, carefully trimming and testing all the knots, gazing lovingly upon my creation—only to snag it on an unseen overhead branch on the first cast and have it delivered back into my hand looking like a giant condor’s nest.

After the wave of self-loathing and disgust washes over me, there follows the requisite stage of forced calm and problem-solving.  Yes, you can do this. It’s not as bad as it looks, right? I begin unwrapping line, focused like a safecracker, waiting for just the right combination of moves to unlock the crazy mashup of hitches, bowlines, slippery eights and stemwinder wraps.

Usually, I make it worse.

I once asked a guide if there were some tricks or shortcuts he’d picked up to untangling leaders and rigs. He smiled grimly and said, “It’s just a matter of practice. After working with hundreds of them, you just get better at it. One thing—don’t keep moving your rod if a tangle has started—that just makes things worse.”

It’s like if you step on a landmine. Stop. Don’t move and you’ll be OK, at least until you move again.

I’ve found it sometimes helps if I cut off the trailing fly on a rig – this sometime gives the needed advantage to pull line through and make sense of things.

So how to avoid these messes in the first place?  As someone more skilled in tangling line than untangling it, I am probably not the person to consult.

But a few things have become clear to me: Slow down and don’t overpower or rush your cast and avoid tight loops with multi-fly rigs. Not prudent. Take your time and watch what you’re doing.

Sure, some tangles are unavoidable. Chaos, after all, is an immutable law of nature, hardwired into the structure of the cosmos.

Just remember there is always the nuclear nipper option. Give the tangle a few minutes, and if it doesn’t look good, for God’s sake give up and cut away and re-rig. Our fishing life is too short to be spent working on tangles.