Fly Fishing Basics: How to Mend, Set the Hook, and Strip Line

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Great anglers can separate themselves from good anglers once their fly hits the water. Good anglers are able to choose the right gear, right location, and even correct casting point, but the work that happens once the fly hits the water is what makes the difference. 

Mending, hook setting, and stripping methods take time and effort to learn, but the more you practice, the better you’ll find yourself. 

It has taken me the better part of a decade of continuous mistakes to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Thankfully, it’s not possible to truly master fly fishing. The sport always throws something our way that makes us evaluate and change how we’re doing something. 

In this article, I will cover: 

  • What is mending and how do I do it? 
    • Overview of Mending 
    • Mending in Fast Water
    • Mending in Slow Water 
    • Standing in Slow Water and Fishing Fast Water
    • Standing in Fast Water and Fishing Slow Water 
    • Tips & Tricks
  • How do I properly set the hook?
    • Strip Set 
    • Pinch Set
  • How do I retrieve or strip my line?
    • Stripping and Retrieving a Large Fish
    • Stripping and Retrieving a Small Fish
    • Imitate The Fish
  • Final Thoughts

What Is Mending and How do I do it? 

Casting in the right area makes mending less work

If you ever take an introduction to fly fishing class as I did, you’ll hear the term mending thrown around all over the place. I never really understood the fly fishing definition until I made my way out onto the water with someone who was far more skilled than me. 

The literal definition of the word “mend” isn’t overly different from the fly fishing definition. In both definitions, you’re fixing something. In fly fishing, a mend is going to fix the position of your line to ensure that the fly is presented in the most accurate way. 

You’re fishing with insect imitations. These insects are living and have the capability of moving. Not only does mending provide some movement for the fly, but it also ensures that they’re drifting in the proper way.

Most insects are at the mercy of the water, so they can’t control all of their movements. This is called a “dead drift”. Anglers who fish smaller nymphs, streamers, and dry flies should strive to accomplish this with their flies. 

To accomplish it, you want to let your fly lead the way. As a result, you have to prevent your line from “taking charge”.

We’ll learn how to do this in the following sections. 

Mending in Fast Water 

Depending on where you’re fishing, you’ll likely find yourself fishing in water that’s moving fairly fast. You’ll find that as soon as you cast your line in this fast-moving water, your fly tears downstream or down river and it’s out of the strike zone as soon as you can blink. 

Don’t get discouraged when this happens. The first thing you’re going to want to do is to get as close to the “fishy” sections as you can. Obviously, don’t stand in the fishy areas, but closer proximity is going to make your life easier because you won’t have as much line in the water. 

A short cast upstream above the fishy section is going to give your fly time to get to where it needs to go. As soon as your fly line hits the water, you need to be prepared to mend. A good mend in fast water needs a couple of things. 

  • First, have the fly line in your hand as soon as it hits the water.
  • Second, start immediately stripping in slack because the fly is going to be close to you and you don’t want an excessive amount of fly line in the water creating drag.
  • Third, get ready to flip your wrist one way or the other depending on your fly line. 

Since you want your fly and leader to lead the charge downriver, a great signal to mend is if you see your fly line forming a big loop below the fly. If you see the loop leading downstream, pinch the fly line to your rod, strip in a bit of slack, and turn over your wrist so that it’s faced fully down. If you do this in a fast enough motion, you’ll see that loop lift up and out of the water and go above instead of below your fly. The motion is similar to you making a small cast. 

This action needs to happen fairly quickly. In fast water, you don’t have much time to work with. Often, you’ll have to make multiple mends in one drift, especially in fast water. 

Mending in Slow Water

Learning to mend in slow water at first is the easiest way to become an expert

If you’re new to the skill of mending, I would suggest learning how to do it while you’re fishing slow water. You have more time to make decisions and can truly learn how water moves. Learning how water flows is a skill that’s imperative to fly fishing.

In slow water, a good mend follows the same principles as a fast water mend. Cast upstream, keep a hold of the fly line, and start stripping in slack as it drifts towards you. However, in slow water, you have time to evaluate your fly line and leader. Depending on the size of your fly, it’ll naturally lead the way downstream. However, since the fly line is a bit heavier than the leader, it’ll still lead the charge. 

Be prepared to lift and turn over your wrist. This is going to get your fly line out of the way and put that loop back upstream where it belongs.

In slow water, you can keep your rod tip a bit higher to keep more fly line out of the water. This method is called high sticking. It helps minimize any issues that low sticking causes. You’ll still follow your fly downstream with your rod tip.

Standing in Slow Water and Fishing in Fast Water 

Anglers often find themselves standing in slow water, but fishing fast water. This situation can sometimes make an angler’s life easier, but it can require a bit more advanced movement.

As soon as you make your first cast up and across the river, you’ll likely see your fly take off downstream in the fast water. After a few seconds, you’ll start seeing the fly swing across the water towards you. 

This swing is caused by your fly line getting hung up in the slow water and pulling the fly back towards you. While swing fishing is a good idea, you don’t always want to do it this way.

To prevent that unnatural swing, you want to make your cast into the fast water and get as much fly line out of the water as possible.

Cast, strip in line, and lift your rod tip high. If you still have any excess fly line, you’ll likely have to mend downstream to help your fly line keep pace with your fly and leader. You want everything floating in as straight of a line as possible. 

Standing in Fast Water and Fishing Slow Water 

Perhaps the most common situation anglers find is when they’re standing in fast water and fishing slow water. This slow water can be a seam, eddie, pool, or cut bank. Remember, Slow water holds fish! 

When you cast into slow water, but you’re standing in fast water, you’ll find that your fly line is being swept downriver faster than your fly and leader.

To prevent this from happening, you’re going to have to mend upstream quite a few times. These are going to have to be smaller mends because you don’t want to pull your fly out of its drift position. Short flicks of your wrist are going to keep things in check. 

Mending Tips & Tricks 

  1. Plan Ahead – With mending, you want to anticipate the movements you’re going to have to make. It is very important to plan ahead with your mends so you’re already making them before the drag and unnatural drifts start happening! 
  2. Do Not Wait – Mend as soon as the fly line touches down.
  3. Keep Rod Tip High – Lift your rod tip up high, during your mend.
  4. Be Positive – Be firm and quick with the mend.
  5. Starting – Always lower the rod tip at the beginning of the mend.
  6. Double Mend – If required repeat the motion immediately after the first mend.

Lastly, always put the fly where you want it to be in the water, a poor cast can result in multiple mending and having less time to concentrate watching the fly!

How Do I Properly Set the Hook on a Fly Rod?

Setting the hook using one hand on the rod and the other on the line

Properly setting the hook on a fly rod can take time to learn. For those anglers who came from spin fishing, it’s weird. Your instinctual movement isn’t the wrong motion, but you need to add a couple of things to it.

There are two common methods for setting the hook in fly fishing. 

What Is A Strip Set?

If you’re targeting larger fish that need some more force to help set the hook, a strip set will do the trick. However, before you even set the hook, you need to be ready to set the hook. 

First, In order to be ready to set the hook, you must have the fly line pinched to the cork of your fly rod with your pointer finger. This is going to help in the process of pinning the fish.

Secondly, you need to make sure you don’t have a ton of extra slack in the line before you set your hook. If you have slack and do a strip set, you might not even make the line tight by the time the fish takes it. 

If you have these two things done, you’re ready. Now, once a fish takes your fly, don’t give up on the instinct to lift up the rod. This motion is still good. If it’s a larger fish, you’ll maybe feel it pull the line that is pinned between your finger and the cork of the rod. 

As you’re lifting the rod and pulling it back, you want to use your non-casting hand to quickly pull on the fly line. Keep that line pinned between your finger and the cork handle of your rod, but that one strong pull is going to pin the fish and ensure it’s hooked. This method is also great if you have a bit too much slack out of your line! 

What Is A Pinch Set? 

Now, the easier hook set is the pinch set. The pinch set is really only going to work if you don’t have any excess slack. The pinch is the fly line that is pinned between the cork of the rod and your pointer finger. If you’re fishing for trout, grayling, or other smaller fish, they won’t be able to yank the line out from your finger. 

When you feel or see a fish hit your line, quickly lift the rod up and back like you would a traditional fishing rod. By keeping the line pinched, you’ll set the hook in the mouth of the fish and be ready to fight. 

How do I Retrieve or Strip Line? 

Stripping the line is key for retrieving the fish

Line retrieval in fly fishing is a bit cumbersome at first, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Stripping/retrieval happens at a variety of times throughout the fishing process. 

Stripping/Retrieving a Small Fish

Once you’ve set the hook on the fish, now is the time to get it to your net. 

Depending on the size of the fish, you may not even have to use your reel. You only have to use your non-casting hand. Keep the line pinned to the rod with your casting hand and use that opposite hand to pull in the line. You’ll have a line pile by your feet, but doing this allows you to not have to reel in any slack before you begin fighting the fish on your reel. 

Stripping/Retrieving a Large Fish

If you’ve hooked into a salmon or steelhead, you’ll likely want to fight it on your reel. To do this, you’ll have to keep the fish pinned with your casting hand while you’re reeling in any excess slack with your non-casting hand. Once all the slackline is retrieved, you can start fighting the fish like you would on a normal rod. Make sure your drag is set! 

Stripping/Retrieving Your Flies 

If you’re fishing streamers or even dry flies, you’re going to be doing some stripping to imitate a baitfish or other form of prey. To do this, you can use a variety of methods. 

Firstly, you should try standard 6 to 12 inch strips. This may be enough to entice the fish. 

Secondly, sometimes, you may have to do short and hard 2 or 3 inch strips. 

Thirdly, you may have to do large 2 foot strips depending on the fish and where you’re fishing! 

These fly retrieval methods are all trial and error. It’s up to you to find out through experience, you will quickly understand what you are doing right and or wrong when you start catching more fish or start losing fish or missing bites. 

Final Thoughts

Mending the line, setting the hook, and stripping the line are very important techniques for fly fishing. The only way to master these techniques is through getting out on the water and practicing.

I hope this article has given you the basics of how these processes work and when is the right time to use them.

You can read more on all the fly fishing basics here! If you are looking to understand the basics of fly fishing casting, then check out my detailed article here!

Daniel Mooers