You Better Knot Miss This: 9 Essential Fly Fishing Knots

Before you head out onto the water, learn all about essential knots with this explainer from fly fishing expert Jesi Scott!

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You might knot believe me, but if you can’t tie a couple of essential knots on your own, then you probably aren’t going to get too far in the sport of fly fishing. There are heaps of knots for you to choose from, but in this article, I am going to give you the lowdown on the ones that I think you need to know to get on the water. I selected these knots because they are reliable, relatively easy to learn, and get the job done. We’ll save the party tricks for another day!

If we work from the reel to the fly, you will have at least five connection points that your knots are responsible for, so mastering these knots is a crucial element to becoming a successful angler.

A woman in a hat and sweatshirt wets fly fishing line with saliva prior to tying a knot
Wetting the line with saliva prior to tightening. Photo by Adam Shick

Reel to Backing: Arbor Knot

The function of the Arbor Knot is to connect your backing to the arbor of your reel. This connection is super important - especially when you hook into that big Bull Trout that takes you into your backing. However, this isn’t something you’ll be doing regularly. Doing it correctly initially is vital but memorizing it and practicing it isn’t as crucial.

How

  • Wrap your line around the arbor of the spool with the tag end of the line. Then tie a simple overhand knot around the standing part with the tag end.
  • Tie a second overhand knot in the tag end just an inch or two from the first overhand knot.
  • Pull the standing part of the line to slide the first overhand knot down to the spool and the second knot to jam against the first. Closely trim the tag end.
  • Arbor Knot Animation - Orvis
  • Arbor Knot Animation - Animated Knots

Backing to Fly Line: Albright Knot

The Albright Knot is a reliable option when you need to connect two lines that are of different diameter or different materials, and is really great for attaching your fly line to your backing. This knot may also be used to connect the leader to the fly line when there is no a loop-to-loop connection.

How

  • Hold the end of the fly line in your left hand and fold it over, forming a loop with about six inches of tag.
  • Using your right hand, pass the butt of the leader through the loop and bring eight to 10 inches of material through the loop. Pinch the tag end of the leader butt along with both “legs” of the line loop between your left thumb and forefinger.
  • Double the leader butt back and use your right hand to wrap it over itself and the line loop eight to 10 times, traveling toward the end of the loop you made in the line.
  • Pass the tag end of the leader butt through the loop, making sure it exits the loop on the same side that it originally entered.
  • Wet the knot and slowly draw it tight by evenly pulling from all four ends. You may need to use your fingers to carefully “tease” the leader wraps into position and keep them from overlapping as the knot draws closed. Closely trim the tag end.
  • Albright Knot Animation - Orvis
  • Albright Knot Animation - Animated Knots
A man fly fishes in a river
Photo by Taylor Grote

Fly Line to Leader: Albright Knot / Nail Knot / Loop-to-Loop / Perfection Loop

With all of these connection points, there are multiple options for which knots to use, and the fly line to leader connection is no exception. Which knot you choose to use will ultimately come down to what kind of angler you are and what preferences you develop. I am going to share a few of the most common ways to connect your fly line to your leader - and one of them isn’t even a knot! I know, I know - this article is about knots, but I promise, this counts.

Albright Knot

See, I told you that you need to learn this one because, really, you can use it in almost any situation. This knot has a slim profile like the Nail Knot so it will easily move through the guides, yet it has the strength of the Loop-to-loop. However, this knot is a little more challenging compared to the following two options and makes for a more difficult leader change, especially on the water. Also, be aware that each time you change it, you will nip away at your fly line. Please see the “how-to” above.

Nail Knot

The Nail Knot is commonly used to connect the fly line to the leader because it is not as easily detectable by fish as other knots. It is fairly easy to learn and it utilizes friction to hold the leader to the fly line. Some folks encourage using a tool when tying a Nail Knot, but I think a twig will do. Calling all Euro nymphers… The main draw to this knot is that it is the easiest option to get the leader connection through your guides. However, while the knot itself is pretty solid, the use of friction I mentioned above, can strip the coating off the line, causing the line to break.

How

  • Lay a nail or hollow tube against the end of the fly line. (Let’s be real though - unless you have a tool, you are probably going to be using a twig when you are out on the water.) Set the butt section end of a leader against the line and tube. Leave an extra 10 to 12 inches of the tag end to tie the knot.
  • Working left to right, wrap the leader around the line and tube six to eight times, making sure the wraps are close together. Pass the tag end through the tube or the space made by the nail or tool (or twig!) and then remove the object.
  • Wet the knot and pull the tag end to snug up the coils to seat the knot firmly to the fly line. Then closely trim the tag ends.
  • Nail Knot Animation - Orvis
  • Nail Knot Animation - Animated Knots

Loop-to-Loop

A Loop-to-loop connection is also a common choice in this situation.These days a lot of products come with factory welded loops for your convenience, so you can easily join your fly line and leader. Please note that this is not technically a knot, but it is still necessary to execute this connection point if working with those pre-made welded loops. The loop-to-loop makes it super easy to change out leaders and is a super strong connection. However, the Loop-to-loop tends to have issues getting smoothly through the guides. Some folks don’t trust the factory loops or need to make their own so they can sleep soundly at night. For more on that, see the section on the Perfection Loop below.

How

  • Pass the loop on the line through the loop on the leader.
  • Pass the end of the leader through the loop on the end of the fly line.
  • Pull the line and the leader away from each other, until the loops slide together to form what looks like a square knot. You may have to help the knots pass through the loops with your fingers.
  • Loop-to-loop Animation - Orvis

Perfection Loop

There will be times when you will need to make your own loop-to-loop connection. For example, when the convenience of those pre-welded factory loops isn’t available, or if they’ve broken. Or maybe, you just don’t trust them. Times like this call for the Perfection Loop.

How

  • Form a single loop by bringing the tag end behind the standing part of the leader. The tag end should be pointing to the right, at a right angle to the standing line.
  • Form a second, smaller loop in front of the first one by rolling the tag end around the front of the first loop, then behind it. Push the second loop flat against the first with your thumb, making sure the tag end is back on the right side, pointing at a right angle away from the standing part.
  • Take the tag end and fold it to the opposite side, passing it between the two loops. It should end up on the left, still pointing at a right angle to the standing part of the line. Push the tag end to the bottom of the point where the two loops overlap, and pinch it in place with your thumbs.
  • Reach behind the first loop and pull the second smaller loop through it. Make sure the tag end stays put on the left at a right angle to the standing part. Tighten the knot by pulling the second loop straight in line with the standing part of the leader. Do not hold the tag end or put pressure on it.
  • Tighten the knot fully and inspect it. The tag end should still be pointing at a right angle to the standing part of the leader and the loop itself should be in line with the standing part. If not, cut the knot and try again. Trim the tag end when you are satisfied the knot is tied properly.
  • Perfection Loop Animation - Animated Knots
  • Perfection Loop Animation - Orvis

Leader to Tippet: Surgeon’s Knot / Blood Knot

Let’s clear something up real quickly here - a very common question people ask is if they need to attach tippet to their new leader. Yes. 100% yes. Leader is more expensive than tippet so if anything, do it so you save some money so you aren’t constantly cutting down your leader.

Tippet is extremely versatile. If you break off your rig,you will need to add more tippet. If you need a little extra reach for a long distance cast, you could add more tippet. If you need to switch to a smaller size tippet to perfect that dry fly presentation, you might want to change your tippet. When you learn to fish, it almost feels like you are doing this more than fishing - which is likely the reality. Feeling confident and unbothered by changing your tippet will give you more opportunities to utilize it to bring you more success on the water.

Hands wearing a turquoise ring tie a double surgeon's knot
Double Surgeon's Knot. Photo by Adam Shick

Surgeon’s Knot AKA Double Surgeon’s Knot

The Surgeon’s Knot is a tried and true knot that you should definitely take some time to learn. This knot is really reliable when tying joining lines with different diameters. Picture walking up with a nymph rig to be greeted with a hatch going off and risers everywhere. With your heart about to jump out of your chest, you better be able to calmly yet efficiently change that tippet and fly to a dry fly setup, even with every slap on the water testing your focus, patience, and control. Practice at home - it’s worth it, I promise.

How

  • Hold the end of your leader in one hand and the tippet you are attaching in the other hand. In each hand, you should have about four to six inches of free tag material to work with. Arrange the tags so they overlap, are lying alongside one another, and are facing in opposite directions.
  • Find the center of the overlap and form a big loop in the overlapping portion, pinching the junction where the loop crosses between your left thumb and forefinger.
  • Using your right hand, wrap the tag end of the leader and the end of the tippet around the loop and pull it through. Repeat this step once more so that you have made a total of two wraps through the loop.
  • Hold both the short and long portions on both sides of the knot. Wet with saliva and tighten by pulling with both hands in opposite directions. Trim the two tag ends close to the knot.
  • Double Surgeon's Knot Animation - Orvis
  • Surgeon's Knot Animation - Orvis
  • Surgeon's Knot Animation - Animated Knots

Blood Knot

This knot is usually my second choice when connecting leader and tippet, but it’s still a solid option. The Blood Knot is reliable when joining two lines of similar size, but it’s a little more complicated than a Surgeon’s Knot and doesn’t work as well with different-sized lines.

How

  • Cross the two strands of monofilament, forming an X, leaving five to six inches of tag end on each side.
  • Cradling the standing end of each strand in the last two fingers of each hand, start by winding the tag end of one strand around the standing part of the other strand, working away from the X. Use your thumb and forefinger to make these turns. Keep the loop formed at the X open by pinching it with the thumb and forefinger of the hand you are not using to wind.
  • Use three turns on each side with monofilament bigger than 0.17" in diameter. With material from 0.15" to 0.10", use five turns; and for material 0.009" and smaller, use seven turns. Pass the end you have just been winding through the loop at the X.
  • Pinch the loop with the thumb and forefinger you have just been using to wind. Repeat the winding process on the other side with the same number of turns. Pass the second tag end back through the same loop as the first tag end in the opposite direction.
  • Make sure that the tag ends stick out from the loop enough so that they don't slip out when you tighten the knot. Don't pull on these tag ends when tightening the knot. Moisten the knot and pull on both standing parts quickly. The barrels on both sides of the knot should form neat coils; if not, cut the strands and start over. Trim the tag ends close to the knot.
  • Blood Knot Animation - Orvis
  • Blood Knot Animation - Animated Knots

Tippet to Fly: Improved Clinch Knot / Non-Slip Loop Knot

This is likely going to be the connection that you are making the most. You’ll do it over and over and over again.

Improved Clinch Knot

The improved clinch knot is tried and true to be a reliable knot to connect the fly to your tippet. This is arguably the most important knot in your arsenal because it is really strong and really simple to tie.

How

  • Hold the hook in your left hand and pass the tippet through the eye of the hook; double the tag end back so it lies parallel to the standing line. Use your left forefinger to keep an open loop just in front of the hook eye and hold the standing line in your right hand.
  • Use the thumb and forefinger of your right hand to wind the tag end around the standing line four to five times.
  • Once the tag is twisted around the standing portion, remove your forefinger from the hook eye, taking care to keep an open loop. Pass the tag end of the tippet through the open loop in front of the hook eye.
  • This is the most important part. Snug the knot by pulling gently on the tag end until the wraps come together, but do not tighten it all the way. Release the tag, wet the knot with saliva, and pull from the standing portion of the leader to allow the knot to fully tighten. Trim the tag close to the hook eye.
  • Improved Clinch Knot Animation - Orvis
  • Improved Clinch Knot Animation - Animated Knots
A woman ties an improved clinch knot with a fly fishing fly on the line
Improved Clinch Knot. Photo by Adam Shick

Non-Slip Loop Knot

This knot is utilized mostly when you are stripping flies like streamers or poppers as it allows for the flies to move more naturally in the water. It creates a very strong fixed loop in the end of your line. This knot is for the times when you really just want to let your flies feel liberated and free.

How

  • Make an overhand knot in the tippet a few inches from the end, but do not tighten it all the way.
  • Pass the tag end of the tippet through the eye of the hook, then double it back and pass it through the overhand knot.
  • Wrap the tag end around the standing line four to five times and then bring it back around and through the overhand knot, passing through the center of the knot.
  • Wet the knot with saliva and pull slowly from the tag end to tighten the knot, then pull from the loop and standing ends to make sure the knot is seated. Trim the tag short and go fish.
  • Non-Slip Knot Animation - Orvis
  • Non-Slop Knot Animation - Animated Knots

Fly to Fly to Fly

Are you ready for a tandem rig? Perhaps you are busting out the classic hopper-dropper or maybe you want to get down and dirty with a double nymph rig, or you just want to show off for your friends. No matter the motive, once your fishing progresses, you will likely want a couple of flies on your line. There are two primary ways to attach a second fly to the point fly (or the first fly you tied on), and that is to use a clinch knot to attach a second piece of tippet (usually one to two feet) either to the eye of the first fly or to the bend of the first fly. Then, using another clinch knot, you will attach your second fly to the other end of the tippet. When in doubt - clinch it out!

Final Thoughts

Two common questions we receive about fly tying knots are: What’s the fastest knot? And What’s the strongest knot? These aren’t straightforward answers because there are many kinds of knots and different connection points. The “strongest” knot to connect your fly to your tippet isn’t going to be the “strongest” knot for connecting your line to your backing. As for speed - of course there are more simple and more challenging knots - but this is going to come down to your proficiency in the knots you are choosing to learn and implement.

We sometimes get asked about knot tying tools and this I feel is a personal preference. I personally don’t use any knot tying tools, and I get by just fine. Get back to me when my hands are frozen chasing winter Steelhead or when I am an old lady and can’t see! But for now, I can manage without. I encourage you to try to learn the knots without depending on a tool, so that you are less reliant on things out on the water. However, if you are interested in learning more about how to use them and the options out there,hit me or one of the other fly fishing experts up - we would be happy to find a tool that would be a good fit for you.

A woman wearing grey waders holds out a rainbow trout
The author showing off a rainbow trout. Photo by Adam Shick

I can’t stress how important it is to always test your knots before you start fishing. You could have the strongest tippet ever but will still break off a fish if your knots weren’t tied correctly. This is usually a lesson that only takes one lost fish to learn, but it’s good practice to always give them a solid tug to make sure they’re snug.

There are a lot of elements to fly fishing, especially if you are new to the sport, and I hope that I have managed to make it clear just how important these knots are to the success of your angling experience. I encourage you to practice them as well as look at other knots that I haven’t suggested. Your ability to confidently and quickly change setups on the water will greatly enhance your experience fly fishing.

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Written By
I used to hate summer until I got into fly fishing. The sport has changed my relationship with natural water, bugs and fish on levels that I never could imagine. I love fly fishing because I am able to be competitive with the fellas and it is an even playing field. I also think that fly fishing is s...

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