Mending the Distance.

Article by: Fred Steynberg

Often while fly fishing upstream with a nymph, drag sets in, causing fish (especially the larger and wiser ones) to refuse the imitation.  This refusal is normally due to the unnatural action or movement of the fly, caused by the imitation drifting at a different speed from that of the current, hence the term “drag”.  I have heard some fly fishermen say that drag is of little importance, and that fish are caught irrespective of the drag factor.  Certainly this can and will happen, especially where there are large numbers of fish, e.g. in the Vaal River, where competition caused by fish density may induce the odd fish to feed even when faced with a dragging imitation.   But other factors also conspire which could make a fly drift drag-free of its own accord, although the angler perceives it to be dragging.  In some stretches of the Vaal River, large rock and structures can cause currents to flow at varying speeds and at different levels in the water column, causing floating lines or strike indicators to appear to be dragging the nymph below when, because of all the conflicting currents, the nymph may actually be drifting drag-free, albeit for only a few seconds – this notwithstanding that the fly line and/or strike indicator are signaling drag.  The next moment – bang, fish on and who could blame the upstream nymphing angler for thinking that fish don’t mind drag?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The events described above will be the exception, not he rule – less drag will mean more fish, period.

It is sometimes difficult for the tyro to grasp the concept of a drag-free drift because, they are used to retrieving flies in still waters or when fishing downstream on rivers.  Upstream nymphing is an exciting way to fish for both yellowfish and trout and, if done correctly, will be far more productive than most other techniques.  Over many years of guiding, I have observed even experienced fly fishermen battle with drag - even though they may not know (or acknowledge) it. 

A very important tool in preventing drag is “mending” the (floating) line away from problem currants.  However, if the technique of mending is misunderstood or not executed correctly, it can aggravate the situation even further.  Basic mending is performed when the line is moved via a lifting and rolling action of the rod tip. Anglers often use only the rod hand to accomplish this action and this can result in an incorrect or insufficient amount of line being repositioned on the water, and will only suffice to combat drag for a short period of the drift. The problem is accentuated when an exaggerated mend needs to be made all the way to the strike indicator and that is when the ability to perform a “distance mend” can make all the difference.

The distance mending technique is best executed by using both hands.  As the casting hand starts to lift to begin the mend, the non-casting hand holding the line should be moved away from the casting hand.  This movement removes excess slack line off the water surface, places more tension on the line and at the same time creates line speed.  It is very important to move the casting hand in a forward motion away from the body to assist the process of picking up the line from the water before the mend is completed.  This should enable the angler to mend the line all the way to the leader/strike indicator if necessary.  Normally, if the non-casting hand is stationary during a mending process, it will result in a mend of insufficient length.

For the whole mending process to function optimally, it is important that the floating line and part of the leader, all the way to the strike indicator, are afloat.  If they are not, and an extend mend is called for, this will be ineffective.  I often find that in turbulent waters, lines tend to sink, affecting the mend because the tip of the (sunken) floating line and leader up to the strike indicator cannot be lifted.  A quick fix is to apply silicon (dry fly floatant) the tip of the fly line (last 4 or 5 ft), as well as the thicker section of the leader all the way to the strike indicator.  Simply squeezing a little dry fly floatant between thumb and forefinger and run the line through it a couple of times.  The silicon eventually washes off, but may be re-applied if required.  Off-stream I try to clean and treat my floating line as often as possible to prevent the tip from sinking while fishing.  However, strong intermingling or turbulent currents can still force a well-treated line below the surface. If this happens, it may be a good option to shorten the cast or to use alternative methods to combat drag.

An example of the necessity for an extended mend is when there are conflicting currents between the tip of the fly line and the thicker section of the leader.  By following the procedures previously outlined, you will find it possible to men all the way up to the strike indicator without moving the fly out of the strike zone.  The result will be a drag-free drift and, hopefully, a strike.

It takes quite a bit of practice to achieve the perfect distance mend, but with time and patience effective results will be attained.

The Principles of an Effective Distance Mend

As the casting hand lifts for the roll action of the mend, it should push forward and away from the angler.  The line (or non-casting) hand pulls the line backwards through the line guides in one movement (as in a cast).  The backwards movement of the line hand allows the angler to stay in contact with the line, and it is imperative that no ‘slack’ line remains between the line hand and rod or between the rod tip and water once the mending action commences.  With the rod hand the tip of the rod should be rotated up and around to either the left or right, depending on the desired direction of the mend. This is a single, fluid movement.  A distance mend cannot be executed using a wrist action to flick the rod tip into a roll, although this action will suffice for shorter mends.  To effectively carry out a distance mend, the rod hand should move forward, up and around, forming a large “O”, the diameter of which can be anything form 12 – 18.