In the Drift: Fundamental presentation techniques (Mending) by Ken Abrames

Mending is a part of fly fishing that every fly fisherman will find useful. It broadens one's viewpoint and increases your skill as a fisherman.

When water is moving it transports the objects that are suspended in it at the same speed and direction that it is moving. This natural occurrence is the root of the modern metaphor 'go with the flow'. Flyfishing tradition calls this constant transport "The Drift", and even named the drift boat after it. Dealing with flow is so fundamental to practical flyfishing that without it as the root there would not be any stream lore at all.

If you were to tie a string to an object and toss it out into a river and hold on to the end of the string what would happen to the object? The answer is simple to visualize and understand. It would move across the water and be pulled in towards the bank below your position. This force in flyfishing terminology is called drag. Drag is the one constant force that is always present whenever you fish in moving water and the actions a fly fisherman must use to counteract or harness this force are based on an understanding of certain line handling techniques that are collectively called mending. Death, taxes, and, for those of us who fly fish, drag.

Jack Gartside, in his book Striper Strategies, described an event that took place while he was fishing with two companions. They were fishing in a favorite place, one they were all familiar with, using the same type of intermediate line, the same flies, the same leaders, making the same casts to the same places and retrieving their flies the same way. Everything was the same except that Jack caught seventeen fish while his companions caught three or four between them. Something was different and Jack figured out what it was. He realized that he was walking downstream while fishing out his casts at the same speed the current was moving. His friends were not doing this. They were walking downstream at a much slower pace than the current. Jacks' downstream movement allowed his fly to fish deeper and stay in the productive zone much longer than his companions' flies did.

  • Jack was tending his line and allowing his fly to fish deeply by walking downstream at the same speed as the current.
  • His companions, who were not moving at the same speed as the current, were unwittingly creating a force that lifted their line and flies toward the surface - away from the fish.
  • That force is called drag.

Jack mended his line by counteracting drag through his movement downstream. The current could not force his fly to move through the water either sideways or upwards because the line was not fixed and resisting the flow but was moving in harmony with it. Jack was in total control of his line and fly and because of this caught seventeen fish while his friends remained mystified.

Often the topography of where we are fishing does not lend itself to walking along a bank to insure that the line and fly act in accordance with our wishes. When we are standing waist deep on the end of a bar with water swirling all around us, the option of walking along with the current is simply not available to us. We become the fixed point that the line is attached to. The option we do have is to either employ line handling techniques and mend or to simply disregard drag entirely and fish out the cast with a wet fly swing or strip the fly back to our position and cast again.

Mending is moving your line to interact and harmonize with the force of moving water to control and tune the presentation of your fly, moment by moment in any way you can conceive of and do. Mending is also the act of moving your line so that the force of current will not pull or drag your fly away from the place you want it to be. Mending is the act of moving your line in such a way as to use the force of current to move or drag or pull or simply drift your fly to the place that you do wish it to be. Mending is simply the thoughtful handling of drag through line control.

Simple Mend

We do not always share the same terms or meanings about the same phenomena. Teaching someone how to read water is not an easy task. The act of mending, in and of itself, is perhaps the best method of learning how to read water in a practical way. Because you are interacting with the currents on a personal basis you learn quickly how they push and pull on your line and how this in turn affects the speed and direction and the depth your fly is fishing. In effect, learning how to mend is very similar to learning how to ride a bicycle or learning how to swim, although it can be talked about and discussed at length, it can only be realized through the physical act of doing it. It is a personal skill.

Greased-Line Swing

The mechanics of mending can be described in many ways but I will try to describe the feel of it. It is like swinging a jump rope that is tied to an object that will move toward you if you pull too hard. Once the line is cast and is on the water the slack is taken up to the point where the surface tension of the water is felt through the rod. This pressure is felt as resistance and it is the same pressure that you would use to load the rod to begin a backcast. You cannot mend a line without using this backpressure to load your rod and give it the energy it needs to unload and place the line where you wish it to be.

When you prepare to make a mend you point the rod down the line and take up the slack. The motion is similar to the beginning of a backcast except you do not follow through and pull the line off the water into the air behind you. At the point that you would lift, you change the motion of your rod from up - to a circular lateral motion towards the direction that you want the line to move. When you do it correctly, the fly, the leader and a portion of the line will remain fixed in the surface tension of the water and this fixed portion is what anchors the line and gives the sideways motion a fulcrum to work against. As you continue to practice mending, your skill at manipulating the resistance from the water will improve dramatically and soon you will be able to use this skill to shoot small amounts of line into the mend. Eventually you will be able to mend enormous amounts of line right down to the fly with very little effort and will be limited only by the length and suppleness of your rod.

To mend effectively one needs to have a focus, a point where the fly is made to swim to, swum through or be delivered in the drift. That point is ordinarily imagined as a fish waiting to accept the fly as food, or it can be an actual fish that is observed rising steadily as it is holding its position in current and feeding.
Without a focus, a real or imagined target, there can be no measurement of how well you presented the fly and no way to gauge or refine your skill. Once the point is chosen a cast is made far enough upstream to allow the fisherman time to prepare to mend the line as it is carried down by the current. If the cast is made too close to the target the fly and line will often be swept past the 'fish' before the preparations of gathering in slack and pointing the rod down the line to lift and mend have taken place.

After the cast is made and the mending preparations completed the real fishing begins. The instant the line lands on the water it is held and moved by the current. If the current is smooth and uniform the line will drift downstream the way it landed on the water. After it passes the position of the angler the resistance of the fixed end will cause the current to swing the line in towards the bank. What this does is create a lift and an acceleration of the fly. It speeds up and races across the current. The angler counteracts this force by lifting the line and placing it upstream of the fly and feeding loose line into the drift before this movement begins thereby allowing the fly to continue to drift without the pull of the line affecting its movement at all. This procedure is repeated until the angler decides to move the fly and allows the force of drag to lift and sweep it across the current.

This simple mend is useful when dead drifting any fly along a current seam or depth change or over a structural feature such as a ledge or rock or mussel bed. It brings the fly to the fish in a natural manner within the flow of the current. It is the basic movement in all mending techniques. Once it is understood and practiced it enables the angler to expand his line and fly control exponentially to all types of presentation situations both on the water's surface to many feet below.

Slipping Drift

Making the effort to learn how to mend will enable you to catch fish in situations that may have mystified you in the past. The ability to mend is a primary flyfishing skill and it is as important for the experienced angler to learn as casting is for the beginner. Mastering the basic movement will give you the ability to control your fly and make it move in ways that are impossible to do without this skill.

  • You will be able to make the fly swim away from you by mending the line beyond where the fly lands and putting a small amount of pressure on the line.
  • You will be able to have your fly hold in place, stationary in the current, by stacking your mends above it's position.
  • You will be able to cast above a deep holding lie and allow the fly to sink freely. Be able to control the depth it fishes with your mends, turn the fly, then swim it broadside through the lie deeply by mending downstream, tightening and slipping line into the drift.

The presentation possibilities opened up through mending become limitless and they can all be explored with incredible control in a simple, straightforward, no-gimmick way. This is classic sophisticated wet fly fishing, using traditional line handling techniques that have evolved over centuries. It's no wonder they work so well on stripers and other salt water fish that feed in current.

Deep Presentation

Only the portion of your line that is floating can be mended. If you are using a sink tip the part of the line that is sunk can be manipulated by mending and positioning the part of the line that is floating. The sunk portion can help when mending a long line by anchoring the end and giving the rod extra resistance to load with. In similar way, the salt water taper (because of its short forward taper) gives the rod resistance to work with, like using a float when drift fishing with a spinning rod for steelhead.
A sinking line cannot be mended once it has disappeared from the view of the angler, and because of this is subject to the lifting and planing effects of drag. An understanding of the effect of drag on sinking lines could help fishermen use them more effectively in difficult and complex deep water situations where the drag from heavy currents may prevent the lines from performing as well as they could.

The floating line's greatest asset in salt water fly fishing is not only its usefulness for stripping in a fly close to the surface, but its facility to be manipulated or mended to counteract and harness current. A floating line can be mended to overcome drag and present the fly to the fish where he is holding.
When the floating line is understood as a vehicle for delivering a fly to fish that are holding their positions even at considerable depth, then its true value becomes apparent. It is the traditional line to use and it works very well but even so, it is not always the right line to use in every situation. Every line has its peculiarities and no line is the only solution. Try them all and pick the one that best suits your style of fishing.

Mending can be accomplished with any rod, but some are more suited to it than others. I prefer long rods that will load easily and transfer that load smoothly and evenly. The length of the rod should suit the area you are fishing. If you are fishing small tidal creeks a nine-foot rod will do the job nicely. If you are fishing in a large tidal river making long casts and mending fifty to seventy feet out, then using a ten and one half or an eleven foot rod will be to your advantage. Spey rods were created for mending long lines in big rivers. They are very popular in Europe and have a strong following here on the west coat among steelhead fishermen who fish large rivers and in Canada with Atlantic salmon fishermen.
I prefer a long single-handed rod because I find it to be more useful in most of the situations I fish. I have a tendency to fish closer than I can cast and I like the maneuverability of a one handed rod, even a long one. Using a long rod is easy as long as the balance point of the rod is in your hand and not above it. I prefer it to be at the point where my little finger falls. Having my rod balanced this way eliminates stress on my casting arm and the rod, although heavier than most, always feels weightless and comfortable in my hand.

Leisenring Lift

Mending is a part of fly fishing that every fly fisherman will find useful. It broadens one's viewpoint and increases your skill as a fisherman. It is a key to understanding many hidden dimensions to fish behavior and reveals the importance of current in the routines of fish. It adds to the experience of fly fishing immensely, and it is one of those classic skills that has been known and recognized and respected for centuries as fundamental.

© 2001