Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

We have our minor curses–slippery river rocks, wind knots, wind itself. But there are few things in fly fishing more aggravating than hooking the big one–the planet. That is, snagging on the bottom. The aggravation can be amplified by the fact that it’s a favorite fly, or that it’s the last fly on hand of a pattern that has been working, or because disengaging a snag requires antics that spook the fish, or because a snag wastes precious time when a hatch is underway or when there’s only another half hour left before quitting time…or perhaps simply because it’s the thirteenth snag in the last twelve minutes.

Figure 1--Snags
Figure 1–Snags

When I was a spinning-rod-toting kid I tried all kinds of oddball methods to save a single hook (often because that was about all I owned), including high-frequency line-jerking, walking far left then far right then far left, waiting (in hopes slackness might somehow be the answer),finding a long forked stick and changing the angle of my pull that way, tying a rock or heavy hunk of branch to the rest of the line and throwing it hard out past the snag (a terrific way to spoil the water for further fishing), taut-line snapping, and denial…which would lead to trying all of them again. Even if the water was shallow I generally dared not ruin my shoes or trousers wading, knowing that loss of a hook was still less painful than matriarchal wrath, but strangely, each of the above techniques worked at least a few times over the years.

One technique did not work at all until I began fly fishing, and that was what I personally call the “water pulley” technique. Like many of the other tricks it changes the angle of the pull. But this technique actually lets the angler pull almost directly away from where he or she stands. With a fly line, it can be very effective.

The five worst kinds of snaggy water I’ve personally encountered include:

  1. Water with jagged rock, especially volcanic rock
  2. Water hiding logs, branches and other large downed tree material
  3. Water containing hidden metal debris–fence wire, old bridge or ferry cables, old culverts, etc.
  4. Water choked with fibrous plant stem material
  5. Water riddled with exposed tree roots, especially undercut banks

The trick I call the “water pulley” technique can work quite well in the first three kinds of snaggy water–especially for snags on rock. For snags on logs it can also be useful, although it can be important to employ the technique before embedding the hook too deeply into the wood of the snag. The technique starts with a mend, and because current complicates the picture I’ll first describe it assuming still water. (And I apologize if this technique is common knowledge and if everyone else calls it by some other name…but I’ll still probably use my name for it, because it’s a good name, so there.)

As I said, it starts wit a kind of mend–you flip a big slack loop of your fly line into the water out well past the point of the snag–the further out past, the better. (For far away snags, you may be able to use current to help you get slack line out past it.) A big smooth arc of slack is best. Then once that loop has “grabbed” the water, as fast as you possibly can, you pull–make that rip–the line toward you. If you did it fast enough, the arc you tossed out there will cause a momentary reverse-direction pull on the snagged fly. Depending on what you’re hung up on, you stand a very good chance of coming free, without loss of fly and without any splashing in the water. If it doesn’t work the first time, try it again.

Figure 2--Water_Pulley
Figure 2–Water_Pulley

The water itself acts as a kind of pulley. This technique works with fly line far better than any other line type because other lines are just too thin to have any appreciable drag in the water (and thus they get no “grip” on the water). That’s true to the extent that this was my worst trick as a kid (and that’s saying something), whereas it’s my best as a fly fisherman. By my experience, sinking fly line works best because it sinks and so won’t skip over the water’s surface when you rip on the line…and because it can get low enough to create an away-from-you pulling force down near the fly’s level. But floating fly line works really well too, for its own reasons: It’s generally the thickest of lines, so it has the greatest profile drag and can thus create the biggest away-from-you force on the fly. (Note that if you can get it to sink a bit right before you pull, for example if a coil extends down into the water a few inches, that can keep it from skipping over the water’s surface on your rip.)

If you were retrieving upstream when the snag occurred, laminar current can help you perform the maneuver–you just toss out a mend loop downstream of the snag and let the current help lengthen and then strengthen the pulley effect.

There are hazards–the rip works best if you pull low, and in your zeal to really rip it you stand a chance of whacking your thousand-dollar premium fly rod into some rock beside or behind you. And if you’re using a sinking line, current and surf can turn that big wide mend into a snag of its own, looping it around some other outcropping down there and complicating to the point not only of fly loss but of fly line damage as well. (This is a very serious concern in salt water fly fishing from rocks in Hawaii and other volcanic areas.) And finally, nothing is guaranteed, even if you fail to make matters worse.

Note From J. Stockard: Part 2 of this post relates a tale of a fortuitous variation on this technique.


  1. Mike,
    Am anxiously awaiting Part II for the Fortuitous variation. From personal experience, I would always recommend that you NEVER try and dislodge a firmly stuck hook with flex in the rod. The spring in the rod is always working against you. And at some point, you will put enough pressure on the spring that the rod will fail at some ding/defect in the blank. It will eventually happen, especially if you’ve ever made a cast where a fly has bounced off the blank (who hasn’t). Since I fish long sink tips on a regular basis, I lose a fair share of flies on snags. I usually results from the belly of the sink tip encountering an obstacle and dragging/steering the fly into an eventually snag. Whenever that happens, my method of dislodging the fly (works about 50% of the time) is to point the rod tip at the snag and pull on the line without any bend in the rod. The tension will eventually free the fly or break the tippet. Since I use 1X and 0X tippets, this takes a fair amount of tension. I actually straighten out a fair number of hooks as well. To protect the fly line from this tension, my tippet is attached to 12-18” of Amnesia leader (~20 lbs). The Amnesia is attached with a loop to loop to the fly line. The tippet will always break at the fly or at the loop to loop with the Amnesia. This protects the fly line loop from cutting damage of the finer tippet.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Agreed, best to never stress a fine rod by flexing it against a snag…for so many reasons. Myself, I rarely if ever fish bead heads of any kind (they don’t look buggy to me and so I never tie them…except for little glass beads from craft shops, which can be had in lots of colors that do look like bug heads to my eyes). So I don’t know if I’ve ever dinged my current rod with a metal bead…with the possible rare exception of soft lead. But ferrules still pay a price from excessive stress in deep flex, not to mention the fact that the hook is just being embedded deeper in whatever it had caught onto…not to mention the possibility of catching terminal tackle in the eye if the thing should let loose when you’re straining against it with a deep flex of the rod.

      The “aim at the fly and pull” method you use is a rod-saver but tends not to be a fly-saver, tippet-saver or time-saver. I use it as a guaranteed-successful but brute force last resort. With a fly line, the “water pulley” (again my own name) is a trick readily available for use, and it works a high percentage of the time (that is if the snag isn’t too far away from you to make it work…your own use of long casts with sinking lines may render it futile in some cases). The “water pulley” spares the rod, spares tippet and fly, and spares the water. If I can’t get it to work and can’t think of anything else, only then will I resign myself to pull with a straight rod and line, cursing my ill fortune as I do so.

      – Mike

  2. Hi Mike,
    I use a variation on your theme, but it is essentially the same. I call it the “roll cast retrieve”. I use a roll cast to get the line past the side where the fly is snagged. Just as you do, immediately after the line is on the same side as the snag, a sharp tug will often free the fly. One of the guides I used out west called it “throwing line at the fly.” Regardless, of the name, it works 80-90% of the time. If everything goes well you can actually go right into the back stroke and make a cast straight out of the retrieval (that happens about 40-50% of the time for me). Glad you shared a great method for getting a snag out. I am looking forward to your next post, as that is the only trick I have in my bag.

    1. You got it Joe. A roll cast is a great way to flip the line out past the snag. You’re right that it works a very high percentage of the time, especially if it’s tried before any real tension is applied against the snag. I get line as far out as I can past the trouble point, so that I can get as strong and sustained a pull against the “pulley effect.” Often it takes two or three tries but I’m generally rewarded with a free fly, fishable water that hasn’t been thrashed or sonically “pinged” by the snapping of a line, and nothing more than a fly inspection to do before my next cast.

      But unfortunately (and as you’ll see), my “fortuitous variation” is not likely to be something you can plan or add to your quiver of tricks. It was just the strangest of coincidental events I was oddly able to capitalize on–something very unlikely that happened a few weeks before I’d written the article. And it’s one of those things that if it ever happens to me again I’ll be convinced there are mischievous deities deliberately messing with my head. : )

      – Mike

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