Retrieving the line: four styles to success

Fly patterns receive too much attention these days – at the expense of how to present them.

Numerous books have been written on fly patterns and how to dress them. Indeed, at the waterside the standard question the unsuccessful angler asks the successful one is, ‘What fly did you get your trout on?’

While fly patterns are part and parcel of the magic of fly fishing, they are, sadly, not as important as the way you present the flies to the fish. Fly pattern is nearly always secondary to presentation. The more appropriate question the unsuccessful angler should ask is, ‘At what depth and what speed did you get the trout?’

Often you’ll see anglers along the banks of reservoirs or in boats casting and retrieving mechanically. They do catch fish from time to time, but as you’d expect, thoughtful retrieving always puts more fish in the bag.

There are several different ways of retrieving, but here are three of the most common, and a lesser known fourth which can be devastatingly effective.

The strip

This is the easiest retrieve to do (and the most used, for that matter). Simply put, a right-handed angler holds the rod with his right hand, traps the line with the index finger of that hand and pulls it with the left hand (the other way round if you are left handed, of course). difficulty in catching the fly. The slow strip is also useful for moving nymphs and wets from the bank or from an anchored boat. The fast strip is at its best in high summer, and its uses are mainly associated with fit, daphnia-feeding rainbows which stay high in the water, close to the surface. Flies such as Muddlers and Peach Dolls are very effective when stripped back quickly; they bring out the aggression in the super-fit summer rainbows. Indeed, when using flies at this time of year, you cannot move them too fast!. The fast strip is also effective for imitating the quick darting movement of damsel nymphs.

The figure-of-eight

A slow strip is the most effective way of catching fresh stockies, especially if combined with a lead-headed fly such as a Tadpole. The reason for this is that stock fish are used to food which either falls vertically through the water or floats. They are not used to chasing. The slow strip is a predictable way to move the fly and usually results in firm takes, for the fish have no ! finger. Instead of stripping the line you bunch it into your left hand. Some anglers drop the line after each cycle, but the choice is yours.

Use the figure-of-eight with imitative flies. From the banks of large stillwaters or from an anchored boat, try casting across the wind and taking up the slack using this form of retrieve: the flies drift with the wind-induced currents.

From a drifting boat, the figure-of-eight is an effective way to fish imitative patterns such as Pheasant Tails, Buzzers or dry flies such as Hoppers or Shipman’s Buzzers. Make a long cast downwind – then use the figure-of-eight to take up the slack line or inch the flies along by retrieving them slightly faster than the moving boat.

The figure-of-eight retrieve is deadly when you’re using a Booby fished on a Hi-D line and short leader.

On small stillwaters and even slow-moving rivers use a fast, erratic figure-of-eight to imitate freshwater shrimps and a slow one for buzzers.


This method produces a constant motion in the fly and can be devastating. Many anglers, fishing in one spot for an hour without seeing any action, have had savage takes when reeling in to move.

To begin, trap the rod under your right arm and support it with the crook of your elbow or your forearm. Retrieve using both hands in turn, so you achieve a constant motion. This is an excellent way of retrieving lures, especially in hard-fished waters where the trout have seen many flies being stripped or inched back with the figure-of-eight style.

Some anglers complain that it’s difficult to hook fish with this style of retrieve. The trick to successful and consistent hooking is to keep pulling when a fish plucks at your fly and, when the trout does commit itself, to swing your rod around horizontally – to the right.

If you strike in the same plane in which the line is moving (by swinging the rod to the right), you maintain the line contact and won’t lose fish. But if you try to raise the rod, you’ll momentarily lose line contact and probably the trout.

FTA – Fool Them About

It’s a widely known fact that trout are very aggressive. A somewhat lesser known fact is that they also have a fairly good short-term memory. This may be the reason that a fly can be so effective one week, and then useless the next.

Most people retrieve lures in the same methodical way day in and day out all season long. A trout which has followed a stripped lure, taken it and then escaped, is naturally going to be wary of any pattern moving in a similar way.

For this reason when you are fishing attractor patterns, it sometimes pays to retrieve your fly in a way in which no trout could possibly have seen before – enter FTA, Fooling. Them About. This style of retrieve is often successful when others fail.

Fooling. Them About basically involves permutations and combinations of all the above mentioned retrieves. Trying to put FTA into an exact formula defeats the point of the method, for the essence of it is variety.

A good example is to start the retrieve with a figure-of-eight, pause for a second, give two sharp strips, one long slow pull, pause, figure-of-eight for a few metres, strip three times as fast as you can, pause, then slow strip, fast strip – and while watching the line carefully lift your flies off slowly.

Expect to get takes either at the beginning of the retrieve, during the speed-ups, pauses or at the end of the retrieve. Always stop and watch the line before the fly comes into view. Sometimes when you lift off, the trout thinks its prey is getting away and nails it at the last moment, metres from your feet.

This way you’ll catch a high percentage of those trout which follow and swirl away at the end of a retrieve at the last moment.