To Mend or Not to Mend?

Mending for Steelhead
Think he cared about the mend? Photo: Alfie King

Today we’ve got a bit of a conversation-starter for those of you out there who like swinging flies for steelhead.  Scott Baker-McGarva, head guide at BC West, gives us some thoughts on mending line.  Have a read and let us know what you think.

To Mend or Not to Mend?

Many years ago I wouldn’t have even given this idea a moment’s thought, as a mend was an integral part of the down and across presentation, placed right in there after ‘cast’ and before ‘step’ in the cardinal rules of anadromous fish pursuit. But in recent years I have both debated this notion with others, and observed a lack of mending in a swing still being productive. Now this is always in warmer, summer/fall water situations, conditions where, as it was argued to me, ‘you want the fly swinging as soon as possible, regardless of direction or speed, as the more aggressive summer fish will chase it!’.

Now this ‘speed’ thing is what drove my reluctance to consider the technique (or lack thereof) of not mending – after all, the slower the swing (speed), the better look the fish gets…right? This is why I step after casting in the first place, to slow the whole thing down, and this was beaten into my sub-consciousness at a very young age by the Steelhead Gods.

One guide I worked with in particular, (let’s call him the ‘Reverend’) who, with decades of experience, got quite upset if his guests insisted on mending and not letting the fly swing asap. So, given we rotate guests, I would guide the very same angler sooner or later, and my thoughts were if I didn’t promptly go and de-program them of the Reverend’s ways, they will merrily flog all day without mending and suffer a horrible fish-less outing. But the Reverend is wise – he wouldn’t preach such ideals if they don’t work for him, and it was noted that often before I could get to them, they caught a damn fish! So how do you argue what ‘to-do’ and what ‘not-to’ do when ‘not-do’ is successful? Hmm?

Now some deep thinking reminded me that if one adequately casts across and down stream each time, a mend is less important as the line straightens quickly and the fly swings shoreward, but those almost 90 degree casts can produce horrible bellies, causing seemingly unnatural accelerating fly swings, so surely this is key to the ‘no mend’ technique? No…apparently not, because Mr. Steelhead doesn’t seem to mind at all…maybe taking a lesson from his Atlantic Salmon cousins, which don’t seem to mind hard swings and are probably to blame for of this non-conformist business in the first place. Further, it was probably an atlantic aalmon angler, on their introductory steelhead trip, who decided his technique was just fine for these wily steelheads – after all, they were no better than his ‘king of game fishes’ and he wasn’t interested in changing techniques unless they didn’t work.

So, to mend or not? Is there a right or wrong way? I see some mend so much it defies reason – one would think a girl is about to jump rope on the water. Yet all these differing techniques seem to be equally productive for summer fish at the end of the day.

Funny thing is, my tactic hasn’t evolved past cast at a reasonable downstream angle, mend once, step as it becomes tight, and let it swing to the beach…just sayin’!

What Do You Think?

OK, we know a lot of you like swinging flies for a anadromous fish, and we know you’ve got some strong opinions.  We’d love to hear your approach to mending – leave a comment and let us know!

More Reader Input


  1. says

    Nice post Scott!
    I belong in the minimalist mend group.Now, everything I will say has some exceptions depending on water,wind,etc. I try to usually cast at about 90deg to current.I want as much side profile as possible. Why have a 4″ fly if the fish are only going to see it’s butt?If I feel I need depth or if current requires,I will cast upstream of that angle and mend downstream.
    An immediate mend. When I feel the need for one.I do a bounce back mend that is actually ‘concurrent’ with touch down of fly/leader/some sinktip or poly.I never move any of the tip/leader portion…only the head of flyline.To do that you have to make a perfect straight cast and rollout of the substitute for that!What I see a lot of is: cast,touchdown of even a lot of the head,then delayed movement of the rod with right hand moving up/out/upstream,wait a bit and maybe do another mend.
    As my fly swings,I don’t want my line on the water to be straight.I want curves to form.They give the fly life as it meanders and swims through every seam and water current speed change.I will control my swing by raising,lowering,leading,following the swing with my rodtip.
    I hook a lot of my fish upstream in the swing from where other guys cast’s would land and even more hookups at about the spot where they do land their casts. I probably miss a lot of fish by casting too far and not giving my fly enought time on the hangdown[John Hazel has a great discription of how to do the hangdown]…excellent.I will work on that!

  2. says

    Great topic!

    In my mind (which admittedly can be a cluttered and scary place!) the greatest impact on how/when and if to mend has to do with the current speed. Slow moving flat water means little if any mending and an initial high, 90-degree presentation for more broadside appeal.

    Faster water may mean a narrower seam, so less initial angle, bigger mend, slow the fly, hang it as long as possible in the money spot. The timing may vary if some submerged shelf, depression or boulder is particularly appealing and you hope to “set up” for it.

    Over mending is death as far as I’m concerned for my own fishing. Can’t remember a time when I felt more than one maybe two mends max was necessary. I’m definitely interested to hear what the jedi spey gurus have to say on this though!

    Another consideration is and I feel may be more detrimental than anything for success is the “lazy mend”. A killer for me for years. Where the mend is only partially realized, thus incorporating an “L” into the line and the subsequent high speed jolt of the fly as it quickly speeds the fly around the corner.

    So much emphasis is placed on casting, but I feel this topic in many circumstances may be more important when it comes to actual hookups. Thanks!

  3. Scott Baker-McGarva says

    Thanks guys…I thought it would be a brain teaser with no right answer.
    We all know what the term ‘mend’ means, but that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on why anglers do it, or some anyway.
    Current speed and their idiosyncrasies ‘used’ to be everything to some observant anglers, and nothing at all to others. But I agree with Beau in the regard that micro currents and edges are what i want my fly to swim through, especially today’s flowy type bugs.

    In true grease line presentations, a sideways profile being desired requires all kinds of mends, often downstream, to keep the profile 90 degrees to the fish, but yet so many grabs come as it kicks around and hangs downstream…go figure…

  4. Nate Armerding says

    I agree that both mending and not mending can be productive, and I think knowing when to and when not to is what can set some anglers apart as more consistent/effective anglers. I have sight fished and seen the response of a fish tracking a fly where if it is traveling more a consistent/uniform speed they can lose interest or not make the decision to “pounce”. It is only when an erratic strip/return is introduced that precipitates a “bite”. It’s almost as if the erratic return doesn’t give the fish enough time to think about it and so they have to make a decision, instincts kick in, and wham.. fish on. I have fished nice slow, deep runs where I didn’t start catching fish until I started throwing a downstream mend (to create a belly). and then other times i have had to mend to effectively get “down” in the run in order for the fish to get interested. I believe that the more you think about “where” the fish are and how your fly is traveling right “when” it’s passing them is how you start figuring out the swing and start having more luck, as it were. Especially, when you have that gut feeling that there is a fish in a certain slot, try switching things up. Mend every swing the first time through and then experiment with letting your fly come in a different speed/angle. We all know there are a billion flies that steelhead eat (from ft. long leeches, to size 18 prince nymphs), so I’m confident in saying that 90% of the work in catching a fish is presentation.

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