The only knot you need... almost

Published Feb 2nd 2012

Knots seem to be an eternal problem to anglers. Even experienced anglers have trouble remembering them, choosing amongst them and getting them right. Here's a cure: learn and use this one, and you'll be fine!


The surgeon's knot

This is definitely going to get me in trouble! But I guarantee you that if you learn this knot you will be able to get very far in almost all kinds of flyfishing. Use this for your daily knotting and use loops for the rest (backing to fly line, fly line to leader), and you will be able to make it through many, many fishing days.
And I'm not talking about some new, space age, transformable, the-knot-to-end-all-knots knot. I'm talking about a true and simple classic.

Learn the surgeon's knot!

It's easy, versatile and useful for tying tippets to leaders, tying tags on tippets and tying flies on your line, which is what you will be doing a far majority of the time you tie knots

The surgeon's loop

while you're fishing... unless your fishing is very exotic and different, in which case you hopefully already know your Blood knots, Albrights, Bimini Twists or how to attach titanium wire traces and whatnot.
I'm not talking about some new, space age, transformable, the-knot-to-end-all-knots knot.
I can already hear the uproar:
"But it's not straight!"
"It's a loop knot and you must use a tight knot!"
"It's not good for different thicknesses of line!"

I know, I know, I know!

Of course there will be better knots for many applications, and the surgeon's knot won't cut it for tarpon leaders, for creating your own straight, smooth, tapered leaders, for joining leader and fly line and numerous other applications, but it will do fine in 90% of the cases if you fish for bass, rainbows, brown trout, salmon, seatrout and other "plain" fish, which don't require special leaders or complex rigs.

The knot essentially consists of a double stretch of line passed through a loop formed by the line itself. It can be tied in the blind, is very durable and even compact. It does have a tendency to become crooked and isn't as smooth and nice as some other knots, but the ease and durability more than compensates for this. It can be used for many purposes, and I will describe three very common uses:

Adding a tippet to the leader
When you fly fish, you constantly add tippet. Next to tying on a new fly, it's most likely the instance where you most often will need to tie knots.
The surgeon's knot is perfect for this. It's easy, it's compact, it's strong. And it shows the basic technique for tying the knot.
And again: yes, I know there are tonnes of other neater, straighter, more beautiful knots to use, but this one is simple, efficient and versatile.

This is how it's done in text:
Cut a piece of tippet according to your needs. A couple of feet or three or a little less than a meter is usually a good choice, but of course it depends on the circumstances. The thickness depends on your leader and the fishing you do, but in general it should match the thickness of the tip of the leader or be slightly thinner.
Take your leader and grab about 5-10 inches or some 10-20 centimeters of its terminal end. The shorter this piece, the less the waste of leader material.
Line up your newly cut tippet parallel to it, overlapping the same length.
Fold both lines to form a loop on the double stretch.
Pass the end of the leader and the business end of the tippet through the loop.
Repeat to get two passes.
Tighten the knot slowly and make sure the lines stay neat and parallel.
Moisten the knot and draw tight.
Cut the tags and you're done!

Surgeon's loops

Tying on a fly
The Surgeon's knot will form a loop knot when used to tie on a fly. Some people might not want their fly working independently of the tippet, but in most cases this is actually an advantage. I use loops for almost all my fishing: dries, nymphs and wet flies, even when fishing for salmon. Some might find this sacrilegious. I don't care. It works.

There is one disadvantage of using a loop: on thinner lines the connection will be weaker than when using some tight knots. But regular fly changes and inspection of the loop will ensure you that things are OK and keep break-offs to a minimum.

The knot is tied like this:
Pass the tippet through the eye of the fly and double it for about 5-10 inches or 10-20 centimeters, depending on your dexterity and the size of the fly and thickness of the tippet. The less you double, the less tippet you waste.
Form a loop on the doubled line. The fly has to be able to pass through this loop twice, which doesn't necessarily mean that the loop has to be huge.
Pass the fly through the loop twice. Sometimes passing it hook point first is the easiest. Materials flex, the hook doesn't.
Tighten the knot while keeping the loop as small as possible. One easy way of doing this is slipping the double loop over the eye of the hook while tightening, and letting it slip off just as it gets small enough. This will give the smallest possible loop, usually only a bit larger than the eye on the fly.
Moisten the knot as you tighten it fully, and cut the tag.

Adding a dropper tag to your leader or tippet
If you want to fish more than one fly - hopper/dropper style or a point fly and a dropper in the UK terminology - you will need a tag for the top fly AKA the dropper. This is also very easy to do with a surgeon's knot.
But you have to make a decision before commencing: upwards or downwards dropper?

Downwards gives you a smoother rig, but with a slightly greater risk of tangles. On this rig the top fly (dropper) is usually tied to the main line, and the lower (point) fly is tied to the tag, which elongates the tippet.
Upwards makes the dropper stand out from the main line, but might be slightly weaker (I never experienced it as weaker). When using this method the top fly is tied to the tag while the end fly is tied to the regular tippet, which continues through the knot.
Your choice.

Downwards tag: tie on your tippet, optionally shorter than usual. You will have a longer rig once the tag is tied on. Cut a piece of line, same or thinner than your regular tippet. The length is decided by what distance you want between your flies. Lay it along the standing line so that the regular tippet forms a short tag and the added tippet forms a continuation of the normal tippet. Form a loop and pass the terminal ends through twice. Moisten and tighten.
Tie your top fly (a dry, a hopper, a large fly) to the short tag formed by the regular tippet and your lower fly (a nymph or wet fly) to the long tag formed by the added line.


Upwards tag: With this rig the length will be as the regular tippet, so tie this as normal or even a bit longer to have something to work with. Cut a piece of line, same or thinner than your regular tippet. The length is decided by how long you want your tag. Lay it along the standing line so that the regular tippet lies as usual and the new line forms a tag upwards towards the fly line. Form a loop and pass the terminal ends through twice. Moisten and tighten.
Tie your top fly to to newly added tag and your lower fly to the regular tippet.


Quickly adding a second fly
Using a hybrid of these methods you can also quickly add a tag to a rig that already has a fly mounted. Add a second fly over or under the fly you are fishing already.
Make the tag short and upwards for a fly above an fly and long and downwards for a fly below an existing fly.
New fly above the existing: Cut a short piece of line (-1' or 15-30 centimeters), similar to or thinner than the tippet. Grab the tippet or the leader where you want the new top fly to attach. Choose to point the tag upwards or downwards according to taste and form a loop on both lines. Pass the fly and the two lines twice through the loop, moisten and tighten, and you will have a tag to use for a new top fly.
New fly below the existing: Cut a longer piece (3' or 1 meter por even longer) of line similar to your tippet. Lay it along the tippet ' or 15 centimeters above the fly with the long tag downwards and form a loop on the parallell lines. Pass the fly and the long tag through the loop twice and attach the new bottom fly to the new, lonmg tag.

Now learn some more!
OK, I admit it: I would personally never be able to do with one knot!
Even though the surgeon's knot is really, really useful and I get by with it up towards 80 or 90% of the time I need a knot, there are limits, and learning a barrel or blood knot, a Palomar knot, a Trilene knot, the perfection loop and even the nail knots will bring you way farther than the humble surgeon's knot can.
I'm often surprised how conservative fly anglers are
I'm often surprised how conservative fly anglers are, and many never learn more than the first few knots they saw. Learn more knots and get to know their advantages and disadvantages. Practice a bit and make sure you can tie the most useful knots that enable you to set up a complete fly rig in the field with no tools or chemicals. That will save many a trip for yourself and your fellow anglers.

Irish lake fishing

These articles also touch upon knots and/or fishing multiple flies

User comments
From: Roger Duckworth · rogerdckwrth·at·  Link
Submitted March 8th 2013

Great article. I start the day with a stronger blood knot with the top fly on the heavier untrimmed lead. I attach the fies with an orvis knot. But, when in a hatch, I use the double surgeon knot which is much faster to tie. I have seen anglers spend 10 minutes of a 30 minute hatch re-rigging! The key is to practice, practice, practice. I fish the Green River each April and if you have not practiced, it is almost impossible to rig size 20 BWO patterns with cold hands in 30 knot winds. I tell friends going on their first trip to practice after putting their hands in ice for 10 minutes and while their spouse hits them in the face with a fly swatter! Both will be better for it.

GFF staff comment
From: Martin Joergensen · martin·at·  Link
Submitted October 3rd 2012


No, I use neither of these knots (which are not the same). I use a nailless nail knot, which you can see here, which looks like part of both the uni and the Duncan knots, but aren't quite the same.


From: Ariel · Fflutterffly·at·  Link
Submitted October 2nd 2012

Dear M.J. Isn't your fly to line knot a Uni (Duncan) knot?

Comment to an image
From: Larry Glatt · larryglatt·at·  Link
Submitted May 28th 2013

You have a simply very workable knot here. It especially is good because you want your fly or lure to be able to 'swing' naturally. Koodos

Comment to an image
From: John Fagan · Johnfagan1945·at·  Link
Submitted August 16th 2014


GFF staff comment
Comment to an image
From: Martin Joergensen · martin·at·  Link
Submitted November 23rd 2013


It's the top fly - nearest to the rod - when you fish more than one fly, and in particular more than one dropper - the flies tied on the line above the point fly, which is the last one in the row. Read this article for way more on fishing several flies and droppers.


Comment to an image
From: Sean - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted November 22nd 2013

I am new to fly fishing. I have tied flies for about a year now give or take a month. I am a differently able person and haven't found anyone who wants to take me on and teach me the casting, and presentation 2/3 of the sport. But I keep hearing English, and Scottish, Irish tiers too, mention a top dropper. What is it. I know there must be nymphs tied to it somehow, because I heard one fellow tier say, "This is a good top dropper it will hold up a couple of tungstens." This page came up when I googled, What is a top dropper?

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