Sunday Classic / My Grandfather’s Clinch Knot

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Do you think about tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, putting on your shirt? I’ll bet I’ve tied the Improved Clinch Knot more times than I’ve done any of those things. But I like to think that I pay more attention to my fishing knots than I do the knot in my shoe laces.

When a long standing friend got into fly fishing and I started taking him out to show off a few of my favorite spots he was eager to learn everything about it. Including, of course, knots. Knots are one of those things that are handed down through oral tradition. These days you can go to YouTube and learn to tie any knot you want, but that’s not how I learned. Like most folks who have been fishing for a while I learned my knots from the guys I fished with, most importantly, my Grandfather. So when my friend Michael saw me tie my clinch knot, he saw me tie it the way my Grandfather had taught me. When I was done, he quizzed me, “how many wraps did you do?” “Six” I answered. “shouldn’t it be seven?”, he asked. “I’ve always done six” I replied “but I suppose seven is fine”. He was insistent, “the guy at the fly shop told me it has to be exactly seven”.

There is an awful lot of superstition in fly fishing, but some things do matter and it got me wondering. I told the story to my buddy Dan who is a notorious big fish magnet. Before I could even ask him for his opinion he said, “well you can tell him five works just fine too”. Five? I admit I was a little surprised. If Dan was landing his fish on five wraps why was I wasting time doing six? I tried and I was just not able to tie a clinch knot with five wraps. It just made me nervous. Why? Well, it would help if you knew my Grandfather. Pete was a larger than life character. A Bone-a-fide genius. Quiet, but when he said something people listened. He was funny and a smart ass, most things he said had two meanings. For instance, if you asked him what you should do, about anything, he would say “do what you want to do, that’s what you’re going to do anyway”. I’ve always been told he had an explosive temper, but I never saw it. He was sweet with us kids, always teaching us things, although he always told me that I was “an accident looking for a place to happen”. He was a big figure in my life and if he told me to do six wraps, six wraps it was, end of story.

This ate at me for a while. I admit, I spent a stupid amount of time fretting about the number of wraps in my clinch knot. This was a long time ago and I guess I didn’t have to confidence to decide for myself how many wraps the knot should have. It bothered me every time I tied one. This went on for months. One day I was standing in the river tying a clinch knot, and fretting about it, when I burst out laughing. I laughed until tears ran down my face. In trying to sort this out I had dredged up an ancient memory. My Grandfather teaching me to tie the clinch knot. I remember tying one along side him and him telling me “wrap it six times”. I had asked him “does it have to be six” and he told me, “no, any even number between five and seven will do”. At eight years old I hadn’t questioned him enough to get it. It had taken me almost thirty years to get that joke and I laughed until I cried. Then I just cried. I still do when I think about it. After that, I learned to trust myself as a fisherman. I learned that I had good instincts and I didn’t need superstition. Pete had been dead for ten years and he was still teaching me. God I miss that man.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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15 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / My Grandfather’s Clinch Knot

  1. This reminds me of my grandfather. While he wasn’t a fisherman, he was a very special man. He was smarter than anyone I have ever known. The things that man did in his 74years on earth were beyond amazing. One thing that I always smile about when I think about it…. He was an aeronautical engineer and worked at Area 51 for a few years. When I was in high school he would always quiz me on my math skills. He’d give me an equation and say “solve this here and do it quick”. My favorite answer was… “only if you’ll tell me if the aliens are real!”. He never did give me an answer, whether I was able to solve his math equations or not. Even during his last days on earth, I’d ask him about his time at Area 51 just for fun. To this day I can still see that crooked smile he would always give me in response to that question. It makes me smile even as I type this. Happy Father’s Day fellas!

  2. My dad taught me fly fishing, including knots, in the ’50’s. I still have the huge needle he and I used to tie nail knots, leader to line. Many times I’ve had friends and shops show me the neat little tool for doing the same thing much faster. I just can’t do it, it doesn’t feel right.

  3. That sounds like me trying to learn new knots. They sound so cool. I learn them. I practice them on a piece of string in my pocket all week….and then I go out on Saturday and use an improved clinch every time. (with seven wraps) 🙂

  4. “No, any even number between five and seven will do”

    Classic response. It would appear your grandfather was a man of great wit. It appears that six turns is “the grandfather’s rule”, as it was with mine.

  5. Anyone that has done serious knot testing will tell you that the number of wraps on a clinch knot matters as it pertains to tippet diameter. Thinner stuff goes 6-7 wraps and heavier stuff goes 5 wraps for best knot strength. Less wraps result in a slipped knot (pigtail) and too many wraps can cause weakening from excess friction. Draw speed, hook wire size, wetness, improved or not versions and line material all makes a difference too. It pays to make a simple knot testing rig attached to a scale to test your favorite material & knots then test it against other knots. Do it multiple times to get an accurate measure. Keep in mind that some brands of line give inaccurate diameters or pound test ratings. Some lines have great knot strength but poor abrasion resistance. Don’t use old mono. Fluorocarbon lasts longer on the spool and is more invisible underwater but you pay the price up front.

  6. Larry is right: the optimum number of wraps depends on the diameter of the line, hence its resistance to being formed into tight coils. A knot is a friction-holding device; more tight wraps equals more strength. But loose coils are a lost fish waiting to happen. For light tippets like 6X or 7X, you can pull six, perhaps seven, wraps tight. For 0X or 1X, you probably can’t tighten more than four. When tying the butt sections of leaders into blood knots, I usually can’t tighten more than three turns (on each side of the center). But they hold.

  7. Another great story Louis! Isn’t it funny how the simple things like 5,6, or7 wraps can bring back a memory as vivid as you remember? I’m sure we can all relate in one way or another to a similar situation. One thing is for sure tho’ the advise that was given to you was advise from the heart with a whole lot of love intended. I’m sure Pete is smiling back at you.

  8. Loved the story, both my grand dads were great fishermen – one fly, the other rock and surf – and there are things in my fishing still today that I can attribute directly back to one or other. And those things always bring the memories and emotions that belong with those who left something special for you.

    Also great reminder that not everything in fly fishing needs to be clinical and scientific, there’s a whole part of it that hinges solely on the feel, tradition and emotional investment of those that partook and partake.

    Thanks for the share.

  9. I had that exact same conversation with my grand father when he taught me to tie a clinch knot. He said 5-7, but his rule was always 6. He didn’t teach me to fly fish, but he taught me flats fishing. I learned a lot from him about fishing, hard work and life in general. He passed about a month ago and it was much harder on me than I thought it would be.

    I’m glad I came across this to remind me of the good times I had with him when I was young. Thanks!

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