A Lesson in Line

The long and short of selecting the ideal fly line.

Capt. Charles Wright March 26, 2010

To many anglers, successfully targeting game fish on fly represents the pinnacle of an ever-evolving fishing career. Most would agree that catching a snook or redfish on a live pilchard is not as rewarding as coaxing the same fish to feed on an artificial offering. For an even greater reward, try enticing that fish to inhale a fly you tied yourself. With traditional casting outfits, the weight and momentum of the lure or bait pulls line off the reel. Sling a little harder, impart a bit more energy, and you will be rewarded with a longer cast. With fly-fishing you do not cast the lure. Instead, you cast the line and your fly line carries your fly to your target. A balanced system of rod/reel/line/leader is critical. If your components do not work well together for your casting style, you will find it extremely challenging to cast efficiently and accurately. This is why selecting the appropriate line to match your outfit and application is extremely important to your overall success and comfort on the water. The good news is that fly anglers have never had so many choices, however, the selections available can easily bewilder even the most experienced fly caster.

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A matched system with the proper fly line will ensure maximum distance and accuracy. Photo: Tosh Brown

In years past, fly lines were made from natural fibers, most commonly silk, and selecting a line was relatively simple. Silk spun into line by one manufacturer weighed pretty much the same as that spun by another manufacturer for any given diameter. To distinguish between different lines a series of letter designations were used to measure their weights. All was fine and dandy until the introduction of synthetic fibers. The standard letter system didn’t work so well anymore. New materials and manufacturing processes resulted in synthetic lines that were very different than the silks. It wasn’t long before the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturer’s Associations (AFTMA) addressed this problem and implemented a universally accepted numbering system that we are now familiar with. Today, all fly lines are assigned a number that represents the weight in grains of the first 30-feet of the fly line.

In years past, fly lines were made from natural fibers, most commonly silk, and selecting a line was relatively simple.

Selection 101
Sorting through the wide variety of lines can be tough. There are a number of factors involved in choosing the proper line. Weight, taper and density are important considerations. With the number system that has been in place for over 40-years now, lines are ranked from 1 to 15, with 1 being the lightest and 15 the heaviest. Lighter lines are well suited for casting small flies and offering delicate presentations, while heavier lines are best for targeting large predators or casting heavy, wind-resistant flies. While your fly and the size of your target will play a role in the line you select, remember that a balanced outfit is the ultimate goal. Matching your rod/reel/line is the foundation to good casting, While modern rod makers can adjust flex/stiffness to affect the loading and casting characteristics of any given rod, in general a 9-weight rod should always be matched with a 9-weight reel and 9-weight line.

Today, most fly lines are tapered to increase casting efficiency. Thanks to modern equipment, manufacturers of new age synthetic lines can vary the diameter and thickness over the entire length of the line for specific casting characteristics. The five basic types of fly line taper, each designed for a specific purpose, are weight-forward (WF), bass-bug (BBT), double-taper (DT), shooting taper (ST) and level taper (L).

Weight-forward (WF) tapers are the most popular and the best choice if you are a novice fly caster. With these lines, the first 30-feet of line is heavier, making them highly effective when faced with breezy conditions. The extra weight up front also helps with loading the rod and longer casts. Bass bug (BBT) tapers, also commonly referred to as a saltwater taper, are similar to the weight-forward design except that the front section isn’t as long. This is a good choice for heavy, wind resistant flies. Double tapered (DP) lines are the choice of many seasoned fly anglers and are highly effective when a delicate, short presentation is required. The belly of a double tapered line is at the center of the line and both ends gradually taper at the end of the line. A double tapered fly line won’t cast as far as a weight-forward line, but the design makes it economical. When one end gets damaged, you can turn the line around and use the fresh end. Shooting tapered (ST) lines cast farther than other lines and were introduced into mainstream angling from the world of distance casting competitions. They are designed for fast water and extreme wind conditions. The front section is stout and short to form a tight casting loop. Many anglers rig this section as a detachable shooting head in order to quickly vary the casting characteristic of their system. Level tapered (L) lines are uniform in diameter through their length. If you damage an end section, simply cut off the bad piece and you’re back in business. This makes them the most economical of all the fly lines, but these lines are also the hardest to cast. If you’re a beginner, stay away.

The taper of a line primarily affects how it performs in the air, but what about the fly line’s performance in the water? This is where the density of your fly line comes into play. Density determines buoyancy. As with line weights, there are several choices for density including floating, intermediate, sinking and floating/sinking. Floating (F) lines float on the surface of the water and are the basic go-to lines for most applications around Florida. Whether targeting bonefish or redfish, these lines are essential on shallow flats. However, with a weighted fly you can still use a floating line to present a fly a few feet below the surface.

Intermediate (I) lines are a little denser than water, so they sink slowly to present a fly just below the surface. Intermediate lines are good when the surface of the water is a bit choppy, as the added weight will keep your fly in the strike zone. Sinking (S) lines are designed for deep and/or flowing tidal conditions. The denser the line, the faster it sinks. Most manufacturers provide an indication of sink rate with a number system that represents inches of sink per second. While effective when scouting deeper water, sinking lines can be challenging to cast. Floating/Sinking (F/S) lines are combination lines that are also referred to as sink tip lines. They are used in specific applications in moderate depth water and have the advantage of the angler being able to see most of the floating section of the line.

Considering the different types of lines available and the varied opportunities we have to fly fish in Florida, purchasing an extra spool or two for your fly reel is a good idea. Load one with a floating line and one with an intermediate or sinking line and you will be able to quickly adapt to a variety of conditions by simply switching spools.

There are a lot of factors involved when it comes to selecting the proper fly line, but it’s important to remember that a balanced system with all components working together is absolutely vital. It seems that there is a fly line available for almost every fishery in the state, but don’t get discouraged if you have trouble with the selection process. The professionals at your local fly shop will be more than happy to point you in the right direction.

Specialty Lines

If fly line selection wasn’t confusing enough, manufacturers have to throw another wrench in the loop. With advanced polymers and synthetic fibers, manufacturers are designing lines that enhance the presentation of a fly while simultaneously maximizing distance. Species-specific lines are designed to accommodate both distance and presentation when targeting game fish under certain scenarios. As an example, transparent lines are increasing in popularity as their clarity offers an advantage when targeting spooky or heavily pressured fish.

Fly Line TLC

It’s important that you keep your fly lines clean and in good condition. Not only will routine maintenance result in a longer lifespan, but anglers can expect increased performance as well. By cleaning your fly line you will effectively reduce friction in the guides and increase castability. There are numerous products and cleaning kits on the market that involve dressings and cleaning pads to condition and moisturize your line. No matter what you select, it’s essential you routinely clean and inspect your lines for cracks or any other damage. Floating lines in particular, have special coatings that enable them to repel water. When this coating wears off, the line will lose some of its buoyancy. Keeping the fly line clean protects the line coatings and minimizes wear so that they will perform as desired. It is also important that you keep chemicals such as suntan lotion and insect repellent away from your fly lines. With only a bit of TLC, you can keep your expensive fly lines in tip top shape.

Terminology Recap

  • Line Weight - Rated 1-15 with 1 being the lightest and 15 being the heaviest.
  • Weight-forward (WF) - Most popular choice, excellent for breezy conditions.
  • Bass-bug (BBT) - AKA saltwater taper ideal for casting large, wind resistant flies.
  • Double-taper (DT) - Good choice for accurate, short presentations.
  • Shooting taper (ST) - Excellent for distance and fast moving water.
  • Level taper (L) - Uniform in diameter, most economical design.
  • Line Density - Floating (F), Intermediate (I), Sinking (S), Floating/Sinking (F/S).

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