Fly lines are unfortunately too often a secondary thought for a fly fisher who might rather spend time focusing on just the fly rod or a magic fly pattern. You wouldn't buy a new sports car and casually mount your old dry tires on it. Just like the tires on a performance car matter, so too does a quality fly line. Think about it, it's the vehicle for delivery of our fly. You touch it all day. It's the connection between you and your fish...a fly line counts for sure. But which one? Good question, as there are far too many options...some completely unnecessary! At Leland, we've picked our favorite fly lines using quality, efficient casting and fishing function as our guidelines. If you want a solution and not just random choices, please view our focused fly line offering below.
The day had been the worst kind of horrible; one that could have been prevented. Cast after cast had piled up the line. You tried everything; slowing your casting stroke, adding hauls, delaying your back cast – but you just couldn’t seem to win. The line was simply not matched properly with your rod. You shudder as you imagine how many strikes had gone by, how many fish you might have missed. And now you’re sitting on the bank, picking through a snarled crow’s nest of line, leader, and tippet. As if to taunt you, a large fish moves in and starts feeding, unconcerned by your presence. A rod and reel is only half the story when optimizing your gear. The correct fly line is essential for fulfilling the performance of your fly rod, and should be particularly suited to the type of fishing you’re doing. Here are a few guidelines in how to choose a fly line.
FLY LINE ANATOMY: LINE WEIGHT
Fly lines range from the very thinnest and lightest for making short casts with tiny flies with tiny rods on small water, up to the heaviest, thickest fly lines designed to cast over-foot-long, massive flies with powerful big-game fly rods to catch giant fish in the ocean. All fly lines are numbered, on a universally accepted scale, by the physical weight of the first 30 feet of the forward, delivery end of the fly line; the bigger the number, the heavier the fly line. Fly rods are numbered in the same way, to balance the proper line weight with the rod’s relative flex or stiffness. The heavier the fly line, and the respective fly rod, the greater the capability of casting larger flies, combatting the effects of wind, and, up to a point, casting greater distances. So, in a sense, the fishes that we pursue actually determine what line weights we anglers use to catch them. The fish prefers natural foods of a certain size range, and we try to select the line weight that is best able to a cast our hand-tied imitations of that food in a manner that, hopefully, won’t scare the fish.
The heaviest fly lines will cast ALL sizes of flies, both big and little. But when a heavy fly line falls on clear shallow water, all subtlety is lost. Also, heavier fly lines, and the rods that cast them, require more effort, physically, to fish, and are often too stiff to protect lighter leaders that may be necessary for successfully fooling, hooking, fighting, and landing fish. Most experienced anglers prefer using the lightest fly line, and rod, possible that effectively balances these two opposing elements, power versus subtlety, for the fly fishing situation at hand.
Therefore, fly fishers who like to fish on a variety of water types, or for different species, will, perhaps, own several different line and rod outfits for matching the specific conditions of each situation. Most fly anglers learn to cast and fish with floating fly lines, as they are generally easier to cast and are required for fishing with dry flies. Floating fly lines can also fish weighted, subsurface flies in many shallow water situations as well. Some situations call for fly lines that sink, as you’ll read later.
The smallest fly lines are the ultra-light lines, all floating, a category created in recent years for those that enjoy fishing with the lightest tackle conceivable. Ultra-light fly lines range from the tiniest, 3/0, or ‘000’, to ‘0’ or zero. From there, fly lines are numbered by weight from ‘1’ to ’15’. Line weights 1 to 3 are still pretty “light” and are generally used by anglers that fish primarily on sheltered, small water with small flies.
Most trout fly anglers prefer to use either a 4, 5, or 6 weight fly line, and the correctly matched fly rod, for most of their all-around trout fishing. The 4 weight would be for an angler that fishes small to medium water with smaller flies. The 5 weight line and rod combination is the most popular, by far, and should be considered the all-around choice for fishing most sizes of trout flies on most trout water. The 6 weight line and rod may benefit trout anglers fishing larger rivers, in wind, or casting larger weighted nymphs and bigger dry flies.
FLY LINE ANATOMY: TAPER
Understanding how taper affects casting is important when considering what fly line to choose. The changing diameter of the fly line, called “taper,” determines how the energy of your cast is transmitted from the rod to the leader and the fly. In general, the longer the front taper, belly (the thickest part of the line), and rear taper of the fly line (collectively called the head), the more slowly the line dissipates the energy of the cast, allowing greater control and accuracy. Conversely, if the fly line head is shorter and thicker overall, energy is transmitted more directly to the fly, promoting greater shooting distance and a quicker turnover. Tapers are generally classified into weight-forward, double taper, shooting head, and spey.
WEIGHT FORWARD LINES (MATCHING A LINE TO YOUR ROD) Most trout fishing and other typical fly fishing situations require a floating, weight forward fly line. These tapers are constructed with the greatest mass located at the front of the line, carrying casts outward and loading rods quickly and easily. Weight forward tapers are the most versatile, covering fishing situations ranging from delicate dries to monstrous barracuda flies. Depending on application, the length of the head on weight forward tapers varies widely, from massive, thick bass tapers under 28′ in head length that turn over huge, wind resistant flies, to long belly steelhead lines with heads over 65′ in length to allow line control at greater distances. However, most freshwater and saltwater anglers use weight forward fly lines with head lengths from 30′ to 45′.
If you fish a slow to moderate action rod, a weight-forward line with a gentle, more gradual front taper allows the most control over how the casting loop straightens out. This precise control over the turnover is crucial when making delicate presentations where accuracy is essential. Consider lines like Scientific Angler’s Trout or RIO’s Selective Trout II, to realize the potential of your slower to moderate action rod. The Wulff Triangle Taper is regarded by many as a great line for delicate precision.
Lines with a moderate front taper can be used either for distance or delicate presentations, depending on casting ability and application. Lines such as Scientific Angler’s Trout have a general taper that promotes varied usage and compliments the action of medium action fly rods. RIO’s Gold taper is also a great all-around choice: the longer compound head allows for delicate turnover at any distance, and the gentle rear taper easily manages roll casting and mending. Also consider the incredible new Scientific Angler’s Sharkskin Ultimate Trout Taper for a line that outperforms all others in floatation and shootability.
Fast and Ultra-Fast Action Fly Rods
The high line speeds created by fast and ultra-fast action rods is ideal for turning over big flies in the wind, precision casting or distance casting. For this reason, faster action rods best handle the majority of salt water lines. Look for a line designed for the type of fish you’re going after, and see *Construction* below.
For freshwater fishing, lines such as Scientific Angler’s Expert Distance and the Sharkskin Ultimate Trout taper have increased mass towards the front of the head which conserves inertia when shooting line long distances. Faster rods are generally capable of holding more line in the air, so weight forward lines used on these rods often have longer head lengths with a “steeper”, or shorter, front taper. Sage’s Performance Taper II, Scientific Angler’s GPX, and RIO’s Rio Grande are especially designed for faster action fly rods, loading the rod quickly with less false casting. For experienced casters, consider the RIO Atlantic Salmon/ Steelhead line for single-handed spey, roll casting, and mending line at longer distances with 9 1/2′ to 11′ rods.
DOUBLE TAPER LINES
These lines are gradually tapered from either end and have a uniform diameter “belly” between the tapers. The double taper design is classic, the one our grandfathers used. Modern double taper designs, however, maximize performance, as well as subtlety. Designed for delicate presentations, these lines may be reversed on the reel when one end becomes worn, which makes them more economical to use in the long run. Double-tapered lines like the Scientific Angler’s XPS and the Sage Quiet Taper II are ideally suited for a moderate or slow action rod for the most demanding presentations. Double Taper lines are often the choice for ulta-light or light line enthusiasts as well as for bamboo fly rods. Cortland’s SYLK fly line is specifically suited for bamboo.
Spey Fly Lines are used with Spey, or double handed rods. Spey rods range from 11′ to over 18′ in length and the most powerful of these, in the hands of an expert, are able to reach distances sometimes approaching 200 feet! Spey rods are most often seen on steelhead and salmon rivers, but the recent leap in the popularity of Spey casting and fishing finds them on trout rivers, lakes and saltwater, as well. Spey Fly Lines are much thicker and heavier, can be longer than their single-handed cousins and have their own numbering system; so an 8 weight Spey line, for example, is a lot bigger than an 8 weight standard, or single-handed fly line. There are many styles of Spey casting that exist today. For traditional Spey casting, making longer, fixed distance, D-loop casts choose a longer belly (57 – 71′ head length) spey line such as the RIO PowerSpey. The Scandinavians have developed their own overhead casting method of Spey using very fast action rods and very short (31 – 40′), shooting head Spey lines attached to thin running lines. For Scandinavian-style lines, check out the RIO AFS Spey Shooting Heads, or the complete AFS Shooting Head Kit. Currently, the most popular Spey lines used in the States have head lengths, more or less, (34 – 56′) that fall between these two previous categories. The RIO Skagit and Windcutter lines are considered by many to be the easiest spey lines to learn with and are also preferred by the majority of experienced Spey anglers to match the conditions encountered on many North American steelhead rivers. The utmost in versatility is offered by a fly line system with interchangeable floating and sinking tips when Spey casting in a variety of conditions. Depending on your style, go with RIO’s Skagit, WindCutter, or PowerSpey Versitip systems.
Currently, the most popular Spey lines used in the States have head lengths, more or less, (34 – 56′) that fall between these two previous categories. The RIO Skagit and Windcutter lines are considered by many to be the easiest spey lines to learn with and are also preferred by the majority of experienced Spey anglers to match the conditions encountered on many North American steelhead rivers. The utmost in versatility is offered by a fly line system with interchangeable floating and sinking tips when Spey casting in a variety of conditions. Depending on your style, go with RIO’s Skagit, WindCutter, or PowerSpey Versitip systems.
Shooting heads are very short fly lines, 24′ to 41′ in length, designed to be cast, or ‘shot’, the greatest distances using fast action fly rods with minimal false casting and minimal backcast room. The shooting head is attached, usually by a loop-to-loop connection for a quick, convenient exchange, to a thin running line that has minimal surface contact with the fly rod guides, thus achieving the long distance casts. Shooting heads usually sink, and a selection of various densities allow the angler, with one reel and spool, to fish a variety of water depths and water speeds. Shooting head systems are most often used by steelhead and salmon anglers, with either single-handed and Spey rods, and lake, and Striper fishermen. Check out the RioMax 30′ Shooting Heads; Type 3, Type 6, or Type 8 for progressively faster sink rates.
There are two main categories of sinking fly lines: sink-tips and full sinking lines. Full-sinking fly lines, as the name implies, sink for their entire length. Full-sink lines are most often used for fishing flies in still water; lakes and ponds, or slow moving rivers. These flies are usually retrieved, or “stripped” in by the angler to imitate prey swimming through the water. Full-sink lines come in a range of densities for fishing at different depths in the water column, from a few inches below the waters surface, to over twenty feet deep. Sinking fly lines are usually rated by Inches Per Second, or IPS, according to how fast they sink so that you can choose the appropriate line for fishing at a given range of depths in a particular piece of water. For presenting shallow flies in lakes, use the clear, stealthy Scientific Anglers Stillwater Fly Line. Go a little deeper with RIO DC Full Sink Line Type 3, or deeper yet with the DC Full Sink Line Type 6.
Sink-tip lines are comprised of a sinking head section integrated with a floating running line behind it. The sink-tip portion itself, depending on application, will range from 5’ to 30’ in length. Sink-tip lines are most often used in moving water, and this design allows the angler to “mend” or reposition the floating back section during the course of the drift. Sink tips can also be used effectively in lakes and saltwater. Sink-tips, like full sinking lines, can be stripped in, or be allowed to swing the fly in an arc downstream in the classic steelhead and Atlantic salmon presentation manner. One of the more popular sink-tip lines for fishing in rivers for trout and steelhead would be the RIO DC 15′ Sink Tip Type 3 or Type 6.
Popular these days, due to their versatility and simplicity, are Interchangeable Sink Tip lines. These lines have a short, floating or intermediate belly with a loop at the front and running line behind. The angler, in a small wallet, can carry a variety of different length and density tips that can be exchanged conveniently by looping them onto the front of the floating section. Thus, with one reel and spool, an angler can effectively fish a variety of situations encountered that day, or that year. An interchangeable sink tip system for steelhead and salmon can be found in RIO’s Dredger Versitip. For large saltwater critters; tuna, billfish, big dorado, and the like, try the RIO Leviathan. For interchangeable tips when Spey casting, go with RIO’s Skagit, WindCutter, or PowerSpey Versitip systems.
Nowadays, there’s a fly line designed for every possible type of fishing you might encounter. Line manufacturers offer a wide range of species-specific lines with tapers catering to the near-exact conditions you’ll encounter when chasing your quarry. These tapers are expertly designed: they’re products of years of development and field-testing. If you’re headed out on a quest for Billfish, Bonefish, Redfish, Bass, Tarpon, Steelhead or Striper, pick up a species-specific line for the utmost in technical performance.
A modern fly line is comprised of a core material and a plastic coating. The stiffness of the core material is important when considering in what climate you’ll be fishing. Supple materials for colder weather and stiffer braids for warmer climates ensure that loose loops or tight coils between your guides will not hamper your cast. When fishing saltwater, a braided multifilament core serves colder environments better, offering lower memory and greater suppleness. For tropical temperatures, Scientific Angler’s Tropi-Core braided monofilament doesn’t wilt in the heat and offers better shooting for longer casts. Floating lines are less dense than water, due to hollow microspheres imbedded in the PVC plastic coating. Heavier than water, sinking lines usually employ a coating of varying amounts of tungsten mixed with the plastic for different rates of sink.
Slickness and Shootability
Scientific Angler’s Advanced Shooting Technology (AST) is an impregnated chemical composition that lubricates the line as it runs through the guides, and Rio’s new Xtreme Slickness Technology makes their lines fly as well. Scientific Anglers has recently introduced their remarkable Sharkskin micro-replication technology that may very well prove to be the slickest fly line surface ever.
Time is washed into utter stillness. The slight bob of the belly boat lulls you into a foreign state of consciousness – relaxation. You’re not aware of how many hours you’ve spent out here. The only time measurement is that apportioned out by fish hits and landings. Three in the last . . . hour? The light has definitely changed, but who knows? Musing, you form a perfect loop to cut through the wind and watch your line disappear into lavender depths. A three count to let your Type VI line get down to the depth that has been most productive. Now, the waiting begins. But not long…