With four months of prime fly fishing about to get under way, anglers are scrambling to get all their gear in order. Conscientious fisherman will give their favored rod and reel outfit a thorough check to prevent problems on the water that could ruin an outing. Make sure reel seats are secure and lock rings screw down smoothly and tightly with no debris around the threads. Cork grips should be clean with no loose rings and guides need to be inspected to be sure none are bent, loose, or worn and grooved from excessive use.
This examination only takes five minutes, but is often overlooked since time is at a premium and most sports don’t want to waste precious minutes checking gear instead of casting. I felt the same way when I was younger, until I ruined a new fly line during a two-hour outing. Rough grooves and sharp-edged furrows inside my metal shooting guides cut, peeled, and perforated the outer coating of the line that was essential to smooth casting and full flotation.
The line up
Back all those years ago, selecting a new line for that particular rod and reel combination wasn’t a big chore due to the moderate variety, but nowadays picking out a fly line is almost overwhelming. What with multiple manufacturers, sizes, shapes, colors , specialty features, and grades available, a well-stocked fishing shop will offer literally hundreds of options. This is a difficult enough task for a veteran fly fisherman, considering the new and advanced line technology and components appearing every year, but for neophyte fly casters it’s downright intimidating.
Truth be told, fly lines generally aren’t replaced often enough. Regardless of the premium quality of a rod and its guides, in the end it’s the quality of a fly line that determines casting ease and precision. An angler’s casting expertise, combined with high tech graphite, boron, and titanium composite rods fitted with top-of-the-line ceramic or titanium guides, is of little use if the wrong fly line is being used.
Exposure to the elements, in the air and in the water, causes as much damage to a line over time as does constant use. Line life for frequent anglers, two to four half-day outings a week, is about two to three years for a top-quality line. Any floating fly line that has been on a reel more than five years is suspect and probably needs replacement. Looking past the fact that lines deteriorate, crack, and weaken in that period of time, regardless of limited use, just the advances in line technology demand an update.
Since entire books have been written about fly lines, and properly selecting one for specific rods, styles of fishing, and species of fish, this overview will be fairly basic. Only floating fly lines will be discussed since sinking tips and full sinking lines are an entirely different bag of snakes. Above and beyond the essential but fundamental explanations and advice, it’s always good to listen to other opinions. Clerks and owners of sporting goods stores and fly shops are usually devout anglers and can offer guidance based on personal experience. If a friend or family member is an ardent fly caster, take them along to the store to aid in the selection process.
Although many companies and brand names will be found on fly lines, for the most part, only three major producers manufacture the majority of fly lines. 3M Scientific Anglers, Cortland, and Airflow offer the bulk of floating fly lines on the shelves today. Thankfully, each company uses the same number and letter designations for sizes and weights, so contrast and comparison become simpler.
Numbers and letters
Every modern fly rod, regardless of length, weight, or number of sections, is conspicuously marked with a designated weight number, which in turn coincides with a line weight of the same number. You may own a four-weight trout rod, a nine-weight salmon rod, or even a 12-weight tarpon rod, and each will work best with a line of the same number. Every fly line has its weight number displayed in at least two sites on the box, as well as on a transferable sticky label on the plastic line holder. The label can be affixed to the reel once the line is in place, so you will always know what line is on which spool.
Older rods of the bamboo or fiberglass variety may not have a designated line weight on the rod. Some fly shops have a device that can determine a rod’s preferable line weight in less than a minute. Another alternative is to call the rod manufacturer directly, give them the specifics, and they should be able to provide you with a recommended line size. Match the number on the rod with the number on the fly line and the first step in line selection is complete.
Step two is understanding which letter designations on each fly-line box meet your casting requirements. Behind the line-weight number will be a letter, and since we are seeking a floating line, that letter will be an F. Any other letter, say an S, or letter combination, F/S, will not be a full-floating fly line.
In front of the number and line size will be another set of letters, and these indicate a particular line characteristic that influences casting via weight distribution and shape. The most common letters and coinciding types of lines are: DT- double taper; WF- weight forward; RT-rocket taper; L-level, and ST-shooting taper. Without exception the most popular lines sold are weight forward (WF) and double taper (DT), with the WF far outselling all other types combined.
I still use a double-taper line on a couple of my trout reels for the simple reason that I can make the line last twice as long by simply reversing it after a year or two. DT lines are ideal for short to medium casts which are used for wet and dry fly fishing in narrow brooks and crowded streams. Each line starts thin and works up to a long, thick belly and then tapers back down. Reversing it produces two lines for the price of one.
Weight forward (WF) lines cast well at short ranges, but really shine at long, precise casts. Once the long, weighted head is in the air, its momentum will direct and pull along the smaller diameter running line, and even novice fly casters can lay out far-reaching casts. These lines use the momentum of the weighted head to turn over and properly lay out large, heavy flies that level or double-taper lines couldn’t handle. When you put this info all together, the designation of a floating line to fit a six-weight four-piece trout rod might be WF-6-F or DT-6-F.
Ask a group of knowledgeable fly casters their thoughts regarding line color, and there will be as many opinions as there are trout in a country creek. Dark colors and greens used to be the norm, but in the last decade or so, brightly colored lines have blossomed like brilliant spring flowers. Orange, blue, yellow, red, and fluorescent green lines now compete with subdued gray, peach, light green, white, and even clear-line colors.
One group believes that bright lines spook the fish, while the other side says that any color line will scare a fish if it’s too close. I always favored peach or medium green lines until three years ago when my cousin and I stood side by side dry fly fishing a trout pool. He caught just as many on his bright red line as I did on my camo green fly line.
What converted me was that I could see and follow his colorful line much easier than my own. Now I use longer leaders and have yellow and orange floating lines which both regularly catch trout and salmon. Scientific Anglers plays it smart and offers many lines in two color choices – one neutral, one bright. Over the last few years, very dark colors such as black, dark green, and blue are reserved for sinking tips and full sinking lines.
As line-making technology advances each year, more fly lines are constructed to meet special needs. There are salt water tapers, tapers for heavy wind conditions, maximum distance tapers, and spey rod tapers for the big two-handed rods. Some manufacturers even offer specialty fly lines for specific fish and the techniques that catch them, such as Scientific Anglers’ Trout, Steelhead, Bass Bug, Pike/Muskie, Nymph, and Striped Bass tapers.
Most lines are round, but one company produces a triangular shaped fly line that is supposed to wear less, last longer and cast easier due to it shape. Line cores are getting smaller, yet stronger, and outer layers are infused with chemicals to make them float better and longer and to extend durability and line life. New combinations of polymers and plastics create a slick outer layer that casts with ease and requires less maintenance.
Technology is wonderful, but not cheap. Plan on paying at least $50 for a top-quality fly line. It’s possible to buy an entry-level line for less than 20 bucks, but as with most things, you get what you pay for. Think of it this way: You can take a cab or a limousine from the airport to the hotel, they both get you there, and although the limo costs more, you get a lot of comfort and amenities for your money.
A top-rate fly line won’t make you a professional caster, but it will make you a better caster. Likewise, a cheap line will detract from your abilities and those of a fine fly rod. Check out the Cortland 444 Lazerline or the new 444 Classic series that even includes an interactive CD about fly-line use and choosing your next line based on your specific needs. I also can’t say enough about Scientific Anglers Mastery fly lines. I own three and just got a new WF-9-F for my salmon rod. These lines flow out like current through a live wire. Prime fly season is at hand, so if you need a new line, don’t let all the letters and numbers confuse you. Now you know the basics and will have an answer when the clerk asks, “What’s your line?”
Outdoor feature writer Bill Graves can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org