Fly Line

Letters, Numbers, Colors, Tapers, Floating, Sinking, Yada, Yada

So, you bought your fly rod, got your reel – remember, they need to be the same weight – and now you’re ready to pick out your fly line.  So many colors to choose from!  And what’s with all these codes; letter and numbers and dashes on the boxes?

The fly line you choose is likely one of the most critical elements (arguably the most critical) in your arsenal when you hit the waters.  While there are a half-dozen or so quality manufacturers of fly line, there are hundreds of fly line variations.  So, were going to provide a solid introduction to fly lines to give you what you need to know to make the best selection based on your needs.  Ready?

One Size Does Not Fit All

One fly line does not fit all scenarios… I’ll contradict myself later but work with me for a moment.  If you know any long-time fly fishermen/women, and seen their assortment of equipment, it is almost certain that they have multiple reels and/or spools, each set up with a specific type of fly line… and all just for fly fishing for trout.  Isn’t that overkill?  In short?  Nope.  You see, even if you narrow fly line down to a specific weight class, you still have many variations; you may want a specific fly line for nymphs, one for dry flies, and yet another for streamers.  Confusing?  Of course!  If you’re just getting started it can be all a bit much, and yes, to start you only need one fly line, so let’s get back to the basics.

Have you ever been fishing with a spin-casting reel?  You tie on a rapala, or worm and bobber, and cast that sucker out into the water, and it sails 20 feet , 30 feet, maybe further.  You know, it is the weight of the lure, and your cast, that sends your line out over the water to ker-plunk with a spash of sorts.  Trying to cast a fly with the same rod/reel wouldn’t cast your fly but about a few feet.  After all, a small #16 elk-hair caddis fly isn’t going to carry anything, regardless of how strong your cast is.

With fly fishing, the fly (dry, nymph, streamer, etc.) is delivered to its destination by the weight and type of fly line itself.  This allows you to cast a small dry fly out and, with practice, lay it down on the water gently to float so as not to spook the fish and make the fly look like it’s just naturally dropped onto the water… a key to success in fishing with a dry fly.  Dry fly fishing requires a floating line, but there are several types of floating lines; there’s the weight-forward taper, the double taper, the shooting taper… clear as mud right?  We’ll begin to clear things up.

What Are You Made Of?

Fly line is basically constructed of a Core and the Coating.  Different manufacturers of fly line have their own “recipes,” which create their specific type of line.  Some may be slicker than others, offer different colors, may float better than others, etc.  Are similar fly lines (i.e. WF-5-F) from different manufacturers really all that different?  Well, a novice may not notice the difference but a seasoned fly fisherman/woman would likely feel a definite difference.  More later.

The Core 

The Core of a fly line determines several things for the line; its strength, its stiffness, and how much it stretches.  Most often the core is made of either a single-strand monofilament, a monofilament braid, or a multi-filament braid.  Depending on the weight of the line and its desired characteristics, the test (or strength) of the core will range from 10 pounds to 80 pounds.

The Core stiffness can greatly impact how a line casts and in what environments they are best suited.  For example a stiffer Core has greater line memory and is used when higher line speeds and tighter loops are desired.  They are most often used in fly lines made to withstand hotter temperatures such as tropical fishing.  A more supple core has less line memory (coils less), and is best suited for moderate temperatures, and when distance casting is less important.

Fly Line Core and Coating
The Coating

The coating of a fly line is generally made of a combination of chemicals; plastisol, silicone, microspeheres (tiny capsules), tungsten, etc, and dictates much of the obvious line characteristics and performance; i.e. weight, floating, sinking, color, slickness, etc.

The coating for a floating line will be impregnated with microspheres or air capsules to make it less dense and lighter than water so it floats.

Fly line coatings for sinking lines will contain additives such as tungsten to add weight and be quite a bit denser with less or no air so it sinks (brilliant huh?).  Sinking line however can sink at different “sink rates,” as measured in “ips” or inches-per-second.  They can sink at a slow rate of 1.25 ips or as fast as 10 ips.  The choice is yours.

Floating and Sinking Fly Lines
Floating versus Sinking Fly Lines

Rio has a really cool short video that discusses how they make their fly lines… click here Rio – The making of fly line to check it out!  No, really… watch it!

The Color

O.k., you’ll likely hear many different theories on the color of the fly line as it impacts the fish.  The fact is, the fish will see the fly line regardless of color, so the color of the fly line is for your benefit.  Choose one that you like and can see under the conditions you’ll be fishing.  Damn, that was easy!

fly line in various colors

Anatomy Of A Fly Line

I never really like dissecting things in school to check out the critters anatomy, however I have since learned it is important to know to get a full grasp on how things work.  So it is with fly line.  Yes, it’s true, there are different parts to a fly line and each impacts how the line performs.  These parts are true of all fly lines, except the Level (L) line, but we’ll talk about that one when we discuss Tapers.  So, from front to back we have:

Tip – usually 6 to 12 inches short.  This is where you attach your leader, or your loop connector.  It is level and short so as not to impact the performance of the fly line.

Front Taper – usually about 4 to 8 feet in length, this section determines how much power/energy the line has during a cast and is the driver of the cast.  The diameter gradually decreases from the back to the front of the section.

Belly / Body – section of the fly line where most of the weight of the line is placed and is the section that carries the cast.

Rear Taper – where the Belly tapers down to the running line section.

Running Line – the narrowest section of the fly line and is from where the taper terminates all the way to the end of the line.


The Taper

Most fly lines have some taper.  The taper as just mentioned above is the part of the fly line where the line enlarges in diameter and then eventually decreases in diameter.  In short, the design of the taper determines how much and where the casting energy is focused, and it plays a large role in the accuracy of your casting.  We’ll discuss each one to help you get a better grip on which might be best suited for you.

Level (L) – o.k. so remember there’s always an exception to the rule.  The Level line has no taper.  So why in the world are we talking about a line with no taper in the taper section? Ummm, well, good question… just roll with it.  Anyway, a level line has the same diameter the full length of the line.  This type of line isn’t the best for casting accuracy or distance and it can be a bit difficult to control.  So what’s the point?  A level line can be suited for nymph fly fishing or maybe for short distance streamer fishing.  Many anglers will buy these lines to cut them up and use the pieces for custom tips on their other lines.

Double Taper (DT) – a double taper has a taper on both ends of the line.  So, yes, the belly section makes up almost the entire line.  This line can be reversible.  A double taper line is good for short casts, roll casts, and is easy to mend.  The floating line versions are good for swift moving water, casting dry flies.

Double Taper Fly Line

Weight Forward (WF) – the weight forward taper positions the belly at the front of the fly line.  This allows for more energy to be directed forward during a cast, is easier to control, and enables a more accurate and longer cast.  A weight forward line is extremely versatile and is a solid choice for any type of fly fishing; dry flies, nymphs, and streamers.

Weight Forward Fly Line

Shooting Taper (ST) – a shooting taper is a type of weight forward line with significantly more weight paced in the first 20 feet of the line, with the remaining line being the running line – same weight and diameter.  It is designed for very long casts – very long, accurate, powerful casts.  Since this line can be difficult to control, it is mostly overkill for most fly fishermen/women, and certainly not recommended for the beginner.

Fly Line Shooting Taper

Triangle Taper (TP) – a triangle taper is a version of the weight forward fly line.  The exception is how the belly tapers – usually beginning at the rear of the belly and tapers consistently toward the front.  Most novice anglers won’t notice a difference between a triangle taper and a standard weight forward taper, however a more experienced angler may find these easier to control.

Triangle Taper Fly Line

There are many other taper designs which are off-shoots of the weight forward concept; Teeny Taper, Steelhead Taper, and Rocket Taper.  Some are good for sinking lines, some for designed for longer casts, but most of these variations are used for a specific type of fly fishing.  We could write an entire book on different types of tapers and will address some of them in other posts.  But, the above group covers the majority of the basic designs, so we’ll move on.

Why Weight?

Fly line is manufactured in many different weights.  The weight designation ranges from 1 to 14, with the lower numbers being lighter, moving on up in number to heavier lines.  The weight of the fly line is critical to the type of fish you’ll be chasing, and the type and size of flies you’ll be using.

Also, in general, the weight of the fly line should match the weight of the fly rod and reel.  For example, you would not want to try casting a large #2 streamer on a rod/reel/line weight of 3.  Why?  Simply because the #2 streamer fly is too large/heavy for your rod and line to handle effectively.  Sure, you could try to muscle a cast, but your accuracy and distance will be very difficult to control, and if you do hook into a large fish – big enough to chomp on that size fly – you’ll likely snap the line and maybe even your rod.  Conversely, you would not want to use a rod/reel/line weight of a 7 (or higher) to cast a small #16 dry fly.  Why?  Simply because it is overkill and you lose the sensitivity and feel of the fight with a lighter combo, and the feel of the fight is half the fun.

Now, having said the above, you can vary the fly line weight on a specific weight rod based on the type of fishing however it is recommended only by one or two weights; for example, on a #5 weight rod, you can vary the line weight, using a 3 weight line all the way up to roughly a 6 or 7 weight line (this is called underloading or overloading a reel – more about the pros and cons of this in a future post), depending on the type of fly you’re using and fish you’re chasing, but not much beyond that.

Fly line weights are generally best suited for:

Fly line weight 1 to 3 – primarily for smaller fish; trout, bluegill, crappie, and for fishing in smaller creeks and streams.

Fly line weight 4 to 6 – very good all-around weights for trout and mid-sized fish in most waterways, using all types of flies (dry flies, nymphs, and streamers) that range in size from a #22 to a #6 streamer.

Fly line weight 7 and above – designed for larger fish (large trout, steelhead, salmon, large bass, and saltwater species) in large waters where longer, more powerful casts are needed and larger flies are used; sizes #10 to 2.

Fly Line Brands and Manufacturers

Now, there are many fly line brands; Rio, Orvis, Scientific Angler, Cortland, Airflo, Barrio, Hardy, Epic, Maxxon, River Peak, Loop, Stone Creek, Hatch, Arc, Echo, Royal Wulf, Risen, Monic, Genwair, Northern Sport, Naru, Vision, Greys, and likely many more. It’s probably safe to say, although not 100% sure, that several of these brands are actually manufactured by someone else and sold “private label” which just means sold under a different brand from the manufacturer. Which ones we don’t know.

Fly Line Price

The price of fly lines range quite a bit; from roughly $30 all the way up to $100. Of course the bigger brands like Rio, Orvis, Airflo, and Orvis are likely going to be more expensive. Does that mean they’re better lines? Well, not necessarily. Some are better, yes. But like the differences in fly rods, you may not be able to tell, depending on how much you fish.

If you have any comments or additions, please pass them along. And as always, Tie One On!

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