Decisions, decisions: Choosing a Floating Fly Line
It seems like choosing the correct floating fly line has become a daunting task over the last few years. Walk into a fly shop, open a catalog, or visit a manufacturer’s web site and you will probably be overwhelmed with the choices available to you.
Need a tropical line for casting crawfish patterns to carp between 80 and 90ft away? We’ve got it! Need a line for throwing tan and pearl Gotcha flies to tailing bonefish on Tuesday afternoons? We’ve got it! I’m chuckling as I type this, because it’s not really that bad, but it can sometimes feel pretty overwhelming when trying to pick the right line.
We’ll do our best to help you out with your decision-making process. First let’s talk a little bit about floating fly lines, and then we’ll talk about the various factors in choosing a fly line.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll just focus on lines for single hand fly rods in this post. First off, when you talk about fly lines, the most common word that comes up in conversations is taper. Taper is the change in diameter and weight of your fly line as you go down the length of it. These changes in size and weight affect how the fly line loads a rod, cuts through the air and lands, along with what types of flies it carries best.
There are 3 basic types of tapers. Weight Forward (WF), Double Taper (DT) and Level Taper (L).
Weight Forward (WF) lines have two main sections, the head and the running line. The head, which is the thicker forward part of the fly line, has a few distinct parts of its own. The main wide part of the head is called the belly. The forward part of the belly tapers down in diameter to a few feet of level tip which connects to the leader. The back end of the belly also tapers down until it transitions into the running line. The running line stays the same thin diameter and continues all the way back to where the backing attaches. On an 80-100ft fly line, the head can range from 30-50ft and the rest of the length is the running line.
The weight forward WF floating lines are pretty much the industry standard and for good reason. In general, they are easier to cast than the other types of tapers, and they also come in many different flavors for your casting needs. Since they are the most common, once we give a quick explanation of the other taper types, we will focus the rest of the article on WF Floating lines.
You may also hear anglers talk about Shooting Heads or Shooting Lines. Shooting Head lines are like WF lines, but they usually have a very heavy short head and a very thin running line. The purpose of these lines is to make long distance casts quickly with minimal false casting. They are not delicate but they do get to fish quickly. I’m a huge fan of shooting heads in certain circumstances, such as when we are chasing schools of busting fish on the move. Shooting Head lines used to come separate from the running line and had to be connected, now most of them come together as one seamless line called an Integrated Shooting Head.
Double Taper (DT) lines are a more basic line than WF lines. The entire middle section of the fly line is the belly. On either end of the belly, the line tapers down to the tip. If you folded the line in half at the center point, and matched the tips up, you would see that both halves of the line match up exactly. The line lays down quietly because of the taper so it can make for a good freshwater trout line in some circumstances. The other positive is that if you wear out the end of your fly line, you can just switch it around and use the other end. Double taper lines can be a little harder to cast in some situations and don’t have the versatility of a weight forward floating line. For that reason, DT fly lines do get some use by anglers but are not nearly as popular as WF.
Level Taper (L) lines are the most basic of all the floating line tapers. The line is the same diameter throughout the length of it. These are the hardest of the tapers to cast because there is no weight concentrated towards the forward section to load the rod. This taper is also the least commonly used and sold of the different line types.
Specific Tapers of Weight Forward Floating Fly Lines
Most of the bigger fly line companies offer their WF lines in many different tapers for specific scenarios. On the freshwater side, there are tapers specifically for bass, trout, musky, carp, short belly shooting tapers, distance casting tapers, etc. On the saltwater side, you have shooting heads, general flats lines, and lines for redfish, stripers, tarpon, permit, bonefish and more.
Each of these fly lines have a slightly different head shape and length, and are named for a fish or style of fishing that the manufacturers believe they suit best. For example, most “redfish” lines have a shorter compact head that helps to load big, wind resistant flies for short to medium casts. A “bonefish” line, on the other hand, has a longer head for longer casts and a taper designed for delicate presentations of smaller flies to spooky fish.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t use a redfish line to catch bonefish, or a bonefish line to catch redfish. If you normally fish one type of scenario, and already own a taper for it, you can choose to purchase a new line specifically for a special trip, but it’s not absolutely necessary. If you fish lots of different situations, and don’t want to purchase several different lines, a generic saltwater or freshwater taper will cover most situations well.
Water and air temperature also factor into fly line purchases. Some fly lines are built with materials that perform better in hot temperatures and some perform better in cold temps.
Extremely hot weather has the tendency to soften lines and make them sticky. Limp fly lines are not enjoyable to cast, and you will notice a reduction in performance. Because of this, manufacturers offer certain fly lines with stiffer core materials and special coatings to keep the line from softening in the tropical heat. Some of these lines are advertised as “Tropical”, but any lines labeled for warm water species (such as bonefish/permit/tarpon) should be assumed to be tropical lines.
On the other hand, those same fly lines will become overly stiff in chilly air and water temps. Stiff lines retain their memory and stay in tight coils once stripped off the reel. As you can guess, these tight coils don’t make for enjoyable casting.
Manufacturers offer lines labeled as “Cold Water”, along with species specific lines (like striped bass) that are built to handle the cold. Manufacturers are now offering some lines in both cold and warm water versions. Generic Saltwater tapers and Redfish lines are two types that usually come in a cold or hot version. To simplify things, if you generally fish in water temps above 70deg F, choose a tropical line. And if you normally fish water temps below 60deg F, choose a Coldwater line. If you are like me, and spend a lot of time fishing extremely warm and cold temps throughout the year, you may want to consider one of each.
Line wt and how it relates to flies, wind and fish
As you may already know, line wt designations are based upon a specific weight in grains of the first 30ft of a fly line. For example, the first 30ft of a 6wt line should weigh 160gr, a 7wt would be 185gr, an 8wt would be 210gr and so forth. These are the guidelines used by manufacturers when designing fly lines, and in turn used by rod manufacturers when designating a rod as a certain line wt. Obviously, these are just guidelines, and a rod can cast a line that weighs more or less than it's designation without a problem.
There are several factors that go into determining what wt fly line is best for a certain situation. Size and weight of flies, wind, and size of fish can all make a difference on what line you choose. For example, a 5wt line will do well with small to medium flies designed for trout and bass. If you want to cast a big popper to a 3lb bass, your 5wt fly line is going to have more trouble carrying that popper through the air than it would with something like a wooly bugger. So even though your 5wt rod can handle that 3lb bass, you may have to step up rod and line size to a 6 or 7wt to comfortably handle the larger wind resistant fly.
If you are throwing unweighted seaducer flies at redfish, a 6wt or 7wt will handle the fly and the fish without a problem. If you step up to a bushy, weighted fly, you may want to upgrade to an 8wt or 9wt to help carry the fly, even if the fish could be landed on a 7wt.
The size and power of a fish will also affect your fly line size choices, even if you are using small flies. A small surf candy on a size 4 hook weighs practically nothing and can easily be cast with a 6wt. If you are using that surf candy for 20lb false albacore tuna, you are going to want to step up to a 9 or 10wt rod. Therefore, you will be using a 9 or 10wt line to cast a fly that could easily be launched on a 6wt. Tarpon fishing is another notable example. Many flies tied for 100lb tarpon are smaller than the flies we throw at redfish. So even though the fly could easily be tossed on a 7wt line and rod, we obviously are going to be looking a much larger rod and therefore higher wt line for that scenario.
Windy conditions are the other factor that affect fly line size. Bone-fishing is a good example. Any bonefish fly, and most small to medium bonefish, could be landed on a 6 or 7wt rod. Unfortunately, often you have to deal with wind on the flats. Due to that, you will usually see most anglers carrying an 8wt as their preferred rod, not because of the fish or the fly, but because the heavier 8wt line does an excellent job cutting through the wind.
To over-line or not?
In both freshwater and saltwater scenarios, you will hear anglers talking about over-lining their rods. What they are usually talking about is stepping up their line wt one size above what is recommended on the rod. There are a few reasons that this is done.
One reason, is that most fly rod companies put emphasis on their fastest action rod models. These models are cannons in the casting department but don’t always have as much feel as a more moderate action rod. Every angler has a casting style that fits them best, and sometimes anglers purchase a fast action rod, when they naturally have a slow or medium casting stroke. Therefore a lot of anglers will take a fast action rod and over-line it so that they can feel it load, when they could have bought a slightly slower action rod to start with.
Another reason to over-line rods is in scenarios where making very short casts is the norm. For example, say you are fishing a 3wt rod for brook trout, in a stream where the average cast is 20ft. That rod will most likely need 30ft of 3wt line out the rod tip to load it properly. When carrying only 10-20ft of line out your rod tip, your 3wt fly line is effectively acting as a 1 or 2wt line. This is a scenario where overloading your rod with a 4wt line would allow the rod to load more naturally with very short casts.
Some anglers also like over-lining rods to help with larger flies and wind. Some line manufacturers will actually overweight their lines from the advertised wt. For example, some flats lines and redfish lines may be labeled as 8wt, and are actually 8 ½ wt or 8 ¾ wt. My thought on over-lining is that it’s totally up to the angler and there is no right or wrong decision. Experimentation is the only way to know if up-lining will work for your specific situation.
Other tidbits: textured lines, welded loops, color, IDs and cost
Textured lines. Over the last few years, more and more companies have started to offer their lines in different textures. Some manufactures offer ridged lines, some cross hatched textures or scaled patterns, and some have dimpled lines. There are a few advantages to textured fly lines. For one, they have less surface area that makes contacts with the guides when shooting the line, reducing drag and adding to casting distance. Second, the line has less surface tension with the water, so it is easier to mend and to pick up to cast. The lines are also less likely to become stiff with memory coils, compared to some non-textured lines. Lastly, some anglers believe that the textured lines float higher on the surface of the water. The main down sides to the lines are that they are usually more expensive than non-textured lines, and they can be rough on the stripping fingers.
Welded loops. Historically most anglers have made attachments to their lines by directly nail knotting the leader and/or backing to the line, or by forming the end of the line in a loop and nail knotting that loop in place. Most of the higher end lines now come with convenient factory welded loops at each end. Some anglers believe that the factory welded loops are not as strong as doubling over the fly line and nail knotting your own loops. I tend to agree with this and usually leave factory loops on any lines 8wt and under, and nail knot my own loops on lines 9wt and up.
Line color. Fly line color has been a hotly debated topic. Floating fly lines used to be manufactured in very visible colors such as orange, chartreuse, yellow, white, etc. Nowadays many lines have been toned down to more stealthy colors. The reality is that if a fly line is casted or drifted over a fish, they will see it. If it’s sunny outside, the color probably won’t make a difference, because they will usually just see a dark silhouette of the line when looking up. The color of the line is of much more importance to the angler, as being able to see what the fly line is doing in the air and on the water is helpful to most casters. In general, most saltwater floating lines come in shades of light blue, light green, light yellow or tan. Most freshwater floating lines are offered in tan, olive, dull yellow or light green. The moral of the story is that it’s much more important to focus on line wt and taper, than color.
Line IDs. A lot of the higher end lines now come with ID info printed on them from the factory. As a fly line addict with several dozen lines laying around, I find this to be very helpful. If your line does not come with a wt indication printed on it, you can easily do one yourself using the Lefty Kreh method. Using a black sharpie, mark your line with a long tic mark for each 5wt increment followed by a small tic mark for each 1wt increment. For example, a 4wt line would be marked with 4 small tic marks, an 8wt with 1 long tic mark followed by 3 small tic marks, and a 10wt would be marked by 2 long tic marks.
Cost. Prices on modern fly lines can vary from $20 to over $120. Most of your basic generic brands will run you $20-40 and are great for someone newer to the sport or someone looking for an affordable backup line. The higher end lines that most serious anglers throw usually cost around $70-80. Up to this point, I absolutely believe that you get what you pay for. I would take a mid-price rod and a high-end line any day over a top end rod and a poor-quality fly line. Beyond the $80 lines, you are mostly paying for additional small features like specialty coatings, different textures on distinct parts of the same line, etc. These additional features most likely do help the performance of the line to a point, but you’ll have to decide how much you want to invest in a floating fly line.
Speaking of investments, quality fly lines are investments just like rods and reels. Even if you fish hard and often, a well-cared for line will last you years of use unless it meets up with a pile of oysters or a boat prop. Again, everything in this article is just my opinion and others may have different thoughts on fly lines. I hope this helps clear a little bit of the mystery for the next time you go shopping for a floating fly line.
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