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Modern Fly Line Basics

By Bill Luscombe, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


With all the different factors to consider when purchasing a fly line it is easy to see how the novice fly fisher can become overwhelmed by the choices. Let´s shed a little light on the subject in the hopes of clearing up some of the confusion.

The vast majority of fly lines are 25 meters (75 feet) long and come in various weights, tapers, functions, and colours. Line weights range from 1 to 15, 1 being the lightest and 15 the heaviest. These numbers are simply a relative scale of weight and do not indicate the weight of the line itself, although the numbers relate to a specific physical weight for a given length of line. Beginners should concern themselves with weights 5 through 9. For trout fishing you should consider weights 5 to 7, steelhead fishermen will want to consider lines 7 through 9, and salmon anglers will want to use weights 8 through 15. The best all around line for the beginner is a 6 or 7 weight, 6 if you want to fish strictly trout, 7 if you want to try steelhead or small salmon as well. Fly lines also come in various tapers: level, double taper, weight forward and shooting taper. A level taper line is designed as the name applies; it has the same diameter from end to end. It is, generally speaking, the least expensive of the fly lines but has limited use and is not recommended. Double taper and weight forward are by far the most commonly used lines and the beginner should choose one of these two tapers.

Double taper begins thin at one end and tapers to its maximum diameter within about 7 meters (25 feet). The diameter remains the same over the centre 7 meters or so and then tapers back down to thin at the other end. The two end tapers are mirror images of each other. Because of the slow even distribution of weight over the length of the line, double tapered line allow the fly fisher to make delicate presentations of the fly without disturbing the water too much. It also has the added advantage of being reversible. Since both ends of the line are tapered the same, when one end wears out the fishermen can reverse the line and continue to use it. Double taper does not, however, offer the caster the option of long distant casts, weight forward does.

Weight forward taper sacrifices delicacy of presentation for distance. The line is designed to taper very quickly to its maximum diameter through the first 10 meters of line and then quickly taper back down to a thin shooting line. This distributes the majority of the weight in the line into the first 10 meters, or head. The first 10 meters is cast by the rod and the shooting line simply follows the head out onto the water when the cast is released or "shot".

There is a specialty weight forward line called a shooting taper. It is a specialized line about 10 meters in length that incorporates the taper of a weight forward without any shooting line. Dacron backing is tied to the butt and the line is virtually hurled out over the water much like a spin caster hurls his lure. It is designed strictly for distance casting and the beginning fly fisherman need not concern himself with this taper. That´s all there is to line tapers . . . not too complex really.

Line function is a simple thing, the line is designed to either float or sink, or do both at the same time. Thus we have three function designations, floating, sinking and sinking/floating (commonly called sink tip).

Floating lines are the simplest, they simply float and there are no subdivisions of this function. Floating line is used when fishing dry flies and can also be used to fish wet flies or even nymphs if the water is shallow enough.

Wet lines are designed to sink and are divided into classes depending on how fast they sink . . . their sink rate. These sink rates vary in name between manufacturers, but generally speaking are as follows: slow (or intermediate) sinking, sinking, fast sinking, extra fast sinking, Hi-D, super Hi-D, and lead core. The actual rate at which these lines sink varies between 1.5 inches per second to 6.0 inches per second or greater. To get a good idea of the actual sink rates pick up some manufacturers´ catalogues. For the beginner I recommend a fast sinking or extra fast sinking fly line. These two will perform admirably in most wet line situations.

The floating/sinking combination line combines a floating line with a front portion that sinks. It works well when fishing shallow areas in lakes or rivers where floating line won't get your fly deep enough fast enough, and where a full sinking line will carry the fly too deep too fast. There are three classes of floating/sinking combinations and they vary only in the length of the sinking portion of the line. A sink tip line has 3 meters (10 feet) of sinking line at the tip, a sink taper has 6 meters (20 feet), and a sink head has 9 meters (30 feet). The sinking portion of a floating/sinking combination line comes in all the various sink rates that the full sinking lines do. For the beginner these lines are not a necessity.

Fly lines come in all kinds of colours from pure white through brown, including various fluorescent colours. Sinking lines are usually restricted to browns and greens in order to blend in with the weeds and water. Dry lines, however, need to be seen. Thus there is a great range of colours. Most fly fishers prefer the tan and bone coloured lines; they can be easily seen in most light conditions while not being too flashy. I personally prefer the florescent green colour. I find that it is better seen under low light conditions than the other colours and is not gaudy like the florescent orange. Colour is a personal choice however, so take a good look around and pick a colour that you can see well under the low light conditions of dusk.

All this information can appear a little much to the beginner, but don't get disheartened. The American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association (AFTMA) has come to our aid and designed a system to help identify all the various aspects of fly lines in one simple formula. It lists line taper, weight, and function on one label and can be found on every box of line. If you wanted to go and buy a 6 weight, weight forward, floating line you simply have to look on the box for a label that says "WF-6-F". Another example: DT-5-F/S designates a double taper, 5 weight, floating/sinking line. The sink rate would be on a separate sticker on the box as well as whether it was a sink tip, sink taper, or sink head. Take an hour and drop into your local sporting goods store or fly shop and ask to see some lines. I'm sure you will pick up on the labelling system very quickly.

Bill Luscombe has been hunting and fishing for most of his 42 years. He has been flyfishing for 20 years. He instructs flyfishing, and has done so for the past 12 years. He also instructs the federal FSET firearms course and the BC CORE hunter training course. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and has been writing freelance since 1987. He has been published in BC Sport Fishing Magazine, Outdoor Edge, BC Outdoors, Western Sportsman, Island Fish Finder, and the BC Hunting Guide.

Bill Luscombe was born an army brat and raised in Ladner (Delta, BC) where he was raised hunting waterfowl and pheasants. He presently resides in North Cowichan on southern Vancouver Island where he has lived and worked full time as a professional forester since 1982.

He presently works in Nanaimo for the BC Forest Service and continue to write the fly-fishing column for BC Sport Fishing Magazine as well as contributing articles freelance to various outdoor magazines in western Canada.

Bill Luscombe is also a BC Director of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association. "Catching fish is not hard. You simply need to understand what makes them tick. If you think like a fish, you will catch fish. It´s as simple as that."- Bill Luscombe

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