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Fly lines - an introduction

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Over the last few years there has been a vast increase in the range of fly lines on the market. Much of the development has gone into the design and production of ever-more specialised lines, for use for a single species or a particular set of conditions. In the first of two articles, Terry Lawton attempts to get to the bottom of the design designation and selection of fly lines.

Whether you choose an all-round mid-range line, a cheap and cheerful mill end or opt for a highly specialised line, you will not be short of choice. There is a vast range of fly lines on the market today. One major manufacturer, Cortland, had over 350 lines in its catalogue a year or two ago. With the exception of blow-lines, used for dapping, all fly lines are tapered. The taper of a fly line is an essential part of the way it will perform when used with a fly rod to cast a fly. There are two basic types of taper: double taper and weight forward. While the double taper is relatively straight forward, there is a multiplicity of tapers available in weight forward patterns. Why are there so many different lines available today? All or any fly line will do the same basic thing: allow you to cast a fly to a feeding fish. But some will do this better and particularly under more demanding conditions. Beginners are encouraged to start with a floating line - as these are the easiest to handle, whether weight forward or double tapered - while the more experienced and advanced casters will wish to buy and use more specialist lines.

The American company Cortland claims that its Cortland 333 line, which was introduced in 1953, was the first low-maintenance floating line (previously all fly lines were made from silk and took a lot of care and attention) and had the first bonded synthetic surface coating ever used in fly line manufacturing. In the summer of 1915, Ray Smith, a merchant and angler, from Cortland, New York, decided that he had had enough of the clothing business. He was expert in braiding technology and designed and produced a selection of braided silk fishing lines that was to make the Cortland Line Company one of the major companies in the fishing line business in the early decades of the last century. During the second World War, Cortland developed new manufacturing methods and after the War they were used to produce a range of braided fishing lines.

The 333 line was followed by the 444 which set new standards in line construction, taper and finish. As more anglers started used faster, higher performing rods in the 1970s and '80s, so new lines were required to suit their performance. The 444SL was Cortland's response.

Also at the end of the War, in 1945 Leon Martuch Sr and Clare Harris lost patience with their silk lines and decided to do something about producing a new and better line. They started Scientific Anglers and conducted early experiments in Martuch's kitchen. The results were prototypes of the Air Cel which the company also claims was the first modern, floating fly line. Scientific Anglers developed the basic construction and composition of modern fly lines in 1952.

RIO Products is a relatively new manufacturer of fly lines that has specialised in creating functional products based on real life fishing. Each taper is individually conceived and created for a specific type of fishing and custom engineered for the optimum rod size. The company claims that its high tech manufacturing facility coupled with Idaho's low humidity enables it to produce extra smooth line coatings. RIO has a computer-controlled fly line engineering system that, it claims, gives 100 per cent repeatability.

It is worth remembering that most reasonably competent anglers/casters will be perfectly happy using fairly standard fly lines and tapers for most of their fishing. It is, perhaps, only when fishing in very specific or demanding conditions that special tapers will be required. An example is saltwater fly fishing in the tropics for bonefish and tarpon when a special line will cope with the heat and the saltwater as well as helping you to make the very necessary fast casts. Also advanced and knowledgeable casters will benefit from using specialist tapers.

To get the best out of your choice of rod and line, you must chose a line that is the correct weight for your rod. A rod fitted with the correct weight of line will be balanced and using balanced tackle - rod, line, leader and fly size - is essential to good casting and fishing. But what weight of line do you choose? Can you rely on the information on the rod itself? In essence if a rod has a single line rating ie 6#, that rod will be rated for a 6# weight forward line. This is because the sale of weight forward lines far exceeds those of double taper lines throughout the world so rods are designed for use with weight forward lines. If you use the same rod with a double taper line, you could go down one weight. For rods with dual line ratings, 6/7# for example, then that rod will perform best with a 6# double taper line and a 7# weight forward. The reason for this is that the weight of double taper line aerialised when casting will be slightly greater than that of a weight forward line as the double taper line has a thick belly whereas with the weight forward, the weight is in the head. Lines are rated by the grain density of the head and there can be very slight differences between seemingly or essentially similar lines made by different manufacturers. You may well find that your casting style and the use to which you put your rod will effect its performance. You may find also that your rod performs better with a line of a different weight, either lighter or heavier, than the manufacturer's recommendation, for example, if you regularly fish at short range or are always casting a full line. This can be established only by trial and error.

Fly lines have two main components, the core and the outer coating. It is through modifying these two components that lines with different and specific characteristics can be created. The core of the line determines its tensile strength, stretch and stiffness. It's interesting but I have never heard anyone query the breaking strain of a fly line. Although the line must be stronger than the heaviest tippet that you are likely to use, it was only while researching this article that I came across any mention of a fly line's breaking strain. Scientific Anglers claims an approximate breaking strain for a 2# line of about 20lbs and over 40lbs for heavy saltwater lines.

How much a line does, or does not, stretch affects the feel and performance of the line. If a line stretches too much it will feel soft and nasty. Too little stretch in a line will result in an unacceptable amount of line memory ie the line comes off the reel in coils, rather than straight.

Lines for use in hot conditions need a stiffer core to stop them from going too floppy. But use such a line in the cold and it will be far too stiff for acceptable performance.

The coating on a line provides the weight needed to load the rod and its density determines whether the line floats or sinks. Scientific Anglers incorporates Microballoons within the coating to give precise control over line density. Some line coatings may also contain hydrophobic agents which repel water and help increase floatation and ultra-violet ray inhibitors to protect the coating from the sun's harmful effects.

Lines are made to sink by adding powdered tungsten to the coating.

The basic tapers

The taper of any fly line consists of four parts: the tip, the front taper, the belly and the rear taper. The rest of the line is the running line. Double taper lines comply with this pattern just the same as weight forward lines. A double taper line has the same length of tip and running line, and the same length of front and rear taper. The lengths of the front and rear tapers can and do vary and it is these variations which change the casting performance of a line. A longer front taper will offer better presentation and a wider casting loop.

The standard length of a fly line is 30m (90 feet), regardless of taper, although there are shorter lines made as well as longer ones, the latter are usually for long distance casting or for use with double handed rods. A double taper line is tapered equally, from both ends, so that the thickest part of the line is the middle, level section. For many years these lines were claimed to be the best when accurate casting and delicate presentation was required. They are still popular for salmon fishing which involves roll casting although special Spey casting lines are now made by most line manufacturers. (They were never designed for casting long distances. But the tremendous amount of development that has gone into designing ever more and better weight forward lines has resulted in many of these lines being just as good, if not better, for accurate disturbance-free casts.) In my opinion the line that will cast best and give you the best presentation is the one that performs best for you, regardless of its type and length and diameter of its front taper, the business end of the line.

Weight forward tapers have the thick part of the line towards the business end which is then followed by a thin, level running line. Only one end of the line can be used and all weight forward lines are sold with a marker attached to the end of the line that is attached to the reel spool. Most weight forward tapers are designed to suit each weight of line, in other words, the taper of a 4# line will be slightly different from that of a 9#.

Whereas most weight forward lines have a variable taper head, the Lee Wulff Triangle Taper line has a continuous taper from the tip of the line to the end of the head, at 40 feet, and a very short back taper to the running line. The lines used to have a double line rating ie TT5/6F but now have a single line rating. this means that if you are using a TT5F, if you aerialise 30 feet of the line it will perform as a 5#, but if you aerialise the full 40 foot head, it will perform as a 6#.

What do the letters and numbers mean?

Fly rods are marked, just above the handle, with information on the correct weight of line to use with the rod as well as its length. The American hash symbol, #, is often used to denote line weight. Some rods may have just one number eg 6#, while others will have two, 6/7#. How the line weight is shown will vary from maker to maker, but the end result is the same: the numbers show either the correct line weight for the rod or a choice of weights.

The AFTMA numbers given to fly lines are based on the weight of the first 30 feet (9.14m) of the line, in grains. A grain is the weight of a grain of American wheat and there are, I understand, 7006 to the pound. Numbers run from 0 to 15. The higher the number, the heavier the line. This line numbering system was devised and standardised by the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association, hence AFTMA. And although it is not a perfect system, it is the only one that we have got at the moment.

To have correctly-balanced tackle, lightweight lines from 0 to 3# are used with small flies and for short distances; 4 and 5# for medium flies/distances; 6 and 7# are solid performing middle weights for bigger flies and longer casts and then 8 and 9# are the heavyweights. Lines of 10# and upwards are usually salmon weights.

DT = double taper
WF = weight forward
DT-4-F = double taper 4# floating
WF-6-F = weight forward 6# floating
S = sinking
WF-7-S = weight forward 7# sinking
WF-7-F/S = weight forward 7# sink tip (this can also be shown as WF-7-ST where the ST stands for sink tip)

Spey casting lines have a range of weights eg WF 7/8 or WF 7/8/9. You will also see I for intermediate, FS for fast sink and HD for Hi D lines

Different manufacturers have different names for lines that do the same as other makers which makes it necessary to check specifications to make sure that you are comparing like with like and that you buy the line that you want.

Floating lines are the easiest to fish with as they can be picked-up off the water and cast again most easily in comparison with sinking lines which may well need to be roll cast to the surface before lifting them out of the water. By using sinking leaders - particularly poly leaders - it is possible to fish at some depth, even if it means waiting a bit longer while your leader and flies sink.

Line cores

The core of a fly line is its heart and the choice of core material has an effect on a line's performance. The core material effects a line's stiffness, strength and elasticity. Core materials are either braided or single strand. Low stretch cores have the benefit of allowing quicker, firmer 'strikes' to set the hook but suffer from a lack of shock-absorbing qualities that help protect fine tippets when playing big, hard-fighting fish.

Braided cores can be either braided monofilament where a number of strands are braided together and, when the coating is added, the end result is a relatively stiff line, or braided multifilament nylon. Braided nylon cores are used for freshwater fishing as the end result is a strong limp line with an acceptable amount of memory. Braided multifilament Dacron, or polyester, has been used for tournament casting lines but is losing popularity as a core material for normal fishing lines.

Single strand nylon is often used for saltwater lines and can be manufactured as a high- or low-memory core as required. Gel-spun polyethylene, which has very little stretch combined with high strength, is used by one maker only, Monic, in Boulder, Colorado.

Line coatings

Again all manufacturers have their own specialised coating: each one is better than the competition's. We are talking about axially orienting polymer and specific plasticizers, together with superslick lubricants. There are three main base materials used for coatings: PVC, polyurethane and polyethylene. PVC is the most popular but Airflo uses polyurethane and Monic is the sole user of polyethylene. Combining polymers with plasticizers gives a stable coating and prevents premature brittleness. Ultra-violet inhibitors will help protect a line from the damaging effects of sunlight. The main purposes of the coating are to reduce friction when casting, to encourage floating lines to float high on the water, and sinking lines to sink. The coating will also help resist collecting dirt and grime which increases friction and thus reduces casting distance. A coating that allows a line to shoot well will aid distance casting. Lubrication in the coating helps reduce friction and the risk of the coating cracking. The coatings on floating lines include micro-ballons, microspheres and even hollow to give a floating line its essential buoyancy, although such additives are not needed with polyethylene which has a specific gravity such that it floats naturally. Sinking lines are made to sink by the addition of flecks of tungsten to the coating. Tungsten is used because of its greater density compared with lead.

Some manufacturers, Rio, for example, offer coldwater and warm water coatings and different internal constructions to suit the conditions under which the lines are designed to be used. For example, lines for use in the tropics have monofilament cores to prevent sagging in high temperatures and hard coatings which, again, help the line from going limp and soggy. Although their functions overlap, it is easy to select lines that will perform best at the temperatures prevailing when fishing. For example a line suitable for warm-weather trout fishing could be used for cool-weather saltwater fishing but should be exchanged for a stiff saltwater line as the season progresses and temperatures rise.

Whatever make or type of line that you use, it does pay to keep your line clean by regular cleaning. The simplest way to clean a line is to wash it carefully in warm water with a little soap but there is quite a range of fly line cleaning and coating systems on the market, designed to make lines shoot better or improve floatability.

In his second article, Terry Lawton will look at sink rates, special tapers, multi-tip lines, line colour and care and maintenance amongst other topics.

Terry Lawton is a passionate nymph fisherman who caught his biggest wild brown trout (in the UK) - 4lb 2oz - on a home-tied variant of a goldhead, Sawyer-style pheasant tail nymph.

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