The Beginner’s Guide to Fly Line

If you’ve recently made the transition from spin fishing or bait casting to fly fishing, you’re probably experiencing some serious sticker shock. You used to be able to walk into Wal-Mart, pick up a spool of 1,000 yards of 10-pound test for six bucks, and be good to fish for the next year.

Now 30 yards of fly line is $80 or more? And that’s just for a “normal” line; sinking lines, shooting heads, and running lines are for styles of fishing you’re either vaguely aware of, or have no clue about. Either way, listening to a fly shop employee talk about lines feels like drinking out of a firehose. It’s too much information at once.

Instead, I’ll have you drinking from a garden hose. We’ll tackle some of the basics about fly line, so that when you invariably branch out to other styles of fly fishing, you’ll have the knowledge you need to make informed purchasing decisions.

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Why the cost difference?

I think this is the number-one question new fly anglers ask me. Why is fly line so damned expensive?

It doesn’t have to be; I fished (and still do) some Cortland 333 for years. It’s something like $30.00/spool at my local fly shop.

The reason you see the Scientific Anglers Amplitude line going for $120.00 is the same reason Berkley’s Fireline costs an arm and a leg compared to regular monofilament, or even fluorocarbon. Fireline is a high-tech, specialized, niche product that serves anglers who never want to run the risk of line abrasion losing them a big fish. Bass guys, pike and muskie hunters, and a few folks who love big trout, favor this type of stuff.

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It’s the same with fly line. A $30.00 spool will get the job done if you take an average approach to the sport. That is to say, you don’t sell off most of your possessions, forfeit a wife and family, and buy an old truck all in the name of fishing as much as possible.

Expensive lines last longer, are built with different materials to help them float longer, reduce memory, and handle the rigors of folks who fish 150+ days per year.

What about sinking lines and sink tips?

This is pretty straightforward. A full-sink line is made with a weighted PVC coating that pulls your line down at a predetermined rate. A Type V line, for example, will sink quicker than a Type III.

In addition to its rate of sink, a full-sink line presents your flies at a more level spot in the water column. Throwing a heavy fly on a long leader creates a sharper 45-degree angle in the water – almost like a dropshot rig. In some instances, that works great; but for most lake fishing, a full-sink fly line is the way to go.

A sink-tip line is exactly what it sounds like. The tip of the line – usually 20 feet or so, but longer on some specialized products – sinks, dragging your floating line down with it. This is a great option for fishing rivers with big streamers, or on lakes when trout are in close and you don’t need a full-sink to reach the fish.

So what are shooting heads and running lines?

The Pacific Northwest is home to some of America’s most prolific spey casting rivers. The Skagit is arguably the most famous, since an entire style of angling was named after it.

Skagit lines are considered a shooting head; they’re short, extremely heavy lines built to load powerful rods and fling streamers incredible distances. Skagit heads need a front tip added to them (usually a sinking tip if you’re after steelhead or other sea-run fish) to help deliver the fly, but they replace the head of a “normal” fly line. They effectively shoot your line faster and further than any other line available.

Running lines are what you tie onto the end of an aggressively-tapered line. For example, if you had a 17-foot Skagit head, you’d want a tip of at least 6 feet, and running line of 30 yards or so. The idea is that you don’t want to cast an entire spool of heavy shooting line – you’d wear yourself out, and physics tells us that a fly rod just couldn’t handle 90 feet of 675-grain line whipping through the air. Someone would die from being clotheslined or smacked in the skull with a steelhead fly.

Running line flies effortlessly through the air, following your shooting head while still floating. Running line also adds enough weight to the back end of your shooting head to help it properly cast. Shooting heads tied directly to backing won’t cast the way they’re intended to.

Fly line is confusing, especially for a beginner. The best advice I have is to pick a taper that matches your rod (fly shop employees are great at helping you find the right match) and slowly experiment with lines once you feel comfortable branching out – and spending the money.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Hatch Magazine, TROUT Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, and other national publications. He’s also the managing editor of The Modern Trout Bum. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

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