Fly Fishing Line – The Basics

Let’s face the facts, fly fishing looks easy, but once you get start to getting into the details, it can get a a big complicated.  A perfect example of this is fly fishing line.  Ever been to your local fly fishing store and browsed the wall containing fly fishing line?  There are tons of colors, sizes, lines called weight forward, other lines called sink-tip, and then to further complicate things, there are a bunch of different weights and numbers!

Where do you start?  What does all that mean anyway?

Great questions, and selecting fly fishing line is a bit complicated on the surface, but we’re going to break it all down for you so it’s easy to understand.  We’re also going to recommend the basic fly fishing line you’ll need to get started.  Once you understand the terminology a bit, and how to choose the right fly line weight, the basics of fly fishing line won’t seem all that difficult.

Fly Fishing Line

What is the purpose of fly fishing line?

Fly fishing works very differently than traditional fishing.   With a traditional fishing set-up, sinkers or weights are placed onto the end of the line to weigh it down.  This weight allows you to cast the bait far out into the water.

With fly fishing, all you have is the line, and the incredibly light fly on the end.  The weight that enables you to cast is provided by the fly line itself.  Definitely different, but when set-up correctly, it works really well.

Since fly line provides the weight and the main ability to cast, fly fishing line is one of the most critical pieces of fly fishing gear, and not an area where you want to skimp on cost.  High quality fly line costs a good penny, but for good reason.

The whole purpose of the fly line is to transfer the cast energy from the fly rod out through the line, and to the fly so it can be “presented” to the fish.  You can read more about all of this in our article: What is fly fishing?

There are many different sizes and types of fly lines.  Each is intended to work best in various different fly fishing situations.  Let’s take a look at the various fly fishing line differences in more detail.

Fly Fishing Line Weight

Fly fishing line comes in various different weights, indicated by a number that ranges from 1 – 14.  The larger the number, the heavier the line is.   The “right” number to use depends on the type of fish you are after, and the location where you’re fishing.  Orvis has an awesome chart that helps you pick the right line type based on what type of fishing you’re after.

Another important factor is matching your fly fishing line weight to your fly fishing rod.  Most fly rods come with a recommended line weight.  This recommendation is based on normal fishing conditions, and will deliver optimal performance.  This does not mean that you cannot use a lighter or heavier weight line.  In fact, doing so might work better, depending on the type of fish your after and the conditions you’re fishing in.  Scientific Anglers has a really good article about this.

If you’re new to fly fishing though, we recommend just going with the fly rod manufacturers recommended line weight.   As stated, this will give you optimal performance from the start.  As you become more experienced with your rod, and experienced in different fishing situations, you’ll learn when you might need a heavier or lighter line instead.

Fly Fishing Line Length

Another factor you should consider is line length.  When you purchase fly fishing line, it generally comes in lengths of around 100 feet, give or take, based on the manufacturer.  If you’re an experienced traditional angler, you’re probably thinking that 100 feet is really short.  Well, you’re right it is, but consider two things:

  1. You not only have to factor in the length of your line, but also your backing, and leader as well.  Backing is often 100 feet or more, depending on the fly rod’s reel size.  Leader is generally 7 – 15 foot in length.  Combine all of these together, you’ll have a total length of over 200 feet.
  2. When fly fishing, you’ll never generally be more than 50′ of your fly, and often much closer than that.  Fly fishing is far less about cast distance, and more about accurate and delicate presentation of the fly on the water.

Fly Fishing Line Tapers

In addition to weights and lengths, fly fishing line also comes in different tapers.  Tapers define how the line is weighted, and can significantly effect your cast.  There are three basic types of fly fishing line tapers:

  1. Weight Forward (the most common type)
  2. Double Taper
  3. Level Taper

Weight Forward Taper

The commonly used fly fishing line taper is the weight forward taper.  Weight Forward fly line runs has a consistent thickness through most of the the line, but towards the end, thickens up for a bit, and then thins back off to the point where the leader attaches.  Different manufacturers offer different weight forward styles.  The placement of the weight really dictates performance.

As the name implies, this provides additional weight, forward on the fly line.  More aggressive weight forward tapers allow longer cast lengths, but make delicate placement more difficult.  Less aggressive forward tapers allow more delicate placement, but less cast length.  The “right” choice really depends on your style of fishing, and the location.

If you’re a beginner, just go with  moderate weight forward taper.   This design has a good balance of cast length and placement.

Double Taper

Double taper line is also very common.  Double taper is similar to weight forward taper, but the thicker part of the line is more in the middle of the line, and nearly twice the length.

The key advantage of the double taper is a very delicate presentation.  If you’re looking for a good distance cast, this is not the type of line you want to use.  BUT, if you’re fly fishing for easily spooked fish, this is the line you’ll want to use.

Level Taper

Surprising, level taper is not a popular fly line design at all, but worth mentioning for awareness.  Level taper basically has not taper.  The line is the same length all the way from the backing to the leader.

Level taper line is usually inexpensive, so be careful.  If you see some cheap fly fishing line at your local Walmart, make sure you pay attention, because it’s often level taper.  We do not recommend using level taper fly fishing line.

Type of Fly Fishing Line

Finally, the last difference in fly fishing line is the type.  There are three basic types of fly fishing line:

  1. Floating Fly Line
  2. Sinking Fly Line
  3. Sinking Tip Fly Line

All three of these are available with weight forward taper, double taper, or level taper.

Floating Fly Line

Floating Fly Line is the most common type of fly line, and it does exactly what you would expect, it floats, all the way from the backing to the leader.  If you’re learning how to fly fish, this is the type of fly line you should be using.

Sinking Fly Line

Sinking Line sinks.  Big surprise right?  hehe.  The rate at which sinking fly line sinks is indicated by a type number:

Intermediate:

  • 1 – .5 to 1.5″ IPS (Inches Per Second)

Slow:

  • 2 – 1.5 – 2.5 IPS
  • 3 – 2.5 – 3.5 IPS
  • 4 – 3.5 – 4.5 IPS

Fast: 

  • 5 – 4.5 – 5.5 IPS
  • 6 – 5.5 – 6.5 IPS
  • 7 – 6.5 – 7.5 IPS

Very Fast:

  • 8 – 7.5 – 8.5 IPS
  • 9 – 8.5 – 9.5 IPS
  • 10 – 9.5 – 10.5 IPS

Sinking line is primary used when fishing are feeding a particular depth below the water.  The deeper the feeding depth, the faster sinking line you want.  You’ll most often use sinking line when fishing in deep waters, like a large pond or lake.

Sinking Tip Line

Sinking Tip Line combines both floating line and sinking line.  With Sinking Tip Line, the majority of the line floats, but the last 10 or so foot sinks.

Like sinking line, this type of line is useful in deeper water situations, where the fish are feeding at some distance below the water.  The key advantage of sinking tip line is when recasting.

With sinking line, the entire line sinks below the water level.  When you need to recast, you have to retrieve your line from below the water.  For a longer line length, and one that is deeper in the water, this can be difficult.  Having the majority of the line floating instead of sinking significantly reduces the chance of your line getting tangled or hung up under the water too.

We recommend these lines when fishing with streamers.

Final Thoughts on Fly Fishing Line

You’ve now learned that fly fishing line is a bit more complicated than just going to the store and picking up a spool of fly line.  While more complex, we hope we’ve broken it down to the basics, so it’s easy for you to understand.  The concepts are really pretty simple overall, and when you understand how it all fits together, they make sense too.

If you’re a beginner, just buy a floating weight forward line that matches the weight of your rod.  That combination will do really well for you as you gain experience fly fishing.  As you do, you’ll begin to see the need for other types of fly lines, and then you can begin to branch out and try some different combinations.

There are tons of fly fishing line brands on the market as well, but two major manufacturers consistently show up as top rated, and their lines are used by a large percentage of fly fishers: Scientific Angler and RIO.  You just can’t go wrong with either of these products.

Photo credits: Florian Maldoner

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