In Pursuit of Understanding All Fly LInes

a spey-shooting-head

This image is simply a teaser to let the reader know we are going to be talking about fly lines. Several of these fly lines are now obsolete. Where we once had our double taper and weight forward lines that never changed for a decade, now it seems that fly lines are morphing ever few years, with new lines being introduced every year in some cases.

I received a note recently from a friend who is a very experienced a fly fisher/tyer. I pass it on as an introduction to my brief response. The fact that an experienced fly angler is growing more confused as time goes on is a fair representation of what is happening to many of us. Me included. Each year it seems that fly lines become more complex. I make a point of understanding fly lines and fishing as many as I can so that I may provide customer service and help people select proper rod/line combinations. Each year, I find the process a little more daunting.

This is not a new dilemma.

I found a detailed post from 2011 linked here on fly lines – this post will be yet more proof that we, as fly fishers, continue to be baffled by many aspects of fly lines.

First the enquiry.


Jay: As a noted scientist, author, and fly fisher maybe you could pen a few notes on the “amazing world of fly lines” or “how to match a line/s to a rod/s”. It is a bewildering world indeed. Rio, Airflo, SA et al all have line recommendations for most of the fly rods available. They all have different grain weight recommendations, of course, and few of which actually match those suggested by the rod manufacturers themselves. At least Airflo has the good sense to print the line type/size on the line. Rio goes as far as separating out good and bad caster recommendations. You got your skagit, scandi and switch lines. You got your full length, compact and short heads. Scandi gets even worse with polyleaders. Things used to be so simple when we had a few rods with a few lines. I have a hard time even keeping an accurate inventory of lines on a spread sheet, let alone knowing which storage container they are in, or on which spool, or on which reel. This whole mess has come to the forefront once again as I try to match up scandi lines, etc with the rods I already own in “fat chance” anticipation of making a trip to Nova Scotia or Gaspe Peninsula for some salmon fishing before I get too old. Damn Henrik Mortensen videos…

Take Care,
An experienced fly angler


I checked our online catalog just now.

We offer 62 RIO fly lines,  43 AIRFLO fly lines; 57 Scientific Anglers SA fly lines;  plus fly lines by Wulff, Hatch, Cortland, Beulah, Sage, and so forth. I have researched many of these fly lines and should be an expert. I’m not. I do know some cool facts like relative core strengths of several fly lines, which lines do and don’t have loops at front and rear line ends, whether the lines are labeled as to rod weight or head grain wt, and some general taper features.

I can’t begin to cover the entire scope of fly lines here so I’ll grab a few nuggets and hope that these help.

I’d also add this note: sometimes we hurt ourselves by over-thinking fly lines. We may be prone to believe that there is a perfect line taper or weight that is the ONLY line for each rod.

In my world, this just isn’t so. I’m no expert caster, I string up a line on a rod and go fishing. I’m surprised when I meet customers who obsess over very small differenced in the weight of their fly lines. These hyper-sensitive casters are tying to find a line that will allow their rod to balance (whatever that means) in their hand when casting. While I listen I’m thinking:

1.  Will you have 30 ft; 45 ft; or 60 ft of line out of the guides when you want the rod to balance?

2. How much does the fly weigh?

3. How much does your reel weigh?

4.  Do you have 100, 150, or 200 yards of backing on your reel – and how much does this backing add to the reel.

5.  Where on the handle is your reel located (distance from the butt)?

6. What is the overall length of the rod handle?

7. Where exactly will you grasp the handle along it’s length.

By the time I get down to Number 7 I’ve decided that all of these (and other) factors introduce so many variables that I’d best just throw on a fly line and go fish it, because it’s probably going to work just fine.

As far as I’m concerned, it is difficult to find poor fly lines these days. I fish fly lines by RIO, AIRFLO, Scientific Anglers (SA), and Wulff. I have friends who fish VISION fly lines and Beulah fly lines. SAGE and ORVIS offer  good fly lines too. And many of these brands offer leaders too.

OMG – I have completely lost track of any point I wanted to make in this post.

Line storage and organization: I recommend the OMNISPOOL Switch Box storage system as a simple to use means of keeping fly lines twist free and labeled.

Line match guidance: The RIO 2016 Spey line chart is great. So is the AIRFLO line chart that offers recommendations for all ECHO rods.

Note that RIO manufacturers their spey lines in 25 gr increments, but AIRFLO uses 30 gr increments. In my opinion they should get their act together and use one increment or the other, and I think it makes a more confusing process of line comparison for us as angler consumers when these folks fail to align their wt graduation system.

Grain window concept. If you look at many line vs. rod charts, especially for spey and switch rods, you will generally see that the manufacturers say that you can cast the rod with at least three line classes. Some rods will say they match with a 480 gr, 510 gr, and 540 gr Skagit lines. This is a reminder that our single hand rods will fish just fine with at least three line wts too.  You may be fishing a five wt nine foot trout rod and it will cast satisfactorily with lines labeled from 4 to 7, especially if it is a fast action rod. Note: my standards for casting well are far more forgiving than expressed by some fly casters. I have found that I can cast well enough with a wide range of lines that are a little lighter or a lot heavier than the exact wt of the rod’s recommended line weight.

I mention the forgiving nature of the rod’s grain weight window as a way of saying – relax – throw on a line and go fishing, it will probably work out just fine.

Is it possible to fine-tune a line to a rod? Absolutely yes. With the opportunity to cast several fly lines on a rod, you can figure out which feels right for your style, normal casting distance, flies fished, and so forth. I’d never suggest that any old fly line will be perfectly matched with your favorite fly rod. All I’m suggesting is that it is possible to go fishing and have a good time – casting adequately – with a wide range of fly lines.  Whether you decide to zero-in and find the fly line that will be “best” for the particular rod is up to you.

How to figure it out? Good question.

I look at line charts, and I ask the experts working at fly shops too. Not every person working in a fly shop will be able to recommend the best line for every rod. Ask if the person can help. Ask if they have experience with the specific rod and line. If necessary, talk to your friends and see if you can borrow some fly lines to try out on the rod you are tying to match with a line.

Fly line trends.

1. Labeling all fly lines as to gr weight or rod wt size. This is very good and helps us all figure out what we have on a reel or in our hand.

2. Low stretch cores. FANTASTIC for detecting strikes. RIO seems to be leading the pack in this product feature

3. Species-specific fly lines. You have your bonefish line, redfish line, striper line, brown trout line, tarpon line and sea run cutthroat line. When I research the taper of each line and its core and such forth I often wonder how different these lines really are. This strikes me a little as over-kill but I suppose many consumers find it simpler to ask for a Redfish fly line if they are headed out the door to fish with a guide for redfish for the first time. Heaven help us if someone catches a bonefish on a permit line. Decide what you will, this is a common trend.

4. Lines with super strong cores.If you are going to fish for big fish with heavy leaders you need stronger fly line cores, now you can select these and be on target. This is a super nice feature and one that is worth your time to look into.

5. Shorter heads on many lines. Skagit Spey heads are getting shorter and shorter, and the OPST Commando is the latest example of this trend. Expect more line manufacturers to follow this trend. The OPST Commando Skagit head is a prime example that other brands are likely to follow shortly.

6. Heavier heads on many lines. These lines make it easier for the average skill level angler to cast at short range. I like this trend. Back in the 1960s, Wayne Doughton taught me to fish a 7 wt Cortland Type III sinking line on my five and six wt fly rods when we were chasing sea run cutthroat. Lining up with heaver lines allowed us to minimize back casting and maximizing the time our fly was fishing.

7. Loops on one or both ends of the line. Great idea – BUT – the front end loop will often be cut into by the leader loop. Sometimes I just cut off the loop and nail knot a short heavy butt to the fly line to resolve this issue.

8. Tougher front-end loops are being made that are far tougher and will not be cut by the leader. Thank you for this.

The Caddis Fly Shop stocks a wide range of fly lines for single hand, switch rods, and spey rods. We offer every fly line you can imagine through our internet catalog. If you want it, we can probably provide it to you promptly.

If you are not sure what line you need, shoot us a call or email and we will do our best to make a decent recommendation for the fly line that will meet your individual and situational expectations.

Final thoughts on brand preference in fly lines. Every of the big three (RIO, AIRFLO, SA) produce very good fly lines. Our shop and guide staff sometimes prefer certain brands for certain line configurations, and we may have more expertise with some lines than others. If you are a RIO flyfisher and just prefer RIO lines, I’m pretty confident that we will be able to recommend a RIO line that will be superior performer for your.

The same is most likely true if you self-identify as an AIRFLO flyfisher, or an SA flyfisher. So relax, dip your toes into the waters of modern fly lines, and allow us to help make recommendations if you think it might help.

Thanks always for your interest, support, and good spirits on the water.

Jay Nicholas – March, 2016

PS: I know this post did not explain every line in the universe, but – along with the 2011 linked post, I hope it helps take the anxiety edge off many of our readers.



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3 Responses to In Pursuit of Understanding All Fly LInes

  1. Scott Brewer says:

    My head is starting to hurt, I think I’ll go fishing !!!

  2. Guy says:

    Good over view of the fly line scene. Amazing choices we have today, but at times it is an awful lot to wade through. (Carp lines – really?). Agree with the sentiment about there being any number of effective fly lines for a given rod. Reminded of a decal I saw plastered on a panga that read “It’s not the fly – you suck!” surely there is a similar one regarding our fly line choices!
    That said it is awesome when you can dial in a line to your specific situation. However at $$ a pop, chasing the holy grail of the ultimate line can get expensive quickly. Fortunately spey claves and spay demos like the Caddis Fly’s event last week offer a great and inexpensive opportunity to test drive new gear.

  3. Sam says:

    A good dose of common sense here and it goes a long way. We are going to need a few lines, perhaps more than a few. There is a reason that Rio’s head case (pun intended) is the size of small lunch pail. Airflo’s is a little smaller. There is a reason that Ed Ward and the others in “Skagit Master(s)” appear to have a trunk full of lines on board. Nevertheless, most of my actual fishing is done with a few rods and a few lines. Most of the “just in case” armchair stuff sits at home.

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