Tips on How to Dye and Maintain a Fly Line
We receive many questions from clients regarding how to take care of their fly lines and these questions include people asking how to dye them.
One of our Caddis Fly clients emailed recently to ask a question. The question was simple but complicated at the same time, as are many of the most insightful issues in fly fishing.
“I’ve heard that you have some experience with this,” he said, and wondered if I would be willing to share my thoughts.
Of course, I stalled, knowing it would be days (weeks before I had time to give the topic a solid answer. So rather belatedly, here is my answer.
Why would anyone want to dye a perfectly good fly line?
One might assume that the fly line manufacturers design and construct fly line color schemes with a solid science-based formula to guide them. From what I have understood, this is only partly true.
I remember when fly lines were yellow, orange, peach, brown, green, & white.
Not white, actually, but ivory. My first fly line in about 1962 was actually a woven orange silk line of my father’s purchased in about 1940, before he re-enlisted in the US Army. This line was dressed with an oily coating. The line floated a little. The line was a hand me down from my father’s pre-WW II collection from Montana. My first store-bought fly line by Scientific Anglers in about 1963 was from an East Side Portland Sporting Goods store (the name is on the edge of my memory) where gallon jars of Okie drifters lined the shelves behind the counters and Paulson’s Flies were sold in little hard plastic hinged boxes.
These were SA Air Cell fly lines, and they were simple brown double tapers, with no loops and no size labels. We tied on backing with an Albright or nail knot (with a nail). We used a figure 8 knot to attach a leader with a pre-tied perfection loop.
I graduated up-scale in perhaps 1965 to a Scientific Anglers Air Cell Supreme, an Ivory floating fly line rated DT6. This line was for my 6 ft 6 wt Phillipson two-piece rod purchased at Norm Thompson’s in Portland.
Why would anyone want to dye a fly line? Here are the key reasons I’m aware of.
1. They dislike the native color of the line they have purchased.
2. They want to disguise the type of line they are fishing from other anglers nearby.
3. They believe a certain line color will be stealthier.
Let’s look at each of these points.
If you dislike the native color of your fly line, don’t feel like you’re alone. Some fly line colors are what they are simply because the manufacturer had to use a distinct color to identify the differences between fly line models. If one fly line is tan with olive, the next model can’t be the same, so how about pale yellow and green? No? Because another line model is already that color, so I guess we will use bright yellow and brown. So, the fact that every model must have different color patterns will inevitably leave us, as angler/consumers, with a fly line or two or three that we don’t like color-wise.
If you are trying to disguise the color of your fly line, you might be a west-coast salmon fisher. Or you might be a still-water steelhead angler, or a lake-nymph trouter. These classes of flyfishers tend to be secretive to the extent of being funny, except the secrecy and paranoia is real. So these anglers are likely to dye any fly line that could be identified by its native color pattern – in order to confuse nearby anglers regarding the sink rates and depths they are fishing.
If you believe that a particular fly line is spooking fish, you might want to dye it a different color. You can turn light colors dark but the number of colors that you can impart into a fly line is limited to a few olives, greens, maybe greys, and brown to varying degrees. Personally, I am not sure what I think about line color spooking or not-spooking fish.
I know that fish are able to detect the presence of our fly lines. I say this out of decades of experience rather than scientific experiments. There are exceptions of course. A river dry fly angler, making upstream presentations with light long tippets must execute the cast so that no fly line lands or crosses the trout’s field ov view. The case might even need to lay the leader outside the feeding lane.
But the lake and river trout fisher’s world is different from the angler throwing hollow flies to feeding stripers or two-inch anchovy flies to albies. Salmon and steelhead anglers encounter a wide variety of scenarios too, and some allow us to present only fly to the fish while other situations make it such that the fish will certainly see our fly line as well as the fly.
I’ll summarize my thoughts regarding fly line color here.
1. Ultimately, I try to present the fly to the fish first, rather than showing my fly line first.
2. Even though I’ve been reminded by the experts that all fly lines look the same to a fish that is laying under the line (they all look dark against the bright sky above the water).
3. I do not like bright fluorescent colors. These would be OK with me if I was fishing at night, but daytime fishing with these bright-line colors seems offensive to me.
4. The note regarding fluorescent colors does not apply to shooting lines or saltwater environments, but overall, I will shy away from the bright colors if I can.
How can a fly line be dyed if you want to?
Here is the full extent of my limited experience.
1. I’ll first note that you might not be able to dye all fly lines. All of the older traditional line coatings would absorb dye, but many of the new lines might not.
2. Whatever dye you choose must not damage the line coating or core.
3. Light colors have the potential of being dyed to a darker shade, but dark shades can never be rendered light without compromising the line or core.
4. Veniard dyes were once very popular with fly tyers dying feathers and fur. I suppose fly lines could be included as potential targets for soaking and color transformation.
5. My best and most consistent result dying fly lines was with Rit Dye.
6. The link to the Rit Website and how to dye instructions is here.
7. Rather than follow the official instructions, I always just dissolved some Rit Dye in water and threw my coiled fly line in the liquid.
8. My vessel of choice was usually a large ceramic or Pyrex bowl.
9. On a few occasions, I have poured a packet of Rit Dye powder into a clean toilet bowl and soaked my coiled fly in the toilet, literally.
My favorite target to dye was the Scientific Anglers Sink I Shooting Taper. This fly line is a pale blue that can be recognized clear across the estuary. When I was younger and more foolish than I am today, I would always dye my T-I SA heads dark green (T-III) or gray (T-IV and T-V).
I have long abandoned dying any of my lines. Too complicated for an uncertain outcome.
What about transparent fly lines?
When given the option, I always prefer a clear tip, unless the tip is too thick, and then I prefer a thin dark tip over a thick clear tip.
Tips on caring for your fly line
These are all common-sense admonitions we have all l heard but few of us execute. Here are the reminders for anyone who wants fly lines to last longer and perform better. Some of the issues I will mention are repetitive. Please excuse me, but all of these reminders aren’t any help at all if not accomplished.
- Clean your fly line. I have been told that I should wipe and wash down my fly line after each use. When I was younger, I did my own version of daily, or at the very least weekly cleaning and re-spooling. As my stamina has declined in the last few years, the attention that I have given to routine fly line maintenance has declined markedly, but anyone who can do so should heed this advice. Floating lines will float better, sinking lines will sink better. Every fly line will cast farther and last longer if they are kept clean.
- It is OK to leave lines on the reel if they are first cleaned, stripped off, allowed to un-twist, and then re-wound under very light pressure.
- Backing should be inspected, replaced if necessary, allowed to dry, and re-spooled neatly. Reels fished in saltwater should be thoroughly soaked to get salt dissolved before storing for the next season.
- Un-spooled lines should be stored in Zip-Lok baggies of the freezer variety, but only after they are fully dry and labeled if necessary.
- Lines can be stored on Omni-Spools when not in use, and to keep reels in service, but they should be reeled onto the Omni-spool lightly and after cleaning, un-twisting, and drying.
- Make sure your line is dry before you bag it.
- Label your line if necessary
- Get the twist out before you store your line
Inspect your line for damage.
Aside from cleaning your line and storing it properly, it is essential to inspect your fly line for nicks, cuts, scrapes, and so forth. These could be superficial, but they could be the sign of a fly line that is about to fail at a crucial point in an extended battle with the fish of a lifetime. This might be a little of an overstatement if you are inspecting a 3-weight line that will be fished in a high mountain creek, but for an 8-weight fished in estuaries, the matter is serious.
I hope that these notes about dying fly lines help, or entertain, or both – and wish you all well.