Flyfishing Tools of the trade

Before you spend any of your hard-earned money on a flyfishing outfit, you need to have enough facts to make a quality investment. If you rush out and plop down the cash to buy a department store outfit, odds are very high that you’ll be disappointed with the results. Taking the time to educate yourself and plan for the right merchandise will pay big dividends in the long run.

It may sound like we’re doing things backwards, but the first step to selecting the right equipment is determining what type of fish you want to catch. Although some equipment spans several species and different types of water, there is no outfit that does everything anymore than there is a good logging truck that makes a dandy family car. If you try to do everything with one outfit, the compromises will hurt the entire experience.

Once you have settled on the type of fishing you want to do, you’ll need to select a line weight that can handle the task. We’re not talking about breaking pound test strength here. We are talking about the weight of the fly line that will carry a fly to its target. Unlike other types of fishing where the weight of the bait or lure carries that bait or lure to the target; in flyfishing, the weight of the fly line carries the nearly weightless fly to the target. That requires a specialized line that has enough weight to do the job.

I won’t bore you with grain measurements and such, but a lines’ weight rating is determined by weighing the first 30 feet of fly line. Those ratings are broken down into 16 line sizes (size zero to fifteen, lighter lines having the lower number), that a fly-fisher can choose from. The heavier or more wind-resistant the fly, the heavier a line you’ll need to cast that fly to a target. That’s the principal of a fly line, but it still doesn’t answer any real questions that will help you select the right line for your fishing.


Overview of line weights

Here’s a general overview of which line weights are used for which type of fish. You’ll notice that there are overlaps in service of the designated weights.

0-5 – Generally considered trout and small panfish lines. Lines zero through three are usually used on small streams for small fish. Lines four and five are often used on medium sized streams for trout and small lakes for panfish. Five weight lines are the most common lines sold and can even be used for smallish bass if the weed cover isn’t too heavy, and if you keep the size of the flies rather small.

6-9 – These line weights cover medium to heavy freshwater use and light saltwater use. Six weight lines are the second most common lines sold. They, along with the seven weights cover trout in large rivers, small bass and salmon, and the smallest of saltwater species. Eight and nine weight lines work well for heavier bass flies and bass in thick cover that need the stiffness of a heavier rod. These sizes are also common choices for medium weight salmon, pike and medium small saltwater species like bonefish and permit.

10-15 – Generally considered very heavy freshwater and medium to heavy saltwater. The lighter lines in this category are used for big salmon and huge pike, and also for medium sized saltwater fish like tarpon and small tuna. Sharks and billfish usually require the heaviest line weights.

Once you have the line weight picked, choosing a rod is much easier. Fly rods are designed to flex and reflex with a certain amount of weight. If you use too little weight, the rod won’t flex and store enough energy to propel the line on the reflex. If you use line too heavy, the rod will flex too much and the weight of the line will stifle the rod’s ability to reflex and propel the line. All fly rods are rated for the line they were designed to cast. We’ll discuss rods in depth later, but for now it’s important to understand that line weights and rod weights must match each other if you are going to have a workable outfit.

Fly Line Tapers

In addition to weight, fly lines have a taper or shape. The taper is important to the style of fishing you will do. As in line weights, there is some overlap of uses, but choosing the right taper can make a big difference. Here are the most common tapers:

Double Taper

This line has most of its weight in the middle and tapers down to a thin end on both ends. It will carry a DT designation on the box. Double tapered lines are best choices for delicate presentations where distance isn’t the main goal. The strengths of this taper are delicate presentations, easy roll-casting abilities and the ability to flip the line over on your reel when the part you have been casting begins to look rough from use. The drawbacks are a reduced ability to cast long distances and the fact that this line continues to add weight to your cast as you get more line out. In effect, if you are casting 50 or more feet, this line could weigh one line size more than its rated weight because the middle of the line stays fat and doesn’t taper down to a running line like some other lines do. Choose this line if you prefer to make shorter casts and consider delicate fly presentations to be more desirable than distance.

Weight Forward

This line has most of its weight concentrated in the front 30 feet of the line with a short taper on the fly end and a long thin running line on the reel end. It will have a WF designation on the line box. These lines are best suited to casting heavy, wind-resistant flies or casting long distances. The strengths of this taper are its ability to carry heavy, wind-resistant flies to the target and its ability to achieve greater casting distances than a double tapered line can achieve. Its weaknesses are a lack of delicacy in fly presentation and shorter life due to the fact that you can’t flip the line on the reel when the working portion of the line gets worn or damaged. Some specialty lines in this category have extended front tapers to improve delicacy and still cast long distances well. As the name would imply, the weighted portion of this line is in the forward 30 (average) feet.


This line has no taper. It’s marked with an L on the fly box. There aren’t many redeeming qualities to a level tapered line since it doesn’t taper down near the end for delicate presentations, and there is no weight distribution adjustment to make it cast as good as, or better than the other tapers. The one redeeming quality it has is that it is cheap and won’t crucify your budget when you buy it. However, when you realize that this line doesn’t cast well, you’ll eventually buy a line with a suitable taper that better suits your needs and have this line growing dust in your garage.

Shooting Taper

This is strictly a distance line. It will have a ST designation on the line box. It is roughly 30 feet long with a short front taper and is used with a strong running line attached to the reel side. If you need the greatest distance with a sinking line, this is the right line for you.

Triangle Taper

This is a specialty line that combines some of the features of a weight forward line with the delicacy of a double tapered line. It is only available from Lee Wulff Products and is marked TT on the line box. Being a compromise between two tapers, it doesn’t really excel over either of the other tapers, but does fill the void between the two. Its greatest strengths are delicate casting and improved roll-casting abilities.

If all of that hasn’t caused a burnout factor in your mind, let me add more to the pile. Some lines float, some sink, some are nearly neutral in buoyancy, and some have varying degrees of sinking tips. You can identify them this way:


Designated by an F printed on the line box, this line does what it says it does – it floats. Some lines float better than others, but all floating lines are supposed to float. Floating lines are available in double tapered, weight forward, level, and triangle tapers.


This line is marked with an S on the line box. It sinks, but depending on the line you choose, it could sink at different rates. Those rates vary from slow (sink rate 1) to fast (sink rate 3) to extremely fast (sink rate 6). These lines are available in double tapered, weight forward and shooting tapers. The most common is weight forward.


These lines have a nearly neutral buoyancy and sink very, very slowly. They are available in weight forward tapers. They are marked with an I on the line box.

Sinking Tip

These are floating lines that have a tip that sinks. They are marked with a F/S on the line box. You’ll find varying degrees of sink rates for the tip just like you’ll find with sinking lines. You’ll also see varying lengths of the tip portion that sinks. Most common uses for this type of line are in big, deep rivers where you need to get a fly to the bottom fast.

Putting all of that together, if you looked at a fly line box you might see something like this; DT5F (double tapered, 5-weight, floating) or WF6I (weight forward, 6-weight, intermediate) or ST9S (shooting taper, 9-weight, sinking) or WF7F/S (weight forward, 7-weight, floating with a sinking tip). That should help with the selection process a little bit.

To muddy this up a little more, there are degrees of quality in fly lines. This can usually be determined by the cost, but there are other clues too. The best lines have a smooth, slick surface that will glide through the guides of your rod nicely. Many of the best floating lines have added features that make them float better and make them slicker. Of course, these bonus features will cost you more, but they’ll also make the line perform much better than a basic, bottom-of-the-price-bracket line. You get to choose where your financial pain threshold is. Some people will sacrifice performance to reduce the cost, and others won’t compromise.

Add to all of that the idea that many companies create lines for specific purposes and uses, and you can really get confused. They might be designated as bass lines or bonefish lines or pike lines or tarpon lines, etc. If you plan on just chasing bonefish or tarpon, buying a line made for that purpose would be a great idea. In reality, you might eventually own several rods and lines dedicated to specific species of fish.

There is a lot more to be learned about fly lines, but these are the basics you need to know if you want to select a line that will do what you need it to do. There are a lot more items to cover, but starting with fly lines is the best way to select the proper tools of the trade.

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