The lowdown on lines & leaders
After posting a topic on the New Zealand Fly Fishing Forum in relation to fishing our larger southern Stillwater’s I received a few emails from readers that really hit home; the average kiwi angler has never really had the opportunity to get out there and play with a range of equipment! Until recently, kiwis were rather limited in regards to what products were available in many of our shops. Even now, if one wants a specialist product they often have to look offshore, but thanks to a couple of innovative, and ‘up with the game’ distributors product availability here in NZ has recently developed in leaps and bounds.
One email in particular was in regards to fly lines, and choosing the right sunken line for the job. In the following article I will endeavour to touch on the basics of sinking lines, their applications and leader materials for fishing our southern Stillwater’s.
In the eyes of many anglers there are only two types of lines; floating and sinking. However, sinking lines go way further than that, and selecting the correct sink rate for the situation at hand can totally make or break a day on the lake. I am a big fan of ‘getting out there, doing it, and finding what works for you personally’, and so encourage you to beg, buy, borrow or steal different lines from friends and see what hits with your own preferred style of fishing.
For many years I have been a fan of the Airflo range, and use these almost exclusively. Their floating lines take on innovative tapers which suit my style, and their non stretch, density compensated sinking lines cannot be beat in my opinion for total control over a range of depths. I have had the privilege of playing with a number of brands over the past 15 years, and for my money, find the Airflo ‘Sixth Sense’ and ‘forty plus’ range most suitable for my style of still water, sunken line fishing. I use the Sixth Sense range of lines for the majority of my sunken line requirements including ‘loch style’ wet fly tactics and the forty plus for if I require long casts from the shore, or need to cast out to the back of the rip.
So lets talk briefly about a couple of terms first.
Non-stretch? Using a Power core braid, non-stretch lines let the angler feel exactly what the fly is doing, and every bump or pluck which occurs. Stretch will absorb many of the takes that occur, especially when fishing a longer line. Bellies also occur when a line stretches, creating slack line, which also detracts from ones ability to feel the often-gentle pluck of still water fish. I use non-stretch cores exclusively, and have noticed a vast improvement in my strike rate. Before this, I simply never knew the fish were there until it was too late. Some lines can stretch as much as 24%. Airflo Power core reduces this to around 6%, a statistic which may not mean much now, but will once upon the water.
Lines are tapered to provide efficient energy transfer from the line down to the leader, and to ensure effective turnover. The forward taper thins down until the leader is reached. Of course, the thicker section of line in the middle known as the belly is significantly heavier. This results in the tip of the line, and hence your fly often sitting higher in the water column than the main body of the line, robbing you of precious depth. Density compensated lines provide extra weight in the forward taper / tip so that it sinks faster than the remainder of the line. If I buy a DI 3 I want a DI 3, not a fast sink with effectively an intermediate tip.
Nowadays, most flylines you will encounter will be Weight Forward. This simply means, the head, and weight of the line will be more directed towards the front, to allow easy loading of your rod.
The 'Head' encompasses the entire body of the line, from the rear taper, through to the front taper, and the thick, level belly inbetween.
The rear taper determines the turnover rate of the flyline. A short rear taper will kick the rods energy into the head rapidly, turning over the line rather fast, whereas a longer taper delays this turnover. A longer taper also facilitates mending at distance, and so is preferred on bigger waters. Shorter tapers are favoured on small stream lines, to ensure everything turns over before the line lands on the water.
The thicker 'Belly' of the line is where all the energy is stored. This thicker the belly, the more energy it can hold, and the bigger / heavier the flies it can deliver. The longer this belly, the more line you are able to hold in the air, and so a long belly line is desirable for distance casting, whereas a shorter belly suits short line casts, where most of the weight can be kept outside of the rod tip, assisting rod load on these tight casts.
The length and shape of your forward taper determines how powerfully it turns over. A short, agressive taper will turn over very forcefully, ideal for turning over heavier, or less wind resistent flies on longer leaders. Short tapers are desirable for punching into the wind, but will land heavier upon the water than a longer, thinner taper.
A longer, more elegant taper is desirable when presenting small dries and nymphs with finesse.
On backcountry rivers where wind is a constant, and I expect to be delivering heavier nymphs and big, bushy dries I will look to the Airflo Explorer line, with a thicker belly and shorter front taper. On lowland waters where presentation is more essential, the Airflo Tactical will turn over my smaller flies with precision, via its longer forward taper. The Tactical is my Mataura line, whereas on the Greenstone, its the Explorer, hands down.
Now to the lines themselves, and the way I use them.
I fish a floating line for 95% of my river fishing, and quite a lot on lakes too. For sight fishing with terrestrials and nymphs they allow a quick pick up and relocation of my fly, and ease of mending across wind lanes. On the shallower lakes I will often use these in conjunction with a poly leader to fish nymphs or streamers at a controlled depth, and reduce the surface disturbance of a retrieved line near the fish.
Slow intermediates sink at around 0.5 inches per second (IPS) and are great for those calm, mirror-like days where line shadow and surface disturbance become a problem, and you don’t want to scrape along the bottom. They also fish well on windy days, where the breeze ends to blow floating lines around, dragging one flies. Slow intermediates are great for retrieving damsel nymphs or double nymph combos across the shallows, and if called for, they will also float a dry for 20 odd seconds or so. Adding a fast sink polyleader will allow you to fish across drop offs or down a little deeper when called for. In general, slow intermediates will play just beneath the surface.
I use fast intermediates (sink rate of around 1.5 IPS) for the majority of my Stillwater fishing, particularly when fishing ‘loch style’ on the larger lakes. They are a comfortable line to use, and allow a controlled sink rate with a reasonably level angle of retrieve, great for when trout are chasing baitfish in the bays. By using a 3 fly ‘loch style’ team with a weighted fly on point, I can cover a range of depths on the retrieve. Fast intermediates are my ‘go to’ line when employing ‘slow, slower, slowest’ retrieves with chironomid or snail patterns across weed beds where heavier lines would eventually get too deep and hook up on the bottom. Polyleaders and weighted flies can be used in conjunction with your fast intermediate for that little extra depth where needed. Bare in mind, that the faster you plan to strip your retrieve, the closer to the surface you will pull your line. You may need to go to a faster sink rate if you need to strip deeper, and fast.
DI3 (sink rate of around 3 IPS) are for getting down in amongst the currents or for fishing across the drop offs in our smaller lakes. They will hold their own in the smaller rips where intermediates will often be held up in the water column, and are great for stripping blob flies or wee flashy wets quickly across the shallows. Fished from a boat, a reasonable angle of retrieve can also be achieved when wanting to get a little bit deeper with your three fly team.
A medium current over an agressive drop off - the DI5 will fit the bill.
DI 5 (sink rate around 5 IPS) lines handle perfectly when fishing heavier rips and deeper drops, and are great for river fishing when swinging streamers in heavier water. They are my ‘go to’ lines when fishing larger river mouths such as the Greenstone, Eglinton, Matukituki and similar waters, allowing me to get deep beneath the heavier current. Hanging a couple of flashy streamers beneath one of these more aggressive rips will often produce some electric takes as large bows come up from the depths to investigate.
DI7 with a sink rate of around 7 IPS is the big boy in my team, for plunging the depths of our deeper lakes or for getting deep beneath the bigger rips. Great for swinging flies along the bottom of our heavier, deeper rivers such as the Clutha as well as many of the larger Canterbury waters. If you want a near vertical retrieve from your boat, or when drifting out the back of the rip, then the DI7 is the line for you.
Airflo polyleaders are great. With one quick loop to loop connection you can turn your floating line into either an intermediate, slow sinking, fast sinking or uber fast sinking tip, opening up many opportunities throughout the water column. I use them a lot whilst river fishing, for fishing streamers or attaining a deeper nymph drift.
However it is on stillwater’s where I find they really come into their own. As mentioned above, attached to a floater they will allow you to fish a deep nymph, or reduce surface wake from the floater down there where it counts. You can also create, in essence a sink tip on your existing sinking lines, to allow your fly to get that little bit deeper across channels, drop offs and in the rip, and create more of a ‘rising retrieve’ with every twitch of your fly, whilst still fishing deep. I carry them in both 5’ and 10’ lengths, employing the shorter leader in shallower waters, and the longer tip when the need for depth arises. Polyleaders also transfer the lines energy more readily than finer, monofilament leaders, and so assist greatly in turning over longer tippets into the wind.
Flurocarbon or co polymer tippets?
In regards to Stillwater’s, the choice of tippet material in my opinion is more critical than when fishing in rivers, where I fish Airflo co polymer for most of the time.
When fishing floating, or slow intermediate lines in conjunction with nymphs or small streamers I will often fish a fluorocarbon leader, and tippet set up. With higher density than co polymer, fluoro will ensure your lightly weighted nymph sinks effectively through the water column. If fishing a dry however, I find these sinking properties will often drown ones flush floater, or drag a larger terrestrial across the surface reducing the distance between fly line and fly. Fluoro also provides high abrasion resistance when fishing flies along the bottom, or around sunken obstacles in the water.
Co Polymer is a very supple material, and moves around the surface currents with ease. It provides a low diameter for higher breaking strain, is great for fishing small to medium flies on, at, or near the surface, and its lower density ensures it remains near the surface where you want your flies to be. It does not however have as much abrasion resistance as fluorocarbon, or the stiffness required to turn over longer tippets or larger, wind resistant flies. I use co polymer when fishing emergers, unweighted nymphs, or chironomids at or near the surface.
The length of your tippet when fishing sinking lines / polyleaders can also effect how deep your fly fishes, along with the action it creates. A short tippet of only a foot or so will ensure your fly will stay deep along with the line, whereas longer tippets will allow your fly to rise sightly and fish higher in the water column. A great trick is to use a fast sinking line with a long leader and a buoyant ‘boobie’ style of fly. With each strip of the line, your boobie will dive to the bottom, before rising seductively again during the pause. Boobies; fish love ‘em.
So get out and play with a variety of lines. There’s more to fly lines than just floating and sinking, so keep a few on hand, and switch over whenever your catch rate just isn’t up there where you think it should be. The trout are always there, and always looking for a feed – it’s just a case if presenting them with what they want!