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Fly Line Basics

Standard Line Weights
It is important that your fly line matches the fly rod you are using and what you want to do with it. The AFTMA Fly Line Standard was developed to help fly fishing tackle manufacturers create a system that would match fly line weight to fly rod performance.

Being American, the system uses the weight (in grains) of the first 30 feet of fly line as a standard. The table below shows fly line number designations and their grain weight along with tolerance level that is considered acceptable.

Grain weights for the first 30 feet of the line.

Line Number

Standard Weight (grains)

Acceptable Tolerance (grains)































Confused? You are not alone!

In real life these numbers mean little to the fly fisherman who just wants something that feels right. Some rods, let’s say rated for a #5 line feel much better with a #7 line. Why is that? Well, for a start, it all depends how much line you have outside the tip ring of your rod. Remember that these ‘balanced matches’ in the table are for 30 feet of line. If you have only 15 feet out beyond the tip ring (half the 'ideal' length) you may have difficulty ‘loading the rod’ (bending it when casting), if you have 60 feet out beyond the tip ring (double the ideal weight) the rod may feel over-loaded or weak and about to collapse.

That’s fly casting techno-speak for not feeling right.

Occasionally rod manufactures also appear to underrate some rods; say designate a rod as a #5 weight when it is far easier for Mr Joe Average Fly Fisher to use it with a #7 weight line. These rods may be aimed at very technical competition casters who are looking for a rod that will not collapse when propelling a vast length of line through the air. But then that’s casting, not fishing.

Of course you have to choose something, so for now let’s assume that if you own a rod that’s rated for a #5 line then a #5 line will be your best choice. Refer to “What do I choose” for more, practical information.


Line Profiles
Weight Forward (WF) lines allow you to make short or long casts. They feature a ‘head’ comprising a heavier ‘belly’ section, tapering forwards to a fine tip and backwards to a finer, low friction ‘running line’. If the head section is inside the tip ring of the rod, delicate presentations at short range are possible. If longer distances are required the fine, low friction running line allows the angler to ‘shoot’ (throw) the heavier head section efficiently. WF profile lines are probably the most popular lines in use today and many fly fishers consider them to be the most versatile fly lines available.

Double Taper (DT) profile features a long main line (belly) with an identical taper at both ends. They are a more traditional line design and some fly fishers believe they are easier to mend and roll cast than WF lines. This style of line is really designed for short to medium distance with normal sized flies. DT lines are still very popular and many anglers, especially those who fish rivers and small streams often, prefer them. DT lines also have the advantage of being reversible. When the front section eventually wears out you can reverse the line on the reel, effectively getting two lines for the price of one!


What Do I Choose?

Ask yourself what kind of fishing are you most likely do? It may be that just one line is not going to cover your needs.

Some river fishers reckon line colour is very important. In New Zealand, for example, there are many long established and experienced guides who will not use garish coloured fly lines believing they spook fish. It’s not so much that they are visible to fish from below when floating on the surface, more that they might be visible to fish when travelling through the air. It probably makes sense to us that a bright white or orange line is more visible against a dark background of trees than one of a more subdued colour. On the other hand some anglers reckon it does not matter a jot what colour your fly line is.

Who’s right?   Have you ever seen an orange heron?  We decided to go for the subtle approach and use subdued colours.

Many anglers I know use subdued coloured fly lines simply because garish colours are incongruous in a wild fishing setting and the more subtle line gives them more confidence, so they fish better.

A bit like pitching an orange tent on a highland hillside, bright colours may assail and offend the eye. Some eyes at least!

Sometimes it’s good to use a line that is very easily visible while still avoiding line flash as much as possible. When nymph fishing for example you will want to monitor the line for any slight movement that might indicate a take. The Highland White lines suit this task very well. On the other hand, in low clear water when fishing dry flies you might feel more confident using something darker such as the heron grey River Don or  Stream Stealth lines.

If fishing constantly at short range on smaller rivers and streams DT profile is hard to beat. They can load the rod easily and are easy to mend and roll cast. They are also superb when fishing a short line from a drifting boat.

On the other hand WF lines, as long as the head is inside the tip ring, cast and manage in a very similar way. Some say that for practical purposes there is no real difference at all and they do have the advantage of being able to shoot more effectively and for longer distances if you are required to do that occasionally.

For longer distance casting a WF line is unbeatable.

Line Weight
Choosing the correct line weight for both your rod and for the types of fishing you do is probably the stickiest of all sticky wickets!

Without meeting you and using your rod I can only tell you what most fly fishers I know do.

Assuming your rod is rated correctly (yes they occasionally are) and you are casting at distances of 30 feet or more, then it’s probably safe enough to choose a matching line. That is if your rod is rated #5 choose a #5 line. If it’s a #4 choose a #4 line etc.

If intending to also cast longer distances, choose a WF line.

Now imagine you are fishing a small river or stream and all these very spooky fish are 30 feet or less away. You are fishing a 15 foot leader (it may often be much longer than that in fact). If casting to a fish 30 feet away you will only be casting 15 feet of fly line. See the problem? You may have some difficulty loading (bending) the rod effectively when you cast. It won’t ‘feel’ right. For situations like this you may want to use a heavier line. By that I mean if your rod is rated #4 you may be better choosing a #5 line. All experienced river fly fishers I know do this.

It may be better to buy and carry more than one fly line; one rated for the rod and one rated a notch higher. In other words if your rod is a #4 you may need both a #4 and a #5 line.

For short range
fishing, rather than an all round profile design you might consider using a specialist line with a sorter head, that has been designed to move the weight farther forward. The Wildfisher Stream Stealth is exactly such a line. This line loads the rod well with even a short length extended beyond the rod tip and shoots easily to cover longer distances.

The bottom line is all of these things are compromises. No matter what the marketing hype tries to tell you there is no one fly line that does every job perfectly. At least with Wildfisher Fly Lines you don't have to spend a small fortune to cover most of the bases.

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