Fly Lines 101 – Pick Right First Time (The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing Lines)


If you think that your fly line doesn’t matter, it is time for a rethink. I’d even say it is just as important as choosing a decent rod and reel.

Think of a good quality fly fishing line as one leg of a three-legged stool. If it’s weak, you’re in for a fall. The good news is that you guys have got me here to help. And help, I will!

Today I’ll tell you everything you need to know about choosing a fly line while discussing different types and which species they are best suited for.

Disclosure: At BonfireBob, we recommend products based on unbiased research, however, BonfireBob.com is reader-supported and as an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases if you shop through the links on this page. For more information, see disclosure here.

Fly Fishing Lines Explained

Here’s the thing about fly fishing line…

It’s just a little bit different.

Why?

Well, there are a surprising number of options and characteristics that go into types of fly lines. There is actually a lot of things to think about.

Fly fishing line is different because, unlike ‘traditional’ lines like mono or fluoro, cast a weight. The fly line is the weight. Take a look at the video of someone casting a fly line below:

Those beautiful casts are all dictated by the line.

The line is important for several reasons. Let’s go through a few:

Fly Fishing Line Acts as Your Casting Weight

In conventional fishing styles, all the inertia to propel your hook is found at the very end of the line in the form of a lead weight or a lure.

But, here’s the thing.

Flies weigh next to nothing.

To cast them out effectively, the fly line performs the bulk of the work. Weight is distributed at strategic points throughout the line. When paired with an effective casting technique, you can send your fly to any point you choose.

Fly Line Determines How Your Fly Behaves

In the guide below, you’ll come across various fly fishing lines. Some will sink, some will float, some will do a little bit of both. Throw into the mix terms such as ‘weight forward’ or ‘belly taper,’ and you’ll soon find that there are so many different types to choose from.

And there’s more…

You’ll find that each line has a different effect on your fly. So will make it behave naturally. Others will have the fish running for cover, so you must choose correctly.

Fly Line Has to Match the Rod

This isn’t like ‘normal’ fishing, where the line is only dictated by breaking strain.

Each fly line has a ‘weight’. And this is nothing to do with how heavy it feels when it is in your hand.

I’m going to tell you a simple rule…

If you listen to only one piece of advice, listen to this.

The ‘weight’ of the fly line must match the weight rating of your rod. Go too light, and you’ll be unable to cast your rod. It will be like wafting a feather. Go too heavy, and you run the risk of breaking your rod entirely.

fly fishing angler makes cast while standing in water

Fly Line Must be Strong Enough to Retrieve Fish

Take a look at a few fly lines and tell me what you notice?

It is seriously thick. Breaking strain is one area that you really don’t need to worry about for good-quality fly lines. They are generally rated 80lbs or more (yes, even if you only intend to catch brook trout!).

In fact, most manufacturers won’t specify a breaking strain at all.

You Don’t Use the Reel When Fly Fishing!

This is a biggie, which is why I have saved it until last.

You don’t generally retrieve fly lines in the same way as ‘normal’ anglers.

Fly line is retrieved by using your hand to ‘strip’ sections of the line back. You fight the fish in a similar way. The only time you use the reel is to gather your line ready for transportation.

Want to see how to retrieve fly line? Check out this short video.

Types of Fly-Fishing Lines

Ok, now you know a little about how fly fishing lines work. Here’s a rundown of the various types that you might encounter.

Floating Fly Fishing Lines

I’ve included this one first for a reason. If you are new to fly fishing and asking which fly fishing line should I choose? This is the answer.

As the name suggests floating fly lines sit on (or sometimes above) the upper surface of the water. They are primarily used for fishing topwater flies, called ‘dry flies’.

But…

You can also use them for fishing in the depths by pairing them with a fly designed to sink.

Floating lines are great as they can be used about 80-90% of the time. You can see some great floating lines for fly fishing right here.

Intermediate Lines

These are great lines if you want to fish a range of depths. They do sink. But they do so very slowly in a controlled manner.

They are used for sub-surface fishing only. The aim is that you can target different depths by counting in your head. The longer the count, the deeper the line sinks.

There’s a huge amount of choice when it comes to intermediate fly fishing lines. Most manufacturers will specify how many feet per minute the line will sink.

Sinking Lines

Sinking lines are for getting down towards the bottom, fast. The core of these lines is heavy, and the line itself can also feel pretty dense. These are used for large streamers and other patterns designed to replicate species not found on the surface.

For more information on the best sinking fly lines, check out my guide.

fly fishing rod with a reel and orange fly line

Fly Fishing Line Tapers Explained

You’ll hear the term taper referred to a lot when discussing fly fishing lines.

Sounds all technical, doesn’t it?

Let me make it easy for you.

‘Taper’ basically means how thick the line is at a given point. Most fly fishing lines aren’t a uniform thickness. Instead, their thickness (or ‘taper’) varies and changes the characteristics of how the line performs. Here are the most common types of fly line taper.

Weight Forward Taper

This is the most common type of fly line that you will encounter. What is a weight-forward taper?

Easy.

This is a line that starts off fat and then gets gradually thinner.

Why are weight forward lines so popular?

Because the ‘fat’ section and therefore the weight is really close to the fly, this makes them supremely easy to cast. As a result, they are an excellent choice for beginners. Because they have more forward inertia. They are also really good for fishing into the wind as the line ‘punches through’ easily.

Double Taper

The double taper is slightly different. This is a fly fishing line that is fat in the middle and gets thinner towards each end.

This type of line is used primarily when fishing dry flies. Because the tip of the line is relatively thin, this ensures a nice soft landing for the fly, making it more appealing to the fish.

Double taper or ‘belly taper’ lines are less common.

Why?

First, they don’t sell that well compared to weight forward lines, so there are fewer of them around. Second, they can be a little more challenging to cast. They don’t tend to go a long way. You’ll normally find them used on small streams with tiny dry flies.

Shooting Head

If you are looking for distance or fishing big water, a shooting line is a good choice. Consider this a little like a weight-forward line, but on steroids.

The ‘fat’ section of the line at the forward end is longer. This allows anglers to cast further with more weight. You’ll tend to find these lines used with bigger, heavier flies.

fly fisherman fishing in river

How Do I Choose a Fly Line?

Carefully.

No, I’m serious. As I said right at the start, your fly line choice is just as important as when you choose a rod or reel.

I’m guessing you want some more information. Here are the things I look at when choosing a good line for fly fishing:

Line Weight Rating

This is the absolute starting point for any good fly fisherman. If you don’t get the weight rating right, literally none of the other factors matter.

Here’s how to choose the correct weight rating for your fly line.

Take your rod and look at the first part of the blank, nearest the cork handle. You’ll normally see a number with ‘#’ this symbol next to it. Read it, remember it, as this is the line weight your rod is rated to handle.

Sometimes you’ll see a range. Make sure you stick within it.

For a more detailed guide on choosing fly line weight, swing by my dedicated guide.

Floating or Sinking

Next is deciding how you want to fish.

Are you going to be targeting fish in the upper water or below?

And a word to the wise…

With a floating line, as long as you aren’t going to need to fish too deep, you can actually do both.

With a sinking line, you are limited to fishing under the surface only.

Taper

As we said above, the taper of the line dictates its characteristics when casting. It must also be matched to the venue.

Here’s another great piece of advice from yours truly. If you are starting out, be sure to get a weight forward line. This is really easy to cast and manage and will bring you success in both your casting and catching earlier.

And venue?

If you plan on casting a long way, either a weight forward or shooting head will be ideal. For smaller streams, you could consider getting a double taper fly line.

fly fisherman fishing at river

Texture

Remember how I said that you’ll be retrieving your line by hand?

That means you’ll be feeling it. The texture of the line also dictates what it feels like in the cast too!

Some lines have a ‘rubbery’ feel (especially sinking lines). Other lines feel really non-stick and ‘powdery’. If you have the option, go for the latter. You’ll find that cheaper lines don’t have as good a texture as premium fly fishing lines.

Brand

Speaking of premium, consider the brand. Rio is world-famous as some of the best producers of fly fishing lines in the world. If you’ve got the money, these are always an excellent choice.

But…

There are others too. Often you’ll get a good quality fishing line that doesn’t come with a big brand name. It is how it fishes that is important.

Wanna know a secret?

Shop around, and you might just find that you get a budget fly fishing line that is actually made in the same factory as the expensive ones. They just have different packaging.

Cost

The final thing to consider is cost. I want to point out a few things.

First, don’t cheap out on your fly fishing line. I’d rather you spent less money on a reel than sacrifice quality in your fly fishing line.

Second, the price to performance ratio is not linear. Is a $100 fly line better than a $10 fly line? Absolutely. Is a $100 fly line better than a $50 line? Maybe, but only just.

Do you see what I’m getting at? You can get an affordable fly line without sacrificing much on performance, provided you stick to my other guidance offered above.

What Fly Line Do I Need?

Trout, bass, pike, salmon, crappies?

Look, guys, I know you all fish for different things. Check out my quick reference table to get you started in the right direction.

I’ve also got detailed guides on the best fly lines for bass and other fly caught species, such as trout!

Fly Line Weight Type of Water Type of Fish Types of Flies
#1 Very Small Streams Brook Trout Tiny Dries
#2 Small Streams And Ponds Trout, Small Bass Small Dries And Nymphs
#3 Small Ponds, Slightly Larger Streams Trout, Mid Sized Bass Dries, Small Lures, And Nymphs
#4 Average-Sized Ponds, Medium Rivers Trout, Bass, Small Pike, Small Crappie Dries, Nymphs, Lures
#5 Average-Sized Ponds, Medium Rivers Trout, Bass, Pike, Small Crappie Dries, Nymphs, Lures, Streamers, Poppers
#6 Average-Larger Sized Ponds, Medium-Larger Rivers, Small Lakes Large Trout, Large Bass, Pike, Crappie, Small Salmon Large Dries, Nymphs, Lures, Streamers, Poppers
#7 Larger Rivers, Lakes, Big Ponds, Saltwater Large Trout, Trophy Bass, Pike, Large Crappie. Salmon Big Lures, Big Streamers, Big Poppers
#8 Big Water, Saltwater Large Trout, Trophy Bass, Large Pike, Large Crappie. Large Salmon Huge Streamers, Poppers
#9 Big Water, Saltwater Large Trout, Trophy Bass, Large Pike, Large Crappie. Large Salmon. Larger Saltwater Species Huge Streamers And Specialist Flies

What Color Fly Lines is Best?

But Bob, what about color?

I hear you ask…

Well, here is the good news, friends.

Go bright!

You’ll find that while there is a huge range of colors, from bright pink to black, the truth is.

No, it doesn’t really matter. As I said above, the fly line is thick, and by nature, it is really easy to see at the best of times. I’d actively encourage you to go for something easy to spot on the water, such as yellow, green, or even purple.

Why?

It allows you to spot your fly more easily! I’ve tried a whole host of different colors over the years. Orange fly lines, white fly lines, neon blue fly lines…

The truth is the fish don’t seem to care. It is what you do with the line that matters, not the color.

fly fishing rod and reel with different types of fishing flies

What is a Good Fly Fishing Line Weight?

The best fishing line weight is always the one that correctly matches your rod.

But which weight rating should you pick? Here’s what I say.

Go for a weight #5 or #6 line, paired up with an equal rod, and you’ll have a fishing setup that should cover you for about 90% of any fly fishing you intend to do.

Weight #4 or #5 fly line will allow you to cast:

  • Dry flies
  • Small lures
  • Big lures
  • Nymphs
  • Streamers
  • Bugs

And much more!

If you only intend to fish in small and shallow streams, you could go lower, say down to wt #2. For bigger waters or harder conditions, go up to #7 or #8. But be advised these rods tend to be heavier to hold and cast.

Does Quality of Fly Line Matter?

In a word?

Absolutely!

Your line is your only means of getting that fly out onto the water and the only thing keeping you in contact with the fish if you happen to hook it.

Faced with the above fact, why wouldn’t you want a good quality fly line.

When choosing a fly line, it is literally a case of ‘buy cheap’ buy twice. Don’t feel that you need to spend hundreds of dollars on a fly fishing line, but at the same time, always aim for the upper limit of your budget and get the best quality fly line you can afford.

Trust me, you’ll get better results.

Conclusion

While choosing fly line might be a little more complex than you first thought, it is pretty easy once you get your head around a few basic features. Pair the line to the rod, and then choose one that ticks all the boxes with the features you require.

While you are here, why not check you are fully kitted out in my fishing gear list. What would you say is the best fly fishing line weight? Let me know in the comments below.

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Recent Content