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Part IV: Everything You Need To Know About Fly Lines and Leaders

So you have a rod and a reel. It’s time to add a fly line and a leader. Be patient. Pretty soon, you’ll be ready to go fishing. Note: Parts I, II and III of our Getting Started in Fly Fishing are helpful in providing context, but not necessary.

The Fly Line

First things first. Before you think about a fly line, you’ll need backing. Backing is a supple polyester material that connects to the reel. The fly line connects to the backing, usually with a loop-to-loop connection.

Most freshwater setups will call for approximately 75, 100 yards of backing. The backing gives the angler extra protection after a big fish runs through 90, 100 feet of fly line. Chances are, though, most freshwater fish — trout and bass — are not going to test your backing. Saltwater species —- redfish, snook, bonefish and tarpon — will do so regularly, which is why you will want more backing in the brine. Each reel has a designation for the amount of backing. If you’re not sure, ask your local fly shop.

Now that you have an overview of the lines and connections, it’s time to pick a fly line. Your first fly line likely needs to be weight-forward floating, which will allow you to fish dry flies, poppers as well as most streamers and nymphs, which are subsurface offerings.  As you get more advanced, you can buy sinking-tip setups, which allows you to the fly to the bottom faster. But for now, it’s best to keep things simple with a weight-forward line.

The benefit of the weight-forward line — at least for the beginner or intermediate angler — is that the bulk of the weight of the line is in the first 30 feet or so, which makes it easier for the newcomer to feel the rod bend and straighten, load and unload, when casting.

Lines are designated by weight and designed to match the weight of the rod. These designations are often found on the butt of the fly rod, aka WF5, which means weight-forward 5 weight. Most of the time, the fly line matches the rod, but not always. If you’re technically inclined and curious, this post explains why some fly lines don’t always match up properly.

The Leader

Your leader serves as the connection from the fly line to the fly. It’s comprised of three sections — the butt, the mid-section and the tippet. Leaders are measured by the diameter of the tippet, from 0X to 8X, with 0X being the biggest and 8X the smallest. The standard freshwater leader lengths are 7.5, 9 and 12 feet.

A 4X, 7.5 or 9-foot leader will work for most trout and bass situations. If you are fishing for spooky fish, you’ll need a longer leader, perhaps 12 or 13 feet. Longer leaders provide stealth, but are generally more difficult to cast.

A medium-size freshwater leader such as 4X will suffice in most situations, but ideally the diameter of the tippet matches the size of the fly. For instance, you wouldn’t want to toss a tiny size 22 trico pattern with a 3x or 4x leader. A 5X, 6X or 7X leader is a much better choice. However with a bass popper, you might want a 2X or 3X leader, something stiff enough to propel a bigger offering.

Dry-fly leaders are made from nylon. If you decide to go subsurface, use a fluorocarbon leader/tippet. These sink faster.

You can buy various types of leaders. For simplicity, we’ll stick with these two: knotted leaders and tapered leaders. The difference is self-explanatory: If a leader uses knots to fuse its sections together, it’s a knotted leader. Tapered leaders are knotless.

If you’re a serious dry-fly fisherman, you might try a braided leader. However, the majority of fly anglers use tapered leaders. They cast well and you don’t have to worry about knots.

The Knots

There are several knots you should learn how to tie when dealing with backing, fly line and leaders. The arbor knot attaches the backing to the reel. The double surgeon’s or perfection loop is used to make a loop-to-loop connection. The backing will have one loop, the back of the fly line another.

To attach the leader to the fly line, another loop-to-loop connection usually is required. Your leader should have a pre-made loop. But if it doesn’t, a perfection loop works fine.

If you’re tippet needs replacing, the standard knot of choice is the blood knot. If you tie your own leaders, you will need to master this knot. Once you’ve secured the tippet, use a clinch or Lefty Kreh’s non-slip mono loop to attach your fly of choice.

Any advice on fly lines or leaders? Feel free to check in with a comment or two on one of our social media pages.

The Predicament of Buying the Right Fly Line

So you want to buy a fly line. Should be a snap, right?

Not exactly. Not anymore.

When I bought my first fly rod in the late 1980s, I found an affordable weight-forward, 5-weight fly line, bought it and began fishing. I didn’t know how to cast or even how to fly fish, but the setup worked just fine.

Those days are long gone. Fly lines are heavier than ever, and a 5-weight line is no longer a true 5-weight line, more like a 5.5, or even heavier.

Forgive me for the technical explanation that’s about to follow, but background is needed for proper context. Historically, fly lines have been measured by grain weight (otherwise known as grainage) in the first 30 feet of line. An 8-weight is supposed to weigh in the neighborhood of 210 grains, a 9-weight 230 and so on.

The system was developed by the late Myron Gregory, an ardent pistol shooter and competitive fly caster, who decided in the late 1950s, early 1960s that fly lines needed a reliable, standardized system of measurement.

Prior to Gregory’s work, fly lines were designated by letters, apparently with little rhyme or reason. Consumer chaos ensued because aspiring anglers had little idea what they were buying. Nearly 60 years later, chaos rules once again.

I looked at 8-weight lines from four different fly line companies — Scientific Anglers, Orvis, Rio and Cortland. Lines were consistently one weight higher than Gregory’s standard, which is used by the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, known as AFFTA. Sometimes weights were right on the money. Sometimes they were two lines too heavy, meaning an 8-weight was closer to a 10.


“We don’t know what anything is anymore,” TFO advisor Flip Pallot said. “If you go into a shop to buy a fly line, one thing you can be sure of is it’s going to be much, much heavier in grain weight than what a 7-weight line should be, according to the adopted (grain-weight) system. That’s where we stand again. We got so smart that we completely got ourselves lost in the woods again.”

Full disclosure: Flip told me about this issue a few weeks ago. I thought he might be exaggerating. He wasn’t. So I reached out to others in the industry.

“It’s horrible,” TFO chairman Rick Pope said. “And it’s getting worse, not better.”

And fly shop owners have noticed the trend as well.

“What happened was the line companies didn’t say this line is really an 8.5,” said Vaughn Cochran, a former Keys guide who owns the Blackfly Lodge in the Bahamas and Blackfly Outfitters in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

Flip Pallot throws a nice loop. Photo courtesy of Flip Pallot.

Why fly-line makers strayed from the accepted standard likely stems from a number of reasons. Opinions vary, but many in the industry agree that rods got faster. Novices and inexperienced anglers didn’t have the skill to cast the quicker sticks. To compensate, newcomers bought lines that were one size heavier than the recommended size. Soon after line makers started doing it for them.

“My answer: The industry was trying to make it easier to fish,” TFO Bass Category Manager Collins Illich said.

Others are a bit more blunt as to what happened and why.

“Somebody needs to take responsibility,” Pallot said. “We had a perfect situation. We shouldn’t design things for goons; we should design things the way they should be. Goons should be able to aspire to use it. If they choose to put a 10-weight line on an 8-weight rod, that’s their decision. They can do that. But you should be able to go into the store and buy and 8-weight rod and line. You can’t do that.

“Someone has to step up. Either rod manufacturers have to build rods that conform to the traditional, established grain weight scale…or… line designations and grain weights need to be readjusted (and standardized) according to current, higher performing rods. In a perfect world, both of the above would take place. The industry OWES THIS TO THE CONSUMER and to itself.”

So what’s a consumer to do? Shop around.

“It’s really important and you want to test it on the rod that you’re going to use,” Cochran said. “It’s kind of like when you used to go buy a shirt, you buy a large. Now you buy a shirt and large is not always the same as a large in another company.  There’s no consistency. You have to try on a couple shirts to get the right size. If you want to find the right fly line, you have to put it on your rod and try it.”

There’s only one flaw with the trial-and-error method. The wrong tool often gets the blame.

“It’s more difficult for the rod maker, when everyone questions the rod, but not the line,” Pope said. “No one really knows what the line weighs. We have 8-weights that range from 210 grains to as much as 350 grains. The difference in an 8-weight lines is totally random. The 8-weight rod maker like us struggles. Everyone questions the rod first, not the line.”

Interestingly, Pope says anglers who use two-handed rods are the opposite. They often will evaluate the line first. Each two-handed TFO rod, it should be noted, lists grain-windows for the appropriate line weight. Traditional fly rods only list suggested line weights.

Should one-handed rods list a grain window for anglers to match the ideal fly line? If it were only that easy. The truth is there is no easy answer to this predicament.

“It’s like in golf,” Pope said. “A 6-iron used to be for 165 yards; now people hit it 190 yards. Did the clubs change or the ball change? I’m not sure who’s chasing who. The reality is it’s the industry’s fault.”