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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.

Huh?

“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.”

Another Perspective on Lefty by Rick Pope

I met Lefty Kreh back in the mid-80s on a hosted trip to Turneff Island in Belize to learn more about bonefish and fly fishing in saltwater. Flip Pallot and Mark Sosin joined us in a week of the absolute worst bonefishing trip ever — but one that I’ll never forget.  I met Flip first – as Lefty suggested Flip as a guide on my first trip to Florida in the early ‘80s. Like all who met Lefty, he was and has been a friend since.

A career change and my entry into the fishing business in 1995 meant that I would see much more of Lefty and, like all of us, I clung to every piece of fishing advice that he so generously dispensed. He honored me with acclaim for TFO’s entry into rods that were “affordable” – as he lived a frugal life and he believed affordability would allow more folks to enjoy the sport.

Our friendship grew along with our opportunities to spend time together at various fly-fishing events around the country. Lefty’s personality, people skills, humility and candor began to impress me even more than his casting skills.  His interest in TFO’s affordable concept also grew, and ultimately, I decided to write him a letter and beg him to join us and help design our rods. That was in late 2002. Unfortunately, he suffered a “minor” stroke just before Thanksgiving, so I delayed my pitch. Then between Christmas and New Year’s Day, he suffered his first heart attack. Not wanting to add to his stress so again, I delayed.

I got a report in mid-January where Lefty performed at the Denver ISE show that he was in fine form. He even shared with everyone the story of both the stroke and heart attack.  So I sent the letter. He replied with a phone call “I can’t say yes, but I’m not ready to say no. Can we talk about this for a while?” What was essentially an interview with Lefty lasted almost a month and consisted of much more than rod design and concept discussions. Life stories, family, relationships and business philosophy dominated the many conversations we had. Not one mention of money was made. Ultimately, he called me in late February and confirmed that he made the decision to leave his rod company of 20 years and would enjoy helping us with rod design. The press release was written February 25, 2003 – the day before his 78th birthday – and TFO’s business world changed dramatically.

By that point, we had established a good consumer following – although many dealers and certain rod companies threw stones at us for being Korean made and “too cheap.” I even had advice, or a threat, from one dealer that we needed to raise our price, that the rods are too good for their price. Even more upsetting were the complaints levied against Lefty for working with a cheap rod importer.  Our exclusive Korean factory was (and still is) owned by a brilliant engineer who both Lefty and even Gary Loomis claimed is one of the best they’ve ever worked with.

With the benefit of hindsight, splitting design from engineering proved to be very beneficial. Lefty could see transition issues in a rod by analyzing loop and shock wave issues in the fly line.  He could quite accurately predict where within the blank such issues exist – and how much line weight or fly resistance caused them to appear. To this day, I’ve never seen another with such an intuitive understanding of rod dynamics.

His first trip to Dallas was in March of 2003 and involved three days of evaluating every rod we had while we took detailed notes on action, performance, power and finish out. Changes and modifications were made while he took over the design of our prototype TICR series that, after six different 8-weight prototypes, we were able to introduce the family at IFTD in September.

Lefty proved to be more than the “pied piper” with consumers following him as he would call and ask, “Do you know Ed Jaworowski … then Nick Curcione, then Bob Clouser, Jake Jordan and Flip Pallot? They might be interested in working with us and each has excellent insight into rod design.” Through the 15 years and one month Lefty worked with us, we prototyped over 2,000 rods and he gladly accepted final responsibility for every one we’ve introduced. We became a true family, with epic sales meetings, dinners, stories and jokes – all because of Lefty.

Our incredible family of Advisory Staff members – four of whom are inductees into the IGFA Hall of Fame – have ideas and solutions to enhance rod performance and fishing enjoyment. Lefty always enjoyed the group discussions whether small or all inclusive. From talking knots with Cliff Pace and Larry Dahlberg to rod design with Flip Pallot and Gary Loomis to casting with Ed Jaworowski, he learned, taught and made us all better people. Ed, as one of his closest friends, convinced him to join us on an epic three-year production of The Complete Cast DVD set and watching its evolution remains as one of my life’s highlights.

He loved women and always seemed to pick one out of the crowd when on stage while claiming he could “teach any woman he wasn’t going with or married to” how to fly cast unlike “hardheaded guys who don’t listen well.” Lefty even coached a Catholic girls’ basketball team for a while after his return from WWII.  He always claimed, however, that his greatest catch was Evelyn – his wife and best friend for 65 years. Ev Kreh passed away November 25, 2011 after several years of declining health that caused Lefty to limit the length of his travels as he didn’t want to be away from her for more than two nights. With her passing, he came to Dallas the following weekend for an event with our major dealer, and we met a couple with a lodge on Ascension Bay that offered great permit fishing. We booked for the spring of 2012 and I caught my first (and only) two permit the same day with Lefty as my boat partner. After that, we always kept a couple of trips planned and enjoyed many until his health and lack of stamina began to slow him down.

Over the past few years, I came to realize that Lefty was much more than one of the best fly casters, teachers and rod designers in the world. His humility, people skills, passion and insights proved to be incredibly valuable to me as well as all who were fortunate enough to know him well. I regret that I never begged him to write the Lessons on Life book. I was blessed to work with him for the past 15 years and I pledge that his teachings on life will eternally remain part of our corporate ethic as his rod design influence will continue to exist in every TFO rod we make. May he rest in peace.