Untangling Specialty Fly Lines
- By: Ted Leeson
Back in the day, things were simpler.
You ordered coffee, it was either regular or unleaded. You wanted a fly line, it was a double-taper or weight-forward. But walk into a Starbuck’s or a fly shop today, and you could perish of bewilderment trying to sort through all of your options. The tradeoff is that you can get pretty much exactly what you want. The trick lies in understanding your alternatives.
The proliferation of line designs in recent years has come mainly in weight-forward “specialty” lines, often designated by a performance characteristic, as in “power” or “finesse”; by an angling method, like “nymph” or “streamer”; or by a species, such as “carp” or “pike.” These specialty lines can differ in a number of ways—cores and coatings, for instance—but from the standpoint of performance dynamics, the way the line translates energy from your arm to the fly, nothing is more crucial than the taper.
To see what specialty tapers bring to the table, what applications they have, what advantages and drawbacks they involve, I gathered lines—all WF7F, primarily for fresh water—from six manufacturers and divided them into categories based on taper profiles. I spent a season checking them out—not as individual products, but as representatives of design ideas—to determine how the different approaches to taper played out in actual performance. Here’s what I learned:
Your Basic Fly Line
The drawing (right) shows the taper profile of a typical WF7F, based on the average of measurements taken from general-purpose 7-weight lines from various manufacturers. It illustrates the basic weight-forward anatomy and can be used as a “reference line” to see how specialty tapers diverge from the “all-around” lines many of us ordinarily use. The length in feet of each head component is specified inside the profile.
Fly lines are (allegedly) assigned a number based on the weight in grains of the first 30 feet of line, and those weights are (again, allegedly) standard across the industry. But manufacturers modify those standards to achieve certain effects, as we’ll see. A 7-weight line is defined as weighing 185 grains (or, more accurately, within a window of 177 to 193 grains) in the first 30 feet.If you’re casting 20 feet of our reference line, you’re casting 122 grains, or 66%, of the 185-grain weight of a #7. This is an illustration of how weight is distributed along the line, which is another way of looking at taper. Again, taper is only part of the performance story, but it is a very large part.
A Few Principles of Line Dynamics
Specialty tapers represent ways in which designers modify the three basic head components to produce specific performance characteristics. It’s easiest to see the design logic of specialty tapers by first taking a quick look at a few basic principles of line dynamics that are quite probably empirically familiar to most anglers, purely from experience.
p A short front taper transmits casting energy rapidly and forcefully to the line tip, giving a more authoritative turnover; it also puts the line belly closer to the tip, which loads the rod more quickly. In a long front taper, casting energy dissipates as it moves toward the tip, turning over a fly less aggressively; since the line belly is farther from the tip, a long front taper also loads the rod more gradually.
p Assuming equal front-taper lengths, a short belly shoots more quickly (that is, with fewer false casts) than a long belly, but shooting line diminishes accuracy. A long belly requires more false-casting before shooting line but generally gives greater distance, allows longer fixed-line (non-shooting) casts—which are more accurate—and offers greater mending control.
pA short rear taper gets the running line into the rod guides almost instantly, which makes for quicker deliveries and efficient line shooting. A long rear taper transmits more energy to the belly, allowing the caster to hold more line in the air for increased range and accuracy in fixed-line casts, and it gives more mending control.
I defined the criteria for the categories here based primarily on basic design similarities and in conversations with line manufacturers. Each of the three main categories is divided into subgroups that represent design variations within the category. Taken together, these subgroups represent a kind of “design spectrum,” a range of approaches to the profile category and the kinds of performance characteristics achievable with modifications of a single idea. Because space considerations prohibit reproducing all the taper profiles in a category, I chose a single line profile to represent each subgroup and listed the names of additional lines that resemble the taper pictured in the drawing.
10 24 7
Lines in this subgroup take the reference line and shorten the front taper. As a result, they turn over large or heavy flies or cut into the wind, and load the rod (particularly fast rods) sooner for short-distance work; hence the big-fish/big-fly names for these lines. Lines in this subgroup also have fairly short bellies, for quick load-and-shoot casts, assisted by a short rear taper that puts the low-friction running line into the guides quickly. They also give accurate fixed-line casts out to about 30 feet. Accuracy at a distance, however, suffers, and rollcast and mending ranges are limited, since you can’t easily move the thick head with the thin running line. And short front tapers lack finesse; these aren’t delicate lines.
Other lines in subgroup: Airflo Bass/Muskie; Hardy Premium; Scientific Anglers Mastery Musky/Pike; Scientific Anglers Mastery Bass Bug
These lines extend both the front taper and the belly. They allow you to aerialize more line and set it down for more accurate, and gentler, deliveries at a distance, a combination that is useful in carp fishing, for example, but also in general dryfly fishing where longer casts and line control are needed. The long bellies mend well, making them good nymph lines with smaller flies (the long front taper isn’t especially well suited to turning over heavy indicator rigs). They also rollcast well and have good range when shooting, though you must be able to aerialize the head—54 feet in the case of the Wulff Long Belly line—which takes time in false-casting. These aren’t quick, long-range shooters.
Other lines in subgroup: Hardy Marksman; Royal Wulff Long Belly
Lines here return to a short front taper but extend the rear taper. A long rear taper provides enough mass to turn over the belly of the line, so you can aerialize more line for longer, more accurate fixed-line casts and longer mends. At the same time, the rear taper is still sufficiently thin and light that you can shoot the line once the belly clears the rod tip. These lines are similar to those in the bass/pike/musky subgroup (1A) in their strong turnover with indicator rigs and bigger flies (I found these good streamer lines, for instance), but with greater mending control and long-range accuracy. But they’re not the line for quick load-and-shoot situations.
Other lines in subgroup: Airflo Ridge Supple Impact
These lines generally have long bellies with longer tapers front and rear, and long heads overall. The extended rear taper and long head not only enable aerializing line for long casts, but also picking up a longer line and laying it back down or making longer mends—all of which are useful, for instance, in swinging a steelhead run. The mid-length front taper is a power/delicacy compromise that accommodates a range of fly sizes and fishing methods. To realize the fullest advantage of this design, you have to be able to carry a fairly long line in the air, but for anglers who favor a wide distance window, and accuracy and line control, over quick shooting and power turnover, this is a good all-around line design—a fact reflected in the variety of names given to lines in this subgroup.
Other lines in subgroup: Airflo Ridge Rangefinder; Cortland Trout BOSS; Scientific Anglers Mastery Steelhead; Orvis Hydros Easy-Mend
Orvis Hydros Bass/Warmwater Line
RIO Carp Line
Scientific Anglers Mastery Textured Nymph/Indicator
Orvis Hydros Salmon/Steelhead
22.5 34 7.5
16 30 3
5.5 30 8
8 23 4
Simple Taper Lines
This category consists of lines that have the three basic head components—front taper, belly, rear taper—and in which the belly is the single longest section of the head. The reference line is of this type, and the subgroups in this category illustrate modifications of that basic design.
These lines generally have a very short front taper; an extremely short belly; and a long rear taper that makes up at least 40% of the total head length. The resulting bullet-like profile suggests this is the “power” category. And it is, in the sense of a line that loads quickly and turns over big flies. But taper alone doesn’t tell the whole tale here. To optimize quick loading and aggressive turnover, there’s more mass up front and more overall weight in the first 30 feet of the head. I weighed lines in this category, and most of them ran from a half-size heavier than industry standard (some advertised as such) to as much as two full line sizes heavier. It’s not really a deception, but an acknowledgement that there’s a difference between an ordinary 7-weight line and one that will load a 7-weight rod with a short line beyond the tip. Designating the latter as a 7-weight is the manufacturer’s way of automatically compensating for this difference.
These resemble many of the simple-taper lines with shorter front tapers in Category 1. But the longer rear taper (rather than additional thick belly) means this design shoots better when loaded with a short line, allowing faster deliveries out to medium ranges. Yet the rear taper still has enough mass that you can hold some extra line in the air for more distance, or have some ability to mend. It’s a fairly quick load-and-shoot line that gives you a little versatility.
Other lines in subgroup: Cortland Precision Big Fly—Pike; Cortland Precision Salmon/Steelhead; Cortland Precision Western Drifter
These lines use a “compound taper”—a level section of line between two rear tapers. This approach preserves more mass behind the belly than a continuously thinning taper. Maintaining the mass gives the ability to mend more line (and to some extent aerialize more line) than would a single, continuous rear taper of the same length; hence its use on the RIO Indicator line to give additional line control on long drifts.
Other lines in subgroup: RIO Smallmouth Bass
These compound tapers sandwich a length of level line between two comparatively short rear tapers and have very short front bellies. Lines in this subgroup are the heaviest in the category. The result is a very fast-loading, quick-shooting line with strong fly turnover and good performance in the wind. In fact, the design begins to approximate an integrated shooting head, but the thinner rear belly still offers enough length and weight in the head to make fixed-line casts out to 30 feet or so.
Other lines in subgroup: Scientific Anglers Mastery Streamer Express Floating; Scientific Anglers Mastery Textured Magnum; RIO Power Fly; Orvis Hydros Power Taper
Note: In actual casting, I found the most notable performance differences among lines in this category were attributable to either overall line weight or front-taper length. Unsurprisingly, the heavier lines loaded a rod more quickly and fully with less line. A few lines have front tapers longer than shown in the illustration (up to eight feet), and these give less aggressive presentations, though the lines themselves still have a powerful feel in casting.
Cortland Precision Bass Line
RIO Indicator Line
Scientific Anglers Mastery Textured Titan Line
16 14 25 6 4
28 7 6
18 7 5
The Royal Wulff Steelhead line is an example of Wulff’s “triangle taper,” and it illustrates more generally the performance qualities of rear-loaded designs with extremely long front tapers—soft deliveries, long rollcasts and excellent mending control. Because they aerialize well, you can make fixed-line casts accurately at longer distances, as well as pick up a long line and set it back down, as you would swinging for steelhead. Heavy flies and wind are not strong suits, and lines of this design may not load faster rods well for short casts.
Other lines in subgroup: RIO Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon; RIO Trout LT WF; Royal Wulff Triangle Taper Lines
These lines scale down the design in a shorter head for fishing where very long distances aren’t required. You might consider these “control” tapers that excel where accurate casts and drift management are at a premium. Because of their gentle delivery, efficient rollcasting and excellent mending, lines of this type are useful on placid waters with spooky trout, and in close quarters where backcast room is limited. Again, the front taper may lack the weight for short deliveries with faster rods or for turning over larger flies, though moving up a line size can help.
Other lines in subgroup: Scientific Anglers Mastery VPT; Cortland 444 Classic Whisper Taper; Cortland Competition Nymph
As the rear taper and overall head length continue getting shorter, the rear-loaded design essentially becomes an integrated shooting head—and delivers like one, loading a rod very quickly, shooting to distances with big flies and cutting through the wind. But as in the “power taper” category, performance owes much to overall line mass. Lines of this type tend to be clothesline thick and very heavy—about the equivalent of an 11-weight—a concession, at least partly, to the weight required for short-line loading. This design also rollcasts very well close in, though the short rear taper limits line control once the head is beyond the rod tip. The long front taper may seem odd on a compact head, but it helps alleviate a problem when shooting for distance—a loop that prematurely straightens out and collapses while the line is still airborne. Lines of this design are particularly efficient for strip retrieves; once all the running line is in, make a backcast and shoot again instead of working out line by false-casting, as longer heads require.
Other lines in subgroup: Airflo 40+; Royal Wulff Ambush
It’s worth noting again that taper is not the only consideration in choosing a specialty fly line, but it is the one most crucial to its delivery dynamics. Consulting taper profiles with an understanding of how each component of the head functions, and how varying the lengths of those components affect performance, is the best way to match a line design to your specific fishing circumstances.
Royal Wulff Steelhead Line
Airflo Ridge Supple Technical Line
Airflo Sniper Line
10 16 19
2 14 13
Ted Leeson is Fly Rod & Reel’s equipment editor.
Lines in this category are, in one respect, mirror images of the front-loaded tapers: The front tapers make up at least 40% of the total head length, which puts the heavier belly section closer to the rear of the head.