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A Grain of Truth…

“Fly-fishing has gone bonkers,” a friend recently said as a fly-shop owner showed him a half dozen or so fly lines. Deciding on the “right” line was tough, and the dealer’s advice was simply, “Over-line the rod. Go one or two sizes heavier, and you’ll cast a mile.” The concept of over-lining a fly rod isn’t new. Fly-fishers have been doing it for decades, and many of today’s most popular fly lines are marketed specifically to be heavier than standard.

Over-lining isn’t really an accurate term because every fly rod ever made can cast more than one fly-line weight. For some casters, the idea of using a fly line one or two steps heavier promises achieving amazing casting distances with minimal effort because, they say, the rod is “more deeply loaded.” Other flyrodders with a more rigid outlook visualize over-lining a fly rod as something bad, like overweight, over the limit or over-rated, so they stick with the rod’s labeled line weight. Neither perspective is right or wrong, but both obscure the complete picture.

I was reminded of this while talking with Jim Bartschi of Scott Fly Rods at last summer’s International Fly Tackle Dealer Show in Orlando. He explained, “Every fly rod, regardless of its action or length, is capable of casting several different fly-line weights. The rod’s casting potential depends on the weight of the line beyond the rod tip. The weight of that length of line dictates how the rod will cast.” Jim went on, “Although the actual taper of the fly line has some effect on how the fly is presented, tapers don’t affect weight.”

According to Jim, “What many fly-anglers overlook when discussing fly lines is that at the start of the cast there’s a short length of line outside the tip that weighs very little, and later in the cast there’s a longer length that weighs a lot more. At any time during the cast, the rod may be over- or under-lined, or may be just right, all because of the weight of the line beyond the rod tip.”

Going a few steps further, Nick Curcione of Temple Fork Outfitters said, “The problem in trying to match the right fly line to a given fly rod is that today’s rods are designed with materials and actions that are far different from what we used many years ago. The current line-rating system was put in place by The American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) in the 1960s and was a welcome step toward uniformity. It was based on trout fishermen making average 30-foot casts,” Nick said, “so the system weighed the first 30 feet of the fly line and introduced the numbering system in use today. Unfortunately for saltwater fly-fishers, the system has proven to be inadequate because typical casts are more like 50 to 70 feet (or greater). Also, we didn’t have graphite rods back then, and saltwater fly-fishing was still relatively new.” Several line and rod manufacturers have pushed to update the system, but so far nothing has changed.

Doug Cummings of Royal Wulff Products added more food for thought by adding, “Most graphite rods manufactured today are generally stiffer than the fiberglass rods popular 20 or 30 years ago, and they cannot cast well unless the rod blank is bent sufficiently to store energy. A good cast can be made only when the bent rod releases its energy as it returns to its straight, unbent shape, unrolling and propelling the line forward. Many flyrodders today like a short-head line to quickly load the rod.”

Looking at line choices from another angle, what Jim, Nick, and Doug are essentially saying is that every flyrodder, saltwater or freshwater, should be aware of the actual weight of the fly line outside the rod tip. It’s the line’s weight in grains, not necessarily the recommended line number (7-, 8-, 9-, etc.) that accurately loads the rod. A fly-angler should also consider the length of the casts to be made on a typical day of fishing because the optimum grain weight will change based on how much line is outside or beyond the rod tip. Any rod will cast better when the grain weight of the line matches the optimum requirements of the rod.

Let’s use an 8-weight as an example. Based on AFFTA’s grain-rating system, it’s supposed to cast a line of about 210 grains; but if you start the next cast with only 20 feet of line outside the rod (as typically occurs if you retrieve most of the line to the rod tip), that line weighs about 120 grains, the equivalent of a 6-weight. You must make several false casts to get enough line outside the tip to properly load the rod before you can shoot the last forward cast and deliver the fly. A short-head line weighing about 180 grains for its first 20 feet will more quickly load the rod with fewer false casts. That’s one reason why short-head lines are so popular, but you can also load the rod for short casts by up-lining with a standard taper line by one or two sizes.

On the opposite side, if you’re continually making 50- to 60-foot casts, or if you have to lift a lot of line off the water to reposition the fly around moving fish, the line outside the tip may weigh 300 grains (or more), which is the equivalent of a 10-weight line. If you’re an excellent caster and are making long casts to distant fish, you’re actually better off by under-lining the rod with a 6- or 7-weight line, because once you get about 40 or 50 feet of line out, the rod is actually being loaded by the correct grain weight.

So, the number of the fly line and the number labeled on the rod are just starting points. The weight in grains of the fly line is critical information when deciding which line to buy, or which to use for the day’s fishing, yet many flyrodders are unaware of the actual weight of their favorite line. Two casters with identical rods may have vastly different opinions of the same line. One caster may say a short-head line “shoots like a cannon” after making just one or two false casts, while another caster who needs three or four false casts to get 60 feet of that same line in the air may say it’s awful. Instead of labeling lines and rods with numbers, like 7-weight or 9-weight, some rod and line manufacturers in the fly-tackle industry would like to see rods labeled with a range of grain weights within which the rod would cast. Temple Fork did this with their Esox rods and the now-discontinued Mini Mag series. All two-hand rods do this, and G. Loomis now does it with their PRO4x ShortStik and Predator series rods, and other manufacturers are trending this way.

The ancient Fenwick FF85, a popular fiberglass rod from the late 60s was ahead of its time because this 8½-footer listed three (imagine that!) line weights (no mention of grains) on the rod blank—7, 8, and 9. It was a splendid rod much in favor with fly guys throwing poppers to largemouth bass, streamers to back-bay bluefish, and gurglers to school striped bass hiding in the tumbled rocks at the front of a jetty or along dock pilings.

To take full advantage of knowing the accurate grain weight of your fly lines, you must weigh them. Most manufacturers provide specs on the line box or on their website for the first 30 feet, but it’s helpful to know what the line weighs at 20 and 40 feet so you can match the weight of the line to the distance you want to cast. The Bear’s Den in Taunton, Massachusetts, sells a handy digital scale for just a few bucks. The front edge of my workbench is marked in 1-foot increments so that I can easily measure the line, mark the 20-, 30- or 40-foot lengths with a felt-tip pen, coil the different line lengths, and weigh them. I mark the line boxes with the grain weights at each length for future reference.

Here’s another example as to how this additional line information can help your fishing. The G. Loomis PRO4x ShortStik 8/9 rated for 300 to 350 grains has become one of my favorite rods for nighttime, quiet-water striped bass fishing around docks and bridges where short, quick casts are made. But, when the sun comes up, longer casts are required as I move to more open waters. I fish a pair of ShortStiks in my skiff and kayak: one is rigged with an 11-weight Royal Wulff Bermuda Short, the other with an 8-weight Royal Wulff Triangle Taper.

By weighing the lines on the scale, I know the 11-weight weighs 275 grains for its first 20 feet and 335 grains for the first 30 feet. With one false cast, I’m in the sweet spot for the recommended grain rating of this rod. I can retrieve most of the fly back to the boat, make one backcast, and shoot a 40-foot cast right back to a dock or bridge. The other rod rigged with the 8-weight line weighs 260 grains for the first 30 feet and 330 grains at 40 feet; again, it’s just about perfect for the grain-weight window, so with two false casts, a 70-foot shoot is easily made. Same rod, two casting scenarios, two different lines.

Another reason to weigh fly lines is the disparity between what a line is labeled and what it actually weighs. It’s common to weigh a 9-weight (let’s say) on the scale and discover it’s really a 10- or an 11-weight! What you purchased as a 7-weight may really be an 8- or a 9-weight. The truth is in the hand scale. If you weigh a line that works well on one of your rods, use that weight as a starting point when buying new line.

Knowing the grain weight of what you’re buying is critical for better fly-casting with less effort.

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