There are many fly anglers that don’t even know that they have fly line backing on their reel. Many more are aware that it’s there, but have no idea why. It’s just something the kid at the fly shop added when he strung up the reel and fly line you bought. If you’re a freshwater trout fisherman, it’s of no obvious value because you likely never see it. If you’re a saltwater fisherman, you’ve seen it plenty of times… and it made you nervous! Whether you’re accustomed to seeing your backing or not, it has value to you as a fly fisherman.
But what is it? For starters, backing is a thin, synthetic
line that connects your fly line to your reel. It is most often made of Dacron,
a strong synthetic material that will not dry rot and will likely never need to
be replaced. So, even though you may need to replace your fly line every few
years or so, you’ll likely just attach it to the same backing that was
originally put on your reel. It has two primary purposes: to fill up space on
the reel and to act as an “insurance policy.”
Let’s first talk about its role as insurance policy. The average fly line is 90–100 feet in length. So, if you make a 40’ cast and hook a large fish that runs 50’ or more, you’re in big trouble! But with an additional length of backing on the reel, you are able to deal with longer runs made by big fish. So, why not just use longer fly lines?
Fly lines are expensive. A 90’ fly line will commonly cost $50-$100. However, you can get 100 yards of backing for about $5-$10. Some fly shops even give you the backing for free when you buy a reel and line from them. And again, you’ll likely never have to replace it. What’s that, you say? You only fish small streams and there is little to no chance of a fish running out 100 feet of line?
As mentioned above, the other purpose of backing is to fill space on the reel. Fly line has a significant amount of “memory,” and if you wind it directly on the small spindle of a trout reel, it will create small tight coils in the fly line. It will also require more turns of the reel to pick up line. However, by filling the reel with an appropriate amount of backing, you create a larger arbor for the fly line to rest on. As a result, you’ll have larger, more manageable coils in the fly line and more efficient line retrieval.
The average trout reel will have a capacity to hold the fly line and probably 50–100 yards of backing. Larger saltwater reels will hold significantly more – anywhere from 200–600 yards. How much backing a reel holds depends on the size of the reel, the size fly line on the reel, and the type of backing used.
Dacron backing typically comes in sizes 12–30 pound test, with the heavier strength taking up more space. Gel-spun polyethylene backing is also available. It is more expensive but has a significantly greater strength to diameter ratio. For that reason, gel-spun backing is often the choice for saltwater fishermen.
Finally, backing has become a bit of a fashion statement for
many fly anglers in recent years. While it has traditionally come in white,
there are now multiple colors of backing available, providing brighter color
schemes on the reel.
Floating fly lines are by far the most common, and for most trout fishing situations, they are all you need. When nymphing below the surface, weight in the fly or on the leader (split shot) is enough to get the fly and leader down where it needs to be. Doing this while the fly line is still floating can be advantageous as it allows the line to be mended when necessary and provides for quicker pick up when setting the hook on a dead drift. Even when fishing with streamers, a floating line is often adequate when stripping a weighted streamer through shallow trout streams.
But what if you want to get a streamer down and keep it down when retrieving it through deeper, swifter water? Such scenarios might include a mountain trout stream that’s running high from recent rain, or a tailwater fishery during generation. Both of these scenarios have produced some of the largest trout I’ve ever caught. Or what if you’re wanting to fish a streamer 12’ deep in a lake for stripers?
Performing the above tasks with a floating fly line would require a very heavy fly with a long leader. And the result would be extremely difficult casting and very limited “contact” with the fly. When fishing streamers, shorter leaders allow you to better control the motion of the fly when retrieving it, and give you much quicker feedback when the fish takes it. Additionally, because of the floating fly line, the fly would rise with every strip of the line rather than staying deep in the target area.
A sink tip fly line solves these problems by allowing the front portion of the fly line to sink. Weightless flies that are easier to cast and sometimes have better “action” can be used and so can shorter leaders. And with the fly line submerged, the fly will stay down and retrieve more in a straight line rather than upward toward the surface. Full sinking lines can also be used for this task but can be clumsy to cast and nearly impossible to mend. A sink tip line more or less gives you the best of both worlds.
Sink tip fly lines have a number of variations. First, they will often have different lengths of sinking heads. In other words, the entire fly line will float except for the front 6’ or 15’ or whatever the case may be. In general, a shorter head will be easier to cast. A longer head will keep more of the line, and consequently the fly, down deeper. They will also come in different sink rates. Some manufacturers may provide a measurement in grains but most will be designated in a class – like a class 5. A Class 5, for instance, will typically sink at a rate of approximately 5” per second. A Class 2 will sink at approximately 2” per second. They commonly range from Class 1 (often described as an intermediate line) to Class 6.
Very often, the weight classes will correspond specifically with the actual line size. For instance, you may find a 10-weight sink tip line that is a Class 5, or a 6-weight sink tip line that is a Class 3, but there may not be an option for a Class 5 6-weight.
You can also find separate add-on sink tips to convert any floating line into a sink tip. This is convenient if you don’t want to carry an extra spool or if you don’t plan to fish sink tip lines frequently and don’t want the expense of an extra spool and line. However, my experience with these is that they hinge at the connection with the floating line and cast terribly.
As with nearly everything in fly fishing, you need to figure out what’s best for your task at hand. Where are you going to be fishing? What are you trying to do? What size rod will you be using?
Hopefully, this sheds a little bit of light on sink tip lines. They can be terribly confusing, mainly because every manufacturer seems to have their own way of describing them. You really need to read through the fine print in the description of the lines to figure out what’s what. Your best bet is to talk to someone at a local fly shop. They can really break down the differences for you.
At the end of your fishing day, strip all of the loose coils of fly line from your reel. Reel it back on tightly, using your fingers to apply pressure and guide the line evenly on the reel. This will ensure you begin your next fishing day tangle free!
“On the Fly” is a feature in my monthly newsletter offering quick fly fishing tips to make your life on the water a little easier…
I recently saw a post on Facebook from a gentleman who had broken two fly rods on one trip. Another person commented about “having the record” for taking the most broken rods back to his local fly shop. They proceeded to boastfully go back and forth about this as if it was some sort of badge of honor. Accidents happen and rods do break from time to time, but I had guided one of these gentlemen and it was no secret why he had broken so many.
When we first met, I cringed as he pulled his rod from the trunk of his car. It was not in a tube and there were a variety of items piled on top of it. I’ve seen a lot of rods break over the years, but I’ve never seen a single one break while it was in the tube. If you knew him, it would come as no surprise that he forgot to bring a reel for the rod, so he ended up using one of mine.
When he caught his first fish, he removed the hook and literally threw the rod on a rocky bank about ten feet away in preparation for a photo. I let it slide but when it happened again on the second fish, he got the “lecture.” Not only was he damaging the rod every time he did that but also the reel. Actually, he wasn’t doing the fly line any favors either!
Whether it’s cars, tools, fly fishing gear, or anything else, I was always taught that if you take care of your gear, your gear will take care of you. While taking care of your gear often means simply handling it responsibly in the field, simple maintenance out of the field can greatly extend the life of valuable fishing gear and insure that it’s ready to perform when you need it to. And what better time than winter for inspection and a little preventive maintenance?
Fly rods don’t require a lot of maintenance. Basically, don’t heave them into rocks every time you catch a fish and keep them in a tube for storage and travel. However, be careful not to store them wet for an extended amount of time in an airtight tube. Simple off-season maintenance includes checking rod guides and wraps for any damage. If you notice a loose guide or a wrap beginning to fail, you can send it back to the manufacturer for a preventive repair, rather than waiting for the guide to come off while you’re fishing. When you are doing this, also check the ferrules (where the rod pieces join) for a good, snug fit. If any seem loose, apply a small coating of wax to the male end.
Fly reels are pretty low maintenance, too. First, check to make sure the reel is turning smoothly. If it’s not, first be sure that there’s not too much line on it. Assuming excessive line isn’t preventing it from turning smoothly, you likely have a bent frame or dented spool. If it’s minor, your local fly shop might be able to fix that. Otherwise, it will need to go back to the manufacturer.
Assuming the reel is turning properly, all it really needs is a cleaning and “tune-up.” Remove the spool and rinse it and the frame with water. Wipe away any excessive grime build-up and apply a small amount of reel lube around the gears. Allow the reel to dry before putting back into storage.
Fly lines probably require more maintenance than any other piece of equipment. You don’t have to completely remove it from the reel, but pull out at least the first forty feet of fly line. You can pull out the entire amount if you wish, but most people don’t use more than the first forty feet and it’s what will need the most attention.
Spread it out someplace other than the ground, such as between a couple of trees in the back yard. Take a small container and fill it with water and a couple drops of dishwashing liquid. Dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the liquid and run the cloth back and forth over the fly line. You’ll likely see a dark, grimy stain on the cloth after you do. Repeat this process with a clean cloth until you no longer see a stain, then do it one more time with just water and no soap.
Now that your line is clean, you’ll want to treat it with something to keep it slick and prevent cracking. There are specific fly line treatments available at fly shops for this. Just rub into the line using the same method described above. Or something I like to use is ArmorAll. You buy the wipes and simply run the wipe up and down the line several times. Some fly line manufacturers claim that ArmorAll is not a good choice for line treatment. I have personally never had a problem with it.
These steps should keep your line floating better, allow it to shoot through the rod guides better, and simply make it last longer. It wouldn’t hurt to do this periodically throughout the year, but at least once a year. It depends on how much you fish and where you fish. Fly lines used on scummy lakes and ponds will need more frequent attention than lines used in clear mountain streams.
Most wader care needs to happen throughout the season and that mostly involves being careful of thorns, etc. Probably the most damage occurs to waders when people are putting them on or taking them off at the truck. I regularly see fishermen put on their stockingfoot waders and then walk around looking for the boots or other items. This is just an invitation for gravel or other pointy objects to puncture the feet of the waders. The feet of my waders never touch the ground – boots are on the ground ready, foot goes into wader, wader goes into boot. If you’re not comfortable doing the “one leg hop,” keeping a mat to stand on is a great idea.
Also be sure not to store waders wet. Hang them to dry when you get home, preferably not in direct sunlight. Occasionally washing them through the year will help with their breathability and water repellency. Wash them on gentle cycle with a mild detergent. I recommend Ivory Snow, a detergent commonly used for baby clothing.
Winter is a great time to repair any leaks and/or treat with DWR. If you have major punctures or tears in your waders, you’re probably better off sending them to the manufacturer for repair or replacement. But most folks just encounter minor leakage caused by a pinhole or seam leak, and that’s pretty easy to fix yourself.
First, try to narrow down the location of the leak. For instance, if you’ve been getting damp on the inside of your right leg from the knee down, chances are pretty good that the leak is somewhere around the inside right knee. Sticking with that example, make sure the waders are completely dry, turn them inside out, and generously spray rubbing alcohol all around the suspected leak area. Still keeping the waders inside out, fill the right leg past the knee with water and look closely in the area where you sprayed the alcohol. You should see discoloration where the leak is. Mark that spot with a permanent marker.
Now that we know where the leak is, it’s time to repair. Again, allow the waders to dry completely. Where you made the mark with the marker, liberally smear Aquaseal on the area. Aquaseal is available at most fly shops and many camping/outdoor stores. Usually a small tube of it comes with your waders. Put the treated area of the waders in direct sunlight to cure. When the Aquaseal feels “solid,” the waders should be immediately ready to go. However, I’d move them inside to a dry place and wait 24 hours before using.
Treating your breathable waders with a DWR is a great winter project. As a matter of fact, if you have a breathable rain jacket, grab it and treat it at the same time. DWR (Durable Water Repellant) is basically going to allow the water to “bead” and roll off the fabric rather than absorb into it. I’ve had old waders and jackets that I never treated that, even though they were still waterproof, were absorbing so much water that they felt heavy and even clammy. DWR is good stuff. There are a few brands out there and can usually be found at camping/outdoor stores. I’ve personally had good luck with ReviveX Spray-on Repellant.
Start by washing the waders and/or jacket with a mild detergent as described above. Hang the garment(s) and spray evenly and thoroughly with DWR while the garment is still wet. I usually apply a little heavier around seams and stress areas such as the knees and crotch area on waders. On jackets, I put a little more emphasis on the shoulder area. You can then simply allow it to air dry where it’s hanging or put it in the dryer on low/medium for about an hour.
That about covers the big stuff. I also like to use winter to go through fly boxes and remove rusty hooks. Those have a way of contaminating the entire box after a while. And it’s a great time to go through your first aid kit and make sure everything is up to date. You can also put new batteries in the flashlight, etc. Then, when spring rolls around, all you have to do is fish!