What is the ideal fly line for small stream fishing (Twigging)?
Ask this question and you will get a lot of well-intentioned, but often misinformed advice. There are so many different fly lines out there it can be a bit daunting choosing one to match your rod and the style of casting. Especially with textures, colours, coatings and the plethora of complicated tapers offered by manufacturers. A quick search on the internet gave me about fifty different choices for a three weight floating line from three of the main fly line companies. It is confusing, and therefore not surprising that many end up with a poor line choice for this type of fishing.
My advice for small stream fishing line choice is:
Type of line: Double taper (DT) line with a front taper of about 7 – 9 feet.
Weight: Start with the Rod’s designated Line Weight and adjust according to your preference for that rod. (Between -1 and +1 line weights of the rod’s designated weight)
Note: this is specific to small stream fishing, and some will disagree with this, but please read on to understand the reasoning behind this advice.
The needs of twigging and the first 15- 20ft. of the line.
When I say twigging, I mean fly fishing small streams with small rods of 7 to 8ft in length, using lines in the 2 to 4 weight range. When fly-fishing these small waters we need to cast accurately in confined spaces at a range of only 10 – 30 ft., hence the most important aspect of our fly line is the weight of the first 15 -20 feet. WHY? Taking rod and leader length in to consideration, the line length used when twigging could be as little as a few feet, and perhaps as much as twenty, but very rarely more. Therefore, we need the first 15 -20 feet, the effective line length, to have sufficient weight to comfortably load the rod. This is where the front taper design is extremely important.
Taper Design and effective line weight
The majority of fly lines in the market are of a Weight Forward (WF) design. They are designed to facilitate long casts (90ft+), and are great for Salt Water and lake fishing where distance can be of importance, but for twigging this design is superfluous. The front section of a WF line, the head, is usually 25 – 40 feet in length and carries most of the lines total weight. The remaining 40 – 60 ft. is running line, which is much thinner and lighter the head section which facilitates making longer casts. Long casts are rarely needed for small stream fishing.
Double Taper lines have the same thickness for the majority of their length and taper at each end. They are reversible; when one end wears out you can turn it round and use the other. (So your DT will last twice as long as a WF of the same make and model).
The first 20 ft of a DT and a WF fly lines are identical.
The taper of the line affects the weight distribution of the line. When you look at the front 20 feet of WF and DT lines of the same make, model and line weight, generally they are identical, with identical taper, taper length and material; hence identical in weight. Therefore, for small stream fishing whether the line is a WF or DT will have no impact on the loading of the rod. See the example below of the Cortland 444 line:
What does make a difference, however, is the length and shape of the front taper of the line. This can differ widely from model to model and make to make.
So how does the front taper length effect the weight of the first 20 feet of line?
According to the AFTMA fly line rating system, the first thirty feet of all fly lines of the same weight class must weigh the same, e.g. 3weight lines must weigh 100 grains, 4 weights 120 grains. Despite this, manufacturers play around with the taper of the line, and hence the weight distribution, to change the way a line casts. A short taper puts more weight towards the fly end, a long taper, puts more weight back towards the middle of the line.
Take two extremes: a level 3wt line and a 3wt continuous (long) tapered line. Long continuous tapered lines surfaced in the 1930’s, developed for Spey casting long distances with ease, with majority of the weight closer to the middle of the line. Typically the taper continues for the first 30 feet of line or more. The first 30ft of both these lines weigh the same: 100 grains. See the chart below, at 30 feet the lines intersect at 100 grains. However, the respective weights of the first 15 feet, the part we most use for twigging, are very different. The first 15 feet of the level line weighs twice as much as the continuous taper, and as such would load the rod more. In between the two is a classic line with a 7.5 ft. front taper.
Why do lines taper?
Tapering from thick to thin, helps the transfer of energy smoothly from line to leader.
It is very difficult to control the turn-over and presentation with a level line, as the difference between line and leader is too abrubt. Historically most lines DT and WF have had front tapers of 7 – 9 feet. I suspect this is because 7 – 8ft is about right for turning over the weight of an average trout fly on a 9-foot leader and making a gentle presentation.
The longer the front taper, the more gentle the turn over, however, it can be difficult to turn over heavy flies and you can’t do much to compensate if the taper is too long for your heavy flies. You can shorten your leader somewhat, but, if the line taper is too long, you may end up with a leader that is too short to fish effectively!
Long Front Tapers too light to load rod at close range:
Long tapers (20 ft. or more) are not suited to the short casting for twigging, and are much better suited for long roll casts, or presenting flies delicately at a distance of 35 ft. or more. Long roll casts need more weight closer to the rod tip to turn over the great length of line.
The chart above compares a standard 7.5 ft front taper, with a current long front taper designs.
You can see that for casts up to 30ft, long tapers are seriously underweight:
- A 3wt line (DT or WF) with a standard 7 – 9 front taper, will load a rod better than a 3wt line with a long taper (>13 ft.)
- A 21 ft taper 3wt will load the rod less than 1Wt. standard 7.5 ft front taper for casts up to 25 ft. This is serious underlining.
- A 13ft front taper 3wt loads the rod less than a 2 wt, but a little more than a 1 wt. About 1.5wt under.
Front Taper: 7-9 ft. is ideal.
Historically, front tapers of 7 – 9 foot were very common and have worked well. They turn over a 9-foot leader and a big fly with ease, and present a smaller fly with delicacy.
Comparing the weight distribution of lines with a 7.5 ft. and 8.5 ft. front tapers to various other current fly line tapers shows that the 7-9 ft gives a good balance midway between the extremes. The chart below demonstrates this; it maps out the weight distribution of a variety of fly lines on the market today, showing cumulative weight of line as you increase the length used for fishing.
Things to note for twigging casts up to 30ft (15 feet of line + rod + leader):
A 3 wt. line with a 5 foot front taper, loads a rod similarly to a 4 wt. with a 7.5ft taper : Changing the front taper by a few feet can have the same or more effect as changing a line weight by one class.
1wt up and 1wt down, on a standard 7.5 foot front taper gives a good range of weights to suit different rods and casters, without going to specialty tapers.
Line weight choice: Consider your preferred casting style and rod choice.
To enjoy casting we want a line that will load our rod comfortably, with not too much weight that we lose control, nor too little weight that we lose feel. We are looking for ‘just right’ weight. ‘Just right’ weight depends on both rod design and the angler’s preferred casting stroke.
Some anglers prefer a longer slower casting stroke; others prefer a shorter and quicker one. (I prefer a shorter quicker casting stroke when fishing the small streams, as it affords me tighter loops – but that is a whole other article.)
Different rods suit different styles: Generally modern carbon fibre rods are faster and lighter. Whilst fibreglass and cane rods tend to be slower and heavier. The former are more suited to the ‘short and quick’ school, and the latter to ‘longer and slower’ movement.
All rods are rated for casting true to weight fly lines, and will work well with them, but may not suit every caster. To adjust the feel you can try using a different line weight: add more weight will in general bend the rod more, and require a longer / slower casting stroke, conversely less weight will bend the rod less and require a shorter faster casting stroke.
Taking into account our preferred style and preferred rod, the right line will be the one that has the right weight to give it the right feel for you. This could be anywhere between 1 weight lower and 1 weight higher than rod’s rated line weight, and will be different for different anglers.
Conclusion: what is the best line for small stream fishing?
Type of line: Choose a double taper line with a front taper of about 7 – 8 feet.
7- 9 ft. front taper, is preferred as it will load the rod better at a short range, yet still control presentations for average leader lengths. For more delicate presentations you can always go with a longer leader (a foot or do will make a big difference).
Double Taper: In twigging, you only fish short, less than 30 ft. and when the business end wears out, turn it round on your reel, and you have 30 fresh new feet of line. A WF of the same taper is fine, you will just need to replace it twice as often.
Start with the Rod’s designated Line Weight and adjust according to your preference for that rod.
-1wt will tighten up the rod action,
+1 weight will give a fuller load feel on your rod and if you wish to fish heavy nymphs, give more control)
Post Script: we now have a great line for twigging for sale here: Fly Lines