How is it possible to cast a nearly weightless fly 40 feet or more? Fly-fishing differs from spin-cast, spinning, or bait-casting outfits. Instead of casting the heavy sinker, bobber or lure to get distance with the cast, in fly-fishing you are casting a heavy line to deliver an incredibly light fly to the fish.
Actually, there are several kinds of line on the fly reel that are important for different reasons. These include: backing, fly line, leader, and tippet material.
The very first line that you put on the fly reel is called backing. Most fly fishers never get into their backing when they fish. In my 50 plus years of fly-fishing, it has happened to me once, but I was so glad to have the backing on my reel at the time.
A few years ago when I was fishing for trout in Green Valley Lake 2, a grass carp grabbed my fly, and within the first 50 feet had jumped completely out of the water four times. In an instant, my reel emptied, and I was into my hundred yards of backing and losing line fast.
I followed the fish around the lake, while looking at my landing net, which was woefully small for the fish that was well over three feet. I regained all of my backing, then all of my fly line, and had the leader out of the water three times to see the fly in the corner of the carp’s mouth. Each time, the fish took off again and finally after 25 minutes, broke me off along the rocks at the little boat ramp. What a thrill.
New fly fishers often set up their fly reel without backing. That is a mistake. Although the likelihood of ever getting into your backing like I did is rare, there is another function to the backing that is important.
It fills the bulk of your reel with braided line that keeps your fly line, which is added next, from wrapping too tightly around the reel. That means that it will not kink your fly line as it comes off the reel. By filling the reel with backing, every turn of the reel handle will also bring in fly line more quickly.
The fly line is the critical feature in allowing you to make long casts to deliver your fly to the fish. There are a number of fly lines depending on the fishing you are most likely to do. Most fly lines are between 80 to 100 feet long.
I use a WF-5wt floating fly line. What does that mean? WF refers to weight forward. That means that the fly line attached to the backing is rather thin, but as the line gets closer to the business end, it gets fatter and heavier, then quickly tapers off again as it approaches the end of the fly line that attaches to the leader.
That heavy weighted line where I will be doing most of my casting, means that I can generate a lot of line speed as I move that weighted line in the air before releasing my fly onto the water. The floating aspect means that the line will float for an extended time and keep my fly at or close to the surface. The 5 refers to the weight of the line that my fly rod is designed to handle. On fly rods, there is a designation on the rod just above the handle that tells you the line weight for that rod. A 5 weight rod is midway between ultra-light and heavy-duty and perfect for most fishing in Rim Country.
There are fly lines that sink if you want your fly to work deeper in a lake. Others have a sinking tip so you can toss a streamer fly in a river and get the fly to sink more quickly, yet have the floating line for the rest of the length, which is easier to cast and pull off the water.
My uncle was a big fan of double tapered fly lines that were fattest in the middle and tapered to a narrow section at both ends. This allowed for more delicate presentations, but also had the added benefit of being able to reverse the line when one end had become worn from use.
The leader is the next section of line important to fly-fishing. It attaches to the end of the fly line. It is clear and tapered. The end near the fly line is close to the diameter of the fly line and tapers to very thin end, and is usually about 9 feet long. You could tie your fly to this small diameter end, but most fly fishers add a section of tippet material before fishing.
The tippet material comes in different diameters, depending on the size of the flies that you intend to use and the upper end of the weight of the fish you hope to catch. I mostly use 5X. That tippet is equivalent to about 5-pound test and is designed for flies in the 14-18 size range. By tying on a length of tippet material, that allows you to extend your leader, and keep you from cutting back to thicker diameter line on the leader as you tie on new flies.
The length of the leader and tippet depends on where you are fishing. If you are fishing a small stream with a lot of brush, then getting down to about eight feet makes sense. If the fish are likely to spook from your fly line hitting the water, then you might extend your leader and tippet to 12 feet or more.
Now, how do you tie the backing to the reel and to the fly line, the fly line to the leader, the leader to the tippet, and the tippet to your fly? Each has a different knot. There is always something to learn with fly-fishing, which makes it fun.