But the long answers are much more interesting, and hopefully quite useful to you as an angler, so here goes nothing.
It starts out with a history lesson, of course. Once upon a time, long, long ago, the physical weight of virtually all manufactured fly lines was done according to something called the AFTMA (American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association) Standard or the AFFTA (American Fly Fishing Trade Association) Standard. Those standards were developed around 1959, to ideally bring some standardization to an industry which had, according to accounts I’ve read, run rampant for a while, creating confusion among anglers and manufacturers alike. The idea was that the physical weight of the first 30 feet of a fly line (excluding level tip) would conform to an industry standard for the given line rating. For example, this would make all 6-weight fly lines, in theory, more or less the same weight for the first 30 feet. In a perfect world, this system would also serve to bring some standardization to the labeling of fly rods, making rod/line pairings (more on this later) easier. As far as fly line taper, head length, and overall head weight, though, all bets were off. But in the early days of synthetic fly lines, double taper lines were king, and our modern complex tapers were barely a dream, so it didn’t matter much.
The AFFTA Standard for single hand fly lines (not Spey lines or shooting heads) remains the same to this day. Here is the table. If you are like me, you’ll want to print one of these out for your wallet or save the image in your smartphone. You’ll see why in a minute.
Where are we now?
The standards were developed in the late 1950s. I didn’t come around to fly fishing until the early 1980s, and didn’t really get into the nitty gritty until the 1990s. So, for some of this history I’m relying on second and third hand accounts. An engineer by training, my brain desperately hopes that the industry strictly followed the standards, at least for a while. One thing I do know for sure is that line manufacturers no longer follow that standard in most cases. It is actually rather challenging to find a modern fly line that conforms to AFFTA Standards. And, if you are like me, who typically really likes how rods cast when lined at or near the AFFTA Standard, just buying a fly line based on a product description and a numerical line rating on the box NO LONGER WORKS MOST OF THE TIME!
What the… ?
When is a 6wt line really an 8wt?
I do a lot of research on fly lines, both for myself, my friends, and for Big Sky Anglers. As a result, I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of fly line designs – tapers, 30-feet weights, total head weights, head lengths, cores, and coatings vary WIDELY from line to line and brand to brand. I love taper diagrams, tables, and spreadsheets that might give me a hint about how a line will cast when paired with a given rod for a specific fishing approach. The more research I do, the more variations from the standard I find. Even for someone who likes this stuff, it can be downright confusing. For most folks that I know who just want to get a smooth casting outfit that is fun to fish with, it’s just black magic.
Why doesn’t the industry follow the industry standard? It’s a good question. There are more than a few answers that I’ve heard. One or more of them may be the reason for the divergence. Or not. It’s basically a game of finger pointing. Some say that modern, super-fast action graphite fly rods have become so stiff that a rod rated as a 6wt, really casts and flexes more like a 7wt or 8wt, despite its super light feel in hand. And, as a result, line manufacturers have altered their numbering just so that their 6wt line feels right on that aforementioned 6wt rod (even though it’s really a mislabeled 8wt rod). Many in this camp would like to see a full revision of the AFFTA Standards that conforms more with our modern fast action graphite rods that it did to historical fiberglass and cane rods with slower actions that were the norm at the time the original standards were developed. Others blame casting ability, and the common desire for instant gratification without effort. Those pundits say that poor casting ability among the masses has forced line manufacturers to create heavier and heavier fly lines so that those without the skills needed to properly load a fly rod at typical casting distances can actually FEEL something and get a cast out past the end of the driftboat oars.
The thing is, the reason for the departure from the standards isn’t important when it comes to picking the right line for you. Fly line and fly rod manufacturers aren’t all of a sudden going to change how they label things just because there are guys like me that wish they would. And there are still plenty of folks who own and enjoy fishing with glass, cane, and fuller flexing graphite rods. So, what is most important is that you, as an angling consumer, are informed about this topic well enough to be able to make the right choices when it comes to your next big $ fly line purchase. At a baseline, you should be informed enough to be able to ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS when you are talking to an employee at a fly shop or a line manufacturer.
What are some things you need to know in order to get this right?
First, the good news is that modern graphite rods are typically designed with a progressive flex pattern, and are able to accommodate a variety of line weights both above and below their labeled rating, assuming the caster has a reasonable level of skill. So perfection is not required to achieve functionality. The bad news is that your rod might not FEEL as sweet as you want it to without the right line on it.
In the past, there was always a lot of talk about up-lining stiff rods to get more flex and feel out of them. In many cases with modern lines, the manufacturers have essentially done that for you by creating a line labeled as a 6wt that meets the AFFTA standards for a 7 or even an 8wt rod. Be aware of this trend, because if you were used to up-lining in the past based on the AFFTA standard, and do that with a modern line that is already up-lined at the factory, you may end up with something way heavier than you wanted.
When you decide to buy a new fly line, at baseline you should go to your local fly shop and talk with the in-house fly line nerd armed with an understanding of:
What fly rod you own, and what the rod’s action is (fast/stiff, medium-fast, medium, slow). If you aren’t sure, bring it to the shop. If you are sure, also bring it to the shop!
What type of fishing you do, and at what distances. If you are a small water angler, nympher, long distance dry fly guy, lake specialist, streamer junkie, etc it will influence the line you choose.
Your casting ability level, currently, including power application, tracking, typical amount of line you like to carry in the air when casting, etc. Be honest with yourself.
Your goals for improving your casting ability. Everyone can get better.
How you like to achieve distance. Do you like to shoot line for distance or carry more line in the air and shoot less for distance?
You should also go into the fly shop ready to ask some questions about the fly line that they might suggest for you. Fly line manufacturer websites can also be a good source of this information. At baseline, for weight forward fly lines, be prepared to ask:
What is the head length of the fly line?
How much does the first 30 feet of the head weigh (aka, the 30-feet weight)? And, how does that relate to the AFFTA Standard for that line weight.
How much does the total head weigh, assuming it is longer than 30 feet?
How does the fly line taper relate to my preferred fishing style and skill level? This is another can-of-worms topic that may need its own blog post. Just remember, even if the manufacturer names a line something like “salmon and steelhead” or “indicator”, it doesn’t mean those lines are necessarily bad for the fishing you do which doesn’t involve those things. Go at it with an open mind.
Do you have any demo lines that we could cast on my rod out in the parking lot? This is the consumer’s ace in the hole. If you can cast a line before you buy, DO IT. Understand, however, that it is impossible for a shop to have demos of every line they carry on the shelves.
Without going down the rabbit hole of fly line taper design, if you can answer basic questions about your rod and your casting (the first list), and can get the answers to the questions about fly line choices (the second list) from your local fly shop, the line manufacturers website, or from the CIA, then you are ready to make an informed decision. I would recommend following these general guidelines to start, and remember, if you can cast the line on your rod before you buy it, DO IT, and do it with a fly on leader rig that you intend to fish.
This is your brain on AFFTA Standards
When to Consider a Line “Way Heavier” than the AFFTA Standard
By “Way Heavier” I mean something like a 30-feet weight equivalent to 1.5 or 2 line sizes above the AFFTA Standard. Consider a line of this type when you are:
a beginner level caster, and own a fast/stiff action rod
a caster who needs or likes to feel a lot of rod loading in order to cast your best, and own a fast/stiff action rod
an intermediate or advanced level caster, own a fast/stiff action or medium fast action rod, and fish almost exclusively at very close range
any level caster, and like to load the rod very quickly with minimal line out of the rod tip, and shoot to achieve distance (As a side note, using a short, 30-feet long head flyline the equivalent to 2 lines sizes heavier than the AFFTA standard is essentially the definition of a “shooting head”). You will sacrifice the ability to carry longer amounts of line in the air as a result of this choice.
When to Consider a Line “A Bit Heavier” than the AFFTA Standard
Here, by “A Bit Heavier” I mean something like a 30-feet weight equivalent to 0.5 to 1 size above the AFFTA Standard. Consider a line of this type when you:
a beginner level caster, and own a medium or medium-fast action rod
a caster who needs or likes to feel a lot of rod loading in order to cast your best, and own a medium or medium-fast action rod
an intermediate level caster, and own a fast/stiff action rod
a caster who needs or likes to feel some clear rod loading on shorter casts in order to cast your best, and own a fast/stiff action rod
an angler who primarily fishes at close to medium ranges (say 45 feet or less)
an angler who is happy with carrying a medium amount of line in the air and shooting for extra distance when it is called for.
When to Consider a Line Weighing Similar to the AFFTA Standard
Here, by “Similar to” I mean something like a 30-feet weight within the AFFTA Acceptable Weight Range in the table above. Consider a line of this type when you:
a beginner level caster, and own a slow action rod
a caster who needs or likes to feel a lot of rod loading in order to cast your best, and own a slow action rod
an intermediate level caster, and own a medium action rod
a caster who needs or likes to feel some clear rod loading on shorter casts in order to cast your best, and own a medium action rod
an advanced level caster, and own a fast/stiff action rod
a caster who is ok with feeling minimal rod loading on short range casts and can still cast your best, and own a fast or medium-fast action rod
an angler who regularly fishes at medium to longer ranges (say 45 feet or more) and is capable of adjusting power application for shorter casts to still achieve good results
an angler who likes to carry a longer amount of line in the air and shoot less for extra distance, or an angler looking to both carry a long amount of line in the air and shoot significant line for extra distance. (Note that for the latter case the overall head length and fly line taper design you choose will be of utmost importance)
And with that, I believe I have said enough. I have probably dug myself into a hole that I may never emerge from, and/or guaranteed that I will receive a series of corrective emails and texts from my casting nerd friends. At the very least, I hope that this saves some of you who are thinking about getting a new fly line some trouble, and that you are able to find the joy that is a properly paired rod/line combination that meets your casting and fishing style.
Best Book of 2014: Wait for Signs, by Craig Johnson
Good books mark my life by chapter and verse. I own many of them. We moved last spring, a little deeper into the forests of Horse Butte. When we bought our new place, I refused to consider living there until I found a place for my bookshelves. Joe and I packed up Pony, Stella, and Oscar, along with everything else which makes up Big Sky Anglers: rods, reels, hackles, hooks, flies, hoodies, hats, wading boots, computers, printers, fax machines, boats, kayaks, oars, old Toyotas, scanners, filing cabinets, waders with holes, waders without holes, rod tubes, books about trout, photos, articles, cameras, bird dog collars, kennels, shotguns, the Dirty Harry pistol (which Joe used to hide in my magazine basket until I pitched a fit), fishing shirts, Joe’s dress shirt, socks, jackets, leaders, tippet, fly lines, and two broken guitar cases. In addition to my books, I brought along a small suitcase of clothes, two NPS flat hats, and 24 pairs of skis.
Almost as important to me as my books is Wyoming. The land speaks through sagebrush, cowboys, broken china tossed off Conestoga wagons, and abandoned sod dugouts in the middle of the prairie. Wyoming is full of elk, pronghorn (antelope), cows, cowboys, deer, and wind. Lots of wind. Mountains, bluebirds, and crisp fall mornings soothe the wounds created by its harshness. Since a lot of great authors also enjoy the state, I possess a fine collection of Wyoming writers, including Craig Johnson, Annie Proulx, Mark Spragg, Gretl Erlich, and CJ Box. They write about the rowdy surroundings and the survivors who call it home.
Between Meeteetse and Thermopolis, Highway 171 cuts through the rough country in a futile attempt of control and symmetry. All around are ridges of rock hiding coulees, dips, and valleys full of antelope, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles. Geology takes precedence over the engineering egos of the WY Department of Transportation, as the narrow road winds its way south. I love this stretch. Austere in its presentation of natural wonders, it’s a far cry from the in-your-face drama of Glacier or Yellowstone. Wyoming begs you to look for the unknown, hidden at first among a seemingly boring setting of dirt, sagebrush and drab color. But watch for morning sunlight or evening fade, and the earth turns pink and purple. Walk around until you stumble upon the Legend Rock petroglyphs, where people used stone walls into artistic canvases for thousands of years. Hear the stories of the people of Wyoming, hacking a life out of the wilderness and bearing their children along the way. And wait-just wait-until you meet Wyoming personified, Sheriff Walt Longmire.
In Craig Johnson’s Wait for Signs (2014), twelve short stories give personal profiles of America’s favorite sheriff, Walt Longmire. Walt is the main character in a series of novels, recently adapted into A&E’s Longmire. Johnson originally wrote these short works as Post-Its, annual Christmas gifts to readers that subscribe to his email newsletter. Amidst a wintry holiday backdrop, Walt rescues hitchhikers on Christmas Eve, hands out presents from the back of a wrecked Toys-R-Us semi, and investigates miscreant residents of the local old folk’s home. Like the main character in any good crime series, Walt Longmire is always in the thick of a case, even if his jurisdiction is the middle of nowhere, Absaroka County, Wyoming.
Several years ago I first met Walt Longmire one cold night in Lamar Valley. Actually, I was attending a weeklong course at the Yellowstone Association Institute-Lesser Known Scats of Porcupines, Mating Calls of Bison, or some other such awkward and intimate animal knowledge. While wolves howled outside, I huddled in my tiny log cabin with a headlamp and a bottle of wine and read almost all of The Cold Dish. I laughed, I cried, I had to replace my headlamp batteries, and I fell in love with Walt and his perspective of the world. Thankfully I know a thing or two about Yellowstone, because the next morning I was worthless. Walt says, “It wasn’t that revenge was a dish best served cold, it was that it was a dish best not served at all.” Cold Dish is the first of ten in the Longmire series. Set in the fictional town of Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming, his jurisdiction covers the least populated county in the Lower 48. Born and bred in Durant, Walt was elected sheriff shortly after playing all-state tackle at USC and serving with the Marines in Vietnam. He’s a big man, nearly 6’4 and 240, although his intimidating physical presence is often balanced by a friendly smile. He wears blue jeans and a cowboy hat with his sheriff’s star and sidearm. His department includes Ruby, who mothers Walt as much as she dispatches calls; Double Tough, a former oil rig welder, the Ferg, who ties flies and scouts good fishing holes while on duty, and Vic, who gave up a fast-paced career with the Philadelphia police department to follow her engineer husband for job in the Bighorn Basin oil fields. Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s best friend since childhood, steers Walt true with constant companionship. Walt’s daughter Cady is an East Coast trial lawyer and constant reminder of her mother Martha, who dies of cancer before we ever meet Walt for the first time.
Longmire is a hero, a comic, a ladies’ man, a lawman, a father, friend, and completely infallible. Propelled by a clear sense of right and wrong, his heart usually finds the right way to get there. In my favorite story, “Ministerial Aid,” Walt confronts a domestic abuse situation. A few things are a little odd about his approach- he’s hung over and wearing a bathrobe. Its New Years day and Walt finds himself in between the troubled couple, all the while still confronting his grief about Martha’s recent death. His own redemption emerges from helping others besides himself. He thinks, “Just then, I thought I might’ve caught sight of that first ray that shoots over the edge of the earth like a hopeful thought, and maybe, just maybe I might’ve felt something. ‘Well, like the rest of us…’[Walt] sighed. ‘She’s just waiting on something.’”
Walt’s way with women follows him on most cases. In the “Divorce Horse,” he and fellow Absaroka County heartthrob and his best friend Henry Standing Bear look for a stolen pony. Walt muses, “The much-storied case of the divorce horse was the kind of situation familiar to most rural sheriffs, one of those disputes you ended up getting involved in even thought it had nothing much to do with law enforcement.” Johnson inserts hints of his involvement with Undersheriff Victoria Moretti, who is half Walt’s age and moves twice as fast.
Faithful BSA readers might feel tricked by my post, as they realize I’m not reviewing a book full of fish. Ha! Gotcha. In a scene from “Messenger”, Henry and Walt catch a few creels full of brookies, with designs on releasing them into the frying pan for dinner. Ok, so it’s not Isaaz Walton. But it is full of wit, humanity, and most importantly, Wyoming. Not ready for a full book of Walt just yet? Dip in slowly with Wait for Signs.
The Fishing Life: An Angler’s Tales of Wild Rivers and Other Restless Metaphors (2013) compiles Paul Schullery’s best stories fish, flies, water, and the people who love them all. Including articles originally published from the 1980s and later, he adds previously unpublished pieces. Schullery fishes his way from Pennsylvania to Mexico, Yellowstone to Alaska, with stops in the Adirondacks and Ohio. These essays explore conservation, favorite rivers, beloved and scorned varieties of fish, non-traditional fly patterns, and the passion behind fly-fishing.
Schullery is a soft-spoken legend, well-known for his reflections about the natural world. He authored nearly 40 books about bears, fly-fishing, Yellowstone, and two works of fiction. Raised in Pennsylvania, he began his career as a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone in 1972. Much of his writing and research is devoted to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, editing the quarterly journal Yellowstone Science from 1992-2009. He also served as executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing from 1977 to 1982. I met Mr. Schullery at Montana State University in 2003, when he taught “History of Yellowstone.” I can’t remember most of the lectures, and my old notebooks were trashed along with the futon and PBR cans. I would surely relish the chance to travel back and time and reabsorb every word. Since then, I’ve consulted many of his books for program research. Among his writings outside of fishing, I recommend Mountain Time (1984), Searching for Yellowstone (1997), and Yellowstone’s Ski Pioneers (1995).
Through common goals of keeping fish plentiful and happy, wilderness advocates and fly fisherman usually find companionable ground. Protecting fish inevitably leads to preserving their natural ecosystems. Chapter 21, “How Can You Do That?” explores the wavy lines between catch and release and just…catching. Returning the trout alive to the stream is a conservation practice designed to prevent overharvest in the face of increasing pressure from anglers, environmental concerns, and habit degradation. All of the sport, yet unlike game hunters, none of the bloodshed. Ah, what a fine compromise fishermen made! However, naysayers of catch and release decry the intense pain fish feel from hooking, playing, and prying the hook from its jaws. Schullery relates his experiences amidst this debate. At a wilderness conference, he is approached by some of those in opposition of catch and release. Their claim is that anglers might as well kill the fish as instead of torturing it without ending its suffering. They kept asking, “How can you do that?!” He pauses to think it over, recalling days of glorious fish and wild water, and thinks, “Oh, but how can you not do that?!” Observant anglers are privy to various natural delights besides the pursuit of trout. Chapter Four, “Antlers Aweigh,” reminds us that fish, flies, and water are a small section of the outdoors. As Schullery is fishing Michigan’s Au Sable River, he encounters a deer swimming upstream. His mind immediately relates the doe to various flies crafted with deer hair, prized for its floatant nature. While pondering the creations possible from the deer’s body hair, he watches her make a 90-degree turn for the opposite shore. Startled, she is laboriously swimming away. Realizing he spooked her, he thinks maybe the value in that day on the river comes not from the fishing, but from the larger experience occurring in the ecosystem.
Fish are as important as those searching for them. Schullery introduces us to different fish, and helps define them according to a sort of anglers’ social class. Reigning supreme are the browns and rainbows of the Gardner, Gallatin, and Yellowstone. In “Home River” he describes the Gardner River as a magic stretch of water that can mark an angler’s soul forever. Catching his first trout on a fly rod there, Schullery discovers hatches, currents, and a whole world the tour busses whizzing past never see. I immediately understood this perspective, if not as an angler, but as a Yellowstone visitor looking for more than bears and geysers. A whole world exists underneath the surface, whether that of the fish in the water, the birds in the trees, or the thriving bacteria mats next to flashy erupting geysers. “So Long, Sucker,” acknowledges that not all fish are created equal. Suckers, for one. The name sucker comes from their tendency to live along the bottoms of rivers and lakes, vacuuming up plants and insects. If suckers were people, they would have weak chins, bug eyes, and wear Cheetos-stained sweatpants. Schullery notes they are often known as trashfish, forage fish, and amongst Vermont anglers, shitfish.
The Fishing Life is a fantastic book. It can sit with pride on any diehard anglers’ shelf next to Richard & Swisher’s Selective Trout. However, if you are interested in the broader aspects of the sport like myself, an evening spent with Selective Trout would find you not understanding much, or dying of boredom. The humor, honesty, and detail of this writing offers more than enough to keep fishermen of any breed well engaged. Bearing in mind this idea that not all anglers are alike, so it stands to reason most will find a good laugh or a moment of reflection. Schullery says,
Fishing-in my case fly fishing- is an opportunity to exercise our intellects and emotions in a realm of inexhaustible wonder. At any given moment we may think we’re in this for just one thing, say the challenge of a difficult fish or the companionships of a fishing trip. But I suspect that most of the time we’re in it for everything we can get, and we’re out there just to see what will develop.
I doubt I will ever wake up one fine July morning and say, “Let’s go float L to P and rip some lips. A dozen over 20” in the boat by noon!” But meandering along small streams in Yellowstone’s backcountry, or fishing for brookies in the pothole lakes of the Beartooths are activities I’ve enjoyed since childhood. Now if you will excuse me, I have to get back to picking out colors for my new wine bar. Those of you who know Joe may have heard about our recent home remodel. He is busy installing my new Jacuzzi, and will hopefully make it to my custom cedar closet by tomorrow. Happy fall.
….can’t you smell that smell? That new boat smell…
Picked up my new drift boat this afternoon in Bozeman after a few errands and a quick stop by Brick Breeden Field House for Ice Out. While I didn’t stick around long, I was able to pick up a few much needed items from Montana Fly Company and say hello to some good friends whom I don’t get to see that often anymore. Really looking forward to getting this new craft on the Missouri for the next week.
Speaking of the Missouri…..
I will be fishing up around Craig for the next two months, dependent upon run-off, and still have a few openings for May and June. July is getting tough to book, but there are a few slots left. Once again, for the 18th season, Greg Falls will be spending the summer on the Missouri River. While his schedule is tough to crack, feel free to give us a shout and we’ll hook you up with one of the finest guides on the Missouri River. There are some who are as good, but very few are better.
RO Drift boats is getting closer to unveiling their newest hull design – the RO Camino. The plug has been delivered to their Bozeman boat shop as they gear up for the 2013 fishing season. Robert, Dane, John and the boys are working hard getting new boats out the door and designing the layout of the Camino.
Earlier this week, I got the full run through on interior options for all of RO’s hull designs:
1. Full walk around – no more stumblin’ over the rowers’ bench or rear leg lock.
2. Dry box or pedestal seats. YETI cooler front seat option as well.
3. Front and rear leg locks (newly designed walk around rear single leg lock to eliminate the “dancing client”)
5. Nomad Light – a simpler version of the Nomad withoff the floor storage for spare oar and life jackets.
6. Grab & Go rod storage – this is new for RO and a nice change for stowing fly rods. No more skewering.
7. Refuse can – for tippet, old useless flies, beer cans, chew spit, litter or maybe a small ice chest for the gunnel bar.
8. New rubber coated floor for grip that won’t shred fly lines.
9. Raised floor around rower’s seat to keep gear dry.
With any luck, the boat will be finished upon my return from Argentina in mid-April. There is one other fella who is getting a Camino as well and I know he is already tapping his toe.Build the boat Bud!
The Patagonia Stormfront Pack, the Freewheeler Max and some clothing items made their way through our back door a few days ago. It’s always fun to get some new gear for a big trip. Tying materials are also showing up for big streamers, but I made the mistake of leaving out a brand new badger hackle and Stella plucked most of the feathers from the skin……at least she didn’t chew’em up.
Molly made a good point the other evening with regards to bird dogs and hackles, “Just how is a hunting dog supposed to differentiate between birds and bird feathers?”
My answer was, “cause they are, dammit”.
I think Stella knows that I am leaving……with out her and is secretly pissed off.