A Basic Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing in Belize

Chapter 5 - Lines & Leaders

In fishing with a spinning or a casting rod, the line from the lure or hook to the reel is usually slender, light and generally designed to withstand the forces of casting, hooking and landing the fish. Here, the cast consists of essentially throwing the lure or bait, relying on its weight, initial velocity and trajectory to place the lure or bait on target. In fly fishing, the fly doesn't have enough weight to be "thrown" any appreciable distance thus the fly line is the item actually thrown and the fly is pulled or whipped into place by the fly line.

Early fly fishers in England used horsehair (from the tail of the horse) for both line and leader, braiding the former to a tapered shape and saturating it with various oils and substances to increase weight and to make it float. In the mid-19th century, silk was mixed in with the horsehair, and in 1870's Americans developed the all-silk line, oiled and tapered to various configurations. Silk lines were the standard for many decades, but their tendency to sink and their need for constant care and maintenance created considerable frustration. After World War II, nylon, dacron and various plastic coatings were developed. It wasn't long before the line core became the "strength" of the fly line and the coating provided the necessary weight, taper and floatability. Different tapers were developed, as were fly lines designed to sink at various rates of descent.

Soon, the number of different types of fly lines burgeoned to the point where the need for standards became clear and an alphabetical system was developed to describe the fly line's shape. The letters "A" through "I" were used to designate the approximate diameters of the line at its various sections. "A" corresponded to diameter of 0.06 inches and "I" corresponded to a diameter of 0.02 inches. And so an HCF line had a running line diameter of 0.025 inches, a belly (largest diameter section) diameter of 0.05 inches and a point (where the leader attaches) diameter of 0.035 inches. Unfortunately, these standards only reflected the lines' external size; varying material densities and taper/belly lengths caused large weight differences, eliminating the possibility of using these standards to match a line to a given fly rod.

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In 1961 the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturer's Association (AFTMA) established the numerical system now in general use throughout the world. AFTMA reasoned that the amount of fly line extended beyond the rod tip during a typical cast was 30 feet, and so the weight of this thirty feet of line would be a good basis for standardization. These nominal weights ranged from 60 grains (one pound = 7000 grains) for a 1-weight, to 210 grains for an 8-weight, 380 grains for a 12-weight, etc. The first 30 feet of an 8-weight line thus weighs about half an ounce. AFTMA also went further by classifying the taper types as weight-forward (WF), double-taper (DT), shooting taper (ST) or level(L) and the density aspects as floating (F), sinking(S) and intermediate(I). The old HCF line thus might currently be designated as a WF-6-F, or a weight-forward, floating 6-weight. The above pictorial shows the typical tapers in use in the 1960's. Currently, there are enough different taper-types to defy useful classification.

But all of these tapers need not be confusing to the fly fisherman here in Belize. A weight-forward, floating 8-weight line will meet a large fraction of your fishing needs when matched with an appropriate rod. You would probably want to use up to a 12-wt for large tarpon, and down to a 5-wt for protected waters where the wind is minimal. Special tapers for bonefish, tarpon, steelhead, bass etc. are just minor variations on the weight-forward taper and are hardly noticeable for our type of fishing. The only possible advantages for a double-taper around here would be their versatility in roll-casting (more about that in another later chapter) and the fact that the line can be reversed (if it gets worn or cracked) for a brand-new point. The most important disadvantage of the double-taper line for our use is that it uses up too much of the reel's line capacity because of its long length at a large diameter. And if someone gives you a level line, use it for tying up your tomato plants or something else like that. Level lines have no front taper, and thus no ability to increase line velocity as the casting loop unfolds. Some saltwater fly fishermen use shooting tapers because longer casts may be obtained with the low friction and low inertia of their thin running lines. I don't recommend them however because they require specialized casting techniques. Also, I don't recommend sinking lines for Belize because it's very awkward and difficult to pick up a submerged fly line for a backcast once it's sunk below the water's surface. When desired, a fly can be presented several feet below the water's surface by fly and/or leader weighting and by using a "sink-tip" line, where only the first few feet of the line is designed to sink.

Thus, the line's main characteristics are its weight - for proper rod matching, its taper - to suit your casting preferences and its density - which determines its sinking characteristics. In addition, however, there are several other line features that are important. First, its suppleness is important so that it will form tight line loops when you are attempting casts of either long distance or high accuracy in tight quarters. This quality is also important to ensure that the line doesn't have much "memory" after being wound on a reel for several days or weeks. Lengthy exposure to the hot sun can often cause the line to become brittle and lose its suppleness or flexibility.

The coating or finish on the line is another important variable. Color can be a personal preference issue, but I like bright and light lines for their visibility. This helps in making casting adjustments as well as in signalling of subtle strikes (line point motion on the water's surface). The nature of the line coating can also determine how high and how long the line will float before it breaks the water's surface tension and begins to sink. The line's coating or exterior will also determine how easily it will slide through the fly rod's guides; the more slippery the surface, the greater casting distances obtainable. Finally, the line coating should be durable, so that it doesn't wear due to guide friction nor absorb dirt particles to cause guide wear and reductions in casting distance. Of course suppleness and coating qualities are just about impossible to judge in the fly shop. If a beginner, your best bet is to ask other fly fishers about their experiences with various brands after a year or so of use. The laboratory of the backcountry always settles those important issues! Once you get a good line, keep it cleaned and free from dirt and grime. It will slide through the guides easier and generally last longer.

Fortunately, the typical fly line doesn't take up much room on the average salt water fly reel, leaving plenty of room for backing between the reel spool and the fly line. Backing is an essential component of your line system here in Belize, in order to maintain drag pressure on a large fish after it has run out beyond the limits of your 90-100 foot fly line. The standard for line backing is 20 pound dacron, with anywhere from 100 to 300 yards required depending on the application. 30 pound dacron is advisable if you're going after record-sized tarpon. I've also had pretty good experience with some of the new ultra-strong, small diameter materials. At the same strength level you'll be able to wind on at least 50% more backing as with dacron, for the same reel. Be prepared to pay a premium price however, and make sure that you tie your spool arbor and fly line knots with care. Knots in these new materials have a tendency to slip unless they're snugged up real tight, and they're also difficult to cut with clippers and scissors.

As mentioned earlier, the first leaders used in fly fishing were simply multiple strands of horsehair, the number of strands depending on the strength required and the spookiness of the fish. Silkworm gut then followed as the material of choice and then nylon monofilament. The switch to nylon in the 1940's was very rapid because nylon's strength/diameter ratio is better than gut by over 30% in very heavy leaders and 200-300% in very fine leaders. Although many fly fishers used level-diameter leaders, most eventually switched to tapered leaders (to improve casting distance and delicacy of presentation) by knotting together sections of constant-diameter nylon. Such leaders are still widely in use today, though many fly fishers prefer the knotless tapered leaders now on the market.

It's difficult to define a typical leader for our Belize fishing because there are so many variables which markedly change their requirements. Nevertheless, let me attempt to do so and thus risk the wrath of my peers. A very satisfactory leader can be constructed from a 7-1/2 foot commercial, tapered, soft nylon leader, to the end of which is tied a 2-foot constant diameter shock tippet of hard nylon. The shock tippet is needed to minimize the chances of getting broken off by the sharp gill covers of a snook or the rough mouth parts of various species. The leader would have a butt diameter of approximately 0.030 inches and a tip strength rating of 15 pounds ; the shock tippet would have a strength rating of 30 pounds. Since commercial tapered leaders are somewhat expensive, you could readily replace the tapered leader with three sections of soft nylon knotted together; 3 feet of 40 pound, 2 feet of 20 pound and 2 feet of 15 pound. Either of these alternates should be satisfactory for the average fly caster, for most of our fishing situations and for most of our fish. Let's now discuss the conditions where changes are necessary.

First, the skill of the flycaster. Novice fly fishers will at first find it difficult to generate enough line speed to turn the leader over at the end of the cast and deliver the fly on target. Without sufficient initial line speed, air friction will cause the leader to collapse and put the fly short of the target. Accordingly, the novice should shorten up on his leader as necessary to make sure he can turn the leader over satisfactorily under his range of fishing situations. This situation is made worse if the fly being used is particularly bushy or wind-resistant. Similarly, the energetic and experienced flycaster who tends to generate relatively high line speeds should either slow down or go to a somewhat longer leader to prevent the fly from bouncing back after reaching its intended target.

The recommended leader is appropriate for most of the fish described in Chapter Two with a few exceptions. If your objective is to catch mangrove snapper, ladyfish or mackerel you might wish to scale the nylon shock tippet and the leader tip down to 12, 10 or even 8 pounds. With the mackerel however you should replace the nylon shock tippet with a wire tippet, so that you don't get cut off by the mackerel's sharp teeth. If your objective is large tarpon, you should go the other way and scale the leader tip strength up to at least 20 pounds and the shock tippet up to 50 pounds or more.

The fishing conditions can also have an impact on the best leader configuration. If you are in any situation where you must keep the fly line out of the fish's line of sight (fishing tiny glass minnow imitations for snook under dock lights, for example) , a longer leader may be necessary. If you are fishing with a floating line and want to use a weighted fly or weighted leader tippet, the longer leader will permit you to get to greater depths. Similarly, there's the trick of using a floating cork or foam popper with a sink-tip line, which permits you to make the popper dive and then surface with an intermittent retrieve. In this instance, a longer leader will let the sink tip sink further and permit deeper diving . In general, though, shorter leaders are preferred when fishing deep in our clouded waters to ensure sensitivity to subtle strikes that you can't see.

With regard to leader materials, note that I recommend soft nylon monofilament for the main portion of the leader and hard nylon monofilament for the shock tippet. I prefer the soft nylon for the leader since its suppleness or flexibility at the butt more nearly matches the line flexibility, providing a smooth transition from line to leader during turnover. Even more important, the soft nylon can be more easily straightened with friction and tension, to eliminate coils or kinks. On the other hand the hard surface of hard nylon makes it ideal for a shock tippet, to resist the nicks caused by mouth parts and oyster-encrusted mangrove roots. Although braided leaders are great for many types of freshwater trout fishing, I see no need to go to the additional expense to use them for our saltwater fly fishing. Similarly, the more-expensive, small-diameter kevlar and fluorocarbon leader materials offer little advantage since our fish are not particularly leader-shy under most fishing conditions. Also, the difficulty in cutting and in tying reliable knots with some of these newer materials has already been mentioned.

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