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Fly fishing is a distinct and ancient angling method, most renowned as a method for catching trout and salmon, but employed today for a wide variety of species including pike, bass, panfish, and carp, as well as marine species, such as redfish, snook, tarpon, bonefish and striped bass. There are many reports of fly fisherman taking quite unintended species such as chub, bream and rudd while fishing for 'main target' species such as trout.
In fly fishing, fish are caught by using artificial flies that are cast with a fly rod and a fly line. The fly line (today, almost always coated with plastic) is heavy enough cast in order to send the fly to the target. Artificial flies can vary dramatically in all morphological characteristics (size, weight, colour, etc.).
Artificial flies are created by tying hair, fur, feathers, or other materials, both natural and synthetic, onto a hook with thread. The first flies were tied with natural materials, but synthetic materials are now extremely popular and prevalent. The flies are tied in sizes, colours and patterns to match local terrestrial and aquatic insects, baitfish, or other prey attractive to the target fish species.
Unlike other casting methods, fly fishing can be thought of as a method of casting line rather than lure. Non-flyfishing methods rely on a lure's weight to pull line from the reel during the forward motion of a cast. By design, a fly is too light to be cast, and thus simply follows the unfurling of a properly casted fly line, which is heavier and more castable than lines used in other types of fishing. The angler normally holds the flyrod in the dominant hand and manipulates the line with the other close to the reel, pulling line out in small increments as the energy in the line, generated from backward and forward motions, increases. The mechanics of proper rod movement are commonly described as "10 to 2", meaning that the rod's movement on the forward cast is arrested at the 10 o'clock position (12 o'clock is rod straight up, 9 o'clock flat forward, 3 o'clock flat backwards) and the backcast at 2 o'clock. In proper casting, loops of line unfurl completely before the angler throws his rod in opposite direction. The effect resembles sending a wave along a garden hose to remove a kink. Newer casting techniques promote minimal wrist movement, a very open stance and movement of the arm parallel to the ground, discouraging the rigid boundaries of the 10 to 2 technique. Proper casting, regardless of technique, requires pauses in both directions (forward and backward) to allow the entirety of the line to unfurl parallel to the water's surface. As additional line length is desired for farther casts, the angler allows momentum generated by the forward and backcasting to carry slack line previously pulled free from the reel to glide forward through the non-dominant hand without bending the wrist. Flyline speed and orientation in three-dimensional space, in both the forward and back cast, yield a tighter or looser unfurling of the "loop" of line. As rhythm and line control improve, longer and more accurate casts can be achieved. Poor casts typically lead to tangled lines that pile up on the water's surface in front of the angler as he attempts to allow the fly come to rest.
In broadest terms, flies are categorized as either imitative or attractive. Imitative flies resemble a natural food items. Attractive flies trigger instinctive strikes by employing a range of characteristics that do not necessarily mimic prey items. Flies can be fished floating on the surface (dry flies), partially submerged (emergers), or below the surface (nymphs, streamers, and wet flies.) A dry fly is typically thought to represent an insect landing on, or emerging from, the water's surface as might a grasshopper, dragonfly, mayfly, stonefly or caddisfly. Other surface flies include poppers and hair bugs that might resemble mice, frogs, etc. Sub-surface flies are designed to resemble a wide variety of prey including aquatic insect larvae, nymphs and pupae, baitfish, crayfish, leeches, worms, etc. Wet flies, known as streamers, are generally thought to imitate minnows or leeches.
History of Fly Fishing
Many credit the first recorded use of an artificial fly to the Roman Claudius Aelianus near the end of the 2nd century. He described the practice of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River:
...they have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fisherman's craft. . . . They fasten red . . . wool round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in colour are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.
In his book Fishing from the Earliest Times, however, William Radcliff (1921) gave the credit to Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis), born some two hundred years before Aelian, who wrote:
...Who has not seen the scarus rise, decoyed and killed by fraudful flies...
The last word, somewhat indistinct in the original, is either "mosco" (moss) or "musca" (fly) but catching fish with fraudulent moss seems unlikely.
Modern fly fishing is normally said to have originated on the fast, rocky rivers of Scotland and northern England. Other than a few fragmented references, however, little was written on fly fishing until The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle was published (1496) within The Boke of St. Albans attributed to Dame Juliana Berners. The book contains, along with instructions on rod, line and hook making, dressings for different flies to use at different times of the year. The first detailed writing about the sport comes in two chapters of Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler, which were actually written by his friend Charles Cotton, and described the fishing in the Derbyshire Wye.
British fly-fishing continued to develop in the 19th Century, with the emergence of fly fishing clubs, along with the appearance of several books on the subject of fly tying and fly fishing techniques. In southern England, dry-fly fishing acquired an elitist reputation as the only acceptable method of fishing the slower, clearer rivers of the south such as the River Test and the other 'chalk streams' concentrated in Hampshire, Surrey, Dorset and Berkshire (see Southern England Chalk Formation for the geological specifics). The weeds found in these rivers tend to grow very close to the surface, and it was felt necessary to develop new techniques that would keep the fly and the line on the surface of the stream. These became the foundation of all later dry-fly developments. However, there was nothing to prevent the successful employment of wet flies on these chalk streams, as George E.M. Skues proved with his nymph and wet fly techniques. To the horror of dry-fly purists, Skues later wrote two books, Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, and The Way of a Trout with a Fly, which greatly influenced the development of wet fly fishing. In northern England and Scotland, many anglers also favored wet-fly fishing, where the technique was more popular and widely practised than in southern England. One of Scotland's leading proponents of the wet fly in the early-to-mid 19th century was W.C. Stewart, who published "The Practical Angler" in 1857.
In Scandinavia and the United States, attitudes toward methods of fly fishing were not nearly as rigidly defined, and both dry- and wet-fly fishing were soon adapted to the conditions of those countries.
Lines made of silk replaced those of horse hair and were heavy enough to be cast in the modern style. Cotton and his predecessors fished their flies with long rods, and light lines allowing the wind to do most of the work of getting the fly to the fish. The introduction of new woods to the manufacture of fly rods, first greenheart and then bamboo, made it possible to cast flies into the wind on silk lines. These early fly lines proved troublesome as they had to be coated with various dressings to make them float and needed to be taken off the reel and dried every four hours or so to prevent them from becoming waterlogged.
American rod builders such as Hiram Leonard developed superior techniques for making bamboo rods: thin strips were cut from the cane, milled into shape, and then glued together to form light, strong, hexagonal rods with a solid core that were superior to anything that preceded them.
Fly reels were soon improved, as well. At first they were rather mechanically simple; more or less a storage place for the fly line and backing. In order to tire the fish, anglers simply applied hand pressure to the rim of the revolving spool, known as 'palming' the rim. (See Fishing reel). In fact, many superb modern reels still use this simple design.
In the United States, fly fishermen are thought to be the first anglers to have used artificial lures for bass fishing. After pressing into service the fly patterns and tackle designed for trout and salmon to catch largemouth and smallmouth bass, they began to adapt these patterns into specific bass flies. Fly fishermen seeking bass developed the spinner/fly lure and bass popper fly, which are still used today.
In the late 19th century, American anglers, such as Theodore Gordon, in the Catskill Mountains of New York began using fly tackle to fish the region's many brook trout-rich streams such as the Beaverkill and Willowemoc Creek. Many of these early American fly fishermen also developed new fly patterns and wrote extensively about their sport, increasing the popularity of fly fishing in the region and in the United States as a whole. The Junction Pool in Roscoe, where the Willowemoc flows into the Beaver Kill, is the center of an almost ritual pilgrimage every April 1, when the season begins. Albert Bigelow Paine, a New England author, wrote about fly fishing in The Tent Dwellers, a book about a three week trip he and a friend took to central Nova Scotia in 1908.
Participation in fly fishing peaked in the early 1920s in the eastern states of Maine and Vermont and in the Midwest in the spring creeks of Wisconsin. Along with deep sea fishing, Ernest Hemingway did much to popularize fly fishing through his works of fiction, including The Sun Also Rises. It was the development of inexpensive fiberglass rods, synthetic fly lines, and monofilament leaders, however, in the early 1950s, that revived the popularity of fly fishing, especially in the United States.
In recent years, interest in fly fishing has surged as baby boomers have discovered the sport. Movies such as Robert Redford's film A River Runs Through It, starring Brad Pitt, cable fishing shows, and the emergence of a competitive fly casting circuit have also added to the sport's visibility.
Methods of Fly Fishing
The fly angler uses a rod longer and lighter than those used for cast and spin fishing. Fly rods can be as short as 2 m (6 ft) long in freshwater fishing and up to 4.5 m (15 ft) long for two-handed fishing for salmon or steelhead. The average rod for fresh and salt water is around 9 feet in length and weighs from 3-5 ounces, though a recent trend has been to lighter, shorter rods for fishing smaller streams.
The type of cast used when fishing varies according to the conditions. The most common cast is the forward cast, where the angler whisks the fly into the air, back over the shoulder until the line is nearly straight, then forward, using primarily the forearm. The objective of this motion is to "load" (bend) the rod tip with stored energy, then transmit that energy to the line, resulting in the fly line (and the attached fly) being cast for an appreciable distance. Casting without landing the fly on the water is known as 'false casting', and may be used to pay out line, to dry a soaked fly, or to reposition a cast. Other casts are the roll cast, the single- or double-haul, the tuck cast, and the side- or curve-cast.
Dropping the fly onto the water and its subsequent movement on or beneath the surface is one of fly fishing's most difficult aspects; the angler is attempting to cast in such a way that the line lands smoothly on the water and the fly appears as natural as possible. At a certain point, if a fish does not strike, depending upon the action of the fly in the wind or current, the angler picks up the line to make another presentation. On the other hand, if a fish strikes, the angler pulls in line while raising the rod tip. This "sets" the hook in the fish's mouth. The fish is played either by hand, where the angler continues to hold the fly line in one hand to control the tension applied to the fish, or by reeling up any slack in the line and then using the hand to act as a drag on the reel. Some fly reels have an adjustable, mechanical drag system to control line tension during a fish's run.
When actively fishing, the angler may want to keep the fly line lightly pressed against the rod handle with the index finger of the casting arm. The free arm is used to pull line from the reel or to retrieve line from the water. If a fish strikes, the angler can pinch the line with the index finger against the rod handle and lift the rod tip, setting the hook.
Fly fishing can be done in fresh or salt water. Freshwater fishing is often divided into coldwater (trout, salmon, steelhead), coolwater (pike, perch, walleye) and warmwater (bass, chub, catfish) fishing. The techniques for freshwater fly fishing also differ in lakes, streams and rivers.
Fly fishing for trout
Fly fishing for trout is a very popular sport which can be done using any of the various methods and any of the general types of fly. Many of the techniques and presentations of fly fishing were first developed in fishing for trout.
Fishing in cold water
Cold water anglers often use chest high boots, known as waders, to wade into the water. In some areas, wading can be done in wading shoes and rubber booties.
"Stocking foot" waders have neoprene "feet" and are designed to be worn inside felt-soled boots. These so-called "wading boots" or "wading shoes" provide excellent grip on slippery, rocky riverbeds. Neoprene waders provide insulation against the cold, provide padding in case of a fall, and resist puncture and abrasion when walking through streamside brush. Breathable Gore-Tex waders provide ventilation when hiking along the water, but do not provide flotation in the event of slipping or falling into deep water. In deep water streams, an inflatable personal flotation device (PFD), or a Type III Kayak fishing vest, adds a degree of safety.
Some "catch and release" anglers flatten the barb of their hook. Such "barbless hooks" are much easier to remove from the fish (and from the angler, in the event of mishap).
Dry fly fishing is done with line and flies that float. A tapered leader, usually made of fine polyamide monofilament line, is placed between the line and fly. Unlike sinking fly (nymph) fishing, the "take" on dry flies is visible, explosive and exciting. While trout typically consume about 90% of their diet from below-water sources, the 10% of surface-level consumption by trout is more than enough to keep most anglers busy. Additionally, beginning fly fisherman generally prefer dry fly fishing because of the relative ease of detecting a strike and the instant gratification of seeing a trout strike their fly. Nymph fishing may be more productive, but dry fly anglers soon become addicted to the surface strike.
Dry flies may be "attractors" or "imitators", such as the elk hair caddis, a caddisfly imitation. A beginner may wish to begin with a fly that is easy to see such as a Royal Wulff attractor or a mayfly imitation such as a Parachute Adams.
The "parachute" on the Parachute Adams makes the fly land as softly as a natural on the water. Being able to see the fly is especially helpful to the beginner. The fly should land softly, as if dropped onto the water, with the leader fully extended from the fly line. Any motion of the fly line should not disturb the natural drift of the fly. Learning to control the fly's drift is much easier if the angler can see the fly.
Once a fish has been caught and landed, the fly may no longer float well. A fly can sometimes be dried and made to float again by "false" casting, casting the fly back and forth in the air. In some cases, the fly can be dried with a small piece of reusable absorbent towel or chamois, or placed and shaken in a container full of fly "dressing"; a hydrophobic solution. A popular solution to a dry fly which refuses to float is simply to replace it with another, similar or identical fly until the original can fully dry, rotating through a set of flies.
Dry fly fishing on small, clear-water streams can be especially productive if the angler stays as low to the ground and as far from the bank as possible, moving upstream with stealth. Trout tend to face upstream and most of their food is carried to them on the current. For this reason, the fish's attention is normally focused into the current; most anglers move and fish "into the current", fishing from a position downstream of the fish's suspected lie. Trout tend to strike their food at current "edges", where faster- and slower-moving waters mix. Obstructions to the stream flow, such as large rocks or nearby pools, provide a "low energy" environment where fish sit and wait for food without expending much energy. Casting upstream to the "edge" of the slower water, the angler can see the fly land and drift slowly back downstream. The challenge in stream fishing is placing the fly with deadly accuracy, within inches of a protective rock for instance, not long range casting. Done properly, the fly seems to be just floating along in the current with a "perfect drift" as if not connected to the fly line. The angler must remain vigilant for the "take" in order to be ready to raise the rod tip and set the hook!
Nymphs for trout
Trout tend mostly to feed underwater. Especially when fishing deeper waters such as rivers or lakes, putting a fly down to the trout may be more successful than fishing on the surface, especially in the absence of any surface insect activity or hatch. The nymph itself can be weighted, as is the popular bead headed hare's ear nymph or bead headed pheasant tail nymph. Alternatively, the angler can use an attractor pattern such as a Prince Nymph. Weights can be added to the leader. A sinking tip fly line can also serve to sink the fly. The most common nymphing and general overall fly fishing technique that even beginners can master is a "dead drift" or tight line fishing technique, casting directly across the river, letting the fly line drift downriver while keeping any slack out of the line. A beginner need simply to point the rod at the fly, lifting the rod in the event of a strike. This is a "downstream technique", where the angler moves in a downstream direction. More advanced techniques make use of a highly visible strike indicator attached to the leader above the sinking fly.
It is also possible to use standard sinking fly lines. Especially if the current is strong and if it is difficult to get down to the correct level to catch the trout.
Trout Fishing - Still Water
Fishing for trout in lakes requires different tactics. A canoe, pontoon boat or a float tube allows an angler to cover a lot more water than waders. Trout may congregate in cooler water near an inflowing stream or an underwater spring and may be lured to bite on a streamer fly. An often successful tactic is to pull a streamer such as a woolly bugger, using clear sinking line, behind the watercraft. The somewhat erratic motion of the oars or fins tends to give the streamer an enticing action. Trout also tend to "cruise" transitional areas (e.g. dropoffs, weed bed edges, subsurface river flow at inlets, etc.) Watching for cruising trout and casting well ahead of any visible fish is often successful.
Once hooked, a small trout can be easily retrieved "on the reel" or by simply pulling in the fly line with the reel hand while pinching the line between the rod handle and the index finger of the rod hand. It is important to keep the rod tip high, allowing the bend of the rod to absorb the force of the fish's struggles against the line. Larger trout will often take line in powerful runs before they can be landed. Unlike spin fishing where the line is already on the reel, playing a large fish with fly line and a fly reel can present a special challenge. Usually, when a fish is hooked, there will be extra fly line coiled between the reel and the index finger of the rod hand. The challenge is to reel up the loose fly line onto the reel without breaking off a large fish (or getting the line wrapped up around the rod handle, one's foot, a stick or anything else in the way!). Once the extra line is on the reel, an angler can use the reel's drag system to tire the fish.
Catch and Release
Releasing wild trout helps to preserve the quality of a fishery. Trout are very delicate and should be handled carefully to ensure the animal's survival. Trout should be handled with wet hands to minimize harm to the animal. Small trout caught on a barbless hook can be released simply by grasping the fly and turning it so that the hook point is pointed downward. It is important to minimize the handling of any fish that is to be released. Large fish can be grasped gently in a wet hand and quickly inverted so that the fish is upside down. Trout in this position stop struggling. Forceps can then be used to back out the hook. Once the hook has been removed, place the trout in the water and support it until it regains sufficient strength to swim away. If the fight was quite long, it may take some time to revive a weakened fish. If the trout is bleeding then it should not be released.
FlyFishing - Saltwater
Saltwater flyfishing is done with heavier tackle and typically uses wet flies resembling baitfish. However, saltwater fish can also be caught with "poppers," a surface lure similar to those used for freshwater bass fishing, though much larger. Saltwater species sought and caught with fly tackle include: bonefish, tuna, dorado (mahi-mahi), sailfish, tarpon, striped bass, salmon and marlin. Offshore saltwater species are usually attracted to the fly by "chumming" with small baitfish, or "teasing" the fish to the boat by trolling a large hookless lure (Billfish are most often caught using this latter method).
Saltwater species when hooked cannot be "palmed" with the hand on the reel. Instead, a good saltwater reel must have a powerful drag system. Furthermore, saltwater reels must be larger, heavier, and corrosion-resistant - a typical high-quality saltwater reel costs 500.00 USD or more.
Saltwater fishing may be done from shore, such as wading for bonefish or striped bass, or offshore for larger species from boats of varying size.
Hooks for saltwater flies must also be extremely durable and corrosion resistant. Most saltwater hooks are made of stainless steel, but the strongest (though less corrosion resistant) hooks are of high-carbon steel. Typically, these hooks vary from size #8 to #10 for bonefish and smaller nearshore species, to size #3/0 to #5/0 for the larger offshore species.
Artificial flies, constructed of furs, feathers and threads bound on a hook were created by anglers to imitate fish prey. The first known mention of an artificial fly was in 200AD in Macedonia. Most early examples of artificial flies imitated common aquatic insects and baitfish. Today, artificial flies are tied with a wide variety of natural and synthetic materials to represent all manner of potential freshwater and saltwater fish prey to include aquatic and terrestrial insects, crustaceans, worms, baitfish, vegetation, flesh, spawn, small reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds, etc.
Sizes and usage
Fly rods normally vary between 2 m (6 feet) and 4 m (13 feet) in length. Fly rods and lines are designated as to their "weight", typically written as Nwt where 'N' is the number (e.g. 8wt, 9wt, 10wt).
Rods are matched to the line according to weight. The rod's manufacturer will mark on the rod the fly line weights for which a rod has been designed. One-weight (1wt) rods and lines are the lightest; the weight designations increase up to the heaviest readily available rods and lines at 16-weight (16wt). In general, 1wt through 2wt would be in the class used for small trout, and panfish, 3wt and 4wt are popular for small-stream fishing, 5wt is often considered the all-around rod for trout, 6wt and 7wt are used on large rivers and for fishing with streamers, 8wt to 9wt rods and lines might be used for steelhead or salmon in medium rivers, as well as for bass fishing with large flies and as lightweight salt water use, and 16wt rods and lines would be used for pursuing large salt water gamefish under conditions of high wind or surf.
The species pursued, under which conditions, will largely determine the weight of rod selected. Next, it is important to match the line to the weight of the rod. Using too heavy a line on too light on a rod, or vice versa, will dramatically affect casting performance. It may also permanently warp the rod blank. As a rule of thumb, you can safely go one line weight more or less (i.e. using an 8wt or 10wt line on a 9wt rod). There are also rods stamped with a range of weights. For example, a rod may be rated 7-8wt. This indicates the rod is designed for either a 7 or 8 weight fly line. There are also some rods rated for wider ranges (e.g. 8-9-10wt). The drawback to multi-rated rods is that compromises in flexibility or action are made in order to accommodate a wider range of line weights. For example, a rod rated for 8-9 weight line will be slightly stiffer than a straight 8wt but slightly softer than a straight 9wt rod.
Saltwater fly rods are built to handle powerful fish and to cast large, bulky flies over longer distances or into strong winds. Saltwater fly rods are normally fitted with heavier, corrosion-resistant fittings. The reel seat may also be equipped with a short extension often called a "fighting butt". Rods for saltwater fishing fall into the 8 to 15 weight class, with 12-weight being typical for most larger species like tuna, dorado (mahi-mahi) and wahoo (ono).
Bamboo and split cane rods
The earliest fly rods were made from greenheart, a tropical wood, and later bamboo originating in the Tonkin area of Guangdong Province in China. The mystical appeal of handmade split-cane rods has endured despite the emergence over the last 50 years of cheaper rod-making materials that offer more durability and performance: fiberglass and graphite.
Split-cane bamboo fly rods combine sport, history and art. It may take well over 100 hours for an experienced rod builder to select and split the raw cane and then to cure, flame, plane, file, taper, glue, wrap and finish each rod. Quality rods made by famous rod makers may sell for prices well beyond US$2,000; a new rod from a competent, contemporary (though not famous) builder may sell for nearly as much. These rods offer grace, form, and, with their solid mass, surprising strength. Bamboo rods vary in action from slow to fast depending on the taper of the rod. In competent hands, they provide the pinnacle in performance.
Synthetic fly rods
Today, fly rods are mainly made from carbon fiber/graphite with cork or, less frequently, hypalon being favored for the grip. Such rods generally offer greater stiffness than bamboo, are much more consistent and less expensive to manufacture, and require less maintenance. Fiberglass was popular for rods constructed in the years following World War II and was the "material of choice" for many years. However, by the late 1980s, carbon/graphite composite rods (including premium graphite/boron and graphite/titanium blends) had emerged as the materials used by most fly rod manufacturers. These premium rods offer a stiffness, sensitivity, and feel unmatched by any other synthetic material. Graphite composites are especially well-suited to the construction of multi-piece rods since the joints, known as ferrules, in better-quality graphite rods do not significantly affect overall flex or rod action. Today's modern carbon graphite composite fly rods are available in a wide range of sizes and types, from ultralight trout rods to bass fishing rods and two-handed "spey" rods.
The fly line and leader are important parts of fly fishing physics. The line is what is cast since the fly is virtually weightless. Fly lines come in a variety of forms. They may be of varying diameters, contain tapered sections, or be of level (even) diameter. A fly line may float, sink, or have a floating main section with a sinking tip. A modern fly line consists of a tough braided or monofilament core, wrapped in a thick plastic sheath, often of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In the case of floating fly lines, the PVC sheath is usually embedded with many 'microballoons' or air bubbles, and may also be impregnated with silicone or other lubricants to give buoyancy and reduce wear. Fly lines also come in a variety of models for use in specific environments: fresh water, salt water, cold or tropical temperatures, etc.
A fly line is matched to a rod according to weight. Fly lines come in a wide range of numbered sizes (from a thin #0 to a hefty #16) as well as profiles: double-tapered, weight-forward, shooting-head, etc. Most fly lines are 30 yards (27 m) in length, sufficient for sporting purposes, though specialized shooting-head lines with a short, heavy front section and small-diameter backing are sometimes employed for casting long distances or in competitive casting events.
The American Flyfishing Tackle Manufacturers Association (AFTMA) is a trade association responsible for the standardization of many of the lines and rods used today. Line weights are standardized on the weight, in grains, of the first 10 yards (9 m) of the line.
Tapering of the tip section is a consideration in purchasing a line. A heavier taper near the tip of the line, usually designated as a weight forward line, loads the rod sooner and makes casting easier for beginners. A double tapered line can be used twice as long since the taper is the same at both ends of the line, thus one can wear out one half and turn it around and use the other half until it is worn out (this can not be done with any other fly line). The taper of a line is prefixed to the line weight such that a line labeled L7F is a 7wt, level (not tapered) floating line whereas a WF9S would be a 9wt, weight-forward, sinking line, etc.
In order to fill up the reel spool and ensure an adequate reserve in case of a run by a powerful fish, fly lines are usually attached to a secondary line at the butt section, called backing. Fly line backing is usually composed of braided dacron or gelspun monofilaments. Backing varies in length according to the type of gamefish sought, from as little as 75 yards for smaller freshwater species to as much as 300-400 yards for large saltwater gamefish. Another purpose of the backing is to "fill out" the spool. A full spool results in faster line pickup than does one only partially filled.
Between the line and the fly is attached a leader of monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line, usually tapered in diameter, and referred to by the 'X-size' (0X, 2X, 4X, etc.) of its final tip section, or tippet. For example, a freshwater trout leader might have a butt section of 20-pound test monofilament, tapering through 15, 12, 10, and 8-pound test sections, terminating in a 5X (.006 inch diameter, usually around 4 pound test) tippet. A fly line is only as strong as its weakest link, which is the final tippet section. As defined, the diameter of a tippet is defined as the number, in thousandths of an inch, that the diameter is less than 0.011 inches. For example, a 5X tippet is (0.011-0.005)=0.006 inches in diameter. Similarly, a tippet that is three-thousandths of an inch (0.003 inches) in diameter would be 8X (i.e. (0.011-0.003)=0.008 inches).
When using nylon tippets, the approximate breaking strength, in pounds, can be estimated by subtracting from 9 the X-value of the tippet. For example, a 6X tippet will break at approximately (9-6)=3 pounds of pull.
The various portions of the leader are: 1) the butt section which is typically the thickest portion of the leader and is attached to the fly line; 2) the mid section; and 3) the tippet which is the thinnest segment of a tapered leader and is attached to the fly. Sometimes, the tippet is separated from the fly by a short heavy section known as a "bite" or "shock" leader the purpose of which is to resist the sharp teeth of certain fish species or the sudden, instantaneous strong impact when a large fish takes the fly. The shock or bite leader is a piece of large-diameter monofilament or a braided or single-strand wire such as stainless steel.
Given the extended UV stability and strength of the relatively new fluorocarbon lines and tippets, most anglers attempt to maximize the recovery and minimize the loss of fluorocarbons into the environment where they can entrap or sicken small mammals, birds and fish.
Fly reels, or fly casting reels, with a few exceptions, are really little more than line-storage devices. In use, a fly fishermen strips line off the reel with one hand while casting and manipulating the rod with the other. Slack line is picked up by rotating the reel spool. Even today, the vast majority of fly reels are manually-operated, single-action reels of rather simple construction, with a simple click-pawl drag system. However, in recent years, more advanced fly reels have been developed for larger fish and more demanding conditions. These newer reels feature disc-type mechanical, adjustable drag systems to permit the use of lighter leaders and tippets, or to successfully capture fish that undertake long, powerful runs. Many newer fly reels have large-arbors to increase the speed of the retrieve and to improve drag performance during long runs. In order to prevent corrosion, saltwater fly reels often use aluminum frames and spools or stainless steel components with sealed bearing and drive mechanisms.
Some reels with simple click drags are designed to be "palmed" when a fish runs with the line. Palming allows the angler to add additional drag with a light touch of the palm to the rim of the reel. On some reels, palming is difficult or impossible because the spool is fully skirted. With such reels, the only drag that an angler can apply to the line is with one or more fingers directly pinching the line.
The fly line can be retrieved using either hand. Most modern fly reels can be converted to or from left-hand or right-hand retrieve. Many fly anglers who have come to the sport after spending some years as spin casting anglers are more comfortable with a left-hand retrieve. Right handed "big game" fishers may find the right hand retrieve more efficient. In either case, modern large-arbor reels can be retrieved with fair efficiency using either hand to retrieve.
Fly reels are often rated for a specific weight and type of fly line in combination with a specific strength and length of backing. For example, the documentation supplied with a reel may state that the reel can take 150 yards of 50 pound-test backing and 30 yards of fly line. An angler should be able to "load" the reel with the specified length of line and backing and still have sufficient room between the line and the spool's edge. As well, many modern reels are designed to take interchangeable spools. Such spools can be quickly switched, thus allowing an angler to change the type of line in a matter of minutes.
Fly fishing knots
A few knots have become more or less standard for attaching the various parts of the fly lines and backing, etc, together. A detailed discussion of most of these knots is available in any good book on fly fishing. Some of the knots that are in most every fly angler's arsenal are: the improved clinch knot which is commonly used to attach the fly to the leader, the overhand slip knot or arbor knot which is used to attach the backing to the spool, the albright knot which can be used to attach the fly line to the backing. Often, a loop is added to the end of the fly line using a braided loop or by attaching a monofilament loop to the fly line using a nail or tube knot. A loop can be added to monofilament line using a double surgeon's knot or a perfection loop. A loop can be put in fly line backing using a bimini twist. Finally, a tapered leader can be attached to the fly line using a loop to loop connection. The use of loop to loop connections between the fly line and the leader provides a quick and convenient way to change or replace a tapered leader. Many commercially-produced tapered leaders come with a pre-tied loop connection.
Some traditionalists create their own tapered leaders using progressively smaller-diameter lengths of monofilament line tied together with the blood or barrel knot.