Maybe you’ve flipped a few flies before, or just finished an intro course and have your 10-2 motion figured out. Maybe you’re a somewhat seasoned angler poised to take gear preparation to the next level. Either way, step one is rigging your own reel. Or, at least understanding basics of your fly fishing line setup.
It’s easy to stop at your favorite fly shop or outfitter and have them get you lined up proper, or better yet have them rig the reel while walking you through the process. That’s enough to get you started, but the DIY approach will quickly provide you the skills and knowledge to complete the task without your outfitter or experienced friend over your shoulder to help you.
Like all aspects of fly fishing, reel rigging is technical, detailed and can be intimidating to the novice angler. There’s a ton of useful information out there, but we wanted to simplify the process and get you up to speed with rigging, and establish a connection with your setup to boost your confidence in the field! We’ll begin with the necessary items and a short description of their functions.
You needn’t be a master scout, but it helps to read up on some functional knots. There’s a lot of options, but you should become practiced with Arbor, Albright, Nail, Surgeons and Improved Clinch knots.
Fly Fishing Line Setup Basics
Spooled first on the reel and secured with an Arbor knot, the backing is usually about 20lb breaking strain and gives extra 50 to 100 yards of reserve length.
Fly line is the heavier, often colorful line that is connected to the backing with an Albright knot. Providing the weight of the momentum, fly line gives the cast the direction it needs to be sent to the target.Most fly lines are weight forward (marked WF on the packaging), with a heavier and thicker line for the first 10 yards, with a uniform remaining length. Like throwing a lawn dart, having weight at the front of the line allows for more precision in the cast.
Fly line has density options, sinking (S) or floating (F). What you’re fishing for and the type of fly you’re using will dictate your choice. Floating line can be a colorful yellow, green or orange so it’s easy to spot on the water. Sinking line should be a dark brown or black to not spook the catch. Most trout fishing will use floating lines, and weight can be added to the leader if fishing with a nymph or other wet fly. On its packaging, fly line is coded in a taper-weight-density format. For example, a code of WF-2-S means the line is weight forward, with a weight of 2, and sinking.
The thick ended butt of the leader is connected to the fly line via a Nail knot. The function of the leader is to transition from the weightier, thick backing to the lighter, clear tippet that will present the fly and hopefully fool your dinner. We’ll get into line strengths later, but the idea of the tippet is to start thicker and step down by tying narrower and narrower leader until you’re at the fly, or using tapered leader that comes in one length of narrowing line. The taper should be gradual, to maintain an efficient and composed lay of the line, and evenly transfer the force of the cast, keeping the line straight to target. Typically, leader length for novice anglers is between eight and nine feet, about the length of the rod.
As mentioned above, the tippet is the last length of the line, closely resembling the translucent, thin fishing lines you have seen on standard spinning reels. Connected via Surgeon’s knot to the leader, the tippet is purposed to tether the fly (with an improved clinch knot) to the rest of the rig and inconspicuously present the fly to the fish. For this lesson though, we’ll assume you’re using a tapered leader, so the leader and tippet will be one single line. Although most anglers have used monofilament line for tippet, the fluorocarbon varieties are gaining popularity for their longer lifespan, invisibility to the fish, and reduced line slack.
Spooling the Reel
Depending on the type of reel you’re using, there may be some disassembly to access the axle on the reel. If not, you can easily slip the of the backing into and around the axle. If you must remove the cage, look closely how the line should come out through before going forward from this point.
Starting with the backing, pull the bitter (loose) end of the line around the axle, and attach back to the line with Arbor knot. Once through the arbor knot, tie a simple overhand knot at the bitter end to act as a stopper. Pull the working end tightly until the knots meet, then trim any excess that remains off the bitter end. If the reel was disassembled up to this point, go ahead and mount the reel cage onto the axle.
Now that we’re snug to the axle, we can begin a neat and tight spool around the reel. It can be tricky to make sure you spool the proper way around, but I found that holding the reel in its functional orientation, as if attached to the rod, makes this easier. Use your fingers to apply light pressure to the backing, or have a friend hold the line taut for you, and start reeling. Make sure it spools tightly onto the reel, disperses evenly across the axle. When you’re at desired length (shouldn’t be more than 100 yards), cut the backing from its spool, leaving a workable length to attach the fly line easily.
If using WF, the reel end of the line should be marked with a sticker. If the sticker is absent, you’re looking for the thin end of the fly line. Using an Albright knot, attach the reel end of the fly line to the backing and begin spooling as before, tautly and evenly across the width of the axle.
Before we attach our tapered leader, let’s look into how varieties are sized and rated. Remember that the leader will transition the thick fly line to the thin tippet, in one line. Leader is rated from the strongest 03X (25 lb. test) to the thinnest 8X (1.755 lb. test). Generally, the rule is the smaller the fly, the thinner the tippet we would want to use. A good rule is to take the size of the fly and divide by three to get your ballpark diameter. For instance, if using a size 16 Pheasant Tail nymph, we would divide 16 by 3, get 5.1 and use a 5X (4.74 lb. test) line. For a size 12 salmon fly, 12 / 3 = 4, thus a 4X (6 lb. test) would be an ideal strength.
This can be confusing when we need to adjust our setup. For instance, if you wanted to switch to a smaller fly, tippet can be cut and replaced so long as it maintains a reasonable taper. Thinning the line too much within a short length will negatively affect the transfer of energy of the cast, so it’s smart to not make more than a 2X jump between sections. Another factor worth noting is that desired tippet lengths will vary depending on the situation. Every time we cut the end of the tippet to change the fly or snap the line on a snagged log, we lose tippet length. You can tie on extra length rather than replacing the entire leader, so long as we follow the rule of gradual tapering.
Fly fishing is a hobby of continuous learning and adaptation. There’s a lot of information available about its many disciplines, but take them as loose guidelines and find your style. The best way to find what works is to put the time in. Happy casting!