The basics of loading fly fishing line and backing: it's all in the knots
Many fly fishing shops and outfitters provide expert fly line and backing loading so the angler will be ready to hit the stream – and the big fish – with the confidence that the line will enhance the experience.
However, many fly fishing aficionados used to the nuances of the sport and their own personal preferences – like those who have taken to tying their own custom flies – like learning every aspect of the sport, and that includes learning how to load their own fly line and backing.
The thing to understand up-front is what is involved. For the line itself, there are actually two parts: the fly fishing line, that usually runs about 100 feet or so, and the backing, which is additional line attached at the rear end of the fishing line that extends the reach of that line for landing fish which run farther than the line extends. Then you have the leader, the tippet and, of course, the fly itself. And what holds all this together are knots that are designed to do what knots do – tie thing together or up – but in a specific way that enhances, or at least doesn’t detract, from the purpose of the line and accessories.
Backing is extra line at the reel end of the spool of line that extends the reach of fly line. Fly line is terribly important for casting and landing flies in a natural way on the stream or pond end of the business, but the line itself is generally no more than 100 feet long. Backing, between the line and reel spool, extends the line for the fighting fish that just want to run. The length and type of backing selected depends on the type of species involved, especially when it comes to bigger fish and saltwater locales. Hence, backing comes in weight categories to support line and the expected size of the catch.
The selection of fly fishing line is determined by the type of fishing preferred, the fishing spot, the time of year, and the expected size of the catch. If the type of food the particular species in questions eats in, say, March or April is under water, then you probably want to select a sinking line to get the fly down where the fish are. Conversely, later in the warmer months when the fish are striking at flies on or near the surface, you probably want to select a floating line.
Fly lines come in a myriad of shapes and sizes, but generally fly fishing lines are of two make varieties: double tapered, or simply tapered, and weight-forward. Double tapered lines essentially have two alternating diameters – skinnier then thicker, thus the taper – and are the more delicate of lines and said to be easier to roll cast. Weight-forward fly lines have more weight at the front end of the line, and are heavier overall. They are generally harder to roll cast, but can be better to control in windy conditions and when making very long overhand casts.
Next up as you move out from the reel toward the fly end of the business is the leader. The leader attaches to the end of the fly line and is the all-important connection between the line and the fly. Generally around 9-feet long, the leader has a similar diameter to the fly line where they attach, but then gradually tapers to a much narrower diameter closer to the fly. This allows for greater control of the fly in casting, by making the leader “spring straight”, thereby turning the fly over. Tippet, even narrower yet, is perhaps the last 12 to 15 inches of the leader, and while it comes in many sizes it is designed to be small enough to attach to even the tiniest of hook eyes. Tippet can be replaced separately, meaning it saves leader life, and it can be used for different size flies so the leader doesn’t have to be replaced each time you change them.
What holds this all together – reel to backing, backing to fly line, fly line to leader, leader to tippet, and tippet to fly – are a series of knots. Many anglers have their own preferred attaching knots and methods, but offered here are some of the most recommended.
Any good fly fishing outfitter or shop personnel can teach the basic of fly knots, and there is a wealth of information on the internet as well. We're just providing the former here...
An arbor knot is generally preferred to attach the backing to the fly reel spool. After that, an Albright knot in the most popular connection for the backing to the fishing line; backing is often made of Dacron, while fishing line is plastic, so this type of knot makes a strong connection. A Nail Knot connects the line to the leader because it provides for a straight connection between the two to maintain casting accuracy. A Blood Knot connects the leaders to the tippet because it is lightweight, strong and low profile. Then the tippet attaches to the fly line with an Improved Clinch knot.
Each of these knot is selected for the task at hand with consideration given to the diameter of the material and, of course, strength. As you get closer to the fly they are also selected to be as unobtrusive as possible to the fish.
You should now understand the basic construction of the whole fly line, and your fly reel will include instructions that specify the length of backing you should use. Experts advise laying out all of the components on a flat surface - the only tool needed will be a nail clippers.
It is best to practice tying the various knots with old fishing line until you get them down (the nail clippers are for trimming the tag ends). Also, most new reels are designed with left-handed retrieve as a default, but the reel manufacturer’s instructions most often include how-tos to change it to right-handed if you prefer. Start with securing the backing to the spool and then winding it on, then moving to line and leader, tying the prescribed knots as you go. You should then be all set to fish.
Sounds easy, huh? Nothing is easy in fly fishing -- except for the enjoyment – which is why even the most highly experienced anglers continually meet with their peers and colleagues, attend classes, watch instruction videos, and practice, practice, practice.
The fly fishing community is wonderful, and the centerpiece of this community in Colorado is Trout’s Fly Fishing, the West’s premier fly fishing shop and educational center located in the heart of Denver. For complete information call 877-464-0034.