Essential Sinking Lines

Essential Sinking Lines
A stripping basket is required to handle sinking lines easily.
Years ago, there was one (and only one) line loaded on my saltwater fly fishing outfits- a weight forward floating line. I was slowly learning how to fish the flats and floating lines were a lucky carryover from bass fishing. They handled small flies and poppers in skinny water and whipped up on sneaky redfish. After developing a good success record using floating lines in saltwater, I thought they were the ONLY way to go.

But as time went on, I began to recognize a few floating line shortcomings. The surf was a nightmare on floating lines. It tossed them around and dragged them away, making for brief and awkward fly deliveries. In the bays when I fished alongside anglers using conventional tackle, I felt a bit lost too. They were casting plugs into deep water, working the edges of channels and reefs, and probing current-ridden rips and cuts. Poppers aside, the floating lines I was casting seemed utterly useless for these places.

To combat the problems I encountered, I resorted to lengthening my leaders and pinching on as many tiny lead weights as my casting stroke could handle. Overall the weighted rigs worked, sort of, and I was able to halfway keep up with the plug-chunkers. Then along came the striped bass, and catching them added a whole new element to the game.

A transplant from the East Coast, the striped bass is stocked into a handful of deep and large reservoirs in Texas. Stripers are aggressive and powerful fish that will get your heart pounding. The trick, though, with reservoir stripers is that you often have to reach deep really deep to catch them. I quickly realized the prospect of pinching on enough lead weights to sink a floating fly line 30 feet or more was laughable, so I broke down and bought my first sinking lines.

At first, the sinking lines were an absolute pain in the butt. They tangled around everything and felt awkward to cast and retrieve. But eventually I started catching fish with them- fish I would not have caught with floating lines. This boosted my confidence and I kept grinding ahead. Slowly, the mystery of sinking lines unraveled. The neat thing about that bumpy learning curve was that it changed my approach to saltwater fishing. When I incorporated sinking lines into the saltwater equation, the possibilities of where and how I could fish broadened. Tidal currents began to seem less wicked, winds were not as bothersome, and I viewed deep channels as sources of big fish rather than obstacles.

These days I feel lost without sinking lines and I often use them more frequently than floating lines. They have become an essential part of my tackle and my strategy.
There are many types of sinking fly lines on the market and the choices can get confusing. I am not qualified to get into a detailed discussion on the intricacies of fly line design, but I can tell you specifically which sinking lines I use and why I use them.

The first type of sinking line I use is the intermediate sinker. Intermediate sinking lines are sort of "jack-of-all-lines." They'll go anywhere and do almost anything. Intermediate lines sink at a rate of 1 to 2 inches per second. Flies trailing behind these lines will travel just below the surface if the line is cast and retrieved quickly, or they can be made to travel much deeper if the line is allowed to descend before the retrieve begins.

Scientific Anglers Bonefish Line is by far my favorite intermediate line. The SA Bonefish Line is clear, which I really like, although gauging the distance of a cast with clear line requires a bit of practice. The SA Bonefish Line has a long flat taper and a slippery finish that allows the line to pass easily through rod guides. These qualities make it a good candidate for long smooth casts. I use this line in the surf. It's also my "fish the edge" line- a great choice for secondary channels and reefs where the water ranges from 3 to 6 feet deep.

In the surf, the SA Bonefish Line is ideal. It will slide below waves and froth, and because it is thinner in diameter than floating line it has less wind and wave resistance. These features pay off when the surf gets rough and windy. When fished on secondary channels, shallow reefs, and other targets up to 6 feet deep, the SA Intermediate Bonefish line excels. It slips beneath floating grass and debris and is great for plugging flies slowly around structure or working channel throats when the tide is falling. Honestly, if I was forced to choose only one line for all things it would be the SA Bonefish Line. It is my favorite fly line.

The second type of sinking line I use frequently is a type 6 steady sink line. This stuff doesn't mess around. It has a sink rate of 6 to 7 inches per second- quick as a lead eye Clouser. Fishing a line that sinks this quickly requires two things- an imagination, and a stripping basket. You WILL need them both. Your imagination will help you visualize what your line is doing below the surface and your stripping basket will help you keep it from tangling around absolutely everything when you strip it in.

My favorite type 6 sinking line is the Cortland 444 SL type 6 steady sink. It is a simple no-nonsense line, solid black with a slick finish and slender taper and just enough backbone to shoot smoothly. I use the Cortland 444 SL type 6 steady sink when fishing for reservoir stripers because it has the capacity to go very deep. In the salt, it is a great choice for delivering flies to spooky places like deep channels, rips around pilings and markers, jetties, and passes with powerful currents. This is the line I use for deep water dredging and drifting. I almost always rig it with a very short (3 to 5 ft.) fluorocarbon leader. Gaining a good feel for this line takes time, but when a mysterious creature takes off with it in 20 feet of water it's a great feeling.

If you are considering learning to use a sinking line, my suggestion is to start with an intermediate line like the SA Bonefish Line and work toward the denser fast sinking lines. Using these lines will broaden your opportunities and make you a more versatile angler. Remember- you WILL need to make or purchase a stripping basket to handle these lines. Casting them without one is an exercise in frustration. The best basket I have ever used I made myself for about 8 bucks (see June 2007 edition of TSF). Feel free to e-mail me if you need instructions for the stripping basket or if you have any sinking line questions I can help you answer. In the mean time, keep your eyes and your mind open and have a great time on the water.