Floating Line Mistakes

Fly Lines

I find that the whole area of the use of sinking lines does tend to somewhat confuse salmon anglers. Mention a sinking line and many salmon anglers start to think solely in terms of fishing in deeper water or spring and autumn fishing only.
Perhaps the greatest general mistake in salmon fly angling is the belief that once the water warms up to over 48 or 50 degrees farenheight then it is time for the floating line only. This belief was forwarded and accepted over many years since the initial widespread popularity of classic greased line style fishing and its associated literature. Combined with the availability of modern floating lines and their ease of use floating line fishing is practiced more extensively. Often in places and at times when the floating line is not the most suitable option at all. Classical greased line style fishing with a floating line is one of my favourite methods of salmon angling and I use it regularly to fish for settled fish in low water. It has its time and place but it is a very specialised technique for special times and places and rules about its use should never have been accepted as any widespread or general rule.
Water temperature is only a part of a number of complex external influencing factors on salmon taking behaviour. Some of the other factors are much more important such as water speed in particular or the nature or mood of the fish at the time. Fresh running earlier grilse for instance are very often not in the slightest bit interested in taking small flies near the surface regardless of water temperature as they are so flighty and preoccupied with running. The same fish however will literally savage medium sized flies fished slightly deeper. One of the many principles involved in fishing a very fast flow such as the stream in the neck of a pool, or any generally fast water, is that most salmon and grilse are usually not going to up end or broadside themselves across a fast current to take a fly which is very close to the surface or, in high water move a long way to get something small in the heavy flow. This means the angler must go down a little in depth to enable the fish to more easily take the fly while still heading into the current and remaining streamlined against the fast flow, also to have the fly a little closer to the fish.

Sink tip or sinking lines have the added advantage of slowing down the sweep of the fly across the stream or current. As the fastest water is on the very surface of the river, once you cut through the surface the line will come across the stream more slowly. The fly is not being pushed as fast across the fish thus allowing them slightly more time to see the fly, which again is giving them a greater opportunity to intercept the fly. These things often have much more bearing on the willingness of the salmon and grilse to take the fly in fast water than water temperature does.

The main use of sinking lines is simply to counteract water speed or the pressure of a heavy flow in the good taking areas which are generally the most productive shallower or medium depth areas of the river and that is how the angler should think of using them at any time of the season. Despite using sinking lines to achieve some depth you will still usually not be striving to fish at any great depths. Deep water is generally unproductive even for sinking line fly fishing as there is seldom enough flow to fishing the line and fly around in a lifelike manner.

When using a sinking line at the appropriate places the pressure of water on the line and the sinking rate of the line means that very soon an equilibrium is reached between the two and the line is then carried round by the flow. It will not keep sinking and the line used is often simply a means of enabling you to achieve a foot or two of depth for your fly. Occasionally you may wish to fish slightly deeper than a foot or two and may wish to fish the mid water area or close to the bottom. Understanding the most suitable sinking rates for the different water speeds is all that is necessary. It is an absolute necessity for successful salmon and grilse fishing to always carry a range of different fly lines and understand where to use them. The angler needs to select a type of fly line, a style of fly and an angle and speed of presentation combination including an optional hand line retrieve that will best suit the speed and height of water to be fished and specific nature of the fish to be fished for. Not only water speed but also surface disturbances or smoothness may influence the correct line and fly style to use. Which style of fly will be most suitable to fish will mainly be due to its profile and streamlinedness and sometimes even its weight. As a general rule longer slim flies suit fast water and shorter more mobile flies will better suit more moderate flows. But we will look at flies later, it is enough to consider fly line choice for now.

Appropriate lines

Which is the most appropriate type of fly line to use will vary considerably from place to place on the same stretch of water and in general with water height and speed. A good rule of thumb is to think in terms of what will the water carry round (hold up). Obviously when the angler wants to fish mid water or down a foot or two if a sinking line hits the bottom its sink rate is too heavy and if it behaves almost like a floating line or an intermediate line when you want a little more depth, then its sink rate is too low. However, the angler who experiments a little will soon become aware of what is needed for certain flows. A class 2 line is considered as the most suitable or standard medium sinking line. On a small river you may seldom need to have a line that is any faster sinking than the class 2. Most general presentational requirements are covered if the angler carries spare reels or spare spools for a reel with a floating line, an intermediate line, and a sink tip line and a full medium class two sinking line.
Depending on where the angler is fishing he may also use the options of a class 1 or class 4 sinking lines. Or a slower sinking line such as the class 1 instead of the class 2 line. If the angler is regularly fishing larger rivers he may wish to have some faster sinking class four or six lines or other high density or ultra fast sinkers. Whether the angler prefers using double taper lines, long belly lines, wt forwards lines, or shooting head lines will be up to the individual and perhaps most influenced by the nature and size of the river he is fishing. Shooting heads make carrying a wide range of different classes of sinking lines in a wallet easy. It is possible to share the cost of obtaining some of the lines with a friend as the angler may make two shooting heads from one double taper line. If you are making shooting heads you make them from a line that is two sizes heavier than what the rod is rated for. Shooting heads are connected on a loop to loop system and you may also tailor make the individual heads to the lengths you require that perfectly suit your rod. It is not necessary to make shooting heads and they are sold ready made. Some other long belly and Spey lines now come factory made, made with four interchangeable tip sections in floating, intermediate, medium sinking and fast sinking. They are sold as multi tip Spey lines.


The more general uses of each line would normally be as follows…

At normal water heights the sink tip line is most useful for fishing the fast water in the necks of pools or streamy, choppy fast water. If the water is generally high or fast, a sink tip may be fished everywhere though depending on the height of water it may be better to use full sinking lines.

The intermediate line is most often the essential line for fishing the smooth, fast but shallow glides at the tails of pools and may also suit most of the water other than the streams when a river is running at normal to slightly higher than normal heights. It is also a very useful line in low water when the angler actively works a fly along the smooth flats by retrieving line, especially to avoid surface disturbance from the line in calmer conditions. Sometimes a slow sinking line such as a class 1 may better suit a glide in higher water or on larger rivers.

A floating line may be useful for fishing almost all areas in normal to low water levels and is often needed for low water techniques. The floating line is easiest to mend or control and may be used quite successfully for settled, resident fish in higher clear water though this requires some experience and depends largely on the skill and line control used by the angler. Good fishing with the floating line is an extra special experience due to the visual, and often dramatic nature of the takes when using just sub surface fishing techniques.

Full slow to medium sinking lines or sinking shooting heads are ideal for faster water such as bigger streams or glides on larger rivers. They may also be essential generally for small or large rivers that are running high. When large rivers are running high and clean, is when the heavier sinking lines are most used, particularly in the necks of the pools in the heavier currents. Medium sinking lines are often useful for small narrow and deep rivers at normal water heights, often sinking lines are essential for spring and autumn fishing with larger flies.

Slower sinking lines should not only be considered for fast water use and they are very widely used for actively fishing large or small shrimp flies or larger hairwings across moderate or slow currents in conjunction with some handlining. In very low water and brighter weather, small shrimp flies fished this way on sinking lines in the streamy necks of pools may prove to be very successful. You r local river in fact, because of its overall water speed, geography or runs of fish may best suit certain line types. Through experience the different types of lines that suit the different water speed or character will become automatically assimilated in your mind and just by looking at the surface of the river you will know which line to use where. As the water speed and the physical nature or features of the river vary even as you progress along a stretch you should change lines to suit and fish the stretch correctly.

You should never hold other anglers up while you change your line. It may be better to fish on through the stretch quickly, passing through or missing altogether the areas you feel you are not using the right line for, return to the beginning of the beat, change lines and go through again concentrating on the areas your line now suits. If you want to start late spring, summer or early autumn fishing using only one line and invest in other s in time, start with the intermediate which is often the most generally useful line. A lot of angler presently carrying a floating line only would catch a lot more fish if they had purchased and intermediate line instead.


Presentation is always a combination of the line depth, the current speed, your position, the distance and angle cast, your rod tip position, speed of retrieve and fly style, fly size and fly pattern or colouration. When fishing fast water for instance, as you progress down the pool with a medium sinking or sink tip line and the stream starts to widen out or flatten into the main body of the pool and the pace or pressure of water on the line eases off, initially the angler casts at a slightly less acute angle downstream and casts a little more across and down. He may also in conjunction with the changing angle have to hand line slightly to maintain current pressure on the line and keep it fishing correctly and the fly attractive to the fish, otherwise the line would sink too much and the fly may be lifeless in the lesser flow. At a certain point it may be much better to change over to a more suitable line such as an intermediate line or floating line, both of which may fish better.

Which lines fish best will depend on how moderately paced or slack the areas of the pool become. As the angler approaches the tail end of the pool or glide and the water steadily speeds up but is shallow and may be fairly smooth, it is usually best fished with an intermediate line. Glides are very suitable for the intermediate or slower sinking lines. Of course, these are not hard and fast rules but good general guidelines. While you may slightly compensate for a line to fish it a little further, you should not start over compensating for any line but change lines before that would happen to the more suitable line. If a fly angler wishes to be consistently successful he must start to use this amount of purpose and control behind how and where he fly fishes. He must be able to fish in a three-dimensional fashion when necessary and not always in a two dimensional way.

If an angler is uncertain of what to do he should have a concept of actively following a process of elimination to find out and fine tune what presentation(s) may suit. This is often the best thing for the inexperienced to do also as it will ensure that through methodology, if not knowledge, they will maximise their chances of finding and using the correct presentation on the day. For instance on a considerable number of occasions, I have picked up many fish during dropping summer spates on sinking and sink tip lines in the streamy necks of pools. I normally use a No 8 Ally’s or Yellow Ally’s shrimp, a 3/4” alloy or copper Gold Willie Gunn tube or a long wing slim hairwing. With streams that had been well fished previously without success by anglers using the floating line, all they had to do was carry a spare spool or reel with a sink tip or sinking line to fish those streams successfully. Had anyone done this correctly before me I would not have taken most of those fish.


One of the other principles involved with the fish themselves is that when they become resident or settled, if a fish continues to remain or hold in a fast flow it is a larger fish. Due to the simple physics and principles of mass and water resistance it is much easier for the larger grilse and salmon to hold station or lie in a heavier flow. The water resistance change is very little as the fish gets larger but its mass is much greater. While small fresh fish will temporarily populate moderately fast parts of a stream when they are fit and fresh. When they choose a lie or become more settled all the smaller fish drop back to areas of more moderate flow. Some, but not all, of the larger fish also drop back. Even with the fresher fish when I hook fish in a stream at certain faster water speeds it can accurately be predicted that, because for the heavy flow at the taking point, the fish has to be say at least five pounds to stop there. I will then find when the fish is landed that it is then say 6.5 pounds or more. There is a lower threshold weight of fish that will be in particular speeds of flow and fish caught in such water will always be at or above that weight threshold otherwise they would not be there. The correct use of sinking lines often helps bring these better quality fish to the angler and, as a result, the average weight of fish caught will be heavier overall. An angler gets to know the look and feel of these palaces through the amount of water pressure increase felt on the line when the fly and line enters that area.


Contrary to popular opinion sinking lines are actually quite easy to use when they are used properly as they are generally used in faster flows. A good tip when using the medium or fast sinking lines is that rather than struggling to roll up a double taper sunk line when it has swung round often the Tweed technique of holding the rod tip well up for four or five seconds works extremely well as the line is then pushed closer to the surface by the flow under it. A further slight lift of the rod tip after this, brings the line right up almost on the surface and one single Spey cast may them often be made without rolling the line out first. Even if you do still roll the line out it is much easier to do it from that starting point of the line much closer to the surface.
Shooting head techniques make casting and handling sinking lines very easy at distance. Loops of running line are placed between all the fingers as the head is retrieved. The angler pulls in three, four or five, sometimes six pulls then grip that loop of line with the little finger. There will be a loop of running line formed. Make the same amount of pulls again, then grip the next loop around the ring finger, the next loop around the middle finger, the next loop around the index finger, and then hold another loop with the thumb against the index finger. The line is then held tight with the head just outside of the rod tip by about four to six inches while the cast is made and, as the head moves off, the fingers and thumb are opened to release the loops of running line.

Spey casts can also be made with the shooting head. In any event who said that sinking line fishing should be easy anyway? If it takes a little more work or effort to fish correctly and use a sinking line then fine, it is no real problem. I am an angler and I want to use effort, thought and control to get results, I don’t want it to be easy.

Unfortunately, there are some anglers, and quite a few at certain places who abuse the use of sinking fly lines and sunk line fishing in general. They do not use right lines at the correct angles, water speeds or places that an angler does but instead use them to deliberately foul hook salmon with the fly rod and sinking line. The person who foul hooks or attempts to foul hook salmon or grilse is similar to a dog that worries sheep. The dog looks like a nice innocent and friendly household pet but is really a killer. The foul hooker using a fly rod looks like a respectable angler and sportsman, is attired like an angler, but is not – he worries salmon just like the dog worries sheep. Both are killers but at least the dog doesn’t know any better. The dog needs to be put down or locked up at night because once it starts worrying sheep and gets a taste of it, it cannot stop, it can’t be put out of it. The foul hooker needs to be put off the river for life as once he starts he also cannot stop. He won’t walk away from the river and leave the fish alone on a poor taking day or fish properly in an area where there is a build up of fish in low water. They somehow always happen to be permanently fishing at those places or places where fish can be spotted and are seldom seen on the rest of the river. They cast upstream or across using heavy lines or weighted flies in obviously the wrong places and wrong flows, they just can’t leave the fish alone. I have nothing but the utmost contempt for any fly rod wielding person (I would never call them an angler) who deliberately foul hooks fish. There is no excuse for this behaviour. It says a lot about their total lack of character or integrity, their total lack of respect for the fish or the sport or indeed for the sport of other anglers. They should be permanently put off the rivers.

If you ever happen to accidentally foul hook a salmon using a sinking line put it back in immediately despite it being a freak accident, which it has to be when you fish correctly, and no suspicion will ever fall on you that you may have done it deliberately. It is also the law that all foul hooked fish have to be returned. Perhaps more relevant from an angling point of view is that you did not catch it, you have achieved absolutely nothing as you did not persuade it to willingly take a fly through effective presentation. It is a fish that if you have any respect for, or any respect for yourself or salmon angling, you will let go. I feel it should be considered if the fish is realised to be foul hooked of clamping the line and deliberately breaking off before the fish tires
Past Angling Articles

For many years I wrote articles on both Fly-Casting and Salmon Angling in the Irish Angler's Digest Magazine.

I would get lots of feedback from people about the articles. The article I have had the most feedback ever on was one called Floating Line Mistakes. It was written quite a few years ago. Here it is as the first article below.

I will eventually put on all the other articles.