When is it time to change your fly line?

Fly Lines

Owning a fly shop gives me good perspective into the habits of anglers. From fly selection to the pack/vest/sling choice dilemma, I get to hear a broad swath of opinions – and I am always impressed by the amount of thought even casual fly fishermen give to their product choices.

Within the sport there are a few natural divisions – those who prefer bamboo to carbon fiber, those who prefer streamers to dry flies, those who like small stream fishing and those who like big, sprawling waters, etc. But, one dividing line that is seldom discussed (I should say, I have never seen it, anyway) is the dichotomous nature of fly line replacement. Anglers tend to fall into one of two camps – those who keep a line far beyond its prime, and those who change them out like most of us would cat litter.
I have seen lines so cracked with UV damage that they rattled the guides with each cast, and on the other end of the spectrum, I have people discarding perfectly good lines that needed nothing more than a thorough cleaning.

So, for the angler who wants to maximize the value of his line investment, when is the proper time to change?

I must state up front that I am stickler for fly line performance. When a line can no longer perform at its optimum, even with cleaning and lubrication, then I chuck it. My recommendations are based on this premise; if you can live with slightly diminished performance, then you can probably add a season to your line before turning it in.

The first signs of wear that I generally see are poor floating and poor shooting characteristics. One cause of this is simply the accumulation of dirt and algae that adheres to the line even in the cleanest of waters. Many anglers jump the gun at this point and scrap a line when all it really needs is some TLC – a good wash in a solution of Dawn dish detergent followed by drawing the line through a soft cloth, and then a rinse in clear water and application of Rio’s Agent X.

However, this magic bullet won’t work forever. All lines except AirFlo are made using a soup of ingredients with a PVC base. To this soup, the line designer adds plasticizers to keep the line pliable and slickening chemicals to keep it shooting well. These chemicals will break down over time (mostly from UV exposure) and the line will become “hard” and eventually crack. But, even before the cracking begins, the line has begun to degrade.
So, your first line of defense is to clean and treat your line; next, if it floats better but still won’t shoot well, clean your rod guides and rod blank. If the results are satisfactory, use the line until it again starts to underperform. When the cleaning/treating no longer yields acceptable performance results, it is time to recycle and replace.

1 comment

  • Mike Klein

    Good article, Dirk. It’s funny as I was thinking about this very question on my way to work today. My son is old enough/tall enough to join me on Huron wades this year so we plan on doing some yard casting this week. Looking forward to the season. I’m going to try the dawn dishsoap wash this weekend.

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