The ocean is big. It runs hot and cold, shallow and deep. It can be calm or windblown. The fish we pursue, their favored foods and their feeding places reflect this diversity. And while vivid images of bonefish and tarpon pursued on tropical and near-tropical flats may occupy our minds, for most of us such opportunities come but once or twice a year. Instead, we happily chase redfish, stripers, bluefish, bonito, albacore, salmon and other species in our estuaries and nearshore waters. Increasingly, offshore species are being targeted as well.
The diversity of these fish and foods is seen in the fly patterns we use. In Belize, we might go after bones on shallow flats with flies as small as size 8 or even 10. In Biscayne Bay, it's not unusual to cast size 2 or even larger flies at that same species. And in New England, we might be tossing hot dog-size bunker flies into pounding surf for stripers.
The idea that one fly line can fit all these situations makes no more sense than trying to use a single fly or fly rod. Instead, by assessing your needs and making informed decisions, you can choose a selection of lines to fit your fishing conditions, optimizing the opportunity to catch fish and maximizing the fun quotient.
The good news about choosing saltwater fly lines is that we've never had as many choices as we have today. Which leads to the bad news: Picking the right combination for your conditions will likely require a bit of thought, which isn't really such bad news after all.
First Steps First
A common sight in my days at fly shows is an angler test-casting several rods, searching for just the right one but giving little thought to whether the line he's using for evaluating the rods is the one he will fish with. Ideally, the choice of fly-line weight should be made before choosing a rod, because the line is what propels and delivers the fly. And fly-fishing, like other fishing, is all about delivering the groceries to the fish. Generally, the greater the mass and the wind-resistance of the fly, the heavier the line you'll need to carry it to the target. Thus, absent other factors - which is seldom the case - we should choose the line weight necessary to deliver the fly and then match the rod to that line.
However, like all generalities, there are exceptions. Tarpon come readily to mind. Flies used for tarpon aren't too large and, in fact, have gotten smaller over the years. Instead of the 5/0 and 4/0 hooks that were once typical, today use of 2/0, 1/0 or even smaller hooks is not unusual, even for big fish. And with the exception of dirty-water situations, where flies are tied bulky to "push" water, tarpon patterns have always been relatively sleek flies. A 9-weight rod would cast these easily, but a 9-weight is no match for a big tarpon. Stout 11-, 12- and even 13-weight rods are better suited to "putting the wood" to 100-plus-pound tarpon.
Similarly, the false albacore, a summer and fall favorite along the East Coast, is typically pursued with 9- and 10-weight rods, at least in areas where they weigh in the double digits. An 8- or even a 7-weight could deliver the flies, but would not have the lifting strength to get these torpedoes to the boat quickly.
Another consideration that is often overlooked is the taper - make that tapers - of a line. There's much more to it than whether it is a weight-forward or double taper, and those differences can profoundly affect performance.
Almost without exception, saltwater fly-fishermen prefer weight-forward taper fly lines. One notable exception: those who use a shooting-head/running-line combination to search the water. Nonetheless, the weight-forward line reigns supreme, and rightly so. Failing to understand and consider the differences among weight-forward tapers, however, can result in the same inefficiencies as choosing the wrong rod. Eight-weight rods differ, as do 8-weight lines.
For instance, it is common practice for manufacturers to offer at least two variations of the WF taper for use in salt water. The Scientific Anglers Mastery Bonefish 8-weight line, for example, has a 5.5-foot front taper, a 26.5-foot belly and a 10-foot rear taper for a total head length of 42 feet. The SA Ultra 3 Bass/Saltwater 8-weight, in comparison, has a 4-foot front taper, a 23-foot belly and a 3-foot rear taper for a total head length of 30 feet. The shorter belly and the steeper front and rear tapers of the Ultra 3 will help load the rod more easily at short and medium distances, where most shots come. The Mastery Bonefish's longer tapers and belly are designed to throw more line, and those who like to measure their casts before the final delivery, as is often the case in sight-fishing situations, prefer these. Neither is a better design; instead, each is purposely designed to meet specific needs.
Of course, tapers vary among manufacturers. The RIO Bonefish 8-weight line has a 7-foot front taper, a 28.5-foot belly and a 9-foot rear taper for a total head length of just under 45 feet. That's similar to but slightly longer than SA's Mastery Bonefish. Other manufacturers' lines hold similar subtle differences. You'll have to decide if a particular set of tapers is best suited to your casting style and fishing conditions.