Fly Line Shootout, Review, & Buyer’s Guide
Trident Fly Fishing is a full service fly shop. We spend a lot of time testing gear and writing shootouts to give you all of the tools to make your next trip a success. We are not a blog, or a review site. 100% of our funding comes from your gear purchase, so if this shootout helps you on your next fly fishing adventure, support us by buying your next fly line (or better yet, your next rod and reel), from us.
Why Fly lines?
When we first started testing gear, we knew that we had to do things differently to make a difference. It all started with the first ever fly reel shootout way back in 2013. As we continued to scour the web for new ideas, it was pretty clear that the most talked about and least understood part of our equipment was fly lines.In fact, when we started this project, we too knew very little about fly lines. As far as trout lines were concerned, it was RIO Gold, SA GPX, and for lighter rods, RIO Trout LT.
Why are fly lines so tough to understand? First, there are a TON of lines out there. We tested 43 weight-forward 5-weight floating lines in this test, which is probably somewhere around a third of the WF5F lines on the market. When you add in DT, color variations, specialty lines, different sink rates, etc. the number of lines balloons into the 100s, and that's just for 5-weights!
Second, there's a tremendous amount of variation among lines. While there is a standard for fly lines, it's no longer that relevant (if you want more history on fly lines, I’d recommend reading “America’s Fly Lines” by Victor Johnson). The AFFTA standards came about in the 1960’s when Myron Gregory, a tournament caster, and president of the International Casting Federation, set out to make lines easy for the average angler to understand. These line standards are still in place today.
Unfortunately there are a couple of problems with the AFFTA standard:
- 30 feet. 30’ was chosen somewhat arbitrarily by Gregory. The only possible reason for this was that most shooting lines used on the west coast had heads that were less than 30’ long. As you’ll see in this test, only one line has a head that short, and most are much longer. This means that 30’ is a somewhat irrelevant reference point when head lengths range from 25 to 70’.
- Level Tips are not included. This was also an arbitrary decision. There’s no reason that they aren’t included in the weight total, since they add to the mass of the line. This is an even larger problem today, because for the most part, level tips don’t really exist on most lines (we started measuring at 6” due to welded loops and such), and tips are much thicker and heavier than the lines of the 1960’s. Even so, we’re talking 2-4 grains per foot, so keep this in mind as you look at the 30’ weights.
- Only weight is taken into account. In the 1960's tapered lines were a new thing. Creating a compound taper - one where weight is not evenly or uniformly distributed - was technically impossible, let alone something that a fly caster should consider when selecting a line. So, mass was all that went into the standard, and it was ok, since lines were all tapered in a similar consistent manner. As you'll see, the taper matters a LOT. (if you don't believe us, read: "The Mechanics of Flycasting: The Flyline" by Graig A. Spolek)
So why isn't the standard relevant? In rough numbers, only one-third of the lines tested are “true” 5-weight lines (134-146 grains) according to the standard and about another third are “within the margin of error” (126-152 grains). Also interesting is the fact that zero lines weighed in below 140 grains.
Finally, fly lines are really complicated. The best article we've read to date about how lines cast is "The Mechanics of Flycasting: The Flyline" by Graig A. Spolek, an engineering professor at Portland State University. If you click on it, you'll see very quickly the level of math and science that's required for a deeper understanding of how fly lines work. While we don't necessarily suggest spending your time trying to figure out that article (though it is excellent), there is one chart that is critically important:
The takeaway: When modeling the fly velocity [in air] of various tapered fly lines, Spolek found that the taper makes a tremendous difference in the way a line casts. We agree, and so we set out on an odyssey to find out which lines work, and which do not.
The first thing we did in this test was to limit the test to just weight-forward 5-weight lines. We did this to make sure everything was not only an apples-to-apples comparison, but to keep the test somewhat manageable. We then asked every line manufacturer we could find to send us lines, and most did!
With the huge range of actions available today, we wanted to make sure we covered a wide range of actions. To do that, we picked two rods to test:
G. Loomis NRX LP 9’ 5-weight: We chose the NRX LP for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s one of our best sellers and a customer favorite among ‘all-around’ trout rods. We considered the Hardy Zephrus, Sage ONE and the Helios 2 (among others), but what sets the NRX apart is its more progressive action which enables you to cast a wider range of fly lines on it. The Zephrus for example really likes heavier lines like SA MPX.
Sage Circa: To complement our fast action all-around rod, we looked for something that was on the opposite end of the spectrum from the NRX. We wanted a softer, medium action rod that would cast lighter more classic lines, without being too noodle-y. The Circa fit the bill perfectly (yes, Sage calls it slow, but we know it’s really not that slow).
Finally, for some of the really heavy lines and for extra testing, we cast a select few lines on the Sage Method to see how the performed on a really fast rod.
Taper diagrams were created by measuring the diameter of each line every 6 inches until we were well into the running line. Yes, that’s well over 4000 data points. We used a digital micrometer, which is the only way to get an accurate reading.
While these diagrams are really great for most lines, they didn’t work as well for Airflo. The reason for this is twofold. First, Airflo lines are ridged. This means that they are not round and when we’re talking about 1000ths of an inch, it makes a big difference. Second, Airflo lines have larger diameters. That means that Airflo lines have more air inside for any given weight of line. This makes them float better, but it also makes them squishy and hard to measure.
One of the most important features of every fly line is its taper. Once we had the taper diagrams, we could analyze the lengths of all of the key elements of each taper: the Level Tip, Front Taper, Belly, Back Taper, and Running Line.
As you’ll observe, the diagrams show each part of the line very clearly – for some lines. For other lines, it’s less clear:
In cases like this, we used the manufacturer’s specifications as a guideline. After all, we’re really trying to determine if what they are telling us is accurate.
So how accurate are these measurements? Well, all of our measurements were in 6” increments, so we could be as much as a foot off. Couple this with a 6” manufacturing tolerance and that gives us another foot. What does that mean? If a manufacturer claims the head length is 40’, and we found it to be 38’, it still could be within specifications. This goes for any part of the line.
In order to understand the effect mass has on how a line casts, we decided to weigh each fly line in 10-foot increments up to 30’ to make sure that we got consistent measurements across all of the lines. We then measured the full head weight to show us the maximum amount of weight that we were casting. We took all of our measurements using a gram scale accurate to +/- .01 grams, or +/- 0.15 grains.
If I were forced to pick one factor that differentiated a great casting line from a poor one, it’s loop stability. What we mean by this is the ease with which a line "unfurls”. Another way to think about it is that the velocity of the fly never gets too low to compensate for gravity when making longer casts.
Let’s face it, as fly fisherman, rightly or wrongly, we’re kind of obsessed with distance. We made a couple of “long casts” across a tape measure and then recorded points based on the relative distances we cast.
Presentation is another category that is talked about often. I can honestly tell you that with a few notable exceptions, every fly line that is designated as a "trout line" has pretty decent presentation. The difference between RIO Trout LT and Scientific Anglers SharkWave GPX is really not that much. Certainly for 95+% of fishing situations, I'd take the easier to load, better casting line, over the better presentation. It's really overrated. We tested this by casting each line on a lake and judging how much it "splashed" and how softly it landed.
Unlike presentation, the ability to shoot line is an important characteristic of any fly fisherman. Shooting line is, simply put, the length of line that goes through the tip after the line is released from your bottom hand. At first glance you might think that this is equivalent to distance… but there are lines that shoot far but don't cast AS far due to the fact that they can't hold as much line in the air.
This one is easy. We took our standard test leader and added a small split shot to the end and a Thingamabobber to the butt section of our leader and then cast it! This category will also tell you how well a line will cast "junk" - like a dry dropper, or a two-dry rig - anything that falls outside of a traditional dry fly or a streamer. Let's face it, most of us are throwing a lot of bobbers these days.
One thing we do a lot in the brush covered streams of the east is roll-cast, so we wanted to see which lines roll casted well. We also tested this on an open lake, but did two different styles of cast: the old school standard slow d-loop and a much more aggressive Scandi-style touch-and-go single hand spey cast.
Easy! Just add a big chunk of split shot to your yarn and you've got the perfect streamer imitation without the dangerous end.
Last, but not least, we included a category for beginning casters. Why? Because no matter where you sit on the casting spectrum, a line that loads better will give you more feedback and be more fun to fish. And also because, let's face it, you're no Steve Rajeff. We tested this by making a few short casts and seeing how the line loaded each of the rods.
What about flotation?
We really wanted to test how well each line floats. Unfortunately, when we started testing, it became very clear that this was not going to be something that we could test. First, we just dropped the lines into a bucket... guess what, they all float! Even after 24hrs. Then we thought about taking density measurements, and it turns out that the differences are subtle, and not really useful, so we gave up. We did notice that some lines floated noticeably poorer than others, and we noted that in our reviews.
A Note on “Average” Fly Lines
The many of the lines we tested in this shootout can be described as “average”. It means that they don’t really stand out in any way, good or bad. They don’t have spectacular presentation, or load incredibly quickly, or cast particularly far. Every one of these lines will cast your double nymph rig with a bobber 40’ if you’re a reasonably competent caster, and they will lay down a dry delicately enough to catch a fish on the Bighorn. The problem with these lines from a reviewer’s standpoint is that, because they don’t stand out in any way, it’s very difficult to determine any significant differences between them. As you read through our casting notes, we’re going to keep referring back to this paragraph so that we don’t repeat ourselves.
If you’ve got one of these lines, it will work for you. But if you’re in the market for a new line, you can probably find a line that will fit your fishing style and casting ability a bit better.
The best way to read these individual reviews is alphabetically, even though it's a TON of reading (this review is over 50 pages long in total). The reason for this is that's how we wrote it, and we found that the best way to talk about fly lines is in reference to other fly lines (particularly those that are popular and most people have experience casting). Below you'll find links to the reviews of each and every fly line we cast.
For the REALLY, really, short attention span
You probably haven't even gotten this far, but if you have, just get Scientific Anglers SharkWave GPX. It will work well on most modern fly rods, for most situations, for most anglers. If you really don't like texturing, you can try SA MPX or Teeny WF Floating, but neither line is as well rounded.
If you don't want to read all of our reviews individually, here's a table of our favorite lines broken down by rod action and fishing style:
Lengths, Weights, and Points
Below you'll find all of our test data. These images are really big, so if you want to see them, you'll probably want to right click and choose "Save Image As...", and save a copy to your computer so you can adjust the size properly. We have also included links to PDF versions.
Taper Length Chart
Taper lengths computed using our taper charts. For individual line taper shapes, please see the review specific to the line. If you can't read the image, you can view it in PDF format by clicking here.
Grain weight measurements taken for 10'-20'-30' and the full head. We also included a relative chart as this is helpful in understanding the taper. If you can't read the image, you can view it in PDF format by clicking here.
Last but not least, we scored each of the fly lines in the test. We seriously considered not including this chart, since there is no magic bullet in fly lines. Let me repeat that: there is no magic bullet. There is no one size fits all, does everything well fly line. If you buy Royal Wulff Triangle Taper and use it for streamers, you'll probably be disappointed. The opposite is true for SA Anadro. We highly recommend checking out our chart on "Recommended Lines" above and using that as your guide for selecting a line. Nevertheless, this is non-distilled version will help you if you're interested in finding, say, the best RIO line for streamers and you don't want to read our full review. We also only scored some lines on one rod. We did this because there was a massive disparity between how the line performed on one rod vs the other. If you can't read the image, you can view it in PDF format by clicking here.
Thanks for reading! As always, we'd love to hear your comments and thoughts. Please feel free to leave us a note!