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Fly Lines for Shad

Fly lines for Shad

This is the fourth of six articles included in the series entitled Fly Fishing for Shad- The Basics.

In this article I am going to purposely avoid naming specific brands and models of fly lines. What I am going to talk about are the general types of fly lines that are useful for fly fishing for shad. In future articles I may profile a few brands and types of line that I specifically like, but for now let’s keep it simple. I am going to break this article in to two parts, Single Hand Lines and Two Hand Lines.

Single Hand Lines:

Single hand lines are what most folks are familiar with. These are the lines we use in most other fishing situations, and I am sure that you already have at least one of the following lines. Single hand lines can generally be further categorized in to Floating Lines, Sink Tip Lines, and Full Sink lines.

Floating Lines

Floating lines are what we are most familiar with and there is really nothing different in the category for shad fishing. If you have a floating line on a fly rod, depending on the water depth and discharge, you can most likely be successful fly fishing for shad. A Weight Forward (WF) floating line is typical in most situations, and is best for shooting line and a relatively heavy streamer. There are a couple of things to consider though when using a floating line. Shad tend to run deep along the bottom, so depending on water conditions, if you are using a floating line, you may need to use a heavier fly, quarter upstream, and mend to ensure the fly gets down to where the fish are. We will talk more about techniques to be successful with a floating line in a future article.

In some situations, like if you are fishing deep pockets or turns, and the water is moving pretty fast, it may be difficult or next to impossible to keep the fly down in the strike zone long enough to entice a strike, even with lead weighted eyes. If you are casting heavy flies and the fish seem to keep going right past you to the guy upstream of you, you may want to try adding a Polyleader to your floating line to help get the fly down in the fish’s face.

Polyleaders are a great option for floating lines that extend your reach to greater depths. Polyleaders are made using a level core and tapering the coating, similar to the way fly lines are made. What is unique about them versus a typical tapered mono or fluorocarbon leader is that polyleaders can be purchased in sinking rates from 1.5 inches/ second through 6 inches/ second. Adding a polyleader to a floating fly line essentially makes it an adjustable or “hybrid” of a floating line and a sink tip line. You can purchase polyleaders with different sink rates and match them to your fishing conditions. If you fish with a floating fly line, I highly recommend carrying one or two polyleaders in a 5 foot length to which you attach a 5 foot level leader. They are inexpensive and greatly improve your ability to get the fly down in to the strike zone.

Sink Tip Lines

When I talk about sink tip lines I am generally talking about a fly line that has a welded section of sinking line attached to the floating fly line. They are similar to using a polyleader on a floating line, but are not quite as flexible. Unlike polyleaders, the sinking portion of the line cannot be swapped out to match water conditions. You are more or less locked in to what you have unless you swap lines or reels. That said, sink tip lines do have their place in fly fishing for shad. I have a sink tip line for my 5 weight that I like a lot that has a 15 foot sinking tip that sinks at 3 inches/ second. It fits very well for my general fishing conditions, and if I quarter and mend, 9 times out of 10 it will get the fly down where I want it.  If you do not need the versatility of swappable sinking tips and fish water with consistent conditions, a traditional sink tip line can be the perfect fit for no fuss fishing.

There are now specialty fly lines that offer matched swappable sink tips and provide similar versatility to polyleaders. The taper of the sinking tip continues the taper of the fly line and eliminates the hinging effect experienced if you just add a sinking section to a normal floating line. Multiple manufacturers offer lines with swappable sink tips with sink rates of 3 inches/ second up to nearly 12 inches/ second. At the time of writing, I do not have much experience with these lines on one handed rods, but would most likely try these lines if I was in the market for a new sink tip line.

One thing to note about sink tip lines, they are a little different to cast and the heavier the tip, the more difficult it can be to cast them. This can lead to fatigue on a long day. In general, lifting them can be somewhat awkward compared to a floating line. The thing to remember is that you will likely have to roll cast before lifting the line to make your backcast. If you are using a very heavy tip, you may have to roll cast several times to get the tip high enough in the water column to be able to lift the line and finally make a backcast. Practice is essential.

Full Sink Lines

The full sink line fits in a small niche of conditions when fly fishing for shad on my home waters. Where I fish in Florida, the water depth is generally in the 6-10 feet range, and the current is relatively slow. There are years where that is not the case, but on average, the water conditions are mild. If I am going to use a full sink line, it is usually just an intermediate sinking line when the water depth is high. That is few and far between. However, on larger, deeper, faster rivers up north or out west, full sinking lines might be a necessity.

As with sink tip lines, full sink lines require roll casting in order to bring the tip of the fly line close enough to the surface of the water to allow you to pick the line up and make a backcast. Heavier sinking lines are more difficult to handle and can lead to fatigue. I for one cannot imagine using a full sink line with a sink rate of 6-7 inches. After an hour or two, I think I would be ready to put the fly rod down and pour a scotch.

An interesting note about full sinking lines… on more than one occasion, I have been fishing near the SR46 bridge on the St. Johns river at a creek mouth just a short kayak paddle from CS Lee and a gentleman of age and experience beyond mine has walked up behind me. Now, to get to this particular location, one can either come by water, or make a somewhat labored walk through saturated pasture, across a creek (or two) and end up in the same place. This gentleman is somewhat eccentric, but friendly none the less and being a good man, will find a spot upstream of where you are fishing, giving you the opportunity to hook up, before a fish makes it to his line. Now what is interesting is, I have met this man multiple years, and he will quite literally catch five fish for every one that you catch.

After several occasions experiencing this witchcraft, I had to ask this fine gentleman what fly he was using. He showed me a tiny (maybe 1/64 or 1/100) jig head with a chartreuse head, and a modest clump of squirrel hair tied on… certainly nothing special. What he did tell me was he was using a full sink line with a sink rate of 3 inches/ second. So even though the water we were fishing would not lead me to believe I needed a full sink line, I have watched someone out fish me on many occasions because he had one.

After giving it some thought, I have come to the conclusion that it just comes down to the fact that a fly attached to a full sink line, stays down in the strike zone longer. On a floating or sink tip line, the fly will eventually start its rise to the surface much earlier than a fly on a full sink line. So without a doubt, there are times a full sink line will certainly out fish any other line. If you are fishing deep water, or fast moving water, a full sinking line may be the difference between a fish and a skunk.

Final thought, I am not the only person who has met the gentleman on the river. I have been surprised to have conversation after conversation with fishermen that have met the man that will catch five fish for every one that you catch. My own brother has even experienced it! 🙂

Two Hand Lines:

When I am talking about two hand lines, I am generally referencing lines for switch rods, as switch rods have started to become popular for fly fishing for shad. Switch rods are generally under 12 feet long, and are smaller cousins to spey rods. The same lines are available for spey rods, so if you do own a big boy, the information is still useful.

In the summer of 2014, I caught the “two handed bug.” Articles I read kept mentioning switch rods, somewhat of a hybrid between a spey rod and a single hand rod, and that caught my attention. I picked up a used switch rod from Ebay, originally with thoughts of using it in the surf, and started learning how to cast it. As my casting got better, I started to see the potential for the switch rod’s use in shad fishing.

There are areas of the St. Johns River where I could probably reach the opposite side of the river with a long two handed cast, or at least reach the same water I would be fishing if I was standing on that side of the river with a one handed rod. That became attractive to me as it would save me the time required to jump in the kayak and paddle to the other side just to see if there were fish there. While this did end up being useful on many occasions, what ended up being the most useful, was the ability to get deep, real deep!

While there are now specialized switch rod lines that allow you to move from touch-and-go or waterborne casts, to overhead casts, the general consensus is that these lines do neither very well, and that was my experience with them as well. So for this article, two hand lines can be categorized in to the Scandinavian (Scandi) System and the Skagit System. I call them systems because rather than just being a complete line, there are multiple components that you put together to assemble a line system. The components are:

  • Leader- the clear mono or flouro section that attaches the fly to the tip
  • Tip- a floating or sinking section of line that attaches the leader to the head
  • Head- the mass of the fly line that allows you to cast the tip, leader, and fly
  • Running Line- a long, level section of either fly line or mono that attaches to the head

The Scandi System

 The simplest way to explain Scandi is that is made for small flies. Because shad flies are small, it is of course useful for fly fishing for shad. The Scandi head has a long front taper, much like a single hand line, which makes them very nice to cast. The Scandi is at home with touch-and-go or waterborne casts. They allow you to cast a very tight loop and present the fly delicately. However, shad tend to hug the bottom of the river so a delicate presentation is really only needed when fishing shallow water.

The down side to the Scandi, is that casting heavy flies and tips can be difficult. If using a Scandi system, you will most likely want to stick with a bead chain weighted fly versus a lead eye. If you want to add a sinking tip to the head, you will need to use Polyleaders much as you would on a floating single hand line. In most shad fishing situations in Florida, the Scandi system would be right at home. However, if you are fishing deep, fast moving water, you may run in to issues getting the fly down and keeping it there. Another thing to note is that Scandi lines can be more susceptible to wind than their Skagit cousins.

A typical Scandi setup for fly fishing for shad in Florida during average conditions would be:

  • Leader- 5ft of level fluorocarbon
  • Tip- 5ft fast sinking Polyleader
  • Head- a rod weight appropriate Scandi head that is around 3 times the length of your rod
  • Running Line- 100ft of either floating running line or 50lb mono

The Skagit System

The simplest way to explain Skagit is that it was developed to cast big, heavy flies and heavy sink tips. Now, for shad we will not be casting huge flies like they would for steelhead, but we might want to cast some relatively heavy flies and sink tips, and do so in to a fairly stiff headwind. This is where Skagit shines.

Skagit heads are short, and do not offer a long taper. Because of this, you will have to add a tip to the head, and the length of that tip should be included in your overall calculations to match your rod length. In general, the length of the head plus the length of the tip should be somewhere between 3 and 3.5 times the length of your rod to keep things comfortable.

The downside of the Skagit systems, is that is somewhat “clunky” compared to Scandi and presents the fly with brute force. This is fine when fishing all but the shallowest of water in Florida. Another downside (to some) is that you are somewhat limited to waterborne casts. The bulk of the system makes touch-and-go casts difficult.

A typical Skagit setup for fly fishing for shad in Florida during average conditions would be:

  • Leader- 6-8ft of level fluorocarbon
  • Tip- 10-15ft of Type 3 sinking tip (length dependent on getting you to a total head and tip length of 3 to 3.5 times rod length)
  • Head- a rod weight appropriate Skagit head (length dependent on getting you to a total head and tip length of 3 to 3.5 times rod length)
  • Running Line- 100ft of either floating running line or 50lb mono

There are a lot of different options when choosing a two hand line. It can definitely be a bit overwhelming at first. The most important thing to do is to figure out what type of fishing you will be doing, and match a system and components to that type of fishing. In general, there are more options available to the fisherman using the Skagit system, but if you will not be fishing deep, fast water, you may never need to cast the heaviest tips available.

Read the Previous | Next Article in the series entitled Fly Fishing for Shad- The Basics.

Additional Resources:


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