Polyleaders Will Change How You Fly Fish for Shad

polyleader for shad

I received my first polyleaders as a stocking stuffer for Christmas in 2012. My wife had ventured in to the fly shop on her own, told the guys that she was looking for some fun stocking stuffers, and that I really enjoyed fly fishing for shad. One of them mentioned to her that they had just received these polyleaders, and that he thought it would be a good addition to the bead chain and chenille that she already had in her basket. My wife never could have known at the time, but polyleaders completely changed how I fly fished for shad and it took me from 5-6 fish days, to 20-30 fish days. Sound like a bold statement? Keep reading…

Up until I received my first polyleader, I had only used a floating fly line. I knew sinking lines and sink tip lines existed, but they were expensive, and I thought they really only fit in to a certain niche of fly fishing. I was more pragmatic then, and really could not justify spending 80 bucks on a line, then maybe another 60 bucks on a spare spool so I could swap a floating line for a sink tip line when I felt I needed a bit more depth in my swing. Enter the humble polyleader, an $8.99, 5ft, fast sinking answer to a problem I was not even aware that I had. I attached the polyleader to my fly line using its welded loop, attached 5ft of level 2x tippet to the polyleader, and then attached a shad dart weighted with 5/32 dumbbell eyes to the tippet, and set out on one of the most successful days of fly fishing for shad that I had ever had up to that point.

So what exactly is a polyleader? While Airflo coined the actual term “Polyleader,” other manufacturers have come up with similar products. For instance, RIO has its “Versileader.” For this article, “polyleader” can be defined as, “a section of level core to which a tapered coating is applied, and is available in different lengths and sink rates.” Polyleaders are typically available in 5ft and 10ft lengths, and because the polyleader is tapered, it turns over relatively heavy flies very easily without the hinging effect caused if you were just to add a level section of say, T-8 sink tip. The short story is, a polyleader is a cheap, customizable, swappable sink tip that you can simply add to any floating fly line that you already have. Doing so will extend your reach in to the depths, and allow you to better adapt to your water conditions. Let’s take a look at some specifications:

TypeSink Rate5ft10ft
Float0 ips16gr26gr
Hover0.5 ips17gr28gr
Intermediate1.5 ips18gr30gr
Slow Sink2.6 ips20gr34gr
Fast Sink3.9 ips22gr38gr
Super Fast Sink4.9 ips36gr56gr
Extra Super Fast Sink6.1 ips44gr88gr

On my home water, the upper St. Johns River, depths average between 5-10 feet where I generally fish, so I typically opt for a 5ft polyleader attached to a 5 weight fly line. I typically choose either a Super Fast Sink rate or Extra Super Fast Sink rate and have had great success, especially when paired with 5/32 hourglass eye type flies. If I am fishing downstream towards Lemon Bluff where the water is wider and deeper, I may opt for a 10ft section with the same sink rates.

The key to any sink tip system is to understand how fast the sinking tip sinks, and how deep the water is that you are fishing. Once you have that information, you simply swing the fly as you normally would by quartering upstream, and then count down the fly before starting your retrieve. If I am fishing with an Extra Super Fast sinking polyleader in 6ft of water, I know that I need to count the fly down for about 12 seconds before starting my retrieve to ensure the fly and polyleader are on the bottom. As you might imagine, adjusting where in the swing you start your cast, mends, and when you start your retrieve allows you to cover a larger range of depths and water than you could with just a floating line.

Some of you may ask, “I am using a heavy sinking fly, why do I need a sink tip as well?” The answer is simple, using a sink tip keeps the fly deeper longer, and the shad are generally hanging near the bottom of the river. If you are only using a weighted fly on a floating fly line, when the fly reaches the end of its swing, the floating line pulls the fly through the water column more aggressively than a sinking or sink tip line. This means you are lifting the fly out of the shad’s face right at the critical moment they tend to strike, near the end of the swing or the beginning of the retrieve. Adding even a 5ft section of polyleader allows the fly to stay deeper longer, changes the angle of the fly to fly line connection so the fly rises through the water column more slowly, which gives the fly more time to entice a strike from a shad.

I would encourage even a skeptic to try out a polyleader. For $8.99, you can change how you fly fish for shad, giving you access to water that your fly has probably not spent much time in if you are just using a floating fly line.

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.

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Fly Reels for Shad Fishing

Fly Reels for Shad

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

“Fly reels are just a place to store your fly line.” I have said that before, and sometimes that is true. In trout fishing, the fish are generally played by hand, and the reel is seldom used. However, anyone that has ever saltwater fly fished can tell you that the reel becomes a critical component when a big fish makes a run at 30mph in the opposite direction.

Now shad do not hit speeds anywhere near 30mph, so the importance of the fly reel is somewhere in between line holder and critical component. There are times that a large fish will take you well in to the backing and sometimes leave you fighting the fish as well as the current. For this reason, a reel should have a decent drag and an arbor large enough to hold 100 feet of fly line and 100 feet of 20 pound backing. Shad will rarely take more than 50 feet of backing, but if/ when they do, you will be ready. This means there are any number of fly reels for shad that fit the bill.

As with fly rods, there are reels that one can spend exuberant amounts of money on. These reels have there place, particularly in saltwater fly fishing when targeting large and fast sport fish. I prefer a more modest reel and have come to like large arbor reels in general. While a medium arbor reel is capable of handling the line and backing requirements, I like a large arbor as it minimizes curls and line memory. I have started using a large arbor reel with a carbon drag and really like the smooth feel the drag has when fighting the fish. However I have caught shad on more simplistic click-n-paw reels and still love their nostalgic sound and feel.

One thing to note is, make sure that the reel is balanced on your fly rod. When fishing long days making hundreds of casts, a well balanced outfit can help minimize fatigue.

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

Fly Rods for fly fishing for Shad

Scott A3 Fly Rod- 5 weight

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

What makes a great fly rod? The answer to that question is most often based on one’s personal opinion. What I am about to say here might garner some negative response, but here goes. In this sport, there seems to be a group of people that believe if you do not spend 700 dollars on a fly rod, you are not serious about fly fishing. While I believe everyone is entitled to spend their hard earned money how they please, 700 dollars is a lot of money for what is essentially a graphite stick. Now I know, I know… there is a lot of engineering and craftsmanship that goes in to designing a rod blank, and high end rods have their place in this world. If I for one was going to take a trip to an exotic destination and pay several thousands of dollars to target 100+ pound tarpon, I could potentially justify a 700 dollar expense to ensure I have the best 10 or 12 weight rod to do the job. For fly fishing for shad on the other hand, well, dropping that kind of coin is just not necessary. However, if you must have the highest end rod on the market, no one here is going to stop you! 🙂

So what type of fly rod do you NEED when fly fishing for shad? Because of their size, stamina, and ability to make multiple runs in to your backing, shad are formidable opponents. However, high-end, large weight rods are not necessary to land the feisty shad. In my opinion, the best fly rod to use to fly fish for shad is the humble 5 weight rod in a 9ft length. I tend to gravitate towards medium fast action rods versus their fast action counterparts, but that is me. While a fast action rod might produce a tighter loop, I am more than capable or producing a tight enough loop to cast 60 feet with ease using a medium fast, and it does not bother my elbow like a fast action rod does.

To me, the 5 weight rod is a perfect balance of power and finesse for fly fishing for shad. It lets you “feel” the fish during the fight, but still allows you to cast relatively heavy flies in a decent headwind. The ability to cast heavy streamers is key to shad fishing, as more often than not, you will be using flies either weighted with bead chain or lead eyes. And of course, more often than not, mother nature will send at least a breeze to complicate things.

Now a 5 weight really is my favorite fly rod for shad fishing, but there are times when it just does not fit the conditions. Winters in Florida can produce days where wind speeds average 10-15 mph (or more) and that will send a fisherman without a larger weight rod packing. On these days I like to use a 7 or 8 weight rod. While you lose some of the “feel” of the fish with a larger rods ability to horse the fish to the net, you can punch through a stiff headwind and keep on fishing. So while it may not be as challenging to fight the fish, it is a lot more fun than heading home.

Another recent option (to me) when the wind speed picks up (or even if it does not) is a two handed rod. Switch rods have recently become all of the rage in other genres of fly fishing, and during the 2014/2015 season, a 10 foot 8 inch 6 weight switch rod became my rod choice when the wind picked up. Heck, as I got better at Spey/ Skagit casting, the switch rod became my primary tool and opened up a whole new world to me. Switch rods with heavy Skagit heads allow a caster to reach new water with longer casts and get deeper using heavy sink tips. Two handed rods offer fly fisherman so many options that they warrant their own focus, and I will go in to more details in a future article.

When fly fishing for shad, you really do not need a specialized outfit. You probably already have a fly rod in your quiver that can do the job. While a 5 weight rod is my favorite for light wind days and a 7 weight for high wind days, there is no reason a 6 or an 8 won’t work. However, in the interest of protecting the fish that you catch and release, I would not venture in to lower weights than the 5 weight as the extended fight time to bring the fish to hand will most likely produce more stress on the fish. Now I admit, I have caught shad on a 3 weight fly rod and boy, that is good fun! However in hindsight, it is not fair to a fish that I intend to release to pay the price of energy loss for my extended entertainment. These fish are here to spawn and create the next generation of fish we hope to catch after all. Likewise, going larger than an 8 weight, while maybe allowing you to fish in higher wind, will most likely result in little challenge and less fun.

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