Starter Series: Choosing Your Fly Line System

Fly Line, Choosing Fly Line, What Fly Line, What fly line backing, fly line backing, selecting fly line, choosing a leader, choosing a fly fishing leader, selecting a fly line leader

One of the missions of Texas Freshwater Fly Fishing is to promote fly fishing here in Texas.  In promoting the sport, education is needed for those that are new.  A lack of education and the fear of approaching experts was a major reason that it took me soo long to get into the sport.  So, providing easily accessible, honest advice to those just getting into fly fishing is something I am going to strive to provide.

When first getting into fly fishing, you need to focus on acquiring five things.  All of these can be expensive, but they don't have to be!  There are less expensive ways to go about getting started if you want, and hopefully Texas Freshwater Fly Fishing can walk you through this process.  Here is what you will need:

  1. Fly Rod
  2. Fly Reel
  3. Line Set-Up (Backing, line, leader, tippet)
  4. Accessories (flies, storage, net, etc.)
  5. Knowledge (where and how to fly fish)
Each of these five things will be discussed in its own article.

This third article will be your introduction to your fly line set-up.  From the backing, to the line, to the leader, to the tippet.  This guide should help you select the best options for your first set-up.  Its a longer article, but it is full of important information to help you out.

I am of the opinion, that the closer something is in your set-up to the fish, the more important it becomes.  Therefore, the line system (backing, line, leader and tippet) consist of a couple of the most important parts of your foray into fly fishing.  And as I mentioned, your line system usually consists of three (or four) parts: backing, fly line, your leader and tippet.  I will go through and break down each of these for you to help you choose what will be best for your first set up.


The backing is the least important part of the line system (and is also the furthest from the fish...see the pattern?)  The backing is just "extra line," that is usually made from braided Dacron, that attaches on one end to your reel and on the other to your main fly line.  Dacron is able to keep it's strength and not swell when it gets wet (and it inevitably will), and doesn't really rot over time.  

Fly line backing does a couple important things for your fly fishing set up.  First, it fills space on your arbor.  This in turn, creates a larger arbor allowing you to reel in more fly line with each turn of the handle (as mentioned in the article about Fly Reels.)  It also provides extra line, just in case a fish you hook runs further than the 80 feet or so that you have in actual fly line.

Don't spend too much money on your backing!  Color is just for looks, so don't stress about that.  You do usually have the option of if you want 20 or 30 pound test Dacron.  For most fly fishing situations, 20 pound test is good enough, but it really doesn't matter that much.  If you are really in a pinch, it is possible to fish without backing, especially in small waters, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it.

choosing fly line backing, what fly line backing is best, backing for fly line
Be sure to spool your backing on in the correct direction!

One important thing to note.  When putting your backing onto your reel, make sure you put it on the right direction!!! For tips on this, I did a video and article describing what you need to do.  Check it out here: How to Put Backing on a Fly Reel.

Fly Line

Now, when we start talking fly line, is when we start talking about the things that will really impact your enjoyment and ability to fly fish.  To make it simple for you, better fly line that is designed for how you plan to fish, makes casting your line much easier, and your day on the water much more enjoyable.

As discussed in our article Choosing the Right Fly Rod, you don't cast a "lure" or "fly" when you are fly fishing, you are actually casting your line.  The higher quality lines will be easier to cast!

When you are looking to purchase your first fly line, you need to be aware of three main things, the weight of the line, the taper on the line, and the density of the line.  Each of these will be described below.


The weight of the line has to do with measurements that you don't need to know.  When you are first starting out, what you really need to know is simple: Match the weight of the line to the weight of your rod.  So, if you went off of TFFF's recommendation of a 5 weight fly rod, get a 5 weight fly line!  Pretty simple, right?  It the same for everything. A 3 weight fly rod, get 3 weight line.  An 8 weight rod, get 8 weight line.


The taper of the line is basically the shape of the fly line.  Fly line is NOT like traditional, conventional fishing line that keeps the same diameter all the way along the line.  Fly line get thicker or thinner in different spots in order to help the line cast and perform in different situations.  Here are a couple of the more popular/common tapers.

Weight Forward Taper (WF):  This is my suggestion for anyone that is starting out.  Weight Forward means that there is more weight toward the front end of the line (end closest to the fly), which makes it a little easier to cast when needing a little more distance, when casting into the wind, and when chunking larger flies.  This is a great all around choice, especially on modern fly rods, like the recommendation from the article Choosing the Right Fly Rod.

A typical Weight Forward fly line will be about eighty feet long.  The first forty feet is your running line, a thinner diameter section of the line that connects to your backing.  Then there will be roughly 5 feet of rear taper that gets larger until you reach the belly of the fly line.  The belly is a 20 foot or so section that has a lager diameter and more weight.  Eventually this belly will taper back down (called the front taper) into another small diameter section that is normally about 15 feet long.  It is designed to bleed off some energy as your cast goes down toward your fly.  This is the end that you will attach your leader to.

Bass or Saltwater Taper:  These are very similar to weight forward fly lines, but the front section (after the belly) is even shorter.  The weight of the line being even closer to the fly allows for easier casts of larger or more wind resistant flies (like bigger bass bugs.)  Consider this if you plan is to fish mostly for larger bass or in saltwater.

Double Taper (DT):  These are traditional fly lines that have an identical taper on both ends of the fly line.  They are made to be reversible (so when one end wears out, you can turn it around and fish it the other way.)  They are good at making short, soft casts, with subtle presentations, but are not as good at punching through wind, casting heavier flies, or casting longer distances.

There are other taper options, but these are your three most common.  I would recommend starting out with a Weight Forward fly line for most situations, but would consider one of these other two options if I knew I was only going to fishing more "specialized" waters/situations.


Simply put, the density of the line is if, and how fast, it will sink.  There are different option here, but your four basic densities are as follows:

Floating (F): the entire length of the fly line floats.  Somewhere around 95% of all your fly fishing can be done with floating line.  That is not saying it is always the perfect choice, but it can be used successfully in almost all fly fishing situations.  Dry flies, poppers, divers, etc...all great choices for floating lines.  You can also fish streamers and nymphs or other wet flies below the surface with floating lines.

Intermediate (I): these are slowly sinking lines that are good for throwing streamers and other wet flies below the surface in shallower bodies of water or weedy areas where you don't want it to get too deep.

Sinking (S): sinking lines sink, but some do sink faster than others.  These are useful when fishing deeper bodies of water where you want to get a fly down quickly.  They can also be beneficial in waters with strong currents.

Sink Tip or Floating/Sinking (F/S):  These are floating lines that have a section at the end that sinks.  Usually anywhere from 5 to 30 feet sink.  It helps in situations where you want to get your fly down in the water column, but allows you to still have more control over your line because some floats on the surface.
what color fly line, choosing a fly line, what fly line to choose
Brightly colored fly lines make it easier to see when you are casting.

For almost all beginning situations, I would recommend a floating line.  It is versatile enough for Texas freshwater fly fishing, and easy to see when casting and mending your line.  If you are fishing a floating line, I would recommend using something brightly colored and highly visible.  This helps you to see your line while you are casting.  Because you are using a leader, the color of the line should not spook fish at all.  And, unless you know you are only going to be fishing down in deep waters, floating line would be m first choice.


The last section of your fly line system, your leader, is extremely important.  A leader is an absolute must because you cannot tie a fly directly to your fly line.  A leader consists of a butt section (that connects to the fly line) that tapers down in size to a tippet section (that ties to the fly.)  As we talked about in the section on fly line, it is important for the line to taper down in diameter in order to bleed of some of the energy that is created when your cast/loop is unrolling to deliver the fly.  

The tippet section (the smallest diameter section) that ties to the fly is normally about two feet long.  As you fish and are changing flies and/or breaking a few off in the trees, your tippet should break first.  As your tippet breaks, you can replace just that section rather than tying on a whole new leader.  Tippet can be purchased anywhere you get your leader.

Tippet comes in different sizes, and each size is given an "X" rating.  These "X" ratings are based on the diameter of the tippet, not the lb test.  Don't worry so much about the pound test when you are fly fishing.  The lower the "X" the thicker the diameter of the tippet. The thickest tippet is 0X and the thinnest is 6X. 
  • 0X = .011" diameter
  • 1X = .010"
  • 2X = .009"
  • 3X = .008"
  • 4X = .007"
  • 5X = .006"
  • 6X = .005"
Determining what size tippet you need has more to do with the size fly you are throwing than anything else. And, there is a little math to aid in determining what size tippet you need.  To calculate the size tippet needed, take the size fly you are going to fish and divide it by 3 or 4.  For example, if you are fishing a size 12 fly, you would divide 12 by 3 and would see that you need size 4X tippet.  If it is windy or if your fly is "wind resistant" then divide by 4; 12 divided by 4 = 3, so 3X tippet.

If you have the wrong size tippet, casting will become more difficult.  If your tippet is too small for the fly you are casting, enough energy will not transfer to the fly and you likely will have a big pile of line under where you fly lands.  If your tippet is too large for your fly, too much energy will transfer to the fly, and it will smack the water with too much force and noise. You might not even be able to get the tippet through the eye on your hook if it is way to big.

Beyond tippet size, here is some other information to know when selecting your leader.

Length: A good starting point for leader length is to keep the leader the same length as your rod.  If you are fishing a 9 foot rod, start with a 9 foot leader.  This can very, and in Texas, for most of our native species, you can even shorten the leader length up some.  I will often fish between a 9 and a 7 foot leader.  Bass and sunfish don't tend to be really shy of the fly line, so long leaders are not necessary.

Butt Section:  The butt section (thick end that attaches to the fly line) should be roughly two-thirds the diameter of your fly line.

Material:  When starting out in fly fishing, I would suggest sticking with one of two leader/tippet materials (really just one.)  Monofilament or fluorocarbon.  Each has its advantages.  Monofilament leaders are usually slightly less expensive, have more stretch to absorb the shock of a fish strike, and sink slower than fluorocarbon.  Fluorocarbon leaders tend to be slightly more expensive, are pretty much invisible underwater, and sink faster than monofilament.  I would suggest starting with a monofilament leader, and if you want your fly to sink a little quicker, tying on a section of fluorocarbon tippet.

There are some people that build their own leaders by tying descending diameters of line together to create a tapered leader.  You certainly can do this, and you can find instructions for this online, but I wouldn't recommend this when you are first starting out.  Every knot you tie is a potential week point in your line system.  I would suggest buying a quality pre-made leader from a reputable brand.


So there you have it.  Texas Freshwater Fly Fishing's recommendations for your fly line system.  Your leader can and will vary depending on how, where, and when you are fishing.  But, if you are looking to get a fly line system for your first set up, I would recommend 20 lb Daron backing, weight forward floating fly line in a weight that matches your rod (probably 5 wt.), and a 9 foot monofilament leader with 3x tippet (but carry extra tippet so you can change when necessary). 

Like always, if you have questions, feel free to reach out to me!  Please feel free to leave comments with your recommendations for new fly anglers!

Peace Out-side, Y'all!