OK, new BTB fly fisherman… You’ve bought the gear. Now it’s time to get everything connected. Here’s how some of our field editors and favorite guides do it, along with some observations and tips.

In Getting Started – Gearing Up, we discussed selecting your first 1 – 3 outfits. Now you’ve gotten everything home, opened the boxes, and received some well-deserved grief from your significant other on how much you spent. What’s next? Let’s assemble the pieces and get ready for that first cast.

Rigging your Gear – the Bits and Pieces

If you were fortunate enough to have purchased everything through a reputable fly shop (brick-and-mortar, or on-line), they probably offered to put everything together for you, no charge. There’s nothing wrong with that, assuming that they know what they’re doing. If they supply salt water fly fishermen on a regular basis, they will probably do as good a job as anyone. Just review what we discuss below, ask some questions about how they intend to put everything together, and make sure you feel comfortable with what they’re doing.

If you bought everything separately, or on-line via a “big box” or discount store, you’re going to have to put the pieces together yourself. The natural inclination nowadays is to jump on-line, go to your favorite forum, and ask “what’s the best way to …”.

Again, nothing wrong with that, but as you probably already know, the Internet can be full of conflicting information and strong opinions. Just remember – there’s almost always more than one way to do something, and no one way is better than another 100% of the time.

Our objective is to make sure you have a basic understanding of the underlying concepts, know what’s important, and are aware of what your options are. Like your choices in equipment, plan on upgrading or changing things later, as you gain more experience on what works for you.

Typical fly rod rigging - bits and pieces

Almost all fly rods are rigged about the same…

In the diagram to the right, we’ve captured the major parts of a fly fishing outfit, and how they are connected:

A – Tying your backing to the reel spool

B – Connecting your backing to your fly line or shooting line

C – (Only if you have a traditional shooting head arrangement) Connecting your shooting line to the shooting head

D – Connecting your fly line to your leader

E – Connecting your leader butt to your tippet

F, G – (only if you need to protect your leader from rough or toothy fish mouths) Connecting your tippet to your shock tippet

H, I – Connecting your tippet or check tippet to the fly

Wow…that’s a lot of stuff, right? Just remember – it doesn’t have to be that complicated! If you just want to go fishing, and aren’t concerned about records, you can use a very simple setup (see below). It’s only when you start to push the limits of your gear, or need to frequently swap bits and pieces of your rigs, that you’ll need to go to a more complicated system. Of course, if you’re obsessed with knots anyway, have at it!

Who Uses What – from Simple to Sublime

To get started, let’s look at how some of our field editors have their gear set up. Our next post: Get Connected! Details will describe a very simple BTB fly fishing rig, plus share the details of how Capts. Bill Matthews, Vaughn Podmore, Conway Bowman, and Scott Leon rig their systems, as well as what we like to do at BTB.

In all cases, they work – but there are different reasons for choosing different setups. If you need help identifying or figuring out how to tie one of the knots mentioned, see our post: “Gearing Up-FAQS”.

Other pressing questions…

Fighting a big fish on fly offshore pushes everything to the limits. Courtesy Scott Jaunich

Fighting a big fish on fly offshore pushes everything to the limits. Courtesy Scott Jaunich

How Long Should the Leader Be?

To be compliant with IGFA rules, you need a tippet length of at least 15″. If you use a shock or bite tippet, the IGFA requires that it be no longer than 12″ from the eye of the fly to the regular tippet, including knots. Other than that, you can make it any length you want.

If you are not interested in records, you can make the shock tippet longer. Many shark fly fishermen use a 24″ or 30″ wire shock tippet, because it is very difficult to avoid abrading the tippet on the shark’s skin when the tippet is only 12″ long.

A typical leader length for sinking fly lines is 6 – 8 feet. But there is one school of thought that says a longer leader allows better fly movement and avoids spooking fish. Plus, for shooting heads, having a little bit longer leader will help keep the shooting head from “dumping” – a situation which occurs when the shooting head turns over before the cast is completed. On the other hand, a shorter leader helps get (and keep) the fly deep, and fish offshore generally don’t spook that easily.

Which one is right? Try both. Our experience is that it doesn’t have to be that long: 5 -7 feet is usually more than enough to avoid spooking offshore fish, especially if you are using fluorocarbon for the tippet. If you are having trouble with dumping on the cast, lengthen it up a bit, perhaps 6 – 9′.

How Strong Should the Leader Be?

The maximum IGFA tippet strength is 20lb class (not sure of the difference between “test” and “class”? See our post: “Get Connected! Some Extras“). Again, if you’re not interested in records, feel free to use heavier lines. Just be careful – a good rule of thumb is to set the drag to 25% of the tippet strength, off the tip of the rod. This translates to 6 – 8 lbs of drag on those heavy tippets.

That’s actually a LOT of drag for a fly rod, and could result in a broken rod if you don’t have a heavy enough stick. And there are actually very few fly rods that can pull that hard – a 14wt or heavier rod is required, plus you need a reel with a drag system strong enough to generate and maintain that kind of pressure, even after repeated runs.

Thoughts on Backing

What about backing? The first thing to consider is backing material. “In the old days”, backing was braided Dacron, which was relatively non-stretch, and somewhat thinner than the same strength monofilament. Brands like Cortland Micron, Tuf-line and Izorline First String were, and still are, perfectly good backing for fly fishing, even offshore.

However, nowadays, people often opt for one of the Gel-Spun Polyethylene (GSP) superlines, such as PowerPro, Hatch Premium, Sufix Performance Braid, Tuf-line XP, or Izorline Brutally Strong. (Note: you will often hear people refer to GSP lines as Spectra® or Dyneema™, these are the trademarked names of the base materials used in manufacturing the line).

GSP lines are much thinner and have even less stretch than Dacron, but cost a lot more. They can also be hard to work with, from tying knots to packing the line on the spool. On the other hand, you gain a lot of additional line capacity by using GSP lines, and the extra drag that comes from a lot of backing in the water is significantly reduced by using GSP.

Which way to go? All things considered, for beginning BTB fly fishermen, we’d opt for Dacron over GSP. Why? The answer will become apparent the first time you have to wind 100 yards of backing back onto a reel while fighting a fish. Fly reels have no level-wind mechanism, and when you are first starting out, you will find it difficult to wind a lot of backing back onto a reel spool evenly, especially in the heat of battle. With GSP, if the line is not wound back on evenly with some amount of pressure, the backing can dig into itself on the next run out, often with disastrous results. Dacron is much more tolerant of those kinds of mistakes.

However, as you gain experience, GSP is definitely worth considering. Unlike regular fishing line, backing does not have to be changed out on a regular basis, so the extra cost is probably acceptable. And as mentioned above, the thinner diameter does have advantages, even though we tend to use heavier GSP than we do Dacron.

And now that we’ve mentioned it, how strong should your backing be? Regardless of material type, your backing should be always be significantly heavier than the maximum tippet strength you think you’ll be using on that rod. For example, on a 9 weight or lighter rod, 20 or 25 lb test backing should be fine. For 10 weight and heavier, 30 – 40 lb test backing would be a better choice. If you are using GSP, people usually up that significantly. Thirty – 50 lb test is probably the norm for light outfits, 65 – 80lb test for your heavier sticks.

What Should the Leader Be Made Of ?

Nylon or fluorocarbon monofilament? There are a lot of people who say that fluorocarbon is not needed to get bites from saltwater fish. That may be so, but the majority of our field editors use fluorocarbon tippets anyway.

Why? Because there is the chance that it might help fool a wary fish, and since fluorocarbon has a few additional advantages over nylon (it is more abrasion resistant, and sinks more readily), it’s worth using, now that smaller spools are available that are only mildly outrageous in price.

A good example of the abrasion resistance of fluorocarbon can be seen when you need a bite tippet for barracuda. We often use heavy monofilament shock tippets for barracuda, rather than wire. Typically, 40 – 60lb nylon is required to avoid a bite-off, but if you use fluorocarbon, 17 – 30 lb test will do the job.

If you decide to use fluorocarbon monofilament, keep these things in mind:

  • When fluorocarbon gets nicked, its invisibility is compromised. The nicks allow the material to collect light, and it can actually become more visible underwater.
  • Fluorocarbon has a harder finish than monofilament, and it can be harder to tie good knots in it. Draw knots up carefully, and be sure to test it prior to use.
  • Fluorocarbon is even more resistant to degradation from the elements than nylon. Be sure that you dispose of clippings and waste material properly – don’t let it get back into the water.

Wire We Here?

Dealing with multi-strand wire in fly gear can be problematic. Knottable wires, such as Surflon or Tyger Leader help with making connections, but a common problem is the wire’s nylon coating getting frayed by a fish’s teeth or a rough bottom. This makes it necessary to replace the wire, which shortens the tippet, which eventually has to be replaced.

Craig Smith of Stroud Tackle passed along this tip from Lefty Kreh and Dan Blanton: Use a small, black, high quality ball-bearing swivel to connect the mono tippet with multi-strand wire. Craig uses a size 6 Spro Power Swivel most the of the time, or a size 4 when using a heavy hard mono tippet. He connects the tippet to the swivel with a Palomar Knot, then connects the wire to the swivel using a figure 8 knot.

This connection is quick and strong and allows for wire changes without using up the tippet. The swivel does not affect casting and Craig has found that it does not put fish off any more than the wire by itself. A black swivel is preferred, since fish may sometimes strike a silver one.

What’s Next?

This quite a lot of food for thought…but there’s more coming. Be sure to check out our posts: Get Connected! Some Extras“, and Get Connected! Details“.

Other posts in our “Getting Started” series: