The Floating Fly Line Color Controversy

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The Floating Fly Line Color Controversy

When I entered the sporting goods sales arena in the mid-1970’s, fly line manufacturers were more interested in making lines visible to anglers rather than hiding them from fish. The most popular floating line of the era was Scientific Angler’s AirCell Supreme in white. The second most popular floating line, Cortland’s 444, was peach colored (tanish/pinkish…nearly white).

Then Scientific Anglers came out with an AirCell Supreme line that was bright fluorescent orange. That really polarized the fly fishing community and the controversy this bright colored line started remains today.

We might want to take some fly line color ideas from observing nature. Nearly all wild critters survive in part to their natural camouflage. Most fish and birds that can be observed from above and below are lighter colored on their bellies than their backs. That is because when looking at the sky, lighter colored objects are harder to see. When looking from above, darker objects blend with the background.

Ocean and lake fish that live over deep water are differently colored than fish that live close to the bottom. Most pelagic fish are very dark on the back, reflective silver on the sides and snow white on the belly. When steelhead return from the ocean part of their life cycle, they are colored this way. So are Kamloops rainbows in the deep northern lakes. As both subspecies of rainbows return to rivers to spawn, their colors change to more earthy tones, so they are harder to see against the bottom structures in shallow rivers.

From this point of view, it would seem that all floating fly lines should be white, since fish are always looking up into the light. Apparently, Scientific Anglers had it figured out early and when they brought out the bright orange line, they made a huge mistake. What I thought the first time I saw one was, “Who the hell would want to fish with a bright orange fishing line?”

Then along came Bert, who was one of those confident, but secretive kind of anglers that hung around the shop I was working in. Bert bought one of those bright orange fly lines, and a week later he bought another one. It piqued my curiosity, so I invited him to go fishing with me on the Deschutes River for steelhead. In the 1970’s, all the people I knew used single hand fly rods for steelhead. Bert was no exception, but what Bert brought to the game was a presentation I had never seen before; his first section of leader was about a foot long and a huge Bomber type fly called a Cigar Butt was fastened to it. From the Cigar Butt was a 6-foot long leader of 10-pound test, and to that a small black and white Skunk fly was tied. Bert said that the big floating/waking Cigar Butt acted as an attractor for the Skunk fly. I asked if he minded if I watched him fish. He said, “No go ahead. Just don’t tell anyone until I’ve passed away.” That was many years ago…

We arrived at the river in the dark, but by the time Bert started fishing there was enough light to see. He worked his way down the river with the big fly leaving a wake that started near the tip of his fly line. He had covered about fifty yards when there was a huge boil and the fly disappeared. Bert landed the average size steelhead after a ten-minute battle. Half the Cigar Butt was sticking out of its mouth. I was stunned. It was the first steelhead that I had seen caught with a waking fly, and the fish had taken it one foot from the end of a bright orange fly line.

Bert said that he had caught many fish with his two-fly rig, but most were landed with the Skunk fly, maybe only one in ten took the Cigar Butt. I asked about why he used such a short leader. He replied that it was too hard to cast otherwise. He figured it was just to make commotion and draw attention to the Skunk Fly, but that every once in a while, a fish would take the Cigar Butt. The orange line was just easier for him to see in bad light. He had bought an extra orange line because he didn’t think they’d last long.

Bert was right. Orange lines weren’t made for very long. Most anglers and shop owners just didn’t get it.

George Cook and I conspired to get RIO to make a series of Scandi shooting head in bright orange. Our customers were wild about them, and many still are. But none of the other RIO dealers liked them so RIO quit making them. It is odd that so many anglers want to be known as innovators, but they hate to look different while they are fishing.

I’m pretty sure that most of the dealers that didn’t like the orange lines never tried them at all, or the first time they set their anchor for a single Spey cast a light would have come on in their little brains. Placing the anchor in exactly the right spot is a key part of making a perfect Spey cast.

Fly speed is also paramount to catching the attention of steelhead and salmon. Being able to see your fly line helps to control the speed that your fly is traveling on the swing.

I have a full set of the old RIO the old bright orange iFlight Scandi heads, and have been offered a substantial amount of money for them, but they are such a help in catching summer steelhead, they aren’t for sale.

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