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Small Stream Sinking Lines
by Lars Chr. Bentsen

Fishing small rivers with a flyrod presents different problems to larger rivers. On a small river, more often than not, the fisherman faces limited backcast room. Small rivers often give very short drifts, long casts are not possible and the short casting makes leader-design as crucial as the long cast. For example, fishing a 15 foot leader and a large wetfly on a 25 foot cast will give you more trouble than you need.

In this piece I shall describe how to deal with issues presented in fishing sinking lines on small rivers. Mainly I'll be concerned with dedicated fishing-techniques, but I'll also touch on the problems presented in casting the sinking line, restricted backcasts and I'll re-open the discussion on the full sinking line versus the sinking shootinghead and outline the advantages and disadvantages of each. Excited?

In january, many small rivers and streams in Denmark open for fishing again, and the way forward is the sinking line!

Sink Tip
The sink-tip line is a floating line with a sinking tip, hence the clever name. They come in a vast array of tapers, length and sinking rates. The length of the sinking tip also varies from as little as 5 feet up to 15 feet. For small-river applications I've found short-tipped lines best. If you use a longer sinking tip, there'll be less of the floating line of the water, which kind of defies the logic of the sinking tip.

It goes without saying that since the sinking tip is attached to a floating belly, it sinks a little slower than a full line. This is something to be considered when you select sink rates.

The great advantage of the sink-tip flyline is the ability to mend the line repeatedly on the water and throughout the swing, giving you almost the same control of the fly's drift as when fishing a floating line. This ability to mend gives the flyfisher some tactical options when presenting the fly. On a small river it's quite possible through repeated, upstream mends to keep the fly on the opposite bank, even though it's being fished on a sinking line. The problem is that no matter how fast a sink-rate you're fishing, it will take time for the fly to reach the required depth. This means that if you don't mend the line, the fly will be more or less cross the river before it has reached the taking depth. This problem is easy to overcome with the sinktip: simply make a few deep upstream mends, before allowing it to swing across the current, holding the line taut.

Yeah, not the best drawing the world has seen, but you get the drift (pun). By mending upstream and keeping the line at the opposite bank, the line is allowed more time to sink. The dotted line is the swing without mend and the full line is with mend.

One tactic is to allow the fly sink to the desired depth on the opposite bank - or midriver, perhaps over a well-known lie - and then use a deep downstream mend to cause the fly to race away from the bank or lie. This tactic is extremely effective on well-known lies that hold fresh, river-run seatrout.

Continuous small upstream mending slows the swing of the line considerably, allowing you to both fish deeper and slower, which is especially useful when the water is cold.

It's very important to remember that for fishing the sinking tip flyline, the tip will be "trailing after" the floating part during the swing. The current on the surface is always a little faster than down in the watercolumn, causing the floating part to swing faster, pulling the sinking tip behind. When the floating part reaches the direct downstream position, the tip is still finishing the swing, so a little patience is needed...

The major disadvantage of the sinking tip flyline is reduced take-detection as you invariably face "belly-sag" as the tip is sinking and the belly is floating.

To make optimal use of mending and controlling the swing, it is necessary to have a some floating line on the water and for that reason I prefer the short tipped version for small rivers. My favourite have always been Teeny's Mini Tip line, but I know that Rio and SA also make similar versions that I've yet to try. The drawback here is obvious: a shorter sinking tip means a slower sinkrate.

Casting the sink-tip line isn't particularly fun since the difference in density between belly and tip causes the line to "kick" during casting. If you switch/spey cast them it's not nearly so pronounced and they actually cast much like a floater, but timing is slightly more crucial; pause too long after the anchor and the tip will sink making it impossible to pull free on the forward cast. If you were making long, overhead casts, choosing a longer tip will make the casting smoother. But as far as the subject for this little piece is concerned, long casts aren't the order of the day.

Casting on a small stream.

The full sinking line (and the sinking shootinghead)
Unlike the sinking tip flyline, everything sinks on a sinking line, so again quite a clever name :-) Let me begin by giving some facts about sinking lines. It's the line coating that makes it sink. The plastic is mixed with a sinking powder which means that the density of the coating is the same throughout the line. The more coating the faster the line will sink and so the belly on a WF-line sinks faster than both the tip and running line. In addition, a sinkrate II WF 6 will sink slower than a sinkrate II WF 8. This is important to consider when choosing density. For example, I've recently switched to a 6-wt for river-seatrouting where I previously used an 8-wt. I now fish a sinkrate III where I used to fish sinkrate II and so. And I hardly ever use an intermediate anymore, which I did before.

There are sinking lines on the market which are "density compensated"; the tip is made more dense than the belly to achieve a uniform sink rate, effectively eliminating belly-sag. I have never tried fishing or casting a density-compensated sinking line, but the concept seems logical and I'll try this soon.

One advantage of the full sinking line is that they can fish deeper. They also present the fly differently, giving a more level retrieve. Unlike the sinktip, however, there is very limited possibility of mending. Immediately upon the line touching the water, you will have time for one mend, but once the line has begun its swing, it becomes impossible to mend.

This leaves you with three other possibilities; the Aerial Mend, the Loose Coils Mend and what I call the Walk Mend.

The aerial mend is what we in Europe refer to as the Bow Cast. Once the loop as formed on the forward cast, bring the rod slowly out to the side and back again before the line lands, creating a bow in the line similar to the one created by a conventional mend. The Bow Cast is a little more difficult to perform with a sinking line as they travel faster than floaters. Of course, the bow can be made both upstream or downstream.

The Walk Mend is used as an upstream mend. It is simple to perform. Cast the line across to the opposite bank (or to the position you wish to fish from), aiming 1-2 meters upstream from the expected lie. After the line lands simply walk downstream at the pace of the current. By doing this you prevent the current from beginning the swing and thus allowing the line to first.

The exact same effect can be obtained by keeping loose coils of line in your hand that you release as the line touches the water, preventing the line from initiating the swing.

Take-detection is better than with the sink tip, since you have a more direct line to the fly, and even more so if you use density-compensated lines. Again, how much this means in real life I cannot say.

Using the sinking shootinghead gives two major advantages; one is the flexibility of the shootinghead system. You won't have to carry spare spools with heavier and lighter lines; simply carry the heads needed and save space and weight. Changing the head is done in a matter of minutes. The other advantage is adapting head length. I quite enjoy fishing short, sinking shootingheads on small rivers. You can choose a line heavy enough and then shorten it down severely and yet still have it load the rod on short casts. And even better, a short head is very easily lifted out of the water without having to roll-cast it as you would a full sinking line to bring it to the surface. Simply a matter of lift, swing, anchor and cast!

Fruit of hard labour

On the downside, the shooting line often floats creating a sag in the system similar to that of the sinking tip line. Furthermore, even though the shootingline is floating it is quite impossible to mend, simply because of the difference in weight between the thin shooting line and the much heavier head.

I use very short leaders on sinking lines, rarely more than 1 m or 3 feet. If you use a long leader, the current will simply press the fly up in watercoloumn, giving reduced take-detection. I also use much heavier leaders than normal since it's my experience that it doesn't matter at all. So rather than using 0,25 mm I go for 0,30 or even 0,35, especially if the river is slightly colored. If you're fishing sinking lines on a gin-clear river then I'm sure it makes a difference.

Due to the short leaders, switch-casting a sinking line can be difficult. The short leader simply doesn't give the required anchor on the surface, and anchoring part of the line creates timing problems.

Even though I generally think they are crap, I prefer to use a polyleader, which both gives me a good anchor on the surface and allows me to adjust sinking rate. I don't bother with tapering when attaching your leader to the line or polyleader; use a level piece of mono. I like to loop the end of my sinking lines even if I don't use a polyleader since this makes it simple and quick to change the mono leader without having to cut the flyline every time.

In general, sinking lines swing slower than a floater for two reasons; the profile of the line is thinner and the current is slower in the water-column than on the surface.

And now here's something that some people undoubtedly will find odd, but when fishing my small seatrout rivers here in Denmark, I generally choose a slower sinkrate when the river is flooding! This was taught to me a few years ago by a friend of mine who's fished small rivers for seatrout with the fly for 30 years. His experience has taught him that when the river is flooding the fish generally hold to the banks and stay in the upper half of the watercolumn rather than on the bottom. There are undoubtedly fish on the bottom as well, but the feeling is that fresh fish lured up by the increased waterflow, tend to travel and hold on the sides rather than on the bottom. And fresh seatrout are easier to catch!

In general, in small rivers, fish tend to keep to the bottom in lowater-conditions, where as in high water, the hug the banks and keep higher in the water-column.
You didn't know Lars was an artist, did you?

Thanx for reading,
Viking Lars

"Viking" Lars is a medieval archeologist and FFF MCI instructor. An amazing flytyer and believes that flycasting should be an adventure.


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