There is a difference between soaps and detergents, and you cannot trust the front of the labels to know what you are using. There are a number of products claiming to be soap that are actually the other. In fact, the majority of consumer cleaning products these days are detergents. What is the difference? Well, chemically, soaps are very old fashion and made from natural products like seed or animal fats, while detergents are synthesized chemicals.
Both have their advantages in certain situations, but the most likely misunderstanding by the general public is how neither is really the important player in cleaning. By far, the most misunderstood and under-appreciated component in dissolving crud is water. The old adage that “If a little is good, more must be better”, is glaringly incorrect when it comes to both soaps or detergents.
This is very true when cleaning flylines. If you make use of soaps, which I suggest, the most common being bathroom bar soap, be sure to use warm water and plenty of it. Wiping the line with a wash rag and some soap is not very effective as the ratio of water to soap is way too low, contact time is too short and the temperature is likely not warm enough. The best way to clean a flyline is to fill a bucket with warm water and a small amount of soap… like the amount you would smear in your hands to wash your face. Then, let the flyline sit in the warm water for a few minutes. And, after soaking, it is then very important to rinse the line very well with more water. Soaps can form “scum” when reacting with mineral salts common to almost all waters, so it is necessary to rinse the lines well. This is the time to make use of a wet rag to wipe the line, not in the beginning.
Soaps excel at removing the things that commonly foul flylines, like salts, algae, and good ol’ organic dirt. And, soaps are less likely to remove some to the things you probably do not want to remove, like plasticizers and lubricants. But, if you want to remove some man-made things off your line, like maybe ink or motor oil, then by all means go the detergent route. I would suggest a very dilute solution of common liquid products like dishwashing “soap” or shampoo… but, once again, do not spare the water. Most detergents are surfactants that simply reduce the surface tension of water. They do their magic by simply making the water wetter. Once again, it is all about the water.
If I have a line that really needs some attention, I will go the bucket of warm water and soap route. But, most often I simply take my reels into the shower with me after my trip. In there, I strip the line out onto the floor of the shower and leave it underfoot while I soap up and rinse off. I then further rinse the line while stripping it through a washcloth as I reel it back on.
Despite what my ex-wife has publicly suggested, that is all the attention my fly reels get.
One thing I have found to be very helpful, while fishing, especially if the water is particularly nasty, is to occasionally scrub the line. I have found some synthetic foam abrasive pads in woodworking shops that are a thicker step up from standard sand paper. They function much like the Scientific Anglers’ line cleaning patches. You can get them with a very high “grit” rating, and they are quite spongy. When doubled over they only lightly press on the line and strip off both the water and dirt. I keep a small patch in my shirt pocket and routinely use it every time I reel in my line. Whatever crud the line has picked up is usually still either wet or has not had a chance to dry for very long… so I seldom have to clean my lines more thoroughly as above.
A scrubbed flyline usually floats pretty well, but I will occasionally re-treat my lines with 303 when I have the time.