This Week's View

by Tom Kirkman, RodMaker Magazine

May 23rd, 2004

The AFTMA Fly Line Standards
We don't need a new system - we need to put the old one into practice

I've been involved with fishing of some sort or another for several decades now. During that time I've had the opportunity to speak to thousands of fishermen and rod builders from around the world. It dawned on me long ago, that perhaps the most misunderstood segment of the tackle market concerns the numbering system used for fly rods and fly lines. Most fishermen, and many rod builders, have never really understood it. And because they haven't understood it, the industry has been able to get away with something that they otherwise might not have been able to. For those of you who don't understand what these numbers mean, let's take a quick look.

Fly rods are no different than spinning or casting rods in that they require some manner of weight and some amount of angler input, in order to load and cast. In fly fishing, you cast the line, not a lure or sinker. Depending upon the fly you're casting and the fishing situation you're in, you may need to cast lines of varying weights. Thus, a system was devised to properly match these various weight lines to the rods that would best cast them. This system consists of a set of numbers ranging from 1 to 15, with each number assigned to represent a specific amount of weight (in grains). But unlike a sinker or lure that has a fixed weight, the weight of a fly line will vary depending upon how much of it you have past the tip. So AFTMA had to arrive at a constant length of line from which to take their weight measurements from. They settled on measuring the weight of the first 30 feet of line. At that point, it became a simple task to design specific rods that would work best with 30 feet of specific line aerialized past the rod tip.

Let's take a moment and examine a specific line weight and rod weight to illustrate the premise behind the AFTMA system. We'll use a 5-weight outfit as an example. The AFTMA standard for 30 feet of a 5-weight line is 145 grains over the first 30 feet. So you would expect that a rod designed to work well with that line would be one that would load easily and optimumly with 145 grains of weight. Such a rod would be labeled as a 5-weight rod and would match perfectly when about 30 feet of a 5-weight line was put past the tip.

Now because any rod will cast with a bit under or over the optimum casting weight, the fisherman can expect that his 5-weight rod will still cast fairly well even with a bit less or a bit more than 30 feet of that 5-weight line past the tip. Remember that when he has less than 30 feet of line past the tip he has less than 145 grains to cast with. And when he has more than 30 feet of line past the tip, he has more than 145 grains for casting. But as long as he doesn't go too far in either direction, he'll be okay. In fact, he's most likely to find that his matched 5-weight outfit will fish nicely at distances of from about 25 to 65 or 70 feet. And that's a pretty good range for most fishing situations.

Now what happens if he decides to fish in really close - maybe a small stream where he'll never get more than maybe 15 feet past the rod tip? Not a problem. He still needs 145 grains or so to get that rod to load. He obtains that 145 grains on 15 feet of line by moving up a line number or two. So instead of a 5-weight line, he selects a 6-weight line for use when he's fishing in really close and is putting less than say, 25 feet or so past the rod tip. The rod still feels 145 grains, so it casts fine.

Now let's move out to the far end of the spectrum. Let's say the guy is going to be fishing at very long distances and pushing perhaps 80 to 100 feet. He may well carry 60 or more feet of line past the tip before his final cast. He still needs 145 grains on that rod and our 5-weight line at 60 or more feet is going to weigh much more than that. But again, it's not a problem, as he can just drop down a line size to a 4-weight line and find that with around 50 to 60 feet of line out there past the tip, he's wound up right back at 145 grains. Thus the rod is well loaded and casts nicely, just as before.

This is and was always the premise of the AFTMA line numbering system. Lines and rods of the same number were designed to match and work well together with about 30 feet of the rated line past the tip. If you were fishing in really close, you moved up a line size. If you were fishing out really, really far, you dropped down a line size. What could be simpler? Nothing, really.

But somehow or somewhere fishermen didn't get the message and the manufacturers of lines and rods parted company on this basic and practical premise. Some companies decided that some of their rods would match some lines with 20 feet past the tip while other rods would match other lines with 60 feet past the tip. And no two companies necessarily agreed on which line or how much of it would load their respective rods. The numbers you see on rods and lines now don't really mean much anymore. They mean what each company wants them to mean, and you really have no idea what that is. It's almost as if the distance of a mile in California was different than the distance of a mile in Texas and nobody was telling you what either distance was. Suddenly, a mile becomes a term that really has little practical meaning.

Today we have a situation where one company's 4-weight rod is more powerful than another company's 6-weight rod. Where no two 5-weight rods possess the same intrinsic power. We have a situation where a company's 8 foot rods may require only 20 feet of the rated line to load optimumly, while the same company's 9 foot rods may require 45 feet of the rated line to load as well. To make matters worse, they don't tell you this anywhere in their catalogs. Confusing? Certainly.

There's a lot of talk these days about creating a new standard for fly lines and fly rods, something that might eliminate the confusion which we have now. But there's really no need for it. The original AFTMA system made and still makes perfect sense. But you have to understand what it's based on - 30 feet of line weighing a certain amount and a rod intended to optimumly load with that particular weight. Once you understand that, you can correctly match that rod with any line at any distance or situation you plan to fish. We don't need a new system, we need to understand the original AFTMA system. It's simple and it works. ~ Tom Kirkman, RodMaker Magazine

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