May 28th, 2001

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Evolution Of The Modern Fly Line

J. Leon Chandler
By J. Leon Chandler (Comparadun)

After lying virtually dormant for more than a half century, the technology for making more efficient fly lines was already stirring in 1959 when George Griffith and his friends gathered at his home on the banks of Michigan's AuSable River to launch Trout Unlimited. Six years earlier, in preparation for the 1953 fishing season, Cortland Line Company had introduced what was to become the first commercially successful fly line made with a new synthetic finish material. The Original Cortland 333 Marketed as the Cortland 333 "Non-Sinkable" Fly Line, the new line was made with a braided nylon center core and featured a tough non-porous surface coating that would not admit water and could not become waterlogged in use as did the earlier standard oil impregnated fly lines. Dry fly anglers of that era had learned to live with the fact that the older oil impregnated silk lines would become waterlogged after two or three hours of steady fishing - and if they planned an all-day trip, they would carry two or three reels, or spare spools, with dry and freshly "dressed" lines. When one line became waterlogged and began to sink, another reel with a fresh line was brought into use. At night the wet lines would be wound onto a line dryer or strung up between tree limbs where circulating air could dry them out. Then before use again, the dry lines were "dressed" by rubbing down the surface with a special line dressing compound that served to coat the porous oil impregnated surface to delay the water absorption process as long as possible.

One can now understand the excitement and enthusiastic acceptance to the new 333 lines that would float high, hour after hour, for easy pick-up - and elimination of the need for dressing. Soon other fly line manufacturers perfected their own synthetic finish formulations and by 1959 a wide range of the new generation fly lines was being produced and marketed by the other leading manufacturers of the day - including Ashaway, Gladding, Newton, Sunset, Marathon, Shakespeare, and others. Slowly, but surely, the old oil impregnated fly lines faded away to their place in history. Now they are highly prized by collectors of antique tackle.

There was another basic difference in the manufacturing procedure for lines in that era compared to the modern lines we use today. The center braid was tapered. Using a uniquely modified braiding machine, highly skilled operators would begin the braiding of a line with sixteen small threads to produce a braid size that would represent the diameter of the tip of the line. The tapered shape was accomplished by removing the small threads and replacing them, one by one, splicing in a larger replacing thread - gradually, on a carefully designed plan, until eventually the body diameter was reached. I recall that in order to make a standard 30 yard double tapered line, the operator was required to make 96 thread changes to get the taper up and back down again on the reverse end. One operator could produce only eight tapered lines during an 8 hour work shift. It was a long and tedious process.

The adoption and wide use of synthetic coatings solved many of the fly line performance problems of the day - but the movement also created a new problem. Since the early fly lines were first created - probably in England - they were identified by sizes expressed with letter designations that related to diameter. An "H" line measured .025" in diameter; a "G" was .030"; a "D" was .045"; a "C" was .050", etc. Thus, an "HDH" double tapered line for trout fishing was made to taper from a tip diameter of .025" (H) to a body diameter of .045" (D) then back down to .025" (H) again to complete the line. A "GBF" was a three diameter weight-forward taper design measuring .030" to .055" to .035" for the running line. The letter designations served the purpose very well - as long as all line manufacturers produced lines with braided silk with an oil impregnated finish coating. The weight factors were much the same - and an HDH silk line made by one manufacturer would weigh very close to that of an HDH produced by another maker using the same process.

It is important to understand that it is the weight of the line that loads the fly rod, and that the diameter is of secondary importance. The problem occurred when individual manufacturers adopted different synthetic materials and different finish formulations with varying weight factors. It was impossible to maintain weight consistancies by designating line sizes by the measured diameter. A line made of one material with an HDH size designation could weight as much as 25% more than another with the same marking produced from another material. The problem was further intensified with the entry of sinking lines. An HDH sinking line was obviously much heavier than an HDH floating line, even though the diameters may have been identical.

It was during a 1959 convention of the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association that the Line Division collectively decided it was absolutely necessary to devise industry standards for fly lines to bring order to a chaotic situation. A committee consisting of Art Agnew, Sunset Line Co.; Jack Daugherty of Gladding; Bob Crandall of Ashaway, George Clement of Newton Line Co - and myself from Cortland Line Co was entrusted with the assignment. Although not an official member of the committee, a key role was played by the late Myron Gregory, a tournament caster of note with the Golden Gate Casting Club of San Francisco. Unmindful of the fact that all were direct competitors, the members of the committee worked together for months to formalize the AFTMA Fly Line Standards. The AFTMA Fly Line Standards - based on the grain weight of the first 30 feet of line regardless of material density or taper configuration - may not be a perfect system but it has stood the test of time and have been followed religiously by all of the worlds fly line manufacturers for more than 40 years.

Today, any angler with the need to select a line to balance with a 6-weight fly rod can by a #6 line - regardless of the brand, whether level, double of weight-forward taper, floating, sinking or sink-tip - and feel secure in the knowledge the line he has selected will match the rod. This was a real breakthrough and many consider the establishment of the AFTMA Fly Line Standards one of the most important factors in the sport of fly fishing during modern history.

Leon P. Martuch A major development in the evolution of the modern fly line occurred during the early 1960's when a grand old gentleman named Leon P. Martuch decided to try to find an easier way to make a tapered fly line. With a background in chemistry from his association with Dow Chemical Co., and a good measure of curious inventiveness, he devised a method of making a tapered fly line by forming a tapered coating over straight level braid. First AirCel Line With these lines, he formed a new company called Scientific Anglers, located in Midland, Michigan - now operated as a division of the 3M Company. Labor and material costs were rising and it was apparent to the other manufacturers that the procedure of making lines by tapering the finish over level braid was a much more cost effective way of producing lines than the time consuming method of braiding in the taper. So each individual manufacturer lost no time in developing their own methods . . . and, to my knowledge, all tapered fly lines are made in this manner today.

The basic concept of tapering the finish over a level braided core provided much more flexibility - and led to the development of a wide range of lines for specialized fly fishing purposes than could never have been made with the older traditional manufacturing methods. During the 60's and 70's the leading manufacturers were locked in a fierce competitive duel for market share. The result was a creative binge to produce new and useful specialty lines.

Sinking lines - in a variety of densities that will sink slow, or fast, or extra fast - or super sinkers that really get down quickly. There are Sink-Tip lines with 10', 20' and 30' sinking sections - Nymph-Tip lines with a built-in strike indicator. There are specialized taper configurations for larger wind resistant bass bugs and for heavy duty salt water use - and Shooting Heads for making long casts with less effort. The innovative approach to fly line designs has never really ended and is still very active today.

The fortunate recipient for all this activity is the fly rod angler. The fly fisherman of today never had it so good. By selecting a fly line made by one of the reputable manufacturers, he - or she - can enjoy almost flawless performance in fishing with a fly rod in virtually any fishing situation. ~ J. Leon Chandler (Comparadun)

Publisher's Note: For an article on Leon who was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame last year, click HERE.

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