Intro to Montana Fly Lines

Most anglers worry too much about their rods and reels and not enough about their fly lines for Montana. While the lines required or even just nice to have when you’re fly fishing in the Yellowstone area are not complicated, they need to be correct and in good repair.

For the vast majority of anglers visiting this region, premium weight-forward floating fly lines that match your rods are all that are needed, and work better than fancier or more-esoteric lines. I do stress the “premium” aspect, however. With the exception of bargain store-level broomsticks costing $75 or less, all rods nowadays are “good enough.” Even the cheapest fly reel will work fine for a while. Using cheap fly lines for Montana fishing will screw up your casting. I strongly encourage you to spend at least $50 on each of your fly lines, and nowadays most good fly lines are more like $75. It’s money well spent.

Other Fly Lines for Montana

Other Montana fly lines of less (but some) utility are the following.

  • Double-Taper Floating Lines: Double-taper lines can substitute for WF lines in most situations, but are particularly useful for short-range fishing for spooky trout, as is often required on spring creeks, the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers, and in the Lamar River Drainage. They are much less useful at longer ranges and on bigger, rougher water. For practical purposes, our guides tend to use DT lines on four-weight and lighter rods and WF lines on four-weight and heavier rods (I use both on four-weights).
  • Sink-Tip Lines: Standard sink-tips in the ten-foot range and type-IV to type-VI sink rates are useful for fishing streamers in a wide range of locations. You can also use shorter fast-sink streamer tips, particularly if you’ll be fishing from a boat. If you don’t have a sink-tip line, don’t fret. Just buy a super fast-sinking five to seven-foot polyleader to use with your floating line; they work almost as well as true sink-tip lines.
  • Full-Sink Lines: Full-sinking lines are only useful if you will be fishing lakes, and even on lakes they are less important than you might think. Both intermediate and medium-sink density-compensated lines can work well. BUT… start with a floating line everywhere except Yellowstone Lake.
  • Switch and Spey Lines: Switch lines should be multi-purpose lines with which you can cast nymph/shot/indicator rigs or streamers. The most popular spey lines here use light Skagit heads, but Skandi-type heads are also popular, particularly on the Missouri. Short polyleaders work fine for a sinking portion.

Choosing the Right Line

All lines should match your rod and casting stroke. What do I mean? You should be able to cast effectively, efficiently, and enjoyably using the rod/line combination. A rod/line combination that works great with one angler’s casting stroke will fall in a puddle for another caster. A rod/line combination that works great at 75 feet might not work at all at 15.

With the exception of lines for switch and spey rods, lines you plan to use on foot while large rivers in the spring and fall, and lines for lake-fishing, it is critical that fly lines for Montana perform best at short to moderate ranges.

By “short” I mean you might not cast more than a foot or two of fly line. I might fish all day on a small stream without casting more than a leader and ten feet of fly line. That’s short range. Moderate ranges cover anything out to forty or at most fifty feet. The only way to be sure your rod/line combination works right at these ranges for you is to practice.

As important as having a quality Montana fly line that matches your rod is making sure it is in good repair. Before you fish Yellowstone or Montana, be sure to check your fly lines for Montana and either fix any problems or replace the line, if needed.

  1. Inspect the line’s coating for any cracks or dings. The most problematic are places where the line is cracked all the way around, so that the line hinges. Small dings that do not go all the way around can be sealed with a UV-cure resin such as UV Knot Sense. Those that do go all around must be removed. If they’re in the first couple feet of fly line, just cut back the fly line and re-secure your leader. More than a couple feet up the fly line, you really need to replace the line.
  2. Check the line-leader connection. Whether you use a traditional nail or needle knot, a factory-made loop as common in most new lines, or some other connection, this area is prone to fraying and cracking. If there are any problems, cut off the old connection and replace it.
  3. Clean and dry the first 30 feet or so of fly line. Commercial fly fishing products or even gentle dish or unscented hand soap diluted with plenty of water and a cotton rag can be used to do so. I suggest light cleaning with a damp rag or simple fly fishing product like Cortland’s line cleaning pads every couple of days, with more-thorough cleanings after fishing algae-stained water, spilling anything on your line, or before each season.
  4. Stretch the first 30 feet of line. While commercial products can be used for this, you can also simply strip line off the reel, then have a friend walk away with one end of the line until it tightens and stretches. When you’re done, reel it back onto the spool evenly to prevent any new kinks from forming.
  5. Once you’ve done all of the above, the line should cast well, mend well, and float well. Check the flotation in particular. It’s not unusual for the first six inches or foot of a fly line to sink even when it’s in good shape, but if the line wants to sink more than a few feet back from the tip (taking into account turbulent surface currents and so on), odds are it is worn out and should be replaced.

Once your line is in good shape, here are tips on how to keep it that way:

  • Follow the steps given above from time to time. In particular, keep the line clean and check the line/leader connection for nicks/dings/chafing.
  • Keep the line out of direct sunlight except when you’re actually fishing with it.
  • Keep the line out of heat and humidity when not in use.
  • Never leave a wet line (or reel) in a waterproof or near-waterproof pouch or box. This can cause mildew. Wait until it’s dry to put it away.
  • Keep the line free from any reactive solvents. In the fly fishing world, this usually means sunscreen, insect repellent, and certain fly flotants that contain petroleum products. If you do get such products on your line, rinse it (in the river) immediately.
  • Keep the line free from grit. In particular be sure to rinse any sand or mud off your reel (it will get on the line), and try to avoid stepping on your line regardless of whether you’re in a boat or on foot.
  • Take care not to get your line trapped in between your reel and your spool. This is most common when using cheap fly reels with poor fit and finish, but it can happen even on good machined reels especially once these reels have earned a few dings and other battle scars.
  • Avoid jerking or pulling on tangles in your line or in the leader when the leader is wrapped around the fly line. Doing so is the leading cause of cracked fly line coatings. Instead carefully clip such tangles apart using fine scissors or fly fishing nippers. Particularly tight knots can often be loosened slightly by inserting a pair of fish hooks into the tangle and pulling the knot open, making cutting the knot apart easier.