Sinking fly lines for early season success

Joe Riley
Joe Riley is as keen an angler as they come. With the opening season approaching he can barely sleep. Joe has fished in many competitions and in this article he reveals a few of his tips on how to maximise your results during the early part of the season with sinking fly lines.
As we battle through the short days of a Tasmanian winter where the temperature rarely climbs into double digits, the thought of standing in the water at dawn with ice freezing in your rod rings really shouldn't make a sane man's heart race. While trout anglers aren't exactly insane, we aren't quite regarded as normal either. I know this by the look on my wife's face as I sneak out before daybreak at every opportunity once the brown trout season starts in August. This conclusion is confirmed by the puzzled look on my workmates faces as I'm talking non stop about heading up to the lakes to face the snow and chill wind in order to fish an alpine lake in the last month of winter.

If you are prepared to face the cold, sometimes inclement weather the opportunities exist for excellent fly fishing from opening weekend in the lakes of Tasmania, both lowland and in the central highlands. Intelligent uses of floating and sinking lines can provide good bags of fish from the very start of the season. The skills attained with a sinking line will also keep you in good stead right through the season when a floating line alone does not work according to plan.

There are three elements to successful wet fly fishing.
1.    Fishing the flies at the right depth for as long as possible on each cast.
2.    Using the right retrieve, both speed and type.
3.    Maintaining maximum contact with the flies right through the retrieve.

Sinking lines
I love fishing sinking lines. Not a comment to be made at the dry fly society annual dinner old chap, but for outright effectiveness at catching trout, sinking lines are an essential tool in the fly fishing armoury. Fishing an appropriate sinking line at the right depth will let you fish the flies where the fish are at for longer. This can be done at the right retrieve speed on the day and with maximum contact with the flies, these are the keys to catching trout with wet flies.
Sinking fly lines come in all manner of sink rates and types. The following is a quick guide to the sink rates of some common fly line manufacturers.

Airflo match their sink rates to the line descriptor. Airflo sinking lines are prefixed DI, for example:
DI3 - 3 ips (inches per second),
DI4 - 4 ips and so on down to a
DI8 - super fast 8 ips.

Scientific Angler label their sinking lines Wet Cell. The sink rate of these lines is similar, however the prefix for their sinking lines is "Type':
Type I - 1¼ to 1¾ ips,
Type II - 2 to 2¾ ips,
Type III - 3¼ to 4½ ips,
Type IV - 3¾ to 5½ ips.

Cortland sinking fly lines following the Cortland 444 model sink rates:
Type 1 slow (intermediate) 1¼ - 1¾ ips,
Type 2 fast 2½ - 3 ips,
Type 3 extra fast 3½ - 4 ips,
Type 4 super sinker 4¼ - 5 ips,
Type 5 super fast 5¼ - 6 ips,
Type 6 extra super sinker 6¼ - 7 ips.

I think you get the picture. Basically they all sink around an inch per second similar to the sink type described for the line.
There are also intermediate sinking lines, these sink at rates between .5 ips for a slow intermediate, up to 2 ips for a fast intermediate.

Fishing the flies at the right depth for as long as possible each cast.
The fly patterns used are important, however if you are using flies that you have confidence in, change lines before you change flies. Getting the flies closer to the level the trout are will result in more takes than changing flies and still fishing them at a level in the water that the trout aren't willing to come up to. This is especially important in the early season when fish are a bit lethargic and less likely to chase flies. The important factor with flies is to make sure there is some weight in at least one of the flies on your cast, preferably the point (end) fly. This will make sure the flies sink at a similar rate to the fly line and don't allow a belly to develop where the flies stay up high in the water and fish over the fish. The reason I also prefer the weighted fly to be on the point is that it helps "anchor" the rig, this has the effect that it maintains the maximum amount of contact with all of the flies if you are fishing a team of two or three.
Using the correct sink rate line will get the flies to a chosen depth quickly, this is important when you are in a drifting boat, as the longer it takes your flies to get down to the right depth, the less time you will have to retrieve as the boat encroaches on the flies as it drifts.
You can reach depths up to 12ft to 14ft by using a floating line with a long leader and weighted flies, but all of the 3 keys are compromised in some way. It takes a long time to reach the depth you want to fish, retrieve type and speed is compromised as you need to fish slowly to keep the flies at the chosen depth otherwise the flies will be pulled upwards by a fast retrieve out of the depth the fish are holding, and fishing a floating line with a long leader you have a large downward curve in the line and leader which compromises maximum contact with the flies.
The important thing to remember here is that the longer the flies are at the depth of the fish, the more likely they are to take it.
Using the right retrieve, both speed and type
So now you want to fish at a given depth of about 8 ft as you drift along a shore line. You need a line that will get you to the depth quickly, but will allow you to fish at varied speeds without pulling the flies high in the water if you fish quickly, or snag the bottom if you fish slowly. A line around the sink rate of 5 to 6 is ideal.
When you cast, count the flies down, just taking up the slack that develops, keeping the belly from developing in the line. Do this until you are confident you are at the right depth, good indicators to this are either by getting a take, or by hitting the bottom. If you do the latter reduce your count on following casts until you no longer hit the bottom. Consistency is the key, and once you get it right, continue as long as things appear the same, if the depth changes or takes dry up, it could be time for a bit of a change, experiment again until you get it right once more.
Adjust your lines to the depth you want to fish, early in the season trout will usually hold the bottom because there is very little food available high in the water column, apart from the odd midge hatch in calm weather. Most of the food is close to the bottom and so are the fish.
Vary your retrieves, slow figure 8 just moving the flies, through to a fast retrieve. Try both constant and pull pause retrieves. A fast constant retrieve by the "rolly polly" method is at times deadly. Cast a long line; go through the count down staying in contact then place the rod under your arm pit and do a rolling hand retrieve with both hands. Vary and experiment until you find the retrieve that fish are interested in and concentrate on that retrieve, experimenting again every now and then to make sure things haven't changed.
The trick is find what retrieve the fish like and concentrate on that.

Maintaining maximum contact with the flies right through the retrieve
There are times where you can use a belly in your line to good effect in fly fishing, however this is always done in such a way as to maintain contact with the flies and usually uses moving water either in a river or currents created by wind on a lake.
When fishing wets from a moving boat or from shore when there is not a lot of current in the water you need to have maximum contact with the flies. Nearly everybody has heard by now about hanging the flies at the end of the retrieve and how effective this technique is. I'll stick my neck out and say as many trout take flies "on the sink', after the cast has initially been made while the flies sink statically in the water. The problem is that unless you have good contact with the flies these takes will go undetected.
Once the cast has been made, put the rod tip to the water pointing directly along the fly line. Begin to take up the slack, not pulling the line, but also not allowing a belly to be created in it. Do this as you count down to your desired depth then begin your retrieve, as you do this raise the rod tip to about 300mm off the water still pointing along the fly line. Fish the retrieve at your chosen speed and then hang the flies at the end by raising the rod tip, and stopping the retrieve so the flies stop moving and hang in the water while you watch your line and rod tip for a visible take.

If the flies are in the water, they can be eaten
Concentrate on maintaining contact and fishing the flies from the moment they hit the water.

Fly fishing with only a floating line is a bit like playing a round of golf using only a 3 iron. It can be done, you can have lots of fun, but of course a range of clubs will be a lot more effective for your overall score.
Sinking lines can be used for both river and lake fishing, in both the lowlands and highlands.
Early in the season they are the most effective way to fish lakes like Arthurs Lake, Bronte Lagoon, Tooms Lake and any other venue where fish are not visibly moving around the shallows, or feeding on midge.
If you choose to venture into sinking fly lines, you don't need every sink type to fish effectively.
An intermediate, type 3 and type 5 will be more than enough to cover nearly all of the conditions that you will encounter in Tasmania.
Regardless of whether you use a floating line or sinking line, the keys to successful wet fly fishing apply equally. Paying attention to detail and using the three elements of wet fly fishing will increase your catch rate when fishing wet flies.
Finally, not every fish in a lake runs to spawn each year. There are a good number of fish that don't spawn and these fish are in superb condition from opening day. I had a quick fish at Little Pine Lagoon with a friend on the Saturday evening of the closing weekend last season. We boated four brown trout of which only two were in spawn, the other two were in magnificent condition, still bright orange flesh and stomachs full of scud. These non spawning fish will be in just the same condition when the brown trout season opens on Saturday 5 August. This fact alone will no doubt see me catching the same incredulous looks from my wife and workmates as I head to the lakes for another season opening in the chill winds of winter.

Joe Riley
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