The Fly Line Nerd Out – Part 3: History and Development of Fly Lines

Welcome to part three of the fly line nerd out where we will be discussing the history and development of fly lines. After posting “Part 2” I decided to take a step in another direction and really dig into fly lines when it comes to the “their” beginning.

The history of fly lines begins in the 1700’s when fly lines for dedicated anglers were made with horse hair. Just like braided line in today’s industry horse hairs were intertwined with three or more hairs for added strength. Most horsehair lines were made for “dapping”, which was simply dangling the fly over the water until it touched down. Suitable lines were later made to cast a fly which consisted of about eighteen hairs at the butt end tapering down to three at the tip. These were some of the first ever tapered fly lines which became the standard.

Sometime in the early 1700’s anglers and line makers began mixing silk within the horse hairs to improve durability and line strength. It took more than a thousand years, but somebody finally discovered nature had a better idea. Silkworms begin spinning a cocoon from two thin sacs that hold a tightly bundled mass that can be unwound and looks like today’s tippet material. Imagine finding a translucent and flexible material back in the day that could be knotted together to construct leaders. The Chinese were secretive about all aspects of silk manufacturing but somehow, no one knows for sure, some worms and cultivation skills were smuggled out of China and eventually reached Europe. Sometime after many anglers discovered this material and began to use single strand lines all over the country and by the early 1800’s the silkworm gut market flourished. No other major developments happened in the 1800’s when it came to fly lines.

Fly lines and their history started to get interesting again in the early 1900’s. What I would consider one of the bigger breakthroughs in materials occurred in 1935. A gentlemen named Wallace Carothers, who worked for DuPont as an industrial organic chemist, developed a substance that would become known has Nylon. Creating a synthetic polymer, essentially a plastic silk, made a dramatic difference in how fly lines would begin to be manufactured. In today’s fly lines most are made of some type of polymer like nylon or Dacron in their core.

Another major development in the evolution of the modern fly line occurred during the early 1940’s when 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. Later on he formed a new company called Scientific Anglers, located in Midland, Michigan in 1945. Around this time the first modern floating line was produced and depending on who you ask there is some controversy to this day when it comes to first producer – Scientific Anglers or Cortland. We will avoid going into that fly-fishing industry drama for this blog.

There are multiple materials used in construction of fly lines now-a-days. Fortunately, there is always two main components involved in fly lines – the coating and the core. Coating refers to the outer material of the fly line. This component carries the weight and the line characteristics. The core simply refers to the inner component which is required to maintain the lines strength and stiffness. In the 1950’s manufactures began using “micro-balloons” in the core to help the line float. 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.

Sometime in the 1980’s more anglers were beginning to explore different water columns and fly anglers needed a better sinking line. Once again Scientific Anglers came to the rescue and developed “powdered tungsten” in its sinking fly line. Previous lines were made with a lead base material which was quite optimal and as we all know terrible for the environment. Today there is a multitude of sinking lines and rates you can purchase similar to the Scientific Anglers SONAR series.

One more major development in the construction of fly lines are plasticization and slickness agents. When it comes to plasticization, I could write an entire blog with the help of my chemist friend to help explain what it means, but that would put us all to sleep. Essentially, it allows manufacturers to alter the properties of different polymers to build a better fly line – essentially more flexible and durable. Most lines today are built with a PVC or polyurethane coating which are widely produced synthetic plastics. With slickness agents and the addition of textured lines anglers are getting a higher quality product compared to the last generation.

The last advancement concerning fly lines came in the form of a textured line.  In 2007 Scientific Anglers introduced Sharkskin which is a diamond shaped pattern that is embossed into the fly line. This helps reduce friction letting the line shoot through the guides easier allowing for an easier cast. Additionally, this makes for a better pick-up of the water because air is being trapped in-between the line and water. Airflo also introduced a Ridge technology recently that reduces surface friction and improved shoot-ability – instead of an embossed pattern its parallel ridges running down the entire length of the line. Both of these technologies are great in my opinion, I will not buy another floating fly line unless it has textured properties. There are anglers who claim the noise is obnoxious and spooks fish, I have yet to experience that problem. Claims of the old Sharkskin texture tearing off fingers nails and cutting fingers until they bleed could be heard and read on numerous forums but the new Amplitude textured lines don’t seem to cause as much of an uproar. I always tell people you know you the fishing was good if you got a small cut in your stripping finger. I have handled a textured line for small carp and 50lb rooster fish with a stripping guard and after a week of fishing I’ve never experienced any of those exaggerated claims. The benefits of using a textured line far out way any of the finger nail claims. The biggest benefit I’ve found for any textured line isn’t the shooting qualities, it’s the ability to mend and pick up line off the water.

Summary: The history of fly lines can be a heavily debated topic when it comes to exact dates and the “whos – whos” of who was the first to invent a particular fly line – or the original floating line. My intention when it came to writing this blog was to better understand the history and development of fly lines. I wanted to pass along some information that my nerdy-fly-fishing-self found interesting. I for one cannot imagine trying to build a line in the early days, I can however see myself jumping a fence to steal some horse hair and then jumping an additional fence to fish a foreign body of water, oops, thanks for reading. Give me a follow @cuttypowshark to see my nerdy adventures and don’t forget to check out Give us a call if you ever have any questions – (801) 617-1225.