Saltwater 101: Taking the Confusion Out of Sinking Lines

A crucial factor in the evolution of saltwater fly fishing has been developing fly lines that rapidly take our flies to great depths, where many premier game fish live.

October 3, 2001

It’s ironic that today’s saltwater fly fisher is often utterly dependent on a rapidly sinking line to get his fly into the strike zone. Not so very long ago, fly fishing was almost entirely the domain of freshwater anglers and the very term “fly fishing” was synonymous with dry lines and dry flies. My Outdoor Life “Cyclopedia,” copyright 1942, devotes a major section to fly fishing. No mention is made of the possibility that anyone might consider fly fishing in salt water, and no mention is made of sinking lines, despite the fact that the reader is advised that on occasion it might be desirable to get a fly beneath the surface. To do so, the angler is given the following advice: “There are products on the market which will do this nicely, or if you hadn’t these, try some sticky mud.”

In the few decades since the 1940s, saltwater fly fishing has evolved with extraordinary rapidity. That evolution was in large part dependent upon developing fly lines that would rapidly take our flies to great depths where many premier game fish live. Like so many innovations in saltwater fly fishing, the birth of sinking lines came from the freshwater arena.

Truth is, in the very early days all fly lines were sinking lines. The biggest challenge for early fly-line manufacturers was to keep their lines afloat. A variety of manufacturing techniques was attempted to make the lines stay on top of the water. However, soon after the manufacturers had perfected floating lines, serious fly rodders were demanding lines that would take their fly to the depths where their quarry live and feed.


The first commercially produced sinking fly lines were brought to market in the early ’60s. These lines relied on a coating of lead blended into the surface of the line. While the lead coating resulted in a sinking line, the sink rate was modest. Scientific Anglers’ Wet Cell II line, one of the fastest sinking lines of the day, sank at a relative snail’s pace of 2.5 inches per second.

That was before Jim Teeny fished for steelhead with Howard West of Scientific Anglers in the early ’70s. On that trip West asked Teeny what he thought of the new High D sinking fly lines. (The High D lines were manufactured using powdered tungsten rather than lead. The tungsten, which is 10 times heavier than lead, was incorporated into PVC coating over a braided nylon core.) Teeny told West that the High D lines were by far the best available at the time, but they simply didn’t sink quickly enough to reach steelhead in the fast-flowing rivers of the west. West went back and designed a prototype of the Deep Water Express lines, and Teeny was one of the first to test these revolutionary lines. Teeny was ecstatic and asked if Scientific Anglers would be willing to manufacture similar lines under the Jim Teeny label. The rest, as we love to say, is history. Teeny’s initial purchase of 1,000 lines blossomed into a major business that evolved into a leader in the saltwater fly fishing arena.

Teeny’s instant recognition of the value of a one-piece line that would sink as much as 12 inches a second was based on many years of experience as a steelheader. In recalling those early days, Jim recently told me, “I knew there was a need for those lines, and I was sure people would buy them. I knew how difficult it was to cut and splice shooting heads to running lines, how the splice was a weak point and how difficult those lines could be to handle. I wanted a one-piece line with a fast-sinking tip and a smooth splice to the running line.”
The first year Teeny came out with the T-200, T-300 and T-400 and sold more than 4,000 lines. These lines opened up a lot of fly-fishing opportunities. “Guys have taken our T-500 and caught halibut, billfish, tarpon and almost everything else,” he says.


As the one-piece, deep-sinking lines were evolving, several manufacturers were trying an alternate approach to reach the depths. The alternative was to splice a heavy shooting head to a section of floating line or to a flat nylon running line. These shooting-head systems evolved in much the same way as the one-piece lines. Today anglers can purchase shooting heads in lengths from 15 to 46 feet and in sink rates from 1.5 inches per second to 11.5 inches per second. Most major fly-line manufacturers currently manufacture fast-sinking shooting-head systems.

While the past is well known, the future of saltwater lines is uncertain. One recent innovation has been the clear or monocore lines. These transparent lines allow shorter leaders and may be less prone to spook near-surface fish. But the monocore lines do not have the super-fast sink rates of the tungsten-coated lines. The reason is simple. Tungsten is not a clear material. Until some innovative manufacturer finds a clear, fast-sinking coating material, the clear lines will only be used in the top 10 to 20 feet of the water column.

We can never know the future with any degree of certainty, but we do know that the last 30 years have brought many innovations that have opened the depths to saltwater fly fishers. The one thing that is certain, however, is that we will never again be forced to rub mud on our lines to get them to sink.


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