Does Fly Line Color Make A Difference?

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

Why do you need a bright colored fly line and does it spook fish?

A reader asked for an opinion on this and that’s what you’re going to get. My opinion. This is one of those hotly contested arguments that anglers can’t seem to agree on and my saying one thing or another isn’t going to settle it. I do have strong opinions on the subject, so since you asked, here they are.

The color of your fly line doesn’t matter, until it does.

For most fly fishing, if you’re doing things well the color of your line doesn’t matter any more than the color of your eyes. There are, however, times when it can make a difference and the difference may not always be what you think. When I make a purposeful choice on line color, it’s usually not to keep the fish from seeing it.

What doesn’t matter

Assuming for the moment that we are talking about trout fishing, if you are thinking that you are being stealthy by using a dull colored line, you’re coming at things from the wrong angle. If you are putting your line over the fish, it doesn’t matter what color it is. Fish are very attune to shadow and movement. If your fly line passes over them while casting, they will see the shadow of the line, even if it’s clear. The same goes for motion. Color doesn’t matter.

If you are floating the line over them, on the surface of the water, things are worse. They now see the depression of the water’s surface as well as shadow and motion. Sure, they can see that a bright orange line is orange and a green line is green but they will find neither acceptable. The bottom line is, if you’re spooking fish it’s a presentation problem not a color problem.

If it matters at all, it’s in the margins. Meaning, do fish see the color of your line when you are casting on the edge of their field of vision? You thought you were far enough away but you weren’t and maybe they would catch a glimpse of an orange line but not a green one. Maybe, and maybe they’d see it while it’s still on the reel and you are passing by. You can make yourself crazy about stuff like that if you like.

Personally, I choose my fly line based on the taper, the materials and the performance. The color is secondary at best. There was a time when I went completely the other way. I used to buy white lines and dye them camo, olive and tan. You can do it in the bathtub with fabric dye, changing color every few feet. It’s a pain and will not make your spouse happy, trust me. In the end I decided it didn’t make any difference.

What does matter

When I choose a line for its color, it’s usually for its visibility. It’s also usually for fly fishing in saltwater. In saltwater fishing it’s crucial that you always know the attitude of your fly. Where it is in relation to the fish. Whether it’s moving or still, slack or swinging in current. The best way to know that is by watching your line. I want a line that is bright enough for me to see in my peripheral vision, so I can watch the fish and still know what my fly is doing.

Swinging flies with spey rods is another case where I want a bright line. I want to see my line so I can effectively manage my swing. Again, the attitude of the fly is what’s most important and I need a line I can see. You are in no danger of spooking a steelhead with a Skagit head so the sky is the limit.

I do like clear tip intermediate sink tip lines for streamers. They allow me to use a short leader, 4-5 feet, to effectively get the fly down. Since the tip sinks there is no surface depression to worry about and they are stealthier. I like clear tips for migrating tarpon as well. They give you better odds at not spooking fish when casting to schools on the move.

What does matter way more than the color of your line is your confidence as an angler. If a bright line, that you can see, gives you confidence in your casting or in detecting a take, by all means that’s what you should fish. If you need to get in the tub and dye your line camo, have at it. There was a time when I needed to do that to be confident and it worked. Make your own decision and respect the decisions of others.


Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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23 thoughts on “Does Fly Line Color Make A Difference?

  1. I couldn’t agree with your opinion more. I will add that if a fly fisher wants to find that perfect line, it’s best to go to fly shops. Having worked for a shop in Whitefish, MT in the early 2000’s, but now living in the Champlain Valley of NY, I miss good well-stocked shops with highly experienced shop pros because I am “out of the loop”. I fish older Winstons (BiiX, WT’s and LT’s) and older Sages (DS2 and VPSL). Being a fan of slower/smoother action rods (with the BiiX as an exception), it’s tough to find that perfect line to replicate the casting experience I enjoy. When I worked in a shop, I had the opportunity to try a variety of lines before buying them AND THEN inturn, have the experience to pass that information on to the shop’s customers. Since moving away, and not have shops that stock a variety of brands, I’ve lost that and have resorted to buying seconds, or the budget lines so I won’t be out $80 with a line that doesn’t quite do it for me. The the last key is to go to several shops to find that wants to make more than a sale…

  2. As a line designer, the issue of line colour can be separated into 2 areas of concern, performance and fish/human visibility.

    If I answered ‘does line colour matter’ in relation to performance, I would say it is critical. The science of pigments and their use in polymers is a vast subject so I will try and say what I take into consideration without giving too much away!

    Ok, pigments normally have to be mixed with a phthalate which can add weight and soften a line, so if you are making a floater you need to choose very carefully. There are paste and powder pigments, both have different volume and specific gravity issues. In fact, all pigments have their own specific gravity an volume / mass. Add to that how well a certain brand of pigment saturates and leeches you have to choose your head pigment and running line pigment extremely carefully. Why?

    Well those choices affect how a line sits on or in the surface film, how much line stick it may or not have, how long it hangs in the air, how dense it is, how durable the line is and finally how the colour is perceived by angler and fish.

    To summarise, pigment (colour) in fly line manufacture is as important as the core it is built on, literally. It can make a line sink, alter it’s diameter, float, hang in the air, stick to the blank, disintegrate or in some cases, be toxic!

    So, I urge you to think why the lines you own are the colour they are. It can be as inert as ‘that was what they had in stock’ when they went to make the line. It can be as scientific, as is in our case, as we are looking to manage visible light and find a high performance pigment for our polymers.

    Which brings me onto the topic of visibility.

    People seem to scream pseudo science at this point but visible light is the way the human eye perceives colour. Basically the more light bands a pigment absorbs the darker it is. Why would you want to absorb visible light? For the exact reason the original article states, to eliminate line flash.

    We go one step further. Our entire concept is based around making micro thin fly lines that are anti shadow and anti line flash, exactly as this blog states. i couldn’t agree more.

    We reduce the diameter of our lines by up to 30% which gives them less mass to block / silhouette light. We sit the lines at a specific gravity closer to that of water to reduce the orb of shadow and retraced light cause by bulging meniscus. We give them a wide band of visible light absorbing pigments (ours is a form of dark grey) which does 2 things. Firstly it eliminates and I mean eliminates line flash. Secondly, it doesn’t radiate visible light. Fluorescent pigments like hi viz orange have the appearance of being bigger than they are, which is exactly what they are designed to do. We use certain pigments that appear to have a smaller footprint in the air and on the water.

    On a more spiritual note, there are visible light frequencies. Take chlorophyll (green) found in nature to photosynthesise. That has a frequency. Its commonly found in nature. Well it would make sense, in terms of visibility, to use a pigment like that if it shared the performance attributes we are looking for as well. Can fish feel frequencies? Next time yowl at dull colours and hi viz objects, look at how they seem to vibrate. I can see the vibrations now because I am attuned to it. I think fish can too, but this is not as important as eliminating line flash, reducing shadows and enable the best presentation.

    If you are scaring fish, I’d get a casting lesson rather than buy a tan line. As for what fish see, well they see through a phenomenon called Snells window which distorts, refracts and reflects images and light from a 360 degree circumference which means you can only hypothesise what your target can actually see. Thrown in wind and environmental factors, it’s really just an approbate guess as to what your fish can see.

    Best advice I have is wear drab clothes, non reflective clothes and accessories, cast well, tread carefully, get off the sky line and buy our lines!

    Great blog. Tom

    • Great Reply Tom.
      You helped me “clear” up a few things we all think about. Thank you for taking the time to post that.

    • This wouldn’t happen to be the Sunday fishing line you’re talking about Tom, would it ? I know since it can’t be found in America to make a “test run” with, I have requested one of those to do an honest evaluation/review, but was denied. If that’s not it I apologize. What line are you speaking of, because it sounds awesome

  3. I returned from a fishing trip to New Zealand a couple of weeks ago. There, the norm is dull colored lines. The guides are quick to tell you that brightly colored lines spook fish. Although bigger on average than most trout I catch here, I doubt NZ trout are very different from U.S. trout. I wonder why there is such a difference in conventional thinking.

  4. Great post. Totally agree with everything you said. The only thing I do in certain situations is to increase the length of my leader, especially on calm days where shadows and shallow water make for very challenging angling situations.

    What I don’t understand about using dull coloured lines is that, IMO fish looking up against a bright sky, may actually see those better. It is all a matter of perspective. And in the end those lines still throw the same shadows!

  5. Answered some questions I’ve been thinking about, thanks for a great post! I just got the Ambush and was commenting on how I liked the colors, but unsure what the fish would think.

  6. I agree. A lined fish is a spooked fish. I’d rather blind cast, than sight cast and line the fish. Trout are always looking up.

  7. Been living and trout fishing in New Zealand for six years now all my lines have been brightly coloured caught plenty of bows and browns and as mentioned about as long as the fly line doesn’t cover the fish you will not have a problem – 🙂

  8. I don’t care what color my line is if I like it, and it works. The only thing I worry about is getting it wet, where it belongs.

  9. I don’t disagree with anything said here, but I wonder if there’s a line color that’s not going to offend. That’s why IMHO working downstream and doing a reach cast keeps your 9′ plus 5X plus flouro leader in view rather than a .050″ plus PVC “snake”.

  10. Great article Louis! I agree with everything you said when it comes to most species. However, while swinging flies for Great Lakes steelhead, I’ve watched chinooks spook from bright Orange or pink spey lines. As the chinooks spooked out of their holding lie, they would almost always charge downstream which would inevitably spook every steelhead in the pool. Surprisingly, green, mint or blue lines don’t seam to bother chinooks.
    Given that West Coast rivers aren’t as clear as many Midwest rivers that have been effected by zebra muscles, we have no way of knowing if this happens in the west. Food for thought.

  11. Speaking of line, what are your thoughts on matching or mismatching line weight & rod weight designation? I finally bit the bullet & bought a 9wt TFO & a large arbor reel for saltwater. The sales guy recommended going with a ten weight line saying it’s easier to cast in the wind. That made sense to me at the time, but practicing a double haul once I get line out to the backing the cast falls apart. Line? or operator error?

  12. The only critical issue to consider when picking a fly line is how well it will look on your reel. PLEASE: you can kill how a reel looks by putting a yellow line on top of yellow backing. It’s all about the hero shot, and we love it when the reel/backing/line combo pops next to the fish. Everything else is secondary…

  13. Love the topic, your take, and some pretty stout comments. I always learn something here. keep up the good work.

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