When Rigging For Bonefish On The Fly, Less Can Be More

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

What’s all that line really doing for you?

I got the chance recently to fish with my buddy Kristen Mustad from Nautilus Reels. I’m not sure Kristen ever fishes the same reel twice. And can you blame him? There’s always a new prototype to test and it is his job to never be satisfied with a reel. When Kristen lined up his new CCFX2 I noticed him doing something odd. He cut off about thirty feel of the back end of a brand new fly line. I had to ask way, and the answer made me rethink how I rig for bonefish.

“How often do you make a hundred and twenty foot cast?” Kristen asked me. “So the rest of the time, what’s that line doing? It’s creating drag in water when the fish cuts.” He makes a brisk gesture to the right with his hand to illustrate his point.

Bonefish are notorious for that. They will make a blistering run, putting you deep into your backing then make a ninety-degree turn. That’s often when they break off or straighten the hook. As they run at thirty-five mph, at ninety degrees to your line, all of that line is ripped through the water and the resulting pressure is far greater than the drag of your reel. It’s happened to me and it’s a bad feeling.

The pressure which the line puts on the fish is directly related to the diameter of the line. The thicker the line, the more pressure it puts on the fish and the greater the risk you will lose him. Fly line creates more drag than backing and that’s why Kristen cuts off the part of the line he’s not casting. Less fly line, less drag.

He takes it a step further though. Instead of using thirty-pound backing, which is pretty standard, he uses twenty pound. The thinner backing creates less drag. You just have to be sure that your leader is lighter than twenty pound so you don’t risk losing your fly line. You can also reduce the drag from your backing by using braid rather than Dacron, which I often do, but it’s tough on your guides.

It’s a pretty smart approach. Leave it to a guy who spends most of his life thinking about how to manage drag to come up with it. I think that makes a pretty important point about the roll of drag in fighting fish. It’s not about more drag, it’s about controlled drag. It’s about you dictating terms to the fish, not the other way round. It’s all about drag, but it’s not all about the reel.

Sometimes, less is more.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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13 thoughts on “When Rigging For Bonefish On The Fly, Less Can Be More

    • This is a very interesting article.

      Even do I never had a bonefish break me Off on reel drag. If it is set right. And I caught about 1,700 of them so far…The only fish I have seen to do that is blue marlin. On the bite!. For bones I usually fish 10 pound tippet and my biggest bone So far is about 10 pounds. Trophy, but Not really big fish.

      I believe it is good advice but only if you are fishing really light tippets with really monster bones. Or if you are flyfishing for blue marlin.

      The only way to catch a blue is to have the less drag possible. I cut the flyline to only 25 feet. Otherwise they break you off. Even if using 20 pound IGFA tippet.

  1. I politely, but vigorously, take exception to the idea of using braid vs. Dacron for backing, especially if you don’t like to get blood all over the bow of the boat…

    Dacron tends turn burn your finger when a fish takes off on a second spurt before you have the fly line on the reel; braid, under pressure from being tight to a fish, it can and will cut you like a razor blade, especially if you were using your “off” hand’s index finger to level-wind the backing onto the spool of your reel…

    (Yes, Dacron can cut too, but usually it just leaves a “burn” that stings like the dickens when you squeeze a lime into your Mt. Gay & tonic later celebrating your day’s fishing. (A finger propha…prophy…profylax.., oh the hell with it, “condom” made of nylon, can be an excellent addition to your fishing attire by the way.)

    Braided line used as backing also has the drawback of being slippery and hard to attach to the spool so it doesn’t slip under pressure. (A little cloth tape on the spool before attaching the backing to the spool will help…)

    As mentioned, braid, under pressure will saw at your stripping guide cutting a grove (really NOT good!), it also will cut grooves in your tip top, also bad.

    To put another nail or two in the “braid as backing” suggestion, it has a bad habit of binding on itself when recovered under pressure causing two more issues:
    1. it can deform or even crush the spool of a less expensive reel (crushed spools may be an apocryphal story, and you thought I couldn’t spel…) and
    2. when it binds, it can slip under the prior backing already recovered on the spool forming a binding “loop” that will pop a leader/tippet when the fish makes another run, (or when the next fish gets you that far down into the backing, leaving you with a stoo-pid looking expression.)

    Finally, most good fly shops don’t charge you for putting Dacron backing on your fly reel when you buy a quality fly line/fly reel or new spool from them, saving you a little money, but more importantly spooling the reel with evenly distributed, properly-tensioned backing that has an exact length to match the spool manufacturer’s specs, as opposed to guessing how much backing to put on the spool yourself, while your wife or fishing buddy holds the spool of backing as you crank it on, only to then have to cut off 30-50 feet of backing because you guessed wrong, overspooled the backing, not leave enough room for the flyline…causing you to have to re-rig your flyline to backing knots, again….

    (Ahem, full disclosure time: been there, done that, not proud, sorta learned that lesson, and still made the mistake another time because I thought I knew better, but obviously didn’t. Ought to wear a shaming note and post a picture of it to G&G!)

    • I usually wind the line onto the spool tippet end first, then do the backing knots and fill the spool up with backing. Then strip the whole works off onto clean grass, flip it end for end and wind back on the reel. So far it has worked every time for me.

  2. That is a very interesting and innovative approach. I will try it. In backcountry fishing, I frequently place a “bow” in the line when I want the fly to move parallel to the shore. The bow creates drag and results in more hook-ups if the rod tip is pointed at the line rather than the fly. Now I just have to build up the nerve to cut my fly line!

  3. Interesting post and comments. Learn something every day here. This goes under the category that “one size does not fit all” fishing conditions for some.

    My only question is whether, for the everyday fisherman, the benefit of less drag on the occasional 90 degree turn outweighs the downside of being in the backing sooner and longer. I, for one, am more comfortable recovering line and fighting the fish on the fly line rather than in the backing. For me, as exciting as it is and the more I want to catch fish that will put me in the backing, I do want to recover my line sooner rather than later.

    So this boils down to a matter of what you prefer. I think I will take my chances with a longer line and stay in my comfort zone, but Kristen may be fighting lots of big fish every day, and the refinement might fit him to a “T”. I applaud Kristen’s “outside the manufacturer’s box” thinking and if it works for him or for any reader, cut away. Just save the line you cut off to teach knots to kids, war veterans, and newbies.

  4. That’s smart thinking. It’s true though. We don’t often make 100-120ft casts, so why have a line that long. At that point in the fly line, in most fly lines, it’s just an even tapered running line. That running line is thinner than the rest of the line, but still thicker than any backing you’ll need. Plus it’s a hell of lot more likely to tangle up on the deck of the boat. It makes sense now, but if I had seen someone cut their fly line before reading I would have labeled them “cookoo for coco puffs”. Thanks for learning me somethin new!

  5. Pingback: When Rigging for Bonefish, Less Can be More | MidCurrent

  6. All the above have relevance. I used to use Gel-spun for capacity, but it will cut you like a knife as well as braid will. It did increase the amount of backing, but rewards had the risk.. I prefer the 30# Dacron, but to accommodate my spools to hold an ample amount of backing I to cut the tailing 20 feet or so of my lines and attached backing via an Albright knot to the line. Not sure how much more drag 30 # has over #20, but in the scheme of things minimum in comparison to a fly line.

  7. Interesting to do this “shortening” modification for flats fishing. We have done this for years for billfish since the casts are short and the runs are really long. Never though about doing it for in-shore but it makes sense…especially for 120 foot fly lines.

  8. I’m calling BS on the urban legend that gelspun polyethylene (“GSP” or “braid”) grooves guides. It’ doesn’t. The origin of that story could be due to sloppy rod varnish that spilled onto guides and then hardened. I’ve seen braided line under load saw grooves in the varnish over the guide, but never the metal. (The solution to this problem is to use a box cutter and cut the excess varnish off the guides.)

    I also question the statement that braided line frequently digs into itself if loosely packed on the spool, or conversely crushes spools if too tightly wound. I use braided line on my baitcasters, frequently casting lures long distances (e.g. poppers for barracuda) and then winding the lure back normally (i.e., without applying extra tension to ensure the line is tightly wound over itself). There’s no special pressure on the line until a big fish hits and then takes off on a run. In 30 years of fishing braid, I’ve had one “buried spool” incident, that with a GT on steroids.

    Therefore, I don’t think you run much risk of jamming up braid vs. Dacron backing on the spool as long as you aren’t reeling the backing (of either variety) onto your fly reel with zero tension and or finger-led guidance.

    “Braid > Dacron” makes sense to me because it’s stronger for it’s diameter, has lower profile knots (e.g. doubled-line Biminis in 30lb Dacron are ugly), doesn’t rot/holds its strength longer and offers superior abrasion resistance. It also reduces the sideways drag alluded to in the main article when a big fish takes a right turn out on the horizon. The big disadvantages are higher cost, the need to keep braid from slipping on the arbor and more specialized knots.

    * * * * *

    I certainly agree that braid can slip on the spool, so either start off with two wraps of adhesive tape around the spool, or ten feet of monofilament.

    I also agree that braid under load can cut the hell out of your guide finger. I wear a stripping guard on my index finger of my rod hand (or you can tape it up).

  9. This makes pretty good sense to me for most inshore fishing with the exception of larger tarpon, which almost always result in at least 100-150 yards of backing peeling off the reel. The sooner the fly line is recovered onto the reel, the sooner you can start putting heavy pressure on the fish and shorten the fight.

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