January 25, 2021
Richard Wothers was born in the River Severn Valley close to the border between England and Wales. His mother’s family had a farm in the River Wye watershed, and he grew up fishing the small tributary streams there. In his early years, he chased Atlantic salmon, became an AAPGA-certified casting instructor, and graduated from Liverpool University with a degree in zoology, with the idea that he would pursue a career as a fisheries biologist.
Instead, he got a job as a marketing assistant with the fledgling company Airflo. When he started in 1988, Airflo’s first-generation polyurethane coatings had a reputation for excessive coiling in cold weather. And because the lines at that time were built with no-stretch Kevlar cores, you couldn’t stretch them to remove the coils. Another complaint was that the floating lines didn’t float well enough, a constant design trade-off because narrow floating lines cut the wind and cast better, while thick-diameter fly lines float higher for easier visibility, mending, and pickups.
Fast-forward 33 years, and Airflo’s performance problems are just a part of fly-fishing history. For the last 20 years, Wothers has run the entire production facility and been responsible for some of the most innovative developments in fly line technology. He has learned to change the polyurethane coating to stay soft and supple in cold weather, and to stay hard and slick in hot tropical conditions. He developed the first fly lines with welded loops, the first low-stretch lines with braided polyester cores, the first double-density and triple-density sinking lines, and the first clear-coated intermediate lines. The Ridge Line he developed in partnership with Cardiff University has been exhibited in the Science Museum of London. Not bad for a fisheries technician.
Gareth Jones started at Airflo in 1991. By that time, Wothers had already moved to the production side of the business, and Jones started as his research and development assistant. At 21 years old, Jones already had a reputation as one of the country’s top stillwater fishermen, and was the youngest national fly-fishing champion in Wales history. In 2000, his team got a silver medal at the FIPS/Mouche world championships on the River Test, and Jones—who had just became Airflo’s sales director—got a bronze medal. He was just one fish away from taking home the gold medal, but he lost three big trout in a row on the River Test, and only realized he was fishing with a broken hook bend after the buzzer sounded to end the session.
The loss of those three fish hammered home the point that good products can make or break a successful day on the water. To get repeat customers, Airflo lines needed to perform flawlessly.
“When I first started at Airflo, the lines had horrendous memory issues . . . basically, we made a bunch of product that just didn’t work,” said Jones. “We could see right from the beginning that polyurethane was a better material. We just needed to refine the presentation.”
Together Wothers and Jones did just that, along with some other innovations that had ripple effects throughout the fly-fishing industry. In 1996 Wothers created PolyLeaders, a product that replaced traditional tapered nylon monofilament leaders, but was extruded using the same modulus polyurethane as the fly lines. The butt section couldn’t be knotted like regular nylon leaders, so Wothers figured out how to weld the material back onto itself. “It’s really quite simple,” says Wothers. “Polyurethane is a true thermoplastic, so you can melt it and reform it numerous times without damaging the chemical makeup.”
Fly lines manufactured in the U.S. are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In its pure form, it is a hard, brittle material. To make fly lines, manufacturers add plasticizers to soften PVC into a liquid. They add tungsten powder or hollow glass spheres to this room temperature liquid. After they coat the core with liquid PVC, they bake the lines in an oven to remove some of those plasticizers and harden the lines.
Jones says those plasticizers continue slowly leaching out of the line until it stiffens and cracks.
“PVC is much like paint,” says Jones. “When it’s new, it’s smooth and slick, but in the sun and the rain, the plasticizers leach out, and over time it begins to crack and peel.”
To make a polyurethane coating, you heat the polymer to 220 degrees C. and it becomes liquid; no plasticizers are required. Airflo melts clear TPU pellets and adds dye, additives, or tungsten powder, then cools it back into pellets. They reheat the pellets to extrude the line, and then they reheat the material again to weld the loops.
These thermoplastic properties make it possible to extrude multiple layers of different polymers over a single core, and that’s how Airflo makes floating lines. To give their lines buoyancy, they use a chemical gassing agent to form tiny air bubbles in the coating as it passes through the extruder. To smooth out the bubbles, Airflo adds a tough exterior coating without bubbles. Because they can vary the thickness of the layers, and do multiple layers, they can (for instance) use a thicker bubble coating on the tip to make it float better, with a thinner exterior coating. On the running line, they might have a thinner bubble layer and thicker layer on the outside to combat wear and tear.
Wothers says that polyurethane is extremely cohesive, so Airflo can use less polymer and more tungsten in its sinking lines, making narrow-diameter sinking lines that cut through the wind and sink extremely fast. He also says that the inert polymer is safer to manufacture than PVC, and better for the environment.
He says there’s “a significant environmental impact of manufacturing, using, and disposing of PVC lines,” and that “plasticizers are continuously leaching out of the lines into the environment, contaminating you and the waters you fish. Due to its high chlorine content, great care needs to be taken when disposing of PVC to avoid creating dioxins, which are bioaccumulating poisons and among the most toxic chemicals ever produced.”
Their loop-to-loop technology, triple-density lines, and the fact that Airflo could make shooting and sinking heads in 30-grain increments made Airflo popular with West Coast steelheaders, who are extremely particular about getting the fly to the correct depth, and are willing to switch heads to do it. Some stillwater fly fishers in the U.S. also use Airflo lines for similar technical reasons—incremental weight adjustments, and low-stretch, density-compensated stillwater lines with “hang markers” on the line so you know exactly how much line you have outside the rod tip for repeatable depth presentations.
But although Airflo made some inroads in these smaller, specialized markets, the U.K.-based company has historically not been able to capture the attention of U.S. consumers who fish mostly with floating lines for trout in rivers and streams. These folks are not competition fly fishers or tournament casters. They want lines that float high so they can track the progress of their fly, and so they can mend easily. They also want lines that load stiff American-made fly rods.
Paul Burgess started Airflo in 1984 and merged with another company in 1991 to become the multi-channel retailer BVG-Airflo Group. The BVG ownership was most interested in their mail order retail business, of which fly-fishing products played an insignificant role. With their attention focused elsewhere, Airflo remained a foreign entity, mostly unknown to American fly fishers.
That focus changed in November 2019, when Mayfly Outdoors purchased Airflo and added it to its fly-fishing portfolio that already included Ross Reels and Abel Reels. Mayfly Outdoors is based in Montrose, Colorado, in a new 41,000-square-foot office and manufacturing headquarters. Airflo will remain in its current facility in Wales, where it has about 40 full-time employees and 20 outside contractors.
“I fished with Gareth and Richard, picked their brains for endless hours, and came to form a deep respect for their experience, incredible fishing/casting talent, as well as design abilities. I knew the world (and especially the North American market) needed to hear this story and see this incredibly innovative brand in a new light,” said Mayfly President/CEO Craig Baker.
“Airflo has a great team and uses unique manufacturing processes and materials that are higher-performing, longer-lasting, and better for the environment than other fly lines,” said Baker. “Airflo fly lines are also recyclable, and not degraded by UV light, DEET, or sunscreen. I really believe that we’ve acquired something special.”
Baker believes that the differences between PVC lines TPU lines give Airflo a unique position in the U.S. marketplace.
“With polyurethane, we can independently control shape, density, and slickness along the length of the line to get it to behave exactly like we want. TPU lines can be thinner and more dense than PVC. We have natural transparency and elasticity without the use of harmful plasticizers. Ultimately we can do much more with polyurethane by way of precise density control, durability, and casting performance; not to mention being better for the environment. We’re looking to the future, both for our company and its products, as well as for our rivers and streams.”
Jones says being a part of an American fly-fishing company is a resurrection of sorts for Airflo. “This was huge for us,” says Jones. “Our previous ownership was not that interested in fly fishing, and had no way to get us into the U.S. market. Being part of a group that is exclusively focused on fly fishing—and in producing the best fly-fishing products—is going to help us grow, not just in the U.S. but all over the world. I’ve toured the Ross and Abel factory in Montrose, and it’s head and shoulders above anything I’ve seen in our industry. And Mayfly is willing to invest in us in the same way, with new precision equipment that will help us make the best fly lines in the world with accurate tolerances and greater consistency. And we can help global sales of Ross and Abel reels with our sales team and retailers in the U.K. and across Europe, where we are the #1-selling fly line manufacturer by far—it’s not even close.”
To make it in the U.S., Airflo is focusing on the core market—floating trout lines for fishing in rivers and streams. The new Power Taper, Universal, and Tactical lines (see page 25) are designed to float higher in rough, turbulent water; load stiff, fast-action rods; and turn large flies over powerfully. And Ross Reels is already manufacturing and exporting Colorado-made reels for European consumers.
Fly fishing came to America from the U.K., and the back-and-forth between continents has never ceased. But with the acquisition of Airflo by a Colorado company, the cross-pollination of products and technology has never been stronger.
*Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.