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Stillwater Fly Fishing Lines

An in-depth breakdown of lake fishing's most versatile, valuable delivery tools

Stillwater Fly Lines
Jordan OeLrich photo

Seamless density, slickness additives, nymph tips, and front tapers. Fly line terminology can become overwhelming to a point where you might just want to say to a fly shop owner, “I don’t know, just give me what you think would work best.” Fly line technology has undoubtedly made rapid progression in the past decade, making stillwater fishing more successful and enjoyable, but there is a bit of a learning curve to master the jargon and the tackle for stillwater fly fishing.

Proper fly line selection is a broad topic, and entry-level fly fishers may understandably find themselves confused or frustrated. Gone are the days when, as a young fly shop employee, I would simply ask customers the binary questions of whether they wanted a floating or sinking line for their new lake-fishing setup. In the not-too-distant past, we paid less attention to the tapers and textures (which were evoking plenty of skepticism in their infant years) of floating lines, or the uniformity of their full-sinking counterparts.

Now we understand that you should approach every stillwater situation with a different tactic, and many demand different fly line densities or sink rates. Hopefully the following breakdown sheds some light on when to use exactly what fly line, and why.

Floating Lines


Floating lines are perhaps the most important pieces of equipment in a stillwater angler’s quiver. Using the appropriate floating line(s) to cover as many situations possible will make your stillwater experience exponentially less frustrating and more successful. I use two types of floating lines, each with their own niche applications.


The first has a 60-foot head, followed by 40 feet of running line. This long head length allows greater roll-casting distance with less effort, an important asset when fishing with strike indicators, swivels, and leaders that often exceed 20 feet. I use a Scientific Anglers Amplitude Anadro/Nymph line to fill this niche, and the fluorescent Optic Green tip provides visual bite detection without a strike indicator. It’s a great choice when I’m presenting leeches, scuds, damselflies, and chironomids in both their pupal and larval stages.

Floating lines such as a Scientific Anglers Titan with an aggressive, compact head and short front taper are also useful. Though these lines are not designed for delicate presentations, they fish better at shorter distances, and they are easier to manage in situations where you don’t need long casts. I often find myself using these short-head floating lines for twitching leeches beneath a strike indicator, suspending chironomids in deeper water, or crawling mayflies through the shallows. They are what I would consider universal floating lines for stillwater fly fishing.

Full-sinking Lines

Technological improvements to full-sinking fly lines have increased at a drastic rate over the past few years. Changes in densities and sink rates give you ultimate control of the fly depth, and a precise presentation through essentially any situation. I don’t use sinking-tip lines in stillwaters, as there’s rarely a need to mend the rear portion of the line.


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Getting your fly to the right depth—and keeping it in that strike zone—is a critical element of stillwater fishing. If you plan to fish throughout the entire season, you’ll need hover lines to fish the shallows effectively without hanging up, lines that will take you into the cool depths where trout feed on suspended chironomids, and lines for everything in between. Jordan OeLrich photo

All the lines I use are considered full-sinking lines, although different sections sink at different rates. The rate at which these lines can sink varies from less than 1 inch per second (ips) to more than 7 inches per second. This gives you more control to explore both shallow and deep water. Many times, swapping lines with the same pattern immediately pushes your results in a positive direction. Here are some of my favorite types of full-sinking lines, and how I use them.

Hover. These types of lines sink at 1 inch per second or less. Examples are the Scientific Anglers Sonar Hover ($90) or RIO InTouch Hover ($100). These lines give you a high level of precision and control in shallow-water situations, without the worry of hanging your fly on bottom. A valuable aspect of hover-type lines is the ability to fish near the surface without creating a wake like a floating line. This is a stealthy approach that excels in shallow, clear water. Mayflies, scuds, and leeches are three imitations that fish exceptionally well on hover lines.

Intermediate. Intermediate lines sink at about 1 or 2 inches per second throughout their entire length. Intermediate lines are not new to the stillwater world, but due to improvements in technology and additives, today they are more supple and with less memory and they come in more colors, including clear and camo. Examples include Scientific Anglers Sonar Stillwater Clear Camo ($90), Sonar Titan Full Intermediate ($90), RIO InTouch Camolux ($100), or Cortland Compact Intermediate ($90).


With about twice the sink rate of hover lines, intermediate lines still allow you to effectively patrol the shallows. This is a great line for fishing leeches along ledges and drop-offs, retrieving damselfly nymphs toward weed beds, twitching scuds through the shallows, or swimming mayfly nymphs in areas greater than 10 feet in depth.

A use for intermediate sinking lines that I once deemed too unorthodox for my liking was using them to “sweep” the water column with chironomid pupae. This strategy uses the modest sink rate of an intermediate line to first bring the chironomid pupa to the bottom of the lake, followed by a very slow hand-twist retrieve using only the thumb, middle finger, and forefinger. An ascending fly can be an extremely realistic presentation, and is especially effective during periods of high wind, or when fish are suspended throughout the water column.

Sinking lines. While hover lines and intermediate lines have the same sink rate along their entire length, full-sinking lines for fishing deep are often much more complicated, with dual density or triple densities to achieve different depths and effects. For instance, the Sonar Seamless Density sink 1 / sink 3 is a stillwater workhorse for me. The designation means the front of the line head (sink 3) sinks more quickly than the rear (sink 1) and since it smoothly transitions back to an intermediate running line, there’s no belly in the line and I get a more direct connection to the fly. With most brands of fly lines, the “sink” number indicates inches per second, so a sink 3 line sinks about 3 inches per second.

A sink 3 / sink 5 version of the same line drops noticeably faster, which means you can get to the same depth in less time. You can also retrieve dragonfly nymphs, leeches, water boatmen, and scuds along the lake bottom in water up to about 15 feet deep.

Another use for these lines is fishing Booby patterns in shallow water. The large, floating foam eyes of the Booby fly keep the fly up off the bottom, while the line itself slides along the lake bottom. When you strip, the fly dives. When you pause, the fly floats upward like an ascending insect. Use a short leader to get the foam eyes in the strike zone.

The fastest-sinking line I use is the Sonar Seamless Density sink 5 / sink 7. In the heat of summer I often have to fish in water 20 feet deep or more, targeting fish that are seeking cover and cooler water temperatures. This is my favorite line for fishing green darner and Gomphus dragonfly nymph imitations in deep water. The best flies use deer hair or foam so the line rides near the lake bottom, and the fly suspends above the vegetation.

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Having the right fly line, and knowing how to use it, can mean the difference between failure and huge successes on stillwater fisheries around the world. Jordan OeLrich photo

Another popular use of rapidly sinking lines is to vertically suspend chironomid pupae and larvae imitations in deep water. Stillwater fly fishers often use floating lines, an indicator, and a 15- to 20-foot leader to hang chironomid patterns straight down in deep water. If the fish are much deeper than that, a sinking line is an easier way to make the same presentation. This technique has been called “dangling,” and has proven highly effective on British Columbia’s Sheridan Lake, where fly fishers position the line straight down from the boat, suspending pupal imitations in depths up to 100 feet.

Parabolic sinking lines. Often referred to as sweep lines, these lines intentionally sink in a U shape, with the tip of the line sinking slower than the midsection. Scientific Anglers Sonar Stillwater Parabolic Sink line, for instance, has a sink 3 running line, a sink 5 head, and a sink 3 tip. I use this line for water boatmen, backswimmers, and floating dragonfly nymph imitations because these aquatic insects often swim down toward the bottom, and the line helps you maintain that descent angle during the retrieve.

The technology in today’s fly lines has made stillwater fly fishing’s many idiosyncrasies easier to navigate. In many cases it also means we can be more successful than ever before because we have access to better gear than our predecessors. It’s not just about getting deeper—a range of quality floating and sinking lines will ultimately allow you to cover a broader spectrum of scenarios with less effort.

Rio Fathom Cleansweep Sinking Lines

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Parabolic lines use three different densities to help the line sink in U shape, with the middle section of the head sinking the fastest so that the fly seems to dive or swim toward the bottom during the beginning of the retrieve, and then back toward the surface when the line approaches the boat. With this type of sinking action you can make the fly swim from top to bottom, and then bottom to top, sweeping the entire water column. Because the tip rides a little higher, you have less chance of hanging up on irregular bottom contours.

Every Fathom CleanSweep Sinking Line starts with a clear, intermediate tip that transitions to a medium or fast-sinking body and then to a slower-sinking running line. Each line has a short, 35-foot head for easy casting and a marker 20 feet from the tip to visually and tactilely show when to pick up the line and recast.

Available in 5- through 8-weights, they come in two different sink profiles: sink 2 / sink 4 / int and sink 4 / sink 6 / int; and two different color schemes: clear/black/light aqua and clear/black/dark aqua. $80 | Rioproducts.com

Scientific Anglers Sonar Titan Triple Density

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Titan Triple Density lines are not new to Scientific Anglers. Stillwater anglers have been enjoying the castability of the steep Titan taper for many years in the floating version, and more recently using the hover / sink 2 / sink 4, int / sink 3 / sink 5, and sink 3 / sink 5 / sink 7 to fish everywhere from shallow shorelines and weed beds, down into the cool depths of the lake during summer. The newest Triple Density lines from Scientific Anglers build on this same flexibility and fill in the gaps with new int / sink 2 / sink 3, and int / sink 3 / sink 6 versions so you can find exactly the right line to fish your favorite cove, inlet, or deep bowl. The Titan taper is easier to cast than a lot of other full-sinking lines out there, and due to the sink profile where the tip sinks the fastest, you get a straight-line connection to the fly line that gives you extraordinary feel when fishing delicate chironomid patterns, and when you’re setting the hook at long distances and in deep water.

These lines are not just for lakes. They are excellent for slow, deep pools in big rivers where you might want to get a beefy Blane Chocklett Game Changer down to a muskie, or for pounding streamers against the bank for trout. $100 | scientificanglers.com 

Jordan Oelrich is the owner of Interior Fly Fishing Co. (interiorflyfishingco.com) in Kamloops, British Columbia. 

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