How To Judge a Running Line
With no one perfect running line suited for all applications, it’s best to have options available that are suited for your style of steelhead fishing.
By Andrew Grillos
They say “the Devil is in the details,” and this idiom is especially true when selecting a running line for a spey rod. There are dozens of different running line options available and there isn’t necessarily one “perfect” option. Different anglers have different requirements for their running line not to mention different conditions can call for a different running line. Not all lines are suited to all situations, so a basic understanding of what’s out there and what their differences are can help alleviate some headaches on the river.
My spey career began somewhere around 2004, and like most beginning spey anglers I had no idea how to line my rod for the most efficiency at that point. I settled on a Rio Grandspey because it seemed like as good a choice as any. I had no idea that there were short, forgiving heads that you looped onto a different running line, versus the unforgiving long belly line I started with. Fast forward to 2009, when I was fortunate enough to share a couple days on the water with my good friend Michael “Whitey” White and his friend Ed Ward. Ed was passing through Colorado and Whitey brought him over to Gunnison to spend a couple days swinging flies for trout. I saw their Skagit style setups with thin running lines and short heavy heads and I realized that my old Grandspey was seriously setting me back. Those guys made everything look super easy and controlled. From small braids and side channels to hundred foot casts, they had it all covered. Ed worked with me on casting a bit and I got to make a few casts with his setup and I was instantly converted. Whitey later explained how the different pieces of a Skagit-style setup worked together and that I had to get some Big Cat 40, in the Solar Collector Green. I was convinced and I happily fished nothing but the Big Cat on my two handers for the next three or four years. I thought I had the best running line possible.
After spending a few years guiding Pacific Northwest anglers and working a few days a week at The Avid Angler in Seattle, I began to change my mind and I started to realize there really is no perfect running line that will do everything, for everyone, all year long. I thought my Big Cat 40 was the best mono running line going but I saw other anglers that were much better casters than I was and they all had their own different line preferences. This piqued my interest in trying other running lines and comparing all the different options that I could.
What Running Line Options Are Out There?
There are more or less three different categories of running lines available to the spey angler today.
First, there’s the monofilament category, which offers a wide range of diameters, breaking strengths, and even line profiles. Some of these include Berkley Big Cat, PLine CXX, Frog Hair, Rio Slick Shooter, Varivas, and OPST Lazar. These lines are basically high-end monofilament fishing line. Depending on the application, mono running lines are available ranging from 25-pound for trout spey or light summer steelhead work and they go all the way up to around 50-pound test for the biggest anadromous fish you might chase. Mono running lines typically shoot through the guides the best and come out of the water with the least resistance, making them popular lines for big water and big casts. Most mono running lines have a round profile to them, however there are a couple exceptions like the oval-shaped Rio Slickshooter or the ridged Varivas. The majority of mono running lines on the market are more dense than water, meaning they will sink to some degree while piled at the anglers feet, or while swinging. However, another advancement in mono running lines are the hollow, floating monofilament options like Varivas and Ken Sawada lines. These hollow lines float high and come off the water with very little resistance, meaning they are king when maximum distance is the goal. They are also some of the thinnest and thus the fastest shooting lines available, however this also means they are the toughest to hang onto. Further, these hollow monofilaments also tend to have the most memory of all the options, requiring a good stretch before fishing them. Another minor benefit to fishing mono is that its thin diameter doesn’t take up much room on a reel. Most mono spools come in 100- to 300-foot lengths, which allows plenty of room for a large diameter spey line. One downside to all mono running lines is that they are generally prone to kinking, retaining memory, and tangling. These memory issues are usually helped by giving the line a good stretch before fishing, if you’re willing to take the time before stepping out and casting.
Monofilament running line (above).
The second category of running line to mention is the “flyline” category, which is more or less a thin, flyline style running line. These thin fly lines are nearly identical to a floating, single hand fly line that you probably have been using for years; the only real difference being that a flyline style running line is just a long, thin fly line, with no taper. These flyline style running lines include Rio Connect Core, Airflo Ridge, Scientific Anglers Textured, and Ballistic Spey Blazer, among others. These lines tend to have a little memory in the cold, but are very supple in warm weather. The lack of memory in most conditions combined with the ease of handling makes these lines very user friendly, especially for the beginning angler who has not quite perfected their line and loop management skills. These fly line style lines are the easiest to hang onto while casting, slippage while casting is much less frequent making these great options for the angler with less grip strength, especially in very cold temperatures. The majority of flyline style running lines are full floating, although Airflo and Scientific Anglers do offer intermediate shooting lines as well. These floating options pair nicely with a dry line setup for summer steelhead, making for a very nice, seamless transition from angler to fly. Another benefit to this style running line is while fishing in sub-freezing temps less ice tends to form on the line itself, as can happen with mono and braid. A couple downsides to the flyline style running line is that they require the most energy to rip out of the water while casting. Due to their larger surface area these lines float high, but also stick to the water and don’t shoot through the guides as fast, thus costing the angler a bit of distance. Being a large diameter, these are also the bulkiest lines on the reel, so if space is an issue a great deal of backing must be sacrificed or some length of the rearmost portion of the running line itself might need to be cut off.
Fly line used as running line (above).
Finally, the third kind of running line commonly available is the braided mono style. These are basically a braided plastic multi-filament lines. These braided lines do a great job splitting the differences of the mono line and the flyline style running line. The most common braided lines are the Airflo Miracle Braid and the Scientific Anglers Braided PE. These lines are right about in the middle the mono and flyline as far as diameter goes; they’re thin, but not too thin for most anglers to hold on to in most situations. Their braided construction also gives them a more abrasive or textured feel to hang onto, however they still shoot out the rod guides nicely due to their thin diameter and small intermittent contact with the rod guides while casting. The braided options are less dense than water so they float nice and high, making for a line that comes off the water quite easily while casting. One difference between the two options listed is the Miracle Braid is built around a single, thin, mono core, whereas the Scientific Anglers PE Braid is hollow. Both feel very light while casting and fishing and both have virtually no memory in all temperatures. Another nice thing about these braided lines is that it’s possible to splice loops into ends of them for a very clean, seamless connection to the backing and head in your spey system. A downside of these braided lines is that they do tend to be a little bit more abrasive, so casting and stripping line back in for multiple days can wear a groove in the angler’s finger.
Miracle braid used as running line (above).
What to consider when purchasing a running line.
So, now that we have an understanding of the basic differences of running lines the angler must now take into consideration the conditions in which he/she will be fishing. Is this line going to be used for a summer trip where the temps might climb into the ‘90s and the angler will only fish a dry line or only the lightest sink tips? Will the line be headed to a cold, rainy destination to chuck Skagit heads, tips, and big winter flies? Perhaps you’re a “Third Coast” angler looking to swing flies in sub-freezing temps on some Great Lakes tributaries. Are you fishing big water where a big cast could put your fly in the zone for a longer time? Do you prefer intimate streams where most of the lies you fish aren’t much farther out than casting the head? These are all very important considerations that should affect the running line that goes on your spey setup.
Following the logic of why you wouldn’t take a tropical bonefish line on a trip to Alaska, you shouldn’t expect a running line to perform the same in all temperatures either. An important cold weather consideration when selecting a running line would be whether or not the angler runs cold or warm. Do you need to bundle up and wear gloves on a winter day, or can you fish in a couple lightweight layers and a shell on a sub-zero day? This relates directly to whether or not you can hold on to the line while casting with cold hands. Due to its thin diameter mono is quite tough to hold onto with cold hands. If you find yourself occasionally losing your grip while casting in cold conditions, it might be beneficial to try a different, easier to handle running line. A flyline style running line would excel for this angler in cold weather. The larger diameter and more tactile feel makes the flyline style much easier to hold while casting. There are a couple coated mono running lines available now as well, they strive to give the angler the grip of a thicker flyline running line, with the shootability of a thin mono running line. The Rio Gripshooter and Scientific Anglers Floating Monocore are fine examples of this style of line. Again, there are drawbacks to these coated mono options as well. The grippy, coated line can delaminate from the mono core under the right circumstances. While fishing in very cold conditions and then giving the line a good hard tug, when snagged up for example, can cause the coating and core to stretch at different rates, thus separating the coating from the core.
Following a few general guidelines you can help pair up a running line to the situation. Flyline style running lines are the easiest to hang onto and are generally the most beginner-friendly in all conditions. They’re also a great match for anglers that like to have the greatest line control for mending and controlling their swing. Mono shoots the fastest, but has memory and is tough to hang onto, especially in cold conditions. However, mono’s lightweight does excel for touch and go style casting. Finally, floating braided lines do an excellent job all around, but might feel a little abrasive for some folks.