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Most of us know how, but this article is for the ones who never set up a complete reel, backing, line and leader.
Many beginning and even a few seasoned fly anglers are unsure about how to set up a reel with backing, fly line and leader from scratch.
This article will take you step-by-step through this process, using simple and proven methods, which are suitable for almost any type of fishing.
The staff in a local flyshop will often equip a newly acquired reel with backing and fly line, and in many cases the angler will just leave it as it is for years, neglecting the operation of unspooling the line and respooling it to make sure it's properly arranged on the spool.
Beginners may get the aide of a friend, which is an excellent idea, making sure that the setup is adequately tuned and ready to be taken into the wild.
The list of ingredients is very simple. I have chosen to illustrate this article with a newly acquired 5-6-weight reel and a 5-weight Weight Forward line. In addition to that, I have a spool with 250 yards of compact 20 lbs. braided backing and a simple three-section knotted leader. Read more about leaders and tippets in the end of this article.
You might also want to have a braided loop—a concept, which I will discuss later.
During this process I also utilized a small battery driven screwing machine (for unwinding surplus line, actually) and a couple of heavy objects to hold the spools while winding the lines.
Add to that pair of scissors, and you are ready to roll.
There are three basic types of reels, which can influence the way you must start your journey.
The reason this is interesting is that you have to consider how you "thread" the backing before tying it on the spool.
The easiest one is the open cage type. Detach the spool and tie on the backing as described below.
Next in ease is the closed cage type. Look at the reel before you remove the spool, and envision the way the line must travel through an opening in the cage. After having released the spool, you need to pass the backing through this opening the opposite way before attaching it.
On the fixed spool reel, you need to thread the backing through the right opening, pass it around the spool and back out the same way before tying the knots described below.
Deciding which hand to use on the reel
You can use most reels two ways: for left hand retrieve (the most common) and for right hand retrieve. How you switch the reel between the two differs from reel to reel. You can often change this yourself. See the instructions for the reel. In some cases it has to be done with special tools in a shop, and in a few cases it can't be done at all, but you have to buy your reel for the hand you want to use.
Most right handed fly anglers use the left hand to wind the line and vice versa for left handed anglers. We use the best hand to cast, and don't want to switch hands once a fish is hooked. But some anglers actually cast an wind with the same hand, and switch the rod over once a fish is hooked.
Remember to set your reel to the proper retrieve before spooling on line, and remember that the reel hangs under the rod when in use, and the orientation and adjustment should reflect this.
This will be the most common setup: Hold the reel in the reel foot with your casting hand and "reel in" with the other hand. The reel should be easy to turn when you reel in, and if the reel has a brake, it should only effect the movement of the spool when it turns the opposite way - as when giving off line.
Tying the backing on the spool
The first knot we are tying is very simple. Pass the tag end of the backing around the spool axle the opposite direction that the spool will be wound when you retrieve line. Now tie a simple overhand knot around the standing end and tighten. Then tie another overhand knot on the tag end and pull the standing end until the two knots engage.
Mount the spool on the reel cage, ensuring that the backing passes the right way through the cage.
When you now start spooling the knots should have run down the line and tightened nicely around the spool axle.
- fix the fly line with tape to the axle of the reel
- wind it on to the reel
- attach the backing to the fly line
- add as much backing as needed on the reel
- cut the rest of the backing
- take off all backing and the fly line
- reverse it and start spooling on the backing as mentioned in this description
Amount of backing
Now you place the spool with the backing in a way that allows it to turn, and start spooling the backing on the reel. This can easily be done by hand. It just takes some time. You can also use a tool such as the Smart Spooler. Make sure that the backing is tight and that it is evenly distributed on the spool.
Never pull the backing off the side of its factory spool. This will introduce twist into the backing.
And don't put too much backing on the spool. You usually won't need it unless you are going salmon fishing or bonefishing or want to take on tuna or jacks. 100 yards will suffice for most general purposes.
On small arbor reels with a small diameter axle you may need more to fill up the spool. You can also choose to use a thicker type of backing such as the older Dacron type.
You may by accident put a bit too much backing on (I did for the photos for this article...), which will make the fly line touch the outer bars when it's completely wound on the reel. And you don't want that to happen, because it won't show itself before you have finished spooling the fly line, in which case you will have to back up and restart the procedure after removing the surplus backing.
Preparing the fly line
Since I assume you have a Weight Forward line on your hands, you will have to locate the reel end of the line. Most lines are tagged with a small sticker to indicate this, but if you see no sticker, you will have to find it yourself.
The Weight Forward line is basically a thin line attached to a thick line, so you simply find the thin end.
The front end is thin too, but only for a short section. Then it tapers to a thick part.
You want the other end.
Some types of backing are hollow and allow for an attachment with a silicone sleeve. This can work quite well as long as you work the backing and silicone sleeve sufficiently far up the fly line.
Another option is using a braided loop on the fly line and a large loop on the backing.
In this case I have selected to tie the fly line onto the backing using a permanent knot. If you do not plan on changing your line often, a knot will do a fine job. But notice: It usually has to be cut off if you want to take the lines apart later.
An Albright knot
So you have now arrived at your first major challenge: attaching the backing to the fly line. There are several ways of doing this, but I have chosen my own favorite method, the Albright knot. This is a very durable knot that's fairly easy to tie.
So, step by step.
Bend the reel end of the fly line back for an inch or a couple of centimeters and pinch the line and tag parallel between your fingers, while you let about ½ inch or a centimeter of the loop protrude.
Now pass the tag end of the backing through the loop and pull a few inches through. Pinch the backing between your fingers too, and start winding the tag back over the two strands of fly line forming the loop. 6-8 turns will suffice, and having finished the last turn, you pass the tag of the backing the opposite way through the loop compared to the standing end of the backing.
You can now pull gently on both tag end and standing end to tighten the loops and work them towards the end of the loop on the fly line. As they get closer and tighter the lines crossing in the loop will lock tight and finally the coils of backing will be at the very end of the bent back fly line and so tight that the backing sometimes works itself into the coating of the fly line.
Trim the tag ends of the backing and the fly line and you're done.
You can now spool the fly line onto the reel. Again let the fly line spool turn, and don't pass it over the edge.
Distribute the line evenly over the full width of the reel, guiding it with your fingers.
If the reel fills up too much and the fly line touches the outer bars on the cage, you will have to back up a couple of steps. Remove the fly line, cut the Albright knot, remove some backing and start over from the Albright.
You are now ready to attach a leader.
Loop or knot
I have used both loops and knots for the attachment of leaders. Nowadays I use knots only. I prefer the stiffer link that it provides, and I also change leaders a lot more seldom than I used to. If you are a beginner and still uncertain about leader choice, if you know you will change leaders often (maybe because you fish deep over rocky bootom) or if you just want a more flexible setup, you may want to opt for a loop-to-loop connection.
The loop system facilitates leader changes, and if you want to change leaders often, that's the way you want to go.
You can mount a braided loop on the fly line, or make a permanent one by removing the coating and splicing an eye on the braided core. Threading a new leader with a loop onto that takes seconds.
If you want a firmer and stiffer connection, which many anglers prefer, you can attach the leader butt to the front end of the fly line with a nail knot as described above.
Addendum, August 2007
Leader and tippet
A lot of people have asked for more details about leaders and tippets, so I have decided to expand the article with a few more details on this.
Let's cover the basics first: the leader and the tippet are the two terminal parts of the setup before your fly. The leader is attached to the front end of the fly line and the tippet is attached to that. Your fly is tied to the tippet.
The leader is a tapered piece of line - it's thicker towards the fly line and thinner towards the tippet and fly. The taper is obtained by using a tapered monofilament line, a tapered braided line (many thin lines "braided") or a so called poly leader, which essentially is made like a fly line: by coating a core. A last and very common type of leader is a knotted leader, where the taper is created by tying together several pieces of straight monofilament in ever decreasing diameters. The purpose of the leader is twofold:
1) To lead from the thick and clumsy fly line to a thin and delicate tip that can actually pass through the eye of the fly
2) To transfer power from the fly line to the fly in such a way that the last bit of movement is gone when the fly is delivered
So you attach a leader to the fly line as described above. Regarding length a rule of thumb could be that about 1½ times the length of your rod is is suitable. A 9-12' leader is always a good place to start with one hand rods. The leaders are usually either tagged with tippet sizes in X's (4X, 5X, 6X and so on) or with the type of fishing it's meant for: dry fly, nymph, salwater, steelhead, salmon or it can be labelled with the pound test in the tip like 2, 4, 6 lbs. and so on. Select the leader so that it suits the tippet you want to use. The tippet is actually just a piece of mono that you can change and extend as you change your fly, tie on new one and cut off little bit of line in the process. In stead of eating up your leader, you waste a bit of tippet, and once in a while you cut that off the leader and tie on some fresh tippet. In that way you can keep on fishing with the same length of leader and tippet.
So: attach a 9' leader to your fly line with a knot or a loop as described. Attach to that 1-2' of tippet in the same thickness or a bit thinnner than the tip of the leader. Use a surgeon's knot for that. And finally thread the whole thing through the eyes of your rod, tie your fly to the tippet and you are ready to fish.