Sink-tip or Floating Line?

By Scott Richmond

I've gotten several e-mails asking when steelheaders should switch from a floating line to a sinking line. I've given some simplistic answers based on water temperature. On reflection, however, I realize that those answers don't fully reflect how I actually fish.

A more thorough discussion is needed, as well as some opinions other than mine. So that's the subject of Westfly's first "Ask the Pros" column: When should fly-rod steelheaders use a sink-tip line and when should they use a floating line?

I posed this question to several experts--"the pros"--and have compiled the results. The experts for this month are:

  1. John Hazel, a long-time guide on Oregon's Deschutes River
  2. Dave Steinbaugh of Waters West (360-417-0937) in Port Angeles, Washington
  3. Rob Tibbett, manager of Orvis Seattle (in Bellevue; 425-452-9138)
  4. Cory Williams of The Fly Shop in Redding, California
  5. Mike Kuczynski of Eureka Fly Shop (707-444-2000), Eureka California

The question pertains only to traditional tactics for steelhead in rivers, when anglers are using a wet fly swing. It does not apply to indicator tactics for steelhead.

Many factors must be considered when making a sink-tip vs. floating line decision. Each is discussed below.

As an aside, let me say that the success and popularity of indicator tactics for steelhead has caused more than one angler to wonder why they shouldn't always use a heavy sink-tip. After all, those indicator guys are catching fish off the bottom.

It's a good line of reasoning, but the fact is that the path of the fly matters to a steelhead. They react one way to a fly that has a natural, drag-free dead-drift and is coming right at them. They can have a different reaction to a fly that is swinging across the current. Why does it matter to them? You'll have to ask the fish.

Temperature

Because fish are cold-blooded creatures, water temperature affects their metabolism. Cold water reduces their energy level and they tend to lie near the bottom. That's the classic reason for using a sink-tip line in the winter.

How cold is cold? It depends. Generally a water temperature of 42-44 degrees is cold. At that temperature, steelhead are less likely to rise than a dot-com's stock price; when it's that cold, you should definitely be using a sink-tip line.

But there's a flip side. When the water gets warm, steelhead will seek a preferred temperature--often near 61-62 degrees--that they find near the bottom. And they'll be reluctant to rise through warm water to get to your fly. John Hazel, a long-time Deschutes River guide, syas he usually switches to a sink-tip when the river is 65 or warmer.

Changes in temperature

While the absolute temperature is important, the change in temperature can be equally critical. If the temperature drops suddenly, steelhead can become reluctant to rise and a sink-tip is in order.

If the temperature drops slowly, steelhead may adjust and still be willing to take a fly presented on a floating line.

And if the temperature rises slowly from cold to warmer, steelhead may become surface-oriented again.

Thus, a drop from 62 to 50 over a two-day span may put the fish on the bottom and your best success will be with a sink-tip. However, a weeklong drop from 54 to 50 may make no difference to the fish. And a rise from 42 to 50 over a week can leave them receptive to near-surface flies again. In all these cases, the absolute temperature--50--was irrelevant. It was the direction and speed of the change that mattered most.

Note that small rivers will experience greater fluctuations in temperature than small rivers.

Changes in water level

Sudden increases in the river level can make steelhead want to stay near the bottom. A sink-tip will work best.

Time of year

Dave Steinbaugh of Waters West in Port Angeles, Washington, says he usually switches between floaters and sink-tips based on the time of year. He sticks with the floater until the first winter fish show up, then he puts on the sink-tip. And once he's switched, he stays switched until summer.

When pressed, however, Dave adds that he will put on a sink-tip in the summer if the visibility is low. Further, he uses sinking leaders (Rio and Air Flow are two brands) with his floating line in order to reach deeper water in summer.

Time of Day

Even with the mild water temperatures of summer, most steelhead

will not rise for a surface fly when the sky is bright, such as at midday. They may take a fly presented on a sink-tip line, however.

On the other hand, a winter angler on a small northern California stream might start the day with a sink-tip and switch to a floating line as the water warms up. Even a degree or two can make a difference.

Distance from ocean

When steelhead enter the river from the ocean, they may experience a significant temperature change. For example, summer steelhead entering a river in June or July may come from an ocean temperature of 54-55 degrees and suddenly find themselves in a river that's 44 degrees. In this case, a sink-tip is the right choice.

Efficiency

Guide John Hazel points out that a floating line is more efficient than a sink-tip line. First, you can cast a floater farther than you can cast a sink-tip. Second, the fly is "fishing" from the moment it hits the water until it ends its swing. If you've mended properly, the fly is presented well throughout its entire drift.

With a sink-tip, however, the fly takes a while to settle to the right level. And if you're fishing in "transition water", the fly will start to sink as the line enters slower water. Further, sink-tips tend to develop bows that drag the fly in a manner that steelhead are not fond of.

So if you're undecided, you're probably better off with the floater because you'll cover more water and cover it better.

River System

Sometimes it just depends on the strain of fish and the river system they're swimming in. California steelhead, for example, may be comfortable with water temperatures that Oregon fish would find unpleasant.

Hatchery vs. wild

Rob Tibbett at Orvis Seattle points out that hatchery steelhead are less aggressive than wild steelhead, and may be less likely to take a fly on a floating line. If you're fishing a river with a strong hatchery-based run, you might opt for a sink-tip.

Clarity

If the water is turbid, steelhead may have difficulty seeing or reacting to a fly that is too far above them. A sink-tip line may work better.

Depth

Sometimes fish are holding (you think!) in deep water, and the only way to reach them is with a sink-tip.

Gut feeling

Sometimes you just feel like fishing with a floating line and sometimes you're more comfortable with a sink-tip. This can have nothing whatsoever to do with water temperature or any other factor. It's just an intuition. Listen to your intuition--you may have spent years developing it.

As Mike Kuczynski of Eureka Fly Shop puts it, sometimes your decision is based on "superstition and supposition." If you've spent a lot of time on the water, those superstitions and suppositions are probably right. Go with the line that makes you feel more confidant of success.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).