Demystifying Spey Part 3: Shooting/Running Lines

A skagit head taking flight, trailed by a long length of running line. Angler Jason Rolfe on the Olympic Peninsula. photo Reid Curry.

A skagit head taking flight, trailed by a long length of running line. Angler Jason Rolfe on the Olympic Peninsula. photo Reid Curry.

Welcome to the third edition of Demystifying Spey. In today's post we are going to be talking about running lines (also called shooting lines). Yes, that's right, another post about lines...because, well, spey lines are kinda confusing. The good news, however, is that this is the third and final part of the spey line equation. As you recall from our previous posts, both Skagit and Scandi line systems are made up of three components - a shooting head, a tip or polyleader, and a running line. Both Skagit and Scandi line systems use the same running lines. This is great news for anglers who like to spend time with both Skagit and Scandi heads, as it means they can keep their favorite running line on their reel at all times and simply swap out the shooting head as they desire. Like all things in the world of fly fishing nowadays, there are a lot of running line options currently available. It is not uncommon to go to a spey-heavy fly shop and find a dozen or more different shooting line options. They all fundamentally do the same thing - that is they "shoot" through the guides as your Skagit/Scandi head flies through the air on a long cast - but there are subtle differences as well as distinct pros and cons between the various options. Although there are a great variety of running lines on the market, they all fall into one of three distinct categories: coated running lines, monofilament running lines, and braided running lines. Below we'll discuss each of these different types of spey running lines, their pros and cons, and current market offerings. 

Before we jump into the different types of running lines, we should probably quickly define what a running line is. First off, running lines are also called shooting lines. There is no difference, some manufacturers call them running lines, others call them shooting lines. Running lines are narrow diameter level lines (a level line is not tapered) which are designed to shoot quickly through the guides of a rod. When casting either a Skagit or Scandi line, the cast is generated entirely by the shooting head, however once the head goes airborne, the running line follows or "shoots" right behind it. That being said, lets dive into the different types of running lines.

Coated Running Lines

Coated running lines are very similar in feel and appearance to regular single-handed fly lines. They are constructed with a monofilament or braided core which is then coated in a polymer material (just like a single-handed fly line). This coating is typically floating and is optimized for slickness to reduce friction as the line shoots through the guides. Some shooting lines have textured coatings which are intended to further reduce friction through the guides. Coated running lines are considered the best option for new spey casters, as their relatively thicker diameter and grippy coating make them easier to hold onto. Personally, if someone is new to spey and asks me what running line to go with, I always recommend a coated option. Another benefit of coated running lines for new spey anglers is that they feel very similar to the single handed fly lines that the angler is most likely already used to. The running line is the angler's touch point throughout the casting stroke, so sticking with a familiar feeling running line can reduce some of the awkwardness in the early stages of the spey casting learning process. Additional benefits of coated running lines are that they have very little line memory and have overall the best "handling" characteristics. The downside of coated running lines is that they do not excel at distance and high lines speed quite as well as other options. This is primarily due to the larger diameter which creates more drag as the line travels through the rod guides. Coated running lines take up the most room on a reel, so factor this into your reel choice. Pros: Ease of handling, most beginner friendly, very little line memory, high floating. Cons: Less ease of distance and line speed compared to other running line options. 

A coated running line, this one the Airflo Super-Dri. photo Airflo.

A coated running line, this one the Airflo Super-Dri. photo Airflo.

Examples of Coated Running Lines Currently on the Market:

Some of the more popular coated running lines currently on the market include the Airflo Super-Dri Running Line, Rio Powerflex Max Shooting Line, Rio Connectcore Shooting Line, and the Scientific Anglers Floating Monocore Shooting Line. Another option which I have recently been spending some time with is the Monic GSP Shooting Floating Line. The Monic GSP shooting line is unique in that it uses a Gel-spun core, allowing the overall diameter of the line to be fairly thin while maintaining extremely high breaking strength.

Many of the above running lines come in multiple diameters or pound test strengths. For example, the Airflo Super-Dri Running Line comes in both 20lb and 30lb variations. The 20lb version is best suited for spey rods 6wt and lower, while the 30lb is best for spey rods 6wt and higher. Rio, on the other hand, offers 4 different diameters in their coated running lines, here is their recommendations for the Connectcore Shooting Line in relation to head grain weight: 

0.026" - gray, with 16ft handling section. 15lb core. Ideal for heads between 200-450gr

0.032" - green, with 17ft handling section. 20lb core. Ideal for heads between 450-575gr

0.037" - blue, with 18ft handling section. 20lb core. Ideal for heads between 575-675gr

0.042" - straw, with 19ft handling section. 30lb core. Ideal for heads over 675gr

It is worth mentioning that some manufacturers offer coated running lines in floating, intermediate, and even sinking densities. For spey applications, you always want to go with a floating running line. 

Rigging up Coated Running Lines

Most coated running lines come with a factory-welded loop on both ends. Simply use these loops to create a loop-to-loop connection to your backing on one end, and your shooting head on the other. In the case that there is no factory loop on the back end of the running line, use an Albright Knot or the fly line to backing knot of your choice to attach to the backing.

Monofilament Running Line

Monofilament running lines are the best option for achieving maximum casting distance and line speed. They are the thinnest in diameter of all of the running lines and therefore have the least friction shooting through the guides as well as the least water tension when coiled in the current. These attributes make mono running lines the hands-down best option for anglers concerned with casting the greatest distance. In the hands of a skilled caster, mono running lines can create an absolutely buttery casting feel. They are so thin and slick that they are almost undetectable as they shoot through the guides. Of course, mono running lines have some distinct disadvantages as well. Of all of the running line options, mono has the most line memory. This line memory can usually be overcome by stretching the line before use, but is nonetheless a pain. Perhaps the biggest complaint about mono running lines is that they are hard to hold on to. As silly as this sounds, it is very valid. Mono running lines are so slick and thin that they easily can slip out of your finger during the casting stroke, creating a completely failed cast. Stripping and all associated line management tasks are also made more difficult because of this. Mono running lines take up very little room on a reel, and in some cases may allow the use of a smaller sized reel. Pros: Maximum distance and line speed. Cons: Line memory, challenging line handling characteristics.

Examples of Monofilament Running Lines Currently on the Market:

Some of the more popular mono running lines currently available include the Airflo Impact, Rio Slickshooter, OPST Lazar Line, and Varivas Airs. Of the above listed mono running lines, there are two different types of construction. The Airflo Impact and Rio Slickshooter are "Oval" or "Flat" mono lines, meaning that the shape of the line itself is a very thin oval, almost appearing and feeling flat in hand. The OPST and Varivas lines are round hollow-core monofilament. The theoretical benefits of hollow monofilament are higher flotation, less line memory, and less tangling. Notice I said theoretical. Another interesting option on the market is the Rio Gripshooter. The Gripshooter is a hybrid line which aims to combine the benefits of both a coated running line and a monofilament running line, while reducing the disadvantages of both. To achieve this, Rio integrated a 15 foot coated "handling" section into the front end of a monofilament running line, thus achieving the easier line handling of a coated line and the distance benefits of a mono line. 

As is the case with coated running lines, all of the above mono running lines come in various sizes. For example, Airflo offers the Impact in 30lb and 44lb options, whereas Rio offers the Slickshooter in 25lb, 35lb, 44lb, and 50lb. Anything falling in between 35lb and 45lb is the best option for spey rods in the 6wt to 8wt range. 

Rigging Up Mono Running Lines

Mono running lines do not come with a loop on either end, so you will have to tie your own. My preferred knot for this application is the Double Surgeon's Loop. Mono is very Slick! So this means that you need to really crank down on your knots to get them to seat properly. Tie those babies tight and then finish them off with a drop of Loon UV Knot Sense or super glue for safe measure. Use these loops on either end to create a loop-to-loop connection to your backing as well as a loop-to-loop connection to your shooting head. 

Braided Running Lines

On to the sleeper pick and my personal favorite choice - braided running lines. Braided running lines are certainly the dark horse of the spey world. Sort of a cult classic, if you will. I love them because they combine many of the best attributes of both mono and coated running lines. They are fairly narrow in diameter, so they shoot great...almost as well as mono. They have a grippy texture, so they are easy to handle...almost as easy as coated lines. Notice my use of "almost". If you were purely after distance, I would still recommend a mono line. Conversely, if you are new to spey or only after ease of line handling, I would still recommend a coated line. However, if you are looking for the best of both worlds, braided running lines fall into the sweet spot. That being said, they have some unique quarks that can be deal breakers for some folks. First, they make noise when they go through the guides, a lot of noise. Second, much like gel-spun backing, under tension, the braided material can be razor sharp and has been known to cause a few finger injuries. This, however, is a lesson that you only learn once and then develop better line handing techniques moving forwards. Next, they are bit of a hassle compared to other running lines to initially rig up. Lastly, they hold onto the most water, which makes them not the best choice in below-freezing conditions. The water retained in the line can freeze, making the line stiff and lopping extra water onto the guides contributing to much dreaded "guide ice". Personally, I always fight through this and continue using braided running lines through the winter. Braided running lines take up a medium amount of space on a reel (less than coated, more than mono). Pros: Good distance shooting ability, good grip and handling characteristics, very little line memory. Cons: Noisy, potential finger injuries, difficult to rig up initially, questionable choice in below freezing conditions. 

Examples of Braided Running Lines Currently on the Market:

This is an easy one. At this time there is only one commercially available braided running line out there (in North America anyways), and it kicks a**. I am speaking about Airflo Miracle Braid. Seriously, it's the jam. It only comes in one size, so it's about as straightforward a choice as there is in the world of spey. 

Rigging Up Braided Running Lines

Like I mentioned above, rigging up a braided running line is a bit more of a process than the other running line options. The best method is to splice a loop into either end. I would caution against tying a knot such as a surgeon's loop in this material, as they are very prone to working loose. Rather than even attempting to describe how to splice a loop in my own words, I will leave it up to the guys at The Confluence Fly Shop in Bellingham and Deneki Outdoors in the below video:

In Conclusion...

So many great running line options out there, so which way to go? If you are new to spey, I would recommend not overthinking it and just going with a coated running line. If you have a bit more experience and are looking to change up your running it! The great thing about running lines is they are relatively inexpensive, making it easy to try out a number of options and develop a personal preference. Realistically, although I have stated that braided lines are my favorite, I currently have every type of running line rigged up on one of my reels. While they do excel in different scenarios, I mostly just like the casting feel of changing it up every once in awhile. In case all of the above geekery went directly into one ear and out the other, I'll leave you with a great video from Rajeff Sports of Tom Larimer giving a succinct overview of Airflo's running line options:

Til next time,

- Reid