How to set up a fly line

How to attach the fly line to your backing and your backing to the fly reel without getting coils is fairly easy when you know how.

How to set up a fly line
© Fly and Lure
How to set up a fly line
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
How to set up a fly line
Beginners Fly lines Estimated reading time 8 - 12 minutes

How do you attach a fly line to a reel?

If you've never done it before, attaching a fly line to a reel can be a bit fiddly. The fly line itself isn't attached directly to the reel. Instead, it's attached to fine braided material called fly line backing.

Brightly coloured braided backing is used to tie the fly line to the reel.

Why do you attach backing to a fly line?

Fly line backing is used for two main reasons. Firstly, a fly line is usually only 90 feet long. If you make a long cast and hook a big, powerful fish which swims off at great speed, you may run out of line. The backing gives you a load of extra line to let fish run.

Secondly, the addition of backing makes the middle of your reel - the arbour - a bit wider. This means the line is wrapped around the spool in much larger coils which means the line is less likely to go coily and also gives you a bit of extra speed when retrieving on the reel.

Backing fills up the spool, helps minimise memory and gives you extra line if fish run.

How do I attach the fly line to the backing?

The more expensive fly lines on the market, such as those from Orvis, Rio and Snowbee, often have welded loops at either end. With these lines it's very simple to attach the backing, as you can simply tie it to the welded loop with a grinner or uni knot. If there's no welded loop, you'll need to tie the backing to the fly line with a special knot.

Every fly line has a front end and a back end. The front end - called the head - is thicker and provides the weighted part for you to cast, while the back end - called the running line - is thinner and has little weight. It's the thin running line you attach to the backing, not the thicker head section.

Most lines come with a little sticker at one end of the line, which says something like "This end to backing". That can help you ensure you don't reel the line on backwards so the heavy bit is at the wrong end. The line won't cast if you do this!

Premium fly lines, like this Snowbee XS, often have welded loops at each end to make loading them onto your reel as easy as possible.

What knot do you use to tie the backing to the fly line?

The nail knot is the standard way to attach the fly line to the backing. This is a restriction knot that is best tied using a special tool, or a nail, as a guide. Once the knot is in position, you pull on the tag end and then pull the fly line and backing to tighten everything down.

It can be a fiddly one to get rid and on some fly lines it often results in the top layer of the line coming free, however, it's usually possible to get a firm knot after two or three failed attempts. Adding more turns to the knot generally helps prevent slipping.

A nail knot is generally used to attach fly line backing to the fly line if no welded loop is present.

How do you tie the backing to the fly reel?

The backing is fairly easy to tie to the fly reel. There is a special knot designed for this called an arbour knot, but a standard grinner or uni knot works just as well. To tie the backing onto the arbour you simply wrap a turn of line around the spool and then tie on a knot and pull it tight. It's really simple.

How much backing should I attach to the fly reel?

This is where things get a little bit complicated. Every fly reel and fly line is a different size, so the amount of backing you can add varies. Most fly reel manufacturers will give you an estimate of the amount of backing the reel will hold when used with a particular fly line size. For example, the reel might be said to hold a #6 line and 100 yards of backing. However, if you've got a thick headed fly line you might struggle to get it on the reel with any backing...

You'll probably never need the backing, and you'll only ever see the backing knot if you're a really good distance caster. It's primarily there to make the arbour of the reel bigger and help prevent the fly line gaining little memory coils and to act as a backup if you do hook a big fish that runs. Add as much as you can to allow a 0.5-1cm gap below the reel once the line is in place.

Judging the right amount of backing takes a bit of practice.

How much backing should I add?

You should add enough backing to give you a bit of line to allow any fish to run and to help widen the arbour. There are no rules on this, but I generally add as much as I can squeeze on without the line getting too close to the top edge of the reel, as this can impede your ability to retrieve line.

One handy but time consuming way to get the exact amount on the reel is too loosely reel the fly line onto the reel, then tie on the backing and then reel on the backing until it's 5mm or so from the top edge of the spool. Once you're happy with the amount of backing in place, you can then carefully pull off all of the backing and line, tie the backing onto the arbour and then reel it all back on so it's the right way round.

Make sure you leave a bit of a gap, otherwise the reel won't move freely.

How should I reel on the backing and fly line?

Both the backing and the fly line will come on a spool with a central hole. It's important to make use of this hole and reel on the backing and particularly the fly line from a rotating spool. Never put the spool on the floor and wind the line off sideways, as this will put massive coils in your line that are very challenging to remove.

"Whatever you do, never, ever, put the spool on the floor and reel the line off sideways. It will put twists and coils in your line that will be hard to remove."

My preferred approach is to employ the services of a child with a pencil. Poke the pencil through the middle of the spool and get the child to hold the spool with the edge facing towards you. Line up the reel so that you're winding on the line in the same orientation as it was on the spool and it should be attached smoothly and without coiling.

How do I attach my leader to the fly line?

The vast majority of fly lines these days come with welded loops. You can either tie your leader directly to the loop or connect it using a loop to loop connection. A loop to loop connection is handy if you're using a tapered leader. Simply poke the leader loop through the loop on the end of the fly line, then thread the tippet end of the leader through the leader loop and pull. When the two loops meet you'll be left with a strong connection that you can remove by reversing the process.

The leader can be attached to the line using a loop to loop connection.

What happens if there's no welded loop?

If there's no welded loop on your fly line you've got two options: tie the leader directly to the fly line with a special knot or attach a braided loop. Most people opt for the braided loop as it's easier to attach and a bit more convenient.

A braided loop is required if there's no welded loop on your fly line.

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