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Sink-tip, sinker, or Skagit?

By Glyn Freeman

Glyn Freeman considers the range of sinking line types and profiles available to the salmon angler today, and explains their various applications

The huge and often confusing array of accessories available to present a sunk fly. Do we need it all, and will one piece of kit
The huge and often confusing array of accessories available to present a sunk fly. Do we need it all, and will one piece of kit

Compared to previous generations, the modern-day fly fisher has a huge array of lines and accessories to vary his/her tactics for sub-surface presentation of the fly. Pieces of kit are now available that will help to fish the fly that little bit deeper, slower or faster, than was previously possible. That's great news, especially when we know for a fact that fish will take a fly more confidently well below the surface than close to it, but the amount of gear and permutations available today can confuse.

Until about 40 years ago, untreated silk fly lines and heavy single irons were the only consideration for fly anglers attempting to achieve any sort of depth in a salmon river flow. Now, with modern technologies and new materials, it seems that almost any river situation that presents a challenge is well within the fly fisher's reach.

Here, I'd like to help to clarify and unravel some of the reasons why we use certain pieces of kit, and to which situations it best applies. We need to ask ourselves a number of questions and study the river and its flow. The list of questions is long, but with experience many of these questions are answered whilst tackling up. Here are my thought processes as I put up my rod and clamp on my reel:

• What am I trying to accomplish with the way the fly is presented, and for what reason?

• What do I know about the varying speeds and depths of flow throughout the pool?

• What depth and movement do I require in order to fish the fly to best effect? What is the water temperature?

• Where is the wind blowing from?

• What is the colour of water?

• What is the height of water?

• What are my opportunities to mend the fly line?


• At what speed does the fly need to swing across the river?

Once I've made my analysis of the fishing conditions, I then ask myself:

• What weight/size of fly will I be choosing to suit the conditions?

• What angle of delivery is required to achieve the optimum fly speed?

• What length of sunken fly line/sink-tip do I require?

• What is the most suitable sinking rate of sunken fly line/tip?

Now, I have various interchangeable sink-tips of various lengths available to me, plus a full range of full sunk lines of various sink-rates. I also have shooting-head sinkers in my bag, and long-belly sunk lines. I also have a Skagit line, with a selection of fast-sinking tips. Which one do I opt for?

The key is balance: this is best determined by starting with the fly you have decided to fish. This will fish at its best on a certain line-diameter (or breaking strain). For instance, if a tube fly is fished on too flimsy a leader it will not turnover on the cast; if a small fly is fished on too heavy a leader it will not move in a lively fashion. The line balances with the tips of the fly lines, and their lengths.

Also, I’m constantly aware that I need to be in touch with the fly, so keeping a minimum amount of slack line within my fishing system is at the forefront of my mind. This again helps determine which line I will use.

The other consideration is our quarry itself: what will the salmon's general behaviour be like, given the conditions we are faced with?

Due to the fact that they are cold-blooded, salmon behaviour varies markedly with temperature. In cool water, salmon move much slower and move in a more ponderous way. They are less inclined to lift themselves vertically in the water column or follow a fly, and reluctant to chase a fly across the stream.

In warmer water, fish are more inclined not only to rise through the water column to take a fly, but also will chase one across the stream. In both cases, the size of fly and colour/pattern, angle of presentation, depth and retrieval speed can be markedly different, and they will make a huge difference to success.

If I can control the depth and speed of the fly, I can overcome many of the problems of presenting a sunken fly. Although full-sunk lines will always have their place in salmon fishing – and their use in some cases is imperative – the development in sink-tips today has made our choice both in some ways more complicated, but also simpler, depending on how we broach the question.

Let us first look at the types of sink tip which we can use and subsequently show possible uses for them:

Polyleaders are manufactured by dipping monofilament into a tungsten mix. There are two different types in that some are coated level lengths of monofilament whereas others are tapered lengths of monofilament. All come in differing lengths of 5-15ft, and if you strip the coating off and cut back some of the end taper, you can customise them to suit your own needs.

These can be designated as a sink-rate from 1.5in per second to 7in per second. Although these sink rates are probably true for a short length dropped into stillwater, they certainly do not sink this quickly on the river with any sort of flow. The tapered types also sink butt-end first, due to the weight distribution. All are attached to the fly-line by a loop-to-loop connection and are easily changed.

They are probably best described as ‘anti-skate’ leaders rather than true sink-tips, but form a very important part of the salmon angler’s armamentarium.

Dedicated sink-tips
These can be made from the front taper of sinking lines (salmon or trout) or purchased as such. They are therefore able to sink much faster than the polyleaders, as they are much thicker and therefore contain much more of the tungsten mix. Level sink-tips with no taper sink on a more even keel, but the price is that presentation of the delivery may suffer. Attachment is loop-to-loop, and care has to be taken not to unbalance the floating line that is used. Tips of various sink-rates can be carried in a wallet and easily changed while fishing a pool; very adaptable for many situations.

Multi-tip fly lines
Today, most anglers buy the more recent multi-tip lines which consist of a floating body with various tips of 10-15ft which can be connected by loop-to-loop connection. Most of these lines come with four tips: Floating, Slow Sink, Fast Sink and Ultra Fast Sink. There are also other “kits” which come with a greater choice of tips in length, although the four sink rates as above seem almost universal for standard lines. The floating section of the fly line is correctly tapered to deal with the tips supplied. Tips can be carried in a wallet and easily changed; a very versatile and effective piece of kit and one I use a great deal nowadays.

Skagit style sink-tips
Ultra-fast sink tips to be used with short heavy bellied Skagit type lines. These are fly lines designated by the T system. The T system is the number of grains per foot that the tip contains e.g. T10 is 10 grains per foot and T17 is 17 grains per foot. These are real depth-charge tips and certainly have their uses in certain situations. These are also connected by a loop-to-loop connection the body of the Skagit line.

Integrated sink-tip lines

One can purchase full sink-tip lines, where the end sinking section is a permanent attachment moulded on the floating part attached at the point of manufacture. These will have various lengths and sink-rates from 1.5in and 7in per second (Sink Type 1 to Type 7). The downside is that you are restricted to one particular set-up which may not suit every situation, and the angler would have to carry many spare spools loaded with other lines to be flexible in his/her approach.

Of course, until a few years ago, all we had available to us was full fly lines, of a different sink-rates: intermediate, Wet Cel II, fast-sink, etc. So why have the sink-tip and Skagit versions become so popular? And are full sinkers obselete?

One needs to understand how sink-tips give us advantages over fully sunken lines, which traditionally have been the norm when fishing sub-surface.

• Sink-tips give us the ability to mend the floating part of the line during the swing – either upstream to slow the fly down and gain more depth, or downstream to speed up the swing of the fly. With sinking lines, apart from an aerial mend, once the fly alights on the water one cannot alter the speed or depth of the fly by mending.

• Sink-tips are also easier to cast, especially whilst wading, as the hanging floating line section (even with good line management) is easier to control than a heavy sinking line, especially when deep wading in a strong current.

• At the end of the swing on retrieving the line for the next cast the floating section pulls the tip towards the surface, thus avoiding in many instances catching the bottom, whilst sinking lines do the opposite and pull the fly down into the bottom.

• If the fly comes around into slack water at the end of the retrieve it is easier to give life to the fly and to keep it off the bottom by moving the rod or retrieving/jigging the fly – this is often successful in inducing a take from an inquisitive fish that has followed the fly around.

• Skagit lines are excellent for fishing the 'wrong' side of the pool i.e. off a steep bank with the depth directly beneath the angler. Not only do they allow the angler to control depth and speed, they are also useful in situations where the backspace is limited as the ‘D’ loop on a 27ft head is very shallow.

However, we need to understand when the full sinking line can be advantageous, as in the following examples:

• The full sinking line can fish deeper than a sink-tip.

• In a smooth pool, with low and clear water conditions, a slow intermediate fly-line fished below the surface will scare less fish, rather than a floating section of line disturbing the surface.

• Like for like, sinking lines swing slower than a floating line for a couple of reasons, the profile of the fly-line is much thinner and the current is slower in the water column than near the surface. 

• In a really strong wind, the floating section of a sink-tip tends to get blown about making the drift of the fly either stall or move too rapidly. In this situation an intermediate with a sink-tip would be an advantage, as it would swim in the wave not on it.

• The presentation of the fly will be different with a more level retrieve.

• When fishing techniques such as stripping Sunray Shadows square across the stream an intermediate shooting head will often give greater success than a floater.

• In Scandinavia (and more recently over here) more anglers use only shooting heads. In these circumstances, they would carry only one reel with heads from floater to ultra-fast sink in one wallet in their pocket. This obviates the need for multiple reels.

• In narrow rivers, where the drift of the fly is short an intermediate line with or without a tip will attain the fishing depth more quickly to allow the fly to fish the river more effectively.

Disadvantages of sink-tips when compared to sinking lines
It would be remiss however, to dismiss full-sinking lines out of hand. There are situations where the sinking line has advantages over the use of our sinking tips.

Sinking lines have also seen great developments since the days when the Wet Cel II was the standard full sinking line for the salmon angler. Most of the proprietry lines today have floating running lines to make casting easier whilst deep wading, and there are many full lines and shooting heads which sink from rates 1 to 8. A more recent development have been the three sink-rate shooting heads, for instance, Sink 1/3/5 which attempt to overcome the perennial problem of all sunk lines in that they tend to sink belly first rather than tip-first, which is more preferable for the angler. This is an improving design feature. Of course, one can also obtain dedicated sink-tips on intermediate bodies which are also useful in some situations. Unlike the sink-tip, there is limited possibility of mending. Immediately upon the line landing on the water, one has time for a single mend, but once the line has started its swing it is impossible to mend the belly section.

Beginning of the season – fishing in cold water or in very high water conditions
Once the water begins to warm, and salmon are more inclined to move to our flies, then we can consider the plethora of polyleader, sink-tip and sunk-line variations available to us. However, until that situation arises later in the season, if we are fishing in cold, high water we need to to get the fly deep. How can we accomplish this with a sink-tip line?

Cold water means the cold-blooded salmon is less inclined to move as it lies deep in the current. So, not only have I got to try to swim my fly very close to where the fish is lying, I also need it to stay there long enough to allow it to be taken.

This is where the Skagit line set-ups answer some of my needs; they can get the fly down deeply, and one can also control the speed. These were developed by winter steelhead fishermen on the west coast of America to fish pockets in extremely cold water with big, heavy flies. These lines can be used for fishing specific holding areas, very similar to the potential lies in many of our Scottish rivers in January to March and sometimes in late October/November. It is also true that in big water during summertime we sometimes need to get the fly well down, usually near our own bank.

A typical set up for springtime would be a 15ft T10 – T17 tip attached to my Skagit body with a very short, stout leader of 3-4ft with a large brass, copper, tungsten or conehead fly attached. We would cast this again about 30 yards in our river, make an aerial mend, and keep mending the line as the fly swings round to slow down the fly, and also to gain depth. These lines are easy to cast, despite the weights of Skagit head – many fishers tend to use 650 grain heads on 10/11-weight rods.

Due to the fact that they can deliver a weighted line, these lines can enable us to fish from 2–8ft down, and will cover nearly all our sinking line needs for when a fly need to be swum deeply and slowly.

When one purchases these lines remember:
• The line weight is the head weight only (it does not include the tip).

• The length of the head + tip should not exceed three-and-a-half times the length of the rod.

• Generally speaking, fast-action rods work best with slightly lighter Skagit heads than more progressive action rods.

• Only cast these lines with water-borne anchor casts such as the Circle cast or double Spey.

• Sink-tip tips.

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