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Sinkants and floatants

By Stan Headley

Gink, Xink, Permaflote and Watershed

I don’t go anywhere without my tub of fuller’s earth, and if I do lose it, as has happened, I get out of the boat and search the verges for some real mud to keep me going until I replace the loss. On the windiest day, for the least suspicious of fish, even fishing an Airflo Di8, I always de-grease. My theory is this: if it is needed then it’s essential; if it’s not needed then it can’t hurt.

All monofilament, fresh from the factory and ‘hot’ off the shelf, will carry minute traces of industrial contaminants such as mineral oil. Such trace chemicals will tend to cause the monofilament to float. At no time do I feel the need for floating monofilament, in fact it’s an abomination. Even when fishing dries on a breezy day I want my monofilament sunk. Nothing will turn a fish away from a dry fly quicker than the sight of a length of floating leader attached to it. Anything floating in the surface film produces a very big ‘signature’ to sub-surface eyes, because a floating item distorts the surface film to such an extent that the finest leader will look like a hawser from below.

Not many people pull wets on a floater these days, but if you have to do so then a degreased leader is essential. Flies pulled on an untreated leader will skate on the surface, and nothing is guaranteed to reduce your catch more than skating wet flies attached to floating leader material. I wouldn’t mind 50p for every time I’d seen otherwise competent fly fishermen trying to catch surface active trout, in a flat calm, with ‘raw’ floating leader and skating flies, and wondering why they get no response.

So, we’ve got to have a degreasing agent. The best is fuller’s earth, which was used throughout industry for removing unwanted oil and grease. It is a naturally occurring mineral which has a great ability to absorb oil, and is used as a water purifier, a cleaning agent and, in the textile trade. Get your own, plus a bottle of glycerine (which should be available at the same place), take them home and mix together with some household washing-up detergent. As a guide, equal quantities of glycerine and detergent should be mixed with the powder until it has the consistency of mud. Not too dry or it is difficult to work with, and not too wet or it will ‘run’ instead of staying put. The washing-up liquid will help with the degreasing effect and also break down surface tension in the surface film, allowing quick penetration by the leader. The glycerine is there to stop the whole ‘mess’ from drying out, leaving you with useless ‘concrete’ in the bottom of your tub.

But why not buy pre-prepared degreasing agents off the tackle dealer’s shelf? Because most of it is useless – dried-out and brick-hard. I suspect that not enough glycerine is used in the proprietary mix. Your home-made stuff is better and cheaper, and you can dish it out the surplus to your pals!

Fuller’s earth (see below) has many other uses for the fly fisherman than just degreasing his leader material. If I have a new sinking line which refuses to sink, a dab of fuller’s earth on the corner of a towel or rag or handkerchief through which is pulled the offending line will sort out the problem once and for all. If problems with outboard motors leave my hands oiled-up, a healthy smear of F/E used like hand-soap will solve the dilemma. And, last but not least, new flies tied with naturally oiled materials such as duck feathers or hackles from badly cured hen/cock capes, are sorted by grinding in small quantities of fuller’s earth. The same goes for any flies which may have, inadvertently, come in contact with floatant, or dries which are sitting just a tad too ‘proud’. Wonderful stuff, fuller’s earth! What would we do without it?

Having just mentioned floatant as a problem, let’s look at it as a positive aid. There are about as many proprietary brands of floatant as Posh Spice has handbags. Every month seems to bring another onto the market – that’s floatants, not handbags! And somewhat surprisingly, they are almost if not all based on the same simple compound – silicone – which has very strong water repellent properties. (Surprisingly, the water absorbing powder that some of us use to ‘rejuvenate’ sodden dry flies is another silicone compound, generally known as silica. Both have very strong potency, one to repel water, the other to attract it!).

Silicone comes in a variety of forms – a semi-solid grease; a gel; or a liquid. The semi-solid form is often referred to as Mucilin which is a trade name for a product that’s been around for generations. I remember buying it as a mere teenager - and that wasn’t yesterday – and it is still available to this day. The gel is available under a lot of proprietary brand names, probably the most well-known being Gink, although recently I’ve opted for the strangely named Frog Fanny. In its liquid form it can come in a bottle or a spray-can. The bottled form is of little use by the waterside as a treated fly requires to be dried before use. My bottle of Permaflote sits on the tying bench and never leaves it. All have their uses, but all are virtually identical in composition, relying on the water repellent properties of silicone.

The secret behind good floatation in flies is use as little as you can. The merest smear of silicone gel floatant will keep a fly in or on the surface film for a surprising amount of time. In order to respond well to floatant, flies must have fibrous material in their make-up, such as hackle fibres, dubbing strands, hair, feather, fabric fibre, etc. A fly which has no such fibrous component cannot be made to float for any significant amount of time by the use of silicone floatant. For example, Flexi-floss Buzzers or epoxy-bodied patterns cannot be made to float simply by smearing them in floatant.

If I am tying flies which are required to float at all times – Sedgehogs or dry patterns – I dunk them in liquid silicone (eg Permaflote) on the fly tying bench and then hang them out to dry before putting them in my box. When tied onto the leader I give the pre-treated fly a slight smear of silicone gel (eg Gink) and the fly will then float all day without further treatment other than a good ‘swish’ through the air. Mind you, nothing will sink a treated fly quicker than fish slime or blood, and if a floating pattern comes into contact with either I treat it with dry fly powder (eg Dry Shake) before rubbing some gel well into the fibres.

Fullers' earth

Fuller’s earth main use was to remove natural oils from raw materials such as wool fleeces. And that’s where the name ‘fuller’ comes from. A ‘fuller’ was a person who removed lanolin oil from sheep fleece, and the ‘earth’ is the naturally occurring mineral that he used to do it.

Many older books and tying articles mention fuller’s earth and comment that it’s available from local chemist of pharmacists shops. Fuller’s earth was withdrawn from pharmacies several years ago. It’s now viewed as a substance with health risks – cosmetic grade is an extremely fine powder, its implicated in eye infections, breathing problems and there are suspicions that it may be a carcinogen.

Less fine grades are used to deal with anything from chemical spills to cat litter. That grade is not a very fine powder. Fuller’s earth suitable for degreasing fishing tackle is still available commercially – several sites online offer it for sale. The best known retailer, selling Fuller’s Earth specifically for fishing, intended for making degreasing paste, is Fishing with Style who retail a 100g tub for £3.80. Fishing with Style, 40 Aire Grove, Yeadon, Leeds, West Yorkshire LS19 7TY. Tel. 0113 2507244 (www.fishingwithstyle.co.uk).

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