My first floating fly line, purchased in the early 1970s, was dead level. In those days I only used floating lines when fish were rising to mayflies. Looking back, I'm surprised at how many trout I caught with this level line and a cheap fibreglass noodle.
My next floating line, acquired a few years later, was double tapered, and for the next two decades I stuck with this profile because presentation was good and I could reverse the line to double its life-span.
When we moved to New Zealand in 2003, I began to taking weight forward floating lines for trout fishing more seriously. Skinny running lines allowed greater distance and by altering the weight distribution and lengths of both front and rear tapers, manufacturers were producing speciality fly lines that excelled at, for example, casting heavy nymphs or large wind resistant dry flies on long leaders.
Fly lines are still evolving, largely to keep pace with innovations in rod design. The latest profiles designed for modern fast action rods are front loaded with double bellies and complex reverse tapers – enter the Scientific Anglers MPX and now the Airflo Tracker and Dash.
To better understand fly line design and appreciate the ‘genius’ of the Tracker-type profile, I will run through four other models of Airflo floating fly line (see Table 1 for statistics). I switched to Airflo floating lines for trout some years ago because, made from polyurethane, they generally last a lot longer than PVC fly lines.
They also do not rely on internal lubricants that eventually dry out. As long as they are kept clean, they cast as well towards the end of their lives as they did at the beginning. (Fine longitudinal ridges reduce surface area and also trap water which serves as a lubricant on the ridged series). Airflo flylines are also built on low stretch cores.
In general, longer tapers result in slower turn over, and are therefore best for distance and delicate presentation, and shorter tapers result in faster turnover and therefore more power for handling heavier bulky flies.
Table 1: Vital statistics for 5wt versions of the five Airflo floating fly lines discussed in this article. Note that the AFTMA standards (i.e. weight of first 30’) are 140 grains for 5wt and 160 grains for 6wt.
With 7’ front and rear tapers, the Elite is Airflo’s general purpose floating line for trout. When fishing as light as 5wt, this line lacks the oomph to turn over tungsten nymphs and large dry flies on 15 foot leaders, so is not ideal for New Zealand conditions. Although I have one, I no longer use it.
River and stream
The River and Stream (USA), or Lake Pro (UK), has a 20 foot front taper and 10 foot rear taper, which makes it ideal for delicate presentation with small to medium dry flies or light nymphs, especially at distance. As the head is back loaded this line is also good for mending and for roll casting.
On the down side, the long front taper does not do a good job of turning over heavy double nymph rigs or large bulky dry flies, and is also not great in the wind. It is nevertheless highly recommended as a presentation line for fishing mayfly hatches and spinner falls, willow grub hatches and spring creeks. The River and Stream is not available in New Zealand but can be purchased online.
The Bandit was designed for stalking trout on New Zealand backcountry rivers. A moderate front taper gives it enough power to turn over bulky dry flies and tungsten nymphs on long leaders, and the 20’ rear taper provides stability in the air for longer casts and also improves mending.
The front section is variegated (olive and brown) to break up the outline, but this feature comes at the cost of a haul zone – a mid-section of stiffer coating that improves shooting and durability, and is included on all of the other lines discussed in this article.
I have used a Bandit for many years and it's a great general purpose fly line for medium to fast action rods on New Zealand rivers and lakes, but being a true 5wt line it does not adequately load in as close some modern fast action rods, such as my Hardy Zenith.
For those Rio fans out there, the Bandit has a very similar profile and weight distribution to the Rio Gold.
The Ballistic is a full line weight heavier (i.e. 1st 30’ = 160 gr) and the additional weight combined with relatively short front and rear tapers, which speed turnover, enable this line to load fast action rods in close and easily turn over heavy tungsten tandem nymphs and huge bushy dry flies with tungsten nymphs attached, even on 16’ leaders.
The aggressive power does come with a cost, and the Ballistic may kick, creating tip splash, if the angler does not easy back on the power on the final delivery. I overcame tip splash and other presentation issues by using 10’ 2x Tiemco Heavy Butt leaders, which I extended with three or four feet of 30lb Maxima (butt end) and four feet of 4x Fluorocarbon – the line has the power to turn over stiffer leaders.
With this leader system I can easily cast tandem rigs, be they double tungsten nymph or large cicada and tungsten nymph, even into the wind, and on windless days do not spook fish on backcountry streams. I have used a 5wt Ballistic on my Hardy Zenith for the past 5 yrs, and when the coating cracked in early 2019, I replaced it with a Tracker.
The Tracker has a 7’ front taper, followed a thick 3 ft front belly that tapers rearward over 14 ft (i.e. reverse taper) to a thinner 12’ rear belly, that finally tapers over 5’ (rear taper) to the running line.
Messing around with an electronic scale I found the first 20’ has the equivalent weight of a 6wt line, but the first 30’ (AFTMA standard) is equivalent to a 5.5 wt. Weight up front ensures good rod load and feel for short to medium casts and provides turnover power for heavy/wind resistant flies at all distances.
The reverse taper, on the other hand, ensures the rod does not overload when aerialising more line to go long, and combined with the thinner belly and rear taper provides stability over distance. The moderate 7’ front taper makes for surprisingly good presentation, especially with smaller flies. The profile and weight of the Tracker is similar to the Scientific Anglers MPX line.
I used a 5wt Tracker exclusively during the 2019 cicada season and had no problem casting a #6 cicada with a 2.5mm tungsten bead head nymph attached, on a 16’ leader - although, used to the Ballistic for this purpose, I had to slow my cast just a tad.
Less aggressive than the Ballistic, the Tracker did not have the same authority for casting heavy tungsten nymphs I sometimes use on the Tongariro River, but easily laid out moderately weighted tandem nymphs and presentation and accuracy with #12 and smaller dry flies was a million times better than with the Ballistic.
I found the Tracker performed best with leaders of standard butt diameter, which I extended with a length of 25lb Maxima. In case you are interested, I usually replace the tippet of a knotless tapered leader with a small tippet ring and three or four feet of durable Fluorocarbon – Rio Fluoroflex plus works best for dry flies as it has some stretch and tends not to pop on the strike.
I was amazed to find the Tracker worked well on both my powerful Hardy Zenith, as well as on a 5wt Loomis NRX Light Presentation, which, although fast, has a much softer tip.
Like the Bandit and Ballistic, the Tracker was designed by Rene Vase, of Manic Tackle, for New Zealand conditions. Apart from it’s unique taper, the Tracker also stands out from the other lines Rene has designed on account of its colour – it is a matt heron blue, instead of olive.
Goddard and Clarke took photographs of olive green and white fly lines on the surface from underneath (published in ‘The Trout and the Fly’). What they clearly demonstrated is that a white fly line is much less visible in the window, against sunny or overcast sky, and the dark olive fly line was less visible in the mirror, where the dark river bottom was reflected against the surface.
Based on underwater photographs I have taken of floating insects, I would also expect a white line to stand out, and an olive line to be less visible, in the window if the background was not sky, e.g. a steep valley wall or overhanging trees.
Although there is no perfect colour, olive green and dull blue are both good choices. Heron blue is of course easier for the angler to see on the water, hence the name of the Tracker, but I have never had any problems tracking olive fly lines. Ridged Airflo lines are not shiny, and for that reason emit less flash than smooth lines whilst in the air.
In mid-2019 Airflo released high-end SuperFlo versions of their popular SuperDri models. The SuperFlo fly lines have identical profiles to the SuperDri counterparts but are constructed with thinner running lines and a non-ridged teflon impregnated coating.
The Dash is the SuperFLo version of the Tracker, and given the new technology I had to have one. They come in both olive and light blue, and I purchased a 5 wt in olive.
The first thing I noticed was that the Dash took up much less space on my reel than did the Tracker. Comparing the two lines foot by foot, it was clear that even though both lines were 5 wt and had the same taper, every part of the Dash was substantially thinner than that of the Tracker. I fished the Dash with 15/16 ft leaders on both my Hardy Zenith and Loomis NRX LP 5 wt rods, and it was a great match for both rods.
On the water I needed at least 10 or 12 ft of fly line out of the rod tip to turn over large flies on long leaders, but once there was sufficient line out the Dash was remarkable. It floated high, mended exceptionally well - both in the air and on the water on account of reduced stick - and the thin running line shot like crazy.
I had no trouble casting a pair of tungsten nymphs with 2.5mm beads a long way on the Tongariro and, in addition to noticeably easier mending, I also lost remarkably few fish hooked on nymphs - as in 10% - which I attribute largely to the the low ‘line stick’ resulting in more responsive strikes.
As with the Tracker, it was incredibly easy to cast tight loops with dry flies on long leaders with the Dash, including large cicadas, and accuracy and presentation were amazing.
Floating fly lines have certainly come a long way since I bought my level line half a century ago, and by all accounts they are still evolving. While it is difficult to imagine where they might end up in another 50yrs, the Airflo Tracker and Dash have to be the most versatile fly lines currently on the market, especially for New Zealand conditions.
They load modern fast action rods well at all ranges, are capable of serious distance, and while presentation is easily good enough for hatches and small dry flies, they have no problem with wind, bushy dry flies, long leaders or tandem weighted nymphs.
Although the Dash and the Tracker have identical tapers, the more expensive Dash takes up less space on a fly reel, is marginally better in wind, noticeably easier to mend on the water, and is capable of a little more distance.
But what really impressed me with this line was the unprecedented high proportion of hooked fish landed whilst ‘blind’ nymphing. For this reason alone it is worth the extra cash.
Disclaimer: I am not sponsored by Airflo or Manic Tackle.
My Airflo Tracker was purchased online from www.flyshop.co.nz