Some time ago, we had an extended conversation about the colour of flylines used for bonefish on Christmas Island. It coincided with the time that Rio produced their orange bonefish line and subsequently the bonefish quickshooter hivis model. The conversation got to the stage that, in an endeavour to prove that colour has little influence on spooking fish, a variety of coloured lines were laid on the water. With the use of goggles and snorkel the opposing sides took it in turns to go under water and look up at the lines. From underwater all you can see is the dark under side of the line even clear lines.
When I returned home some research turned up the article below that about sums it up. My apologies because I can’t remember where it came from but it was penned by Louis Cahill.
Article by Louis Cahill
“Why do you need a bright coloured fly line and does it spook fish?
A reader asked for an opinion on this and that’s what you’re going to get….my opinion. This is one of those hotly contested arguments that anglers can’t seem to agree on and my saying one thing or another isn’t going to settle it. I do have strong opinions on the subject, so since you asked, here they are.
The colour of your fly line doesn’t matter, until it does.
For most fly fishing, if you’re doing things well the colour of your line doesn’t matter any more than the colour of your eyes. There are, however, times when it can make a difference and the difference may not always be what you think. When I make a purposeful choice on line colour, it’s usually not to keep the fish from seeing it.
What doesn’t matter
Assuming for the moment that we are talking about trout fishing, if you are thinking that you are being stealthy by using a dull coloured line, you’re coming at things from the wrong angle. If you are putting your line over the fish, it doesn’t matter what colour it is. Fish are very attune to shadow and movement. If your fly line passes over them while casting, they will see the shadow of the line, even if it’s clear. The same goes for motion. Colour doesn’t matter.
If you are floating the line over them, on the surface of the water, things are worse. They now see the depression of the water’s surface as well as shadow and motion. Sure, they can see that a bright orange line is orange and a green line is green but they will find neither acceptable. The bottom line is, if you’re spooking fish it’s a presentation problem not a colour problem.
If it matters at all, it’s in the margins. Meaning, do fish see the colour of your line when you are casting on the edge of their field of vision? You thought you were far enough away but you weren’t and maybe they would catch a glimpse of an orange line but not a green one. Maybe, and maybe they’d see it while it’s still on the reel and you are passing by. You can make yourself crazy about stuff like that if you like.
Personally, I choose my fly line based on the taper, the materials and the performance. The colour is secondary at best. There was a time when I went completely the other way. I used to buy white lines and dye them camo, olive and tan. You can do it in the bathtub with fabric dye, changing colour every few feet. It’s a pain and will not make your spouse happy, trust me. In the end I decided it didn’t make any difference.
What does matter
When I choose a line for its colour, it’s usually for its visibility. It’s also usually for fly fishing in saltwater. In saltwater fishing it’s crucial that you always know the attitude of your fly. Where it is in relation to the fish. Whether it’s moving or still, slack or swinging in current. The best way to know that is by watching your line. I want a line that is bright enough for me to see in my peripheral vision, so I can watch the fish and still know what my fly is doing.
Swinging flies with spey rods is another case where I want a bright line. I want to see my line so I can effectively manage my swing. Again, the attitude of the fly is what’s most important and I need a line I can see. You are in no danger of spooking a steelhead with a Skagit head so the sky is the limit.
I do like clear tip intermediate sink tip lines for streamers. They allow me to use a short leader, 4-5 feet, to effectively get the fly down. Since the tip sinks there is no surface depression to worry about and they are stealthier. I like clear tips for migrating tarpon as well. They give you better odds at not spooking fish when casting to schools on the move.
What does matter way more than the colour of your line is your confidence as an angler. If a bright line, that you can see, gives you confidence in your casting or in detecting a take, by all means that’s what you should fish. If you feel the need to get in the tub and dye your line camo to be confident, then have a go at it. Make your own decision, try it and respect the decisions of others who don’t feel the same need.”
There is another factor that has could be taken into account besides line colour when fish spook.
If you look up from under water, you will see an area above water that is in focus. If the surface is particularly calm, clouds can clearly be seen. This circle of focus to above the water world is at an angle of about 97degrees from the viewing point and is referred to as Snell’s Window. The area around the circle is a reflection of the seascape, and as such is much darker than the sky.
When fishing in skinny water, this could be another reason why fish spook apart from flyline colour. Assume the fisherman is 6ft tall and he is using a 9ft foot rod, then the moving tip of the rod would be between 13 and 15 ft high. Let’s say the fish is 30feet away and if the Snells Window principle is applied, this movement is in focus and can be readily seen by the fish. Proof of this has been observed in glassed out conditions, when the fish spook as soon as the rod is moved even at considerable distance. At certain times of the day when the sun is at a particular angle, the flash off the glassy finish on the rod can be seen from a considerable distance away and certainly by fish at close distance.
The solution to lessen the effect of Snell’s window and rod flash is to crouch down and use a low rod angle to make the cast.