The Swish of Silk

Psychologists have found that smells can unlock childhood memories. They’re right. As I opened the box, the line lay neatly coiled, held with tiny red ribbons, the rising aroma of varnish and linseed oil recalled a June evening on the Broadhead behind the Moravian Church in Canadenis. Water pushed gently against my legs as I tried, with fumbling fingers, to tie on a Light Cahill without mussing the hackle. In the fading light I strained to see the tiny ring beneath the laurel branch through the undulating curtains of pale, undulating, spinners. The year was 1953, and I was twelve years old. I had earned enough money from mowing lawns to buy my first tapered silk line, a Kingfisher ID. Now, in 1995, I bought another, a DT4 Phoenix, handmade by Noel Buxton, not for nostalgia’s sake, but to test it against the best modern, high tech lines. I fished with it for the entire season, and I’m crazy about it!

After World War II, manufacturers experimented with the use of complex polymers for coating fishing lines. Applied over a woven level nylon core, the coatings could be made to carry air bubbles or tiny metal filings. They could be smooth or rough. By adjusting the amount of coating as the nylon core was pulled through the machine, various tapers and weights were possible, as well as a spectrum of colours. They could make lines that float, sink slowly or quickly. They could be designed as double-tapers, weight forwards or level. This advancement allowed the sport of fly-fishing to expand to include species and water types never before associated with the sport. Anglers revelled in the low maintenance qualities of plastic lines. Gone was the need to dress, dry and carefully store your fly line. Inorganic lines do not rot if stored wet. More than any other post-war technology, the invention of plastic coated fly lines ushered in the present era of fly fishing.

So why would anyone even consider silk today? For a given weight, silk lines are quite a bit smaller in diameter than plastic. They are not built around a core, but are simply woven together from single strands. Silk is also denser than nylon. Slimmer lines reduce air resistance, assisting the angler in making longer casts with better turnover. Less bulk means easier pickup and less disturbance of the surface. For these reasons silk shoots better through the guides. While fighting a fish, the thinner profile creates less drag in the water, reducing pressure on fragile tippets.

How much thinner are silk lines? About 30%. The end taper on my DT4 silk is the same diameter as the tip of WF2 Cortland 444SL. Properly dressed, the line floats higher than coated nylon. Without dressing, it is a perfect intermediate with a sink rate of about one-half inch per second.

What are the drawbacks? Silk lines are only made in double tapers, therefore anglers used to weight forward lines will discover only minimum space on their reel spool for backing. This was brought home to me with great clarity one morning last September on the Bighorn River in Montana. A deep bodied brown sipped in my Trico imitation and then decided he had an important date in Hardin. Quick stepping as fast as possible downstream, I watched the end of my expensive line clear the tip top, and caught sight of an almost bare reel spool before I got the fish turned. Now I use a larger reel. As a bonus, I’ve discovered that it feels better on my cane rod than the ultralight reel I had been using.

It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tie your leader to the line with a nail know or similar connection, since the tip of the silk line is much finer and more flexible than the butt of your leader.

On the other hand, I have discovered that I can turn over even very long leaders using leaders with a butt diameter of only .015 or even .013. Many old fly fishing books have illustrations that contain directions for attaching leaders to silk lines. I have found that a tiny loop spliced in the end of the line, and a perfection loop in the butt section of the leader is the perfect solution. This is not only convenient for attaching leaders, but for reversing the line on the reel.

Cleaning and dressing a silk line is not the onerous burden modern line makers would have you believe. Examining any line imperfections before fishing is sound practice. Before stringing your rod, use your fingers and a felt pad floatant to test the line. (Mucilin in a red tin, for nostalgia’s sake!). The entire procedure takes about three minutes. After fishing, strip the line and clean it with a dry rag before storing it back on the reel.

At the end of the season, wash the line in soapy water and store it, undressed, in loose coils in a shoe box. The varnishes and dryers employed in the manufacture of the Phoenix line are more chemically stable than the more volatile hydrocarbons used in modern lines. They will not get tacky if properly handled.

The greatest drawback to a silk line is the price. At $175.00 for the Phoenix, one doesn’t buy such a line capriciously. However, for those who love to tease trout in spring creeks with small flies, fine tippets, bamboo rods and vintage reels, there is something immensely satisfying about marrying a fine piece of cane with traditional silk line. They were made for each other.

A bamboo rod feels slightly sluggish with a modern line. Even a modern graphite rod will perform better with the proper weight silk line. The added bulk of the plastic coating increases friction in the guides and adds wind resistance to the cast. If you really want to explore the capabilities the maker built into your fine cane rods, you owe it to yourself to try a silk line. Oh yes, and then there’s the smell!