Ask the Experts: Floating Line or Sinking Tip for Streamers?

This Battenkill brown fell for a sparse marabou streamer fished on a floating line with no weight on the leader.
Photo by Phil Monahan

A while ago, we asked you to pose some questions for our panel of experts. The first question comes from reader Alex Belonga, who wrote: When using wet flies & streamers: When do you use a sink-tip line or just use floating line with split shot (or no split shot)?

As you’ll see from our experts’ answers below, there are many different ways to look at the question, and opinions vary. Sometimes, it all comes down to the kind of fishing you want to do, but sometimes, it’s just a question of preference. That said, there’s a lot of good advice here.

Joe Demalderis, Cross Current Guide Service (Milford, Pennsylvania): With streamers, I’m often banging the banks from a drift boat when the water is higher than normal and/or dirtied up. If it’s significantly higher, I’ll use a sinking tip, if not too high, a floating line is fine. Either way, the Bank Shot line is made to order for this. There are also occasions when the water isn’t that high, but for softness of presentation I want a unweighted fly. Under those conditions, a sinking tip with fluorocarbon leader is the ticket.

When swinging wet flies, I prefer to use one bigger/heavier fly and a dropper that is smaller and softer. I try to avoid adding weight to the leader and prefer to get flies deeper by mending and using a longer tippet section that will get down quicker. The heavy fly is my edible weight, and the dropper is my fly du jour or hatch-matcher.

There are times of high water with extra swift currents when I’ll add some sink putty to the leader instead of shot. The putty gets hung up less, casts nicer, and if it does hang up you can usually save your flies and just lose the putty. Sinking tips come into play for me when the water is too deep to effectively get to fish level, but even then, a change of angle with a floating line and proper mending should get me where I want to be most often. Mending is the key when swinging wets and a floating line mends easier and keeps me in contact with my flies better.

John Herzer, Blackfoot River Outfitters (Missoula, Montana): Around Missoula, we primarily fish from boats, so we rarely use full-sinking lines or even sinking tips longer than ten feet when fishing streamers. Problem is, you need to get your flies in and out of the water quickly. With an integrated sinking tip or full-sinking line, you need to continue to strip the line all the way in before you can recast. In order to get the proper depth, we lengthen our leaders and fish weighted flies. if that’s not enough, add split shot a couple inches in front of the fly. If we’re really going deep, we slip a worm weight (that’s right, like bass fisherman use) on the leader before we tie on the bug. In both instances, the weight will give the fly a jigging action, which the trout find very attractive.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat: anglers can choose among (l to r) a regular integrated sinking-tip line, a line designed for heavy flies, or a sinking tip that attaches to the end of a floating line via a loop-to-loop connection.

Chuck Hawkins, Hawkins Outfitters (Traverse City, Michigan)I always use sinking tips when streamer fishing. Depending on water conditions, I use 200- to 350-grain sinking tips in my everyday trout, steelhead, salmon, and smallmouth fishing. There are several reasons: a sinking tip gets the fly deeper, I can fish much shorter leaders, they allow for greater accuracy than fishing a longer leader on a floating line, and it’s easier to throw a sinking tip than it is to throw a heavily weighted fly with a floating line. I also find that novice fly anglers, with proper instruction, can handle a large streamer much easier when they have the weight of the sinking tip helping them deliver the fly.

Stefan Woodruff, Ellensburg Angler (Ellensburg, Washington): When I’m fishing streamers or wet flies, the decision whether to use a sinking-tip line or a floating line with split shot on the leader depends on the type of water I’m fishing. If it is a large bucket or run, a sinking-tip line is my go-to choice. Because a large portion of the line sinks, it keeps my flies “in the zone” and in front of the fish much longer. If I am fishing faster-paced pocket-water, where I need to get my flies sunk fast but don’t fish them for a very long time before picking up and making another cast, a long tapered fluorocarbon leader off a floating line is my best friend. I just add or subtract split shot to help get my flies down fast in smaller pockets of fishy water, like the soft water behind a large boulder. This setup also gives me the ability to “high-stick,” keeping line off the water and giving me maximum feel and control in water with complex currents.

Patrick Fulkrod, The South Holston River Company (Bristol, Virginia): I love swinging soft hackles. When I am fishing soft hackles and other traditional wet flies, I always prefer a floating line. The floating line will give me the ultimate in sensitivity to ensure I can detect the lightest of strikes. The lead / tungsten core of a sinking line dampens the sensitivity. If needed, I will add a small split shot to help fly get to to the right depth.

When using a fly that I will strip or retrieve, I always prefer a sinking tip or sinking line. Emulating the swimming action of many baitfish and other small fish requires the fly to be down deep, and a specialty sinking-tip line complements this method well.

Maggie Mae Stone, The Tackle Shop Outfitters (Ennis, Montana): When using wet flies and streamers, I always think about the depth of water I may be fishing and the speed of the current. For example, if I’m fishing still water, I almost always reach for a full-sinking line, as the depth is usually greater than a river or stream. It’s also less of a hassle for me to use rather than adding a bunch of split shot. When it comes to the river, if you’re fishing deeper buckets and faster currents, the weight of the sinking line will allow your wet flies to remain deeper and not float to the top as quickly as floating line would. If you find yourself without a sinking line and you know those fish are hanging out in deeper buckets (they’re not coming to the surface), then split shot works to get your floating line down quicker. I will add some split shot, and then adjust accordingly. If I’m dragging bottom and getting hung up, I will take some off. If you find yourself in shallow water, a floating line with no split shot will work well if the fish are hitting your streamer or wet fly. You can usually tell after a couple of casts if the fish are hitting streamers, as they will be very aggressive. To sum it up it’s all about depth and current speed.

Tim Linehan, Linehan Outfitting Company (Troy, Montana): When fishing streamers and wet flies, I let the situation, mostly water depth and current speed, dictate whether I use a floating or sinking line. If I’m concentrating on the top six inches the water column in walking-speed current or slower, I’ll generally stick with a floating line. If I want to penetrate the water column and cover the first two feet, I’ll add split shot accordingly. If I really want to get down and penetrate the lower half of the run, whether it be four feet or ten feet, I generally use a sinking tip. And to that end, I will also adjust the weight of the sink tip to accommodate the current speed–obviously using a heavier grain for faster current and bigger water.

Jeff Davis, All Water Guides (Austin, Texas): This is a great question and one that comes up often. There are multiple factors, which determine when we have our client’s use sink tip lines or use floating lines.

First, let me discuss our “go-to” setups. For the purpose of this discussion we are addressing fishing for Texas river bass (largemouth and guadalupe bass) with 6-weight and 7-weight fly rods in rivers that are rarely more than 10 feet deep. Our boat rods are rigged as follows: We usually have four rods rigged and ready—2 rods rigged with floating line and 2 rods rigged with a sinking-tip line. Personally, my boat roads are Orvis Recons because they are great casting, user friendly, and incredibly durable, holding up to long rides in the rod holders and hundreds of days on the water. We all use Orvis lines, ranging from Hydros to Access and everything in between.

We let the following factors determine our set-ups: water temperature, time of year, time of day,  water clarity, and water flow (CFS). By dividing the river into three sections—upper, mid, and deep—we can create the best set up to address all the above factors and ever-changing conditions that we encounter on any given day on the river.

Upper-water Column: We usually we will prospect with a floating line and an 8-foot fluorocarbon leader. Even during winter months we will prospect with patterns that work the upper water columns—from the surface down to that first 12 inches of water.

Mid-water Column: Before switching to a sinking tip, we will try a floating line with 9-foot fluorocarbon leader and a weighted (barbell-eyes) streamer pattern. We will concentrate on depths between 12 and 36 inches, working the fly fast, then medium speed, and finally with a slow retrieval rate.

Deep-water Column: The dog-days of summer and winter’s coldest days are when we concentrate on the deepest water close to thick cover. This is when sinking-tip lines are at their best. They cast much easier than full-sinking lines and thus, they are more forgiving to novice anglers. Our go-to set up is usually a 6-weight rod with a 4-foot fluorocarbon leader with an unweighted diver or streamer pattern or a 7-weight rod with a 4-foot fluorocarbon leader with a weighted (barbell-eyes) crawfish pattern (e.g., Ghetto Craw) with a mono weed guard fished with a slow retrieval rate as deep as possible and right next to the heaviest cover.

Rarely, we use floating lines with split-shot when using streamers. Instead we carry a wide variety and weighted streamers. Sometimes in a pinch we will add split shot but find that the patterns work best without using split shot.

12 thoughts on “Ask the Experts: Floating Line or Sinking Tip for Streamers?”

  1. I enjoy tying and fishing streamers but have not found a good way to carry the bigger ones. Do you have any recommendations on how to carry the bigger pike and trout streamers without ruining them? Thanks.

  2. Wow! Thank you so much to all of you who took the time to answer, and especially ‘Ask the Experts’ for setting this up. I really really appreciate the response to my question.
    Take care,

  3. I’d love to hear some experts comment on shooting head vs wf fly lines for the “ocasional” fisherman in salt water (ex: family vacation to the ocean where you want to wet a line in the mornings and evenings in the surf to see whats out there with a handful of clousers and merkins instead of getting a full guided trip targeting bones, trout and/or reds))

  4. What a great idea. Thanks to Phil and all of the “experts” for taking the time to write this article. I’ll look forward to many more.

  5. Sink tips are MUCH harder to cast than a full sinking line. I’m not sure how so many people came to believe this common myth. Sink tip casting is lobing a dense piece of sinking material attached to a light, non dense floating line. The physics of this are not hard to imagine. The floating portion is simply going for a ride with the sink tip in front, just like a shooting or running line setup. With a full sinking line, the density is the same or very similar in the entire line. You are actually casting the whole line. Sink tips just perform so poorly compared to full sink lines.

  6. Tim Linehan nailed it. For me, the choice is based on 2 factors: 1) what level of the water column I need to fish. And, 2) the type of streamer action I’m after. If I’m after a darting or fleeing action I’ll lean toward a heavy fly, such as a tungsten head wooley bugger or variant, on a floating line and mend/twitch to keep the fly moving in erratic motions. If I’m after a swooning action… a wounded baitfish type of action, I’ll use a sinktip line with an lightly-weighted or unweighted fly such as a Zoo Cougar, Wooley Sculpin, Conrad Sculpin, or other fly that swims as though it is wounded or in trouble. In this case, the sinktip helps keep the upwelling of the moving current from bringing the fly to the surface. Experimentation is the only way to figure out the best presentation.

  7. Great information, and a special thank you to Jeff Davis. I fish the exact match to your river, only mine is up in Canada. Very well presented info. Thanks again.

  8. For those who go with the floating line and split shot approach, where on the leader do you add your split shot? Close to the fly? Further back near the flyline/leader connection? Thanks!

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