Over My Waders

Re-Discovering Silk


By Reed F. Curry
Photos by Rachel N. Curry

My search for thinner, suppler, better flylines began the day I discovered that the line/leader loop of an expensive DT6F line wouldn't fit through the last few diminutive snakes of a new-to-me '30's vintage cane rod. To be honest, there was another spur to the search, the simple realization that, if cane had properties more modern materials lacked, it was probable that other excellent fishing tools had been left behind in the relatively recent wash of technology.

The result of my research was a return to a material carried from the same land as the cane itself – Silk. Since I tried my first silk line some years ago, I've learned the relaxing rhythm of a 100 year old wet fly rod that had been merely a sullen stick with a modern plastic line draped on it; I've come to delight in the new sight and sounds of casting, the translucent honey-colored line cutting the wind, the gentle laydown of the silk line's delicate tip onto the surface film; and I've shared the pleasure as a friend's new cane creation suddenly came alive in his hand, casting more line, with less effort, than ever before. Does this all sound just a little incredible? After all, it's only a fly line. . .

Lines Shaped Fly Rods

The evolution of fly lines determined, to a large degree, the shifting design characteristics of fly rods. This was evident as early as the 1890's when oiled silk replaced horsehair-and-linen lines and the miniscule flip-ring guides were replaced with the modern snake guides. For, with snake guides came the ability to "shoot" line; and with oiled silk came the opportunity to float a dressed line, opening the way to the use of the dry fly. That was his intent when Frederic Halford, the "Father of the Dry Fly" developed and patented the first solid woven tapered silk fly lines. But this new Dry Fly fishing in turn required a slightly faster rod to handle the false casting necessary to drying the early, soft-hackled flies.

Silk was the premium line during the early years of dry fly fishing and the "Golden Age" of rodmaking; and it met all the requirements of the day. But with the end of the Second World War the new miracle, "Nylon," was marketed as a possible substitute for silk. It had proved satisfactory in parachutes and stockings, why not flylines? Initially, the Nylon line was oiled and honed like its silk counterpart, and required much the same care. Enter the 1950's, the age of Science for Convenience, Inventions liberating the Common Man (and Woman) from the drudgery of maintenance and care; Automatic Washers, Self-Cleaning Ovens - and plastic, no-maintenance flylines. The man just returned from war and building a family had little time to spend at streamside, so the appeal of anything that optimized his fishing hours was great. However, it was a mixed blessing, for the advent of synthetic flylines, comprised of a uniform hollow nylon core covered with a tapered Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) finish, triggered a rapid and serious degradation in fly rod taper and action. The reason for this may be found, principally, in the word "Diameter."

Size Does Matter

The increase in diameter of flylines began innocuously enough. The early oiled-Nylon line was as much as 40% lighter than the silk, not an advantage for casting, and quite confusing to the anglers who bought their lines by the diameter, not the weight. [For those unfamiliar with the Letter Codes an "I" line was .020" in diameter, "H" was .025", and so on. HDH signified a Double Taper with a belly of .045" tapering to .025" at the ends.] An HDH rod, as rated for Silk, took an HCH or GBG diameter Nylon line, and this bulkier line, with its greater air resistance, required more effort to cast. Since these lines gave no great advantage to the fishermen in terms of usability, they did not achieve wide popularity. The oiled Nylon quickly gave way to the "transitional lines" that had a tapered Nylon core sheathed in plastic. However, these lines floated poorly and the plastic coating tended to strip off, due to the difference in elasticity between the coating and the braid. The next step to modern lines came with the use of a level Nylon core and a tapered coating of Polyvinyl Chloride. This and the subsequent invention by Scientific Angler of the "microbubble" to achieve floatability bring us to our modern plastic lines.

The new line floated admirably (except the tip), but this buoyancy was produced by reducing the specific gravity, and increasing the volume of the line. The old method of using diameters to determine the line for your rod became impractical; the difference in specific gravity between the old silk and the new PVC, and even between one plastic line and another, was too great. In order to provide a meaningful method for determining the line load for a given rod, a new system was developed which referred to the weight of the line rather than the diameter. Diameters were thus free to expand… and they did. In order to float the tips, which had the same size core as the belly, the delicate .020" ("I") tips of the oiled Silk line gave way to .035" or greater for the PVC line. To drive these lines through the air required a stiffer rod, larger guides, and a much different method of casting. The reason for this is obvious, the larger diameter lines had tremendous air resistance that could only be overcome by more energy from the caster. The days of relaxed casting with subtle wrist action yielded to the "high linespeed" arm waving school, as anglers struggled to make the ever more bloated PVC lines load the rod.

Line Types

Silk lines in all colors and the Mucilin to dress them.

To those persons familiar with them, a "Silk fly line" refers to a braided, oiled, silk line, usually vacuum-dressed and hand-honed (rubbed carefully with fine abrasives to level the oil/varnish coating). This should not be confused with the hard "enameled" silk lines that were popular for a time late in the 19th century. The enameled lines wore quickly, seldom lasting more than one season, whereas a well-constructed oiled silk line can endure decades of use. Within the realm of oiled silk there exist different braiding patterns, producing what are known as "hard", "medium", and "soft braid". The hard will shoot and wear better, but the soft will be more supple and forgiving when striking large fish. The early writers recommended the hard braid for most trout sizes (up to "C") and the medium or soft braid for the larger sizes. Of far greater importance, of course, is the taper of the line itself. Silk lines have been made in as many, or more, varied and sophisticated tapers than modern plastic lines. The subject of line tapers and creating your own unique tapers, is beyond the scope of this article, but fascinating, nonetheless.

The Wind

The thinner diameter of the silk line is immediately noticeable as you line it on your rod for the first time. If your rod took a PVC DT5F and you use a DT5 silk you will be surprised at the difference as you start false casting; you might even need to go down to a DT4 because the decreased air resistance makes loading so much easier. The front taper has more weight and starts to load the rod almost immediately. As more line is worked out, you'll notice that less effort is required to sustain it in the air. And if a wind comes up, you'll be able to cut through it with greater effect than ever before. Now start shooting the line. The noise may be a bit disconcerting at first; the rustling, hiss as the braid murmurs through the guides. The shoot, however, will make you soon forget that.

Of course, perception of the ease of casting is highly subjective. So, in order to get an unbiased view of this aspect of silk lines, I took a trip to Hunter's Angling Supplies in New Boston, New Hampshire (www.huntersangling.com). Nick Wilder, the genial owner, was gracious enough to choose five graphite rods from stock (three Sage, a Winston, and a Loomis) and send me to the river with one of his people, Capt. Greg Nault. Greg, it turns out, is not only a superb caster but he had never used a silk line before. We tried both Phoenix DT in 3wt and 5wt and Thebault WF in 3wt and 5wt. Greg observed that the line "doesn't stretch, it seems to transfer power better", "loads nicely and shoots beautifully", "seems to float higher than other lines, has an easy pickup and rollcasts well", "it's very limp and lays very straight" and "doesn't get swamped in rough water".

In short, he was quickly wearing a delighted grin and inquiring about the cost of a line, though he confessed to me afterwards that he had been quite skeptical at first.

A silk line has virtually no stretch, which makes for both very positive hook sets and better control in casting. You'll probably quickly notice that your silk line is suppler than plastic and has less tendency to memory -- no more of those annoying coils that grab at your reel handle, or the need for stretching the line before use, as is recommended for some PVC lines. This is because the PVC line is essentially a semi-rigid pipe (in larger sizes it's the plumbing for your bathroom sink). The silk, on the other hand, is a thin rope. Think about it.

One of the more curious developments of recent years has been the braided leader. This was created, I assume, because the thick, stiff tip of the plastic line has a tendency to slap down into the water; especially because of the need to generate a high line speed in order to get full extension of the light PVC line. The braided leader emulates the tapered end of a silk fly line. With the terminal end of an "IEI" miking at .020" it is thinner than some monofilament leader butts, and it has the smooth laydown that the braided leaders were designed to deliver.

The next discovery you'll make will occur when the silk line lands gently on the water. . .it floats higher than your plastic line.

Approaches to Floatation

The specific gravity of a PVC line is less than 1.0; silk lines run 1.2 - 1.4. Yet, the silk floats well. This is possible because the lines use different approaches to floatation. Most modern PVC floating fly lines achieve buoyancy entirely through displacement. Archimede's Principle at work, the line must displace a sufficient volume of water to compensate for its weight; and to do this it must settle deeply into the water. The silk line relies upon the same principle as the floating artificial fly … surface tension. The dressing applied to the line repels the water (it is "hydrophobic", but not rabid), floating the line high in the surface film. Thus, the silk line is smoother in its lift from the water, and creates less surface disturbance in drawing it back. This is especially evident in the ease of rollcasting.

Of note, a number of PVC lines, the SA Ultra 3, the Airflo Polyfuse 7000, and the Orvis Silver Label Hy-Flote Extra, advertise the use of a hydrophobic coating as well as microballoons to achieve floatation. This may well be the answer to the belief that the tips of most plastic lines float rather poorly. The specific gravity of the PVC line increases as the volume of the microballoons decreases, while the core diameter remains constant. Obviously, with less volume to keep it afloat, the tip of the plastic line did not float as well as the belly.

. . .And Now, the Downside

Well, there is the cost of silk lines. I've found only two manufacturers in France -- Phoenix and Thebault - and one in Italy - Terenzio. In comparing them, there are several marked differences. The Thebault lines appear to be translucent, indicating saturation with an oil, such as was common to old silk lines; whereas the Phoenix has greater opacity, a waxy look. In color both might be considered a shade of pale gold, the Thebault only slightly darker; but the Thebault has a slight mottling indicative of some hand work, the Phoenix is completely even in tone.

The tips of both the Thebault and Phoenix, in light line weights, are .024", certainly a lot more delicate than PVC lines. The Thebault line comes with several ounces of a proprietary dressing in a tin container (several seasons worth), the Phoenix comes with a "tin"(plastic) of the red Mucilin (good for half a season).

The Thebault will require some breaking in to work the initial stiffness out, not so the Phoenix. The Phoenix appears to be a more polished product overall, but at a higher price. A new DT4 made by Phoenix runs $250 regardless of the U.S. distributor... and delivery can be a problem, Phoenix only produces 600 lines a year. Thebault has more modest prices, a far greater production capacity, and a more extensive range of lines, offering 1/2 double tapers, as well as DT and Spey. You should be able to get a 1/2 DT Thebault from an U.S. distributor for $118.

I have not been able to use a Terenzio for comparison purposes, but they receive good reviews.

*** Sidebar *** Both Phoenix and Thebault lines are available in the U.S. from Olaf Borge Mail: P.O. Box 361 Viroqua, Wisconsin 54665 Email: oborge@mwt.net Phone: 608-675-3509 Fax: 608-675-3681 url_ www.silkflylines.com

Terenzio lines may be purchased from A. B. Herndon Rod Co. PO Box 275 50 Blue Place Road Malo, WA 99150 Phone 509-779-4247 Email: info@herndonrods.com url: www.herndonrods.com

*** end sidebar ***

Costs of silk lines should be considered in terms of their useful life. A silk line, with care, will last 20 years, though I have some that are far older. In 20 years I would go through 10 PVC lines (let's see, 10 * $45 = $450), yes, I can rationalize the higher initial cost of silk.

The price of silk lines is easily understood when you consider their manufacture. The line is first braided from as many as 16 silk threads. The machine must be constantly monitored for thread breakage, and threads added or subtracted at the proper moment to create the complex taper of the line. After the raw line is complete, it is placed in a warm bath of a proprietary mixture of oil (e.g., Tung oil) and varnish, and a vacuum is drawn to remove air from the braid, thus permitting maximum penetration of the oil. The line is then removed and dried over a period of some days before the coating process is repeated. Once a buildup of varnish is on the line, the line is hand polished between coating steps. It can take many man-hours, over several months, to produce a silk line of the quality of a Phoenix.

Strength is another factor to consider in using a silk line, though this is not generally of much concern. Our grandfathers were able to land 40 pound Atlantic salmon on their silk lines. . .but they were using relatively fragile gut leaders. Unlike gut, the modern tippet material is of both fine diameter and high tensile strength. This could easily permit you to use a tippet that was stronger than your line. The breaking strength of an HEH silk, dry, is from 14-18 pounds; when wet, the same line would actually test a few pounds higher for sudden stress. This, of course, is adequate for most situations. If, however, you insist on fishing with a tippet testing more than 12 pounds, don't use silk. Salmon lines would usually be GAF or larger, and these test out at greater than 20 pounds; but, again, the tippet used should be 12# or less.

Buying tapered leaders to match your silk lines may be difficult. With the terminal end of an "IEI" gauged at .020" it is thinner than some monofilament leader butts. I build my own leaders and start them with a butt of .015" Maxima for 5wt and above, and .013" Maxima for 3-4wts. Anything thicker than this makes for a poor transition from line to leader.

---- Care and Feeding of Your Silk Line

A little preventive care, such as we give anything we value, will ensure a supple, pleasurable line for years to come. A silk line must be dressed with a floatant before starting the day streamside. The subject of line dressings used to be good for an hour's argument at fishing lodges anywhere in North America -- deer fat vs. bear fat, turps vs. mineral oil, etc. I eschew all the home recipes, especially the animal fats which cause oxidation of varnish and tackiness. I stick tenaciously with Red Tin Mucilin; never the Green Tin, it contains Silicone which is difficult to remove from a cane rod and causes blemishes when re-varnishing. Perhaps, its just part of the tradition; or childhood memories of struggling to open that red tin with wet hands and watching the cover go spinning off into deep water. Someday, I'll try some experimentation with non-traditional floatants; for example, I've used Albolene, but found it too greasy, and I may try Sno-Seal, since it's wax-based.

How you apply the mucilin is a matter of preference. Some use their fingers; I prefer to use the felt pad that comes with the mucilin. Always remove any excess, you only need a very thin coating. You can buy gadgets to perform even this task; and fishermen love their gadgets. But the best, most versatile implements you might carry are a bandana to remove excess mucilin, and an 8" square of chamois to dry your line (and flies). You would want to pull the line through the chamois during fishing if the line starts to sink – this will give you another half hour of casting before you retire that end of the line for the day.

An antique Line Dryer that can strip off 30 yards of line in a minute. You'll find that it is handy to have loops, for line to leader connection, on both ends of a DT, and a large enough loop in the backing line to permit you to pass the reel through. Over the course of a days fishing, perhaps within four hours, an oiled silk line, like an oiled dry fly, will have absorbed sufficient water to cause it to sink. At this point you ave a number of options. If you have a concept of flyfishing as the "Contemplative Sport" you might unspool your line onto the bushes at streamside, boil a pot of tea, and have a pleasant lunch while waiting for the afternoon hatch. Of course, (if you're using a double taper) you might just switch the line end for end; dropping the reel through that large backing loop and rush furiously back to the water. Whichever approach you take, before you drive home, strip the line in loose coils onto the back seat of the car. In most climates it will dry overnight. If you fish more than one line in the course of a day or keep a dog in the backseat of your car, you may want to get a Line Drier. Ultraviolet light does not have a deleterious effect upon silk lines, as it does with PVC. The enemy of silk is mold. Keep your lines dry when not in use. An invisible fungal attack (read "rot"), from leaving the line stored wet, may reduce the breaking strength of any silk line to just a few pounds.

Change is a constant. But sometimes looking back at what we left behind may serve us well. Try a silk on that favorite rod, you won't regret it.


Best viewed on Mozilla Firefox at 1024x768 resolution.
All content copyright Reed Curry © 2006.
Cartoon by Walter Young © 1961, used by permission.