Alongside the official launch of the MeatEater Fishing Department, we’re pleased to bring you this new article series, All-Around Angler, anchored by Fishing Editor Sam Lungren. We’ll be sharing in-depth breakdowns of fishing tackle, techniques, and philosophies. Keep an eye out for future editions!
Selecting fishing line used to involve two decisions: what pound-test, and Maxima or Stren. Now, walk into any self-respecting tackle shop and you’ll encounter a wall of pegboards covered with a mind-boggling array of brands, colors, polymers, and price points.
Such hyper-saturation of options can result in paralysis, but we’re here to help you make logical, rational decisions about what you actually need for fishing line.
First of all, there are still only three basic categories of fishing lines: monofilament, fluorocarbon, and braid. Each has its own properties and applications, so decide on line material first and the number of options will drastically diminish.
Fly anglers, before I lose you here, it’s worth noting that all three of these line types are applicable to your style as well. While the fly line itself is usually a composite of a braided core and polyurethane, vinyl, and/or PVC coating, the backing you put on the reel first is often braided line. However, many Spey and distance casters use monofilament running line behind their shooting head for better flight. You also must choose between monofilament and fluorocarbon for your leader and tippet, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.
We need to define a few more key terms before jumping into the different line materials: tensile strength, knot strength, diameter, visibility, elasticity, rigidity, durability, and biodegradability.
Tensile strength, or pound-test, is the amount of force that can be applied to a line before it breaks. Likewise, knot strength is how well the line holds where it’s kinked, wrapped, or tied to a hook or other line. These relate directly to diameter, because a thicker line is generally stronger.
Keep in mind, however, that bigger isn’t always better. The thicker the line, the less can fit on a reel. Likewise, thick line will have higher visibility in the water than a thin line, which can make a big difference in tricking fish to take a lure, bait, or fly. Thicker lines generally sink slower as well.
Elasticity, or stretchiness, is an important consideration that differs greatly between line types. Stretch is helpful for hard hooksets and tough fights at close range, but detrimental for jigging in deep water, detecting subtle bites, or ripping baits through heavy cover. In the same vein, rigidity affects casting. A limp line may cast line a dream, but it will tangle more easily than a rigid one. Also consider durability, since some line types can tolerate nicks and scratches much better than others.
Finally, as anglers become more ecologically conscious, it’s important to recognize that we sometimes inadvertently leave a little line behind. Some lines will slowly biodegrade from UV and natural water chemistry, while others could survive a nuclear holocaust wrapped around a root wad.
Now that you have a sense for the properties we’re going to discuss, let’s compare the three main types of fishing line.
Think of monofilament as basic fishing line. It’s cheap, readily available, and practical for most fishing purposes. DuPont Chemicals invented nylon in 1938 and by ’39 they were marketing the extruded plastic fiber to fishermen as the first mono lines. Stren came out two decades later and offered a vast improvement to the thick, rigid, early lines. Mono has been extremely popular ever since.
As the name implies, monofilament is made from one single plastic fiber, typically nylon or nylon mixed with other polymers for better performance (often called “copolymer” lines). It typically has a high degree of elasticity, especially when wet since it absorbs water, and a relatively low degree of visibility. It is usually neutrally buoyant, making it broadly applicable.
Fishing line technology has progressed over this last half-century. Newer line types surpass mono in some categories, especially durability, but nothing beats mono for affordability and all-around utility.
UV light degrades mono, which means it must be replaced every season or so, depending on how much sunlight it sees. But be smart: store your reels indoors and strip off the working portion of the line, the last 80 feet or so, when it starts to weaken. The rest of the spool hasn’t yet been exposed to sunlight or abrasion, so no need to throw it out too.
If not exposed to direct sunlight, mono is said to take more than 600 years to fully decompose—so make sure you recover as much lost line as possible.
Flouro is similar to mono in appearance and construction, but way, way more expensive. Made of polyvinylidene fluoride, it has very low light refraction and reflection, making it less visible underwater—an obvious boon for spooky fish in clear water situations. However, marketing claims that it is completely invisible are misleading at best.
Flouro is also denser than mono. This makes it more durable, abrasion-resistant, rigid, and sensitive. However, that density also gives it more memory, making it prone to coiling and kinking. Many flouro lines have a lower knot strength than mono. It also sinks, so some anglers avoid it for dry fly or topwater fishing.
Florocarbon’s durability and UV resistance almost make up for its price tag. It typically costs three times as much for a spool, but doesn’t require replacement nearly it as often. That longevity, however, comes at a cost: that line will outlive you, your grandkids, possibly even the human race. That’s an issue for some folks.
Primitive fishing lines dating back thousands of years were made from braided natural materials such as plant fibers, horse hair, silk, cotton, and linen. Modern incarnations use braided synthetic microfibers like Spectra and Dacron.
The biggest strength of braid is, well, its strength. Modern braids can achieve a high level of tensile strength while remaining very thin. Braided line will often be less than one quarter the diameter of mono or flouro of the same pound-test rating. This narrow diameter means double line capacity on a reel. That can come in handy with large, strong fish that might pull enough line to empty a spool of mono or flouro.
Most braided lines provide little to no stretch. This is highly beneficial for deep water or long line scenarios, where a stretchy line like mono would be difficult to manage and provide little sensitivity. Braid conveys every tick of the bottom and even light pick-ups by fish. It’s basically the only choice for serious bottomfishing.
On the other end of the water column, braid typically floats better than others, making it excellent for topwater or bobber/float fishing. It is also rather limp, making it helpful for long casts—but prone to tangling. Tip: rub a little Chapstick on a bad braid bird-nest knot to help pull it out.
The major downside to braid is visibility to fish. This doesn’t matter so much in the deep sea fishing applications or other low light situations, but many anglers in shallower water will elect to use a mono or flouro “bumper” or leader attached off the end of the mainline to keep the highly visible braid away from the lure or bait.
Braid varies in durability and biodegradability by brand and construction. Some lines will fizzle and unravel with the slightest nick, while others will defy cutting with even the sharpest nippers. Likewise, some older brands of braid will rot and decompose, but newer ones like Spectra are thought to be here for a long, long time.
I keep at least one reel spooled with mono, flouro, and braid for different fishing situations, but if you’re just getting started and don’t want to make that kind of investment. Just do some educated experimentation. Use the above guidelines to decide which option makes the most sense for your style and your favorite fishery. Stay tuned for a follow-up story on a fourth category of fishing lines—biodegradable—and why they can’t seem to gain traction with anglers.