Poling the flats north of Big Pine Key, Dave Wylie sees a puff of mud 10 feet away. He stops his skiff and scans for the gray-green bodies camouflaged against the turtlegrass.
“There! Three fish!”
He flips out a shrimp. His rodtip shakes, and a spray of water from the racing line jets into the distance. Bonefish on.
After landing the fish, Capt. Wylie says, “We never would have felt the tap-tap of that fish picking up the shrimp on mono line. With braided, you feel everything, even the shrimp twitching 60 feet away.”
Down in Key West, a permit raises its head above water and eyes Capt. Phil Thompson staked out across the channel. Thompson grabs the spinning reel with the braided line, a hooked crab and a cork float and casts a good 80 feet to the fish, which takes the bait and runs with it for Brad Giroux, owner of Alaska’s Sprucewood Lodge, who’s never before seen, much less fought a permit.
In Biscayne Bay, Capt. Jorge Valverde and angler Jim O’Brien hook a big bonefish. On its first run, the fish peels off 270 yards of the braided line, far more than the 200 yards of mono that could have fit on that spool. As the bonefish races, the line cuts off little sponges that would have severed mono line at the touch. After a good fight, O’Brien lands the fish, which weighs 13-plus pounds.
These catches show why, on Florida’s southernmost flats, more bonefish and permit anglers are spooling up the newer braided lines. For their lack of stretch, which translates into better hooksets and sensitivity to action, their narrower diameter for equivalent strength, which provides greater casting distance, and for their abrasion resistance, which means fewer cutoffs and more fish landed, narrow-diameter braided lines are winning more converts every season.
Manufacturers, who market the lines under a number of names, initially introduced the smaller diameter braided lines about 10 years ago and continued to improve them with each passing year. About three years ago, they rounded the lines’ cores and applied new coatings to the lines’ tough, spun-polyester fiber material to make the lines more manageable to hold, knot and cast, and less abrasive and cutting to equipment like rod guides, fingers and hands. After those improvements, flats anglers started in earnest to test their advantages, and disadvantages, compared to nylon monofilament.
“In the last couple years I’ve gone to braided lines because I was frustrated losing fish on my spinning rods,” says Wylie, out of Ramrod Key. “A lot of people, when they get excited with a big fish, will wind against the drag, which will twist and weaken mono line. When that happened with mono, I’d change the spool immediately with one of the extras I always bring. But if I didn’t notice it, and we’d get a bonefish on with that weakened line and it rubbed against a rock, a sponge, or a mangrove shoot, well, there goes that fish that we worked so hard to get. Braided line can withstand that spinning and it doesn’t twist or weaken. I foresaw that the braided lines might be the answer to getting more fish to the boat.”
Wylie first bought one spool of braided line and tried it for bonefish with good results. Then he put it on his permit rods, and finally on his heaviest rods for tarpon. Its resistance to abrasion—even up against barnacle-encrusted bridge pilings when tarpon fishing—and its increase in casting distances, have both proved extremely valuable.
“Now I can put 50-pound test on my spinning reel and it’s got the diameter of about 12-pound-test mono,” Wylie says. “If I use 30-pound test, that’s the diameter of about 6-pound monofilament. So you get a lot more distance casting.
To be able to cast an extra 40 or 50 feet, in any direction, greatly increases chances for hookups for flats anglers whose slightest movement, much less the poling of a boat, can spook fish in the highly illumined shallow water. Add to that increased range the lighter presentations that braided lines afford, and old monofilament begins to fade away.
“When they came out with the improved 10-pound-test/2-pound mono equivalent lines a couple years ago, I switched to them right away,” says Valverde, who fishes Biscayne Bay, Flamingo and the Upper Keys.
“I fish a lot for bonefish, and often, you can’t add a splitshot to the lines, because it will get caught in the grass and sponges. So the greater casting range of the braided lines is a huge advantage, especially during summer, when our shrimp get smaller, and lighter. I can cast about 90 feet even with a small shrimp on the 10-pound-rated braided line. To rig the shrimp to take the force of the cast, I clip its tail like a worm rig and bring the hook out the top of the shell. That hook through the shell really helps keep the shrimp on during the cast.”
Since braided lines have no stretch, compared to roughly 20 feet of stretch per every 100 feet of monofilament, they give better hooksets and transmit way more of the action to anglers’ hands. Every movement of the fish and its fight gets telegraphed to your fingertips on those lines.
“You can really feel that bonefish, even a light bonefish, pecking at the shrimp with its small mouth,” Wylie says. “And that helps, because if they nibble too long before you hit them, they’ll feel that hook and drop it. In real shallow water, I think you’re better off with a shrimp for bonefish and for permit, too. Partly because on these flats, shrimp occur more naturally, and partly because most anglers can present and work a shrimp better than a crab.”
For bonefish, Wylie uses 10-pound-test braid, and for permit, 15-pound braid, on rods rated for 8- to 15-pound-test line. For tarpon, he’ll put 30-pound braid on a big spinner, or even 50-pound braid on a level wind reel. He uses a 2- to 3-foot fluorocarbon leader for permit and bonefish, and a 6-foot, 50- to 80-pound fluorocarbon leader for tarpon, switching to the lighter weight leader when the fish act leader shy.
The power and durability of braided lines may also provide another benefit. They may actually lessen the wear on fish by hastening the fight, and that’s a big plus for survival rates in flats fisheries which are sustained by catch-and-release practices.
Along with new possibilities, the braided lines also present new challenges, and a few drawbacks. Their limp structure and slippery texture not only feel unfamiliar to monofilament users, but the lines knot easily without careful and constant line management.
“If people aren’t alert to the line when they’re casting, or even reeling in,” says Wylie, “then the line can wrap around itself. If that wrap turns into a knot and tightens down, then all you can do is cut that length off.”
To contend with its knack for knotting, Valverde always tells people to “loosely hold the line close to the bail, taut against the spool, until near the end of the cast’s trajectory and as soon as the bait lands, to close the bail and reel up tight.
“Always keep that line tight to the spool to prevent the line from looping off the spool,” he says. “Anglers can also throw the bail shut before the bait lands to keep it tight. It’s the same principle of line management that you use for baitcasters, which will backlash into loops and knots if you don’t keep the line tight at all times.”
Also, braid’s thin diameter, lack of stretch and tensile strength combine to make it razor-like when strung tightly. The 10-pound-rated line easily cuts flesh if not handled properly.
Valverde warns that anglers should never grab the braided line during a fight. He’ll never touch 10-pound braid line when a fish is on, because he knows, through experience, that it will slice skin. He’ll only grab the leader to land the fish. He’ll handle the slightly thicker, 20-pound-rated line, but carefully.
“Only grab that line with the meat of your hand, right down the middle of your palm, and wrap once around your hand that way. Don’t grab it with your fingers, ever.”
For anglers who aren’t used to the braided lines but want to try them, he recommends that they rig with longer leaders until they get familiar with how to handle the braided. “They’ll have to get used to casting with the longer leader,” he says, “but that’s much better than grabbing the line in the heat of the battle and getting cut by it.”
To fill spools, most anglers will first put on 20 to 30 yards of monofilament as a base for the braided line, which may otherwise slip under, tangle and even cut itself on the spool, if it is not carefully and tightly packed down. Because he likes to get the maximum yardage that he can on the spool, Valverde goes to great lengths, literally, to pack the spool tightly.
“I tie the braided line directly onto the spool,” he says. “To get the most on the spool with the necessary tightness so that it doesn’t slip, I’ll overfill the spool, so that the line is even with the rim, and literally walk it out and reel it back on tight. I’ll go to a park and tie it to a tree or a pole and walk out the line’s total length. Then I’ll tighten the drag and begin reeling it back, to pack it on the spool tightly. After that, the line compresses down and there’s room left on the spool.”
Angler Dave Justice created what’s commonly called the Stren knot to attach braided line to fluoro leaders. Basically, says Valverde, it’s an improved clinch knot on the braid side and a uni-knot on the fluoro side together, and it’s “the best application knot for that connection.” (There’s a diagram of the knot on the Stren Web site, www.stren.com.) Valverde also recommends giving the clinch knot 12 to 15 wraps instead of the usual 10.
There may be a cost advantage to using braided lines. Though initially more expensive than monofilament, some anglers change lines much less frequently than with monofilament, whose tendency to twist, kink and abrade, often made spools of it useless. The braided lines seem to endure the harsh conditions of sun and salt better, too, says Wylie, though he notes that after awhile, even the braided lines fade and become less responsive.
“Ultimately,” he says, “the braided lines do seem to have a lifespan, and when they show wear, that’s when I change them.”
That may give the lines an environmental advantage, too, Valverde adds, “since we’re not throwing around all that old monofilament anymore.” He’s had the same lines on certain reels for nine months and caught hundreds of fish on them, he says, and they’re still strong.
Since they’re still relatively new, no one has quite figured out if they do save money in the long run, and anyway, as every angler knows, that really doesn’t matter too much in fishing.
“So far, I’m not sure of their long-run cost-effectiveness, but I am sure that if they help me get more fish to the boat, then they’re worth it,” Wylie says. “With all the expense and work I put into fishing, the terminal tackle and the line is not the place to try to save a few dollars. And,” he adds, “for guys who mainly fish on the weekends, it’s just as important for them to be effective while they’re using their limited time to be on the water.
“Overall,” Wylie concludes, “the advantages of braided lines outweigh the disadvantages.” FS