Doin’ the (un)Twist... Managing Fly Line Twist

Text and images by Craig Smith

Fly anglers often grumble about poor fly line performance due to coils in the line that prevent the line from shooting or cause other issues due to tangles.  Many blame the fly line “memory” – that is the fly line retaining the coiled shape from being stored on the reel spool – and think they have a bum line. Very early in my fly angling life I was sometimes running into some aggravating problems, especially with shooting line, due to annoying coils that had set into the fly line.  Stretching the flyline to remove the coils would only slightly improve the situation and then only temporarily, so I blamed the line.  A couple of decades ago while I was lamenting a “poor” line a much more experienced fly caster kindly explained to me that there was nothing wrong with the fly line; it just had acquired a lot of twists.  Today, when I encounter someone who is having problem with coils in a fly line I immediately have them check for line twist.  More than 90% of the time removing the twists also eliminates their problems.


So how do line twists get introduced into the fly line?  The most common method is through casting.  If you are doing a lot of casting during the day you may notice twists developing as the day progresses.  With less frequent casts you may not notice for a few outings.   Anytime the rod tip does not move though the same plane on the forward and back casts the rod tip will move in an oval path which introduces some twist. This occurs with roll casts.  It also occurs frequently when casting heavy sinking lines or heavy flies, fly/indicator/shot combinations, making very long casts, or any other casts where the rod must move in either slight or exaggerated oval to prevent the line and fly from striking the rod. You can also introduce twist into the line with some stripping/retrieve techniques or by improperly winding a flyline on the reel.  Fortunately, there are a number of ways to minimize twist or remove twists from the line once they worked their way in.


To prevent the introduction line twist when spooling a line, always wind the line onto the spool while it is in the reel frame.  If you hold the spool in your hand and wind the line on by hand from the side each wrap will cause one twist. Also unwind the line from the factory line spool reverse of the way it was wound on. Do not pull the line off to the side of the line coil. To minimize line twist cause by casting, try to have the cast finish so that the line comes tight to the reel, or grip the line so it comes tight to your hand and the end of the cast.  If the line comes tight to the reel at the completion of the cast, much or all of the twist introduced by an oval casting stroke during that cast will come out. However, if you are left with some slack line between the reel and the stripper guide you will be left with some twist.  Over time this will build up twists in the lines and cause problems. Yes, I understand there are some types of casts where coming tight like this may not be practical so we will just need to live with that and remove twists later.

If you are having problems with coils of line getting tangled at your feet or causing casts to stop short when shooting line, you first need to determine if your line has line twists or coils due to memory in the line. Pull four to six feet of fly line from the reel and hold each end of that section in a hand. Bring your hands together.   Ideally the line will look like Figure 1 and there will be no twist. If the line has twist it will look something like Figure 2.   Figure 3 shows a line with some memory.  You may also find that you have a line with both twist and memory.  If we have some twist we need to remove it.  Fortunately, that is not difficult, though it can take some time in situations with severe twist.  

So how do we remove twist?  Here are five methods:


1.  If you have been doing a lot of roll casting, make a bunch of roll casts over the opposite shoulder. This will make twists in the opposite direction thus cancelling out the twists you initially put in.  If I am fishing where I am doing a lot of roll casting I routinely alternate and make casts off the alternate shoulder when possible.


2.  If you are on a watercraft you can cut the fly from the leader, remove any split shot and indicators, strip the line out, and trail the line behind you as you move. You do not need to strip the entire line out, just what you will be using.  The faster you go the less time it will take the twists to come out. In a boat putting along at about 5 MPH, 30 seconds is usually plenty.  If going slower, such as if kicking along in a float tube, it will take a bit longer.  If you are on a stream you can just remove the fly and let the line out into the current for a few minutes.


3.  On the lawn or a large carpeted area or clean floor, lay out the fly line in a straight line. Grasp the line in one hand with a damp paper towel or cloth and pull the line through towards the tip with the other hand, ensuring that you do not lose your grip on the fly line. This will push the twists out. You may need to repeat this a few or many times depending on how badly the line is twisted.  I have taken some severely twisted lines that other anglers were going to discard and made them usable by repeating this process a few dozen times.


4.  Strip the line off the reel. Tighten the drag on the reel. Suspend the reel from about three to five feet of line (or whatever works based on your height).  Let the reel hang until it stops twisting.  It may twist one way then the other as the momentum from the initial untwisting will cause it to twist up the other direction a bit then untwist the other direction. When the reel completely stops rotating, wind up the length of line and then repeat with another section.  This method requires less space than a phone booth (remember those?) but takes the most time.


5.  Cast out the amount of line you need to fish with. Ensure that the line is cast out straight so there is no slack just outside the rod tip or between the stripping guide and the reel.  With the rod pointed at the fly rotate your body 90 degrees so the rod is parallel to your chest and hold the rod at arm’s length.  Form an “O” with the forefinger and thumb of both hands.  Place the one hand “O” right behind the stripping guide and the other hand “O” on the fighting butt, or the end of the reel seat if your rod does not have a fighting butt.  Flip the rod on its axis counterclockwise (as you look at it from the fighting butt end) 15-30 times using the reel as a weight to drive the flips.  Go back to fishing.  If you are left handed you flip clockwise.   This is a method I use quite frequently on the water. (you can see video of this technique here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4O5YBSapRg or here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cGgh8s3ytE ).


For each of these methods you only need to work with the amount of line you will be fishing/casting with.  The methods that can be used on the water can often get you back to problem free fishing quickly.

Sometimes those problematic coils in the fly line are due to the line having set into coils (it has retained a “memory” of the shape of the coil) while stored on the reel.  This is most common with lines designed for tropical conditions or lines single strand monofilament cores but sometimes we see this will old fly lines. All flylines have some degree of memory, which is more pronounced in colder conditions. Lighter weight lines for trout usually have minimal memory in all but the coldest conditions. Many lines may exhibit some memory in cool conditions.  Usually these coils can be removed by stretching the line between your hands. In mild cases the memory relaxes after a few casts without stretching. Sometimes you have both memory coils and twists and this can be really frustrating as the line may retain a memory of the twists along with the coils. If you have a line with both memory and twist you will find it easier to remove the coils if you remove the twist first. For a line with a really bad case of memory, soaking the line warm water for a few minutes will help the line relax. Then use method 3 above to straighten the line and remove the twists and stretch out the memory coils.

Folding Flyline Winder
Folding Flyline Winder

The best way I know of to prevent memory coils from taking a set in the fly line is to remove the line from the reel if it is not going to be used for a while.  We prefer collapsible  line winder such as the Anglers Image Fly Line Winder to remove lines from and wind lines onto reels.  This size of the coil created with removing the line from the reel with the winder can be adjusted.  When I am not going to use a line for a few weeks I unwind it from the reel into an 8-12 inch diameter coil and secure the coils with twist ties so it doesn’t unravel.  I also attach a tag that identifies the line.  I then store the line in gallon size Ziploc bag.  When I need to use that line again I put it on the line winder, attach it to the backing, and wind it back on to the reel. Rio Products, maker of Rio fly lines, sells a handle kit (the Rio Cranky kit) that can be used with the spool that the flyline came packaged with to make a simple fly line winder.   This gizmo doesn’t allow the size of the coil to be larger than the original packaging but is still a better option than long term storage on the reel.