By Scott Richmond

When was the last time you thought about your backing? If you're like most fly anglers, it's not something you think about until you hook a fish big enough to expose it--a rare event for many.

Most anglers buy a new reel and a line or two to go with it, then let the fly shop put the backing on. They rarely think about it until Boss Hawg swallows their fly. Then they panic: will the line/backing knot hold? how old is this stuff? are there nicks in it? how much is there? how will I know when I'm about to run out?

I recently talked to several experts about backing:

  1. Mark Bachman, The Fly Fishing Shop, Welches, Oregon
  2. Joel La Follette, Kaufmann's Streamborn, Tigard, Oregon
  3. John Smeraglio, Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop, Maupin, Oregon
  4. Seth Taylor, Creekside Angling Company, Seattle, Washington
  5. Martin James, a radio broadcaster with the BBC who often fishes in the Bahamas and other saltwater destinations.

Here's what they had to say.

Material to Use

All these experts favored braided dacron for backing. Twenty-pound material is fine for trout fishing, but for steelhead and big fish, 30-pound backing is required. You need the extra strength in case of nicks and abrasions, as well for the beefier fish.

Gel-spun is tough and very thin. so you can pack more backing onto the reel. And, as Mark Bachman at The Fly Fishing Shop points out, thinner backing has less drag in the water--an important consideration when a tuna or tarpon has just run 300 yards out to sea. But that thinness is also a hazard. It will slice your fingers and is very hard on tackle. For example, gel-spun backing can quickly wear a groove in your guides, and even cut right through them; the cheaper the rod, the faster that will happen. One of our experts witnessed gel-spun backing slice through every guide on an angler's low-end saltwater rod.

The experts agree that gel-spun has a place: blue-water angling for big, fast fish, but only when used with top-quality tackle and by an angler who isn't going to get his fingers in the way. Anglers who fit this description need special knots and techniques that are not covered in this article.

Attaching Backing to the Reel

The classic arbor knot has not gone out of style. Seth at Creekside Angling always wraps the line around the reel arbor twice before tying the knot, and he favors two overhand knots in the tag end.

Attaching the Line to the Backing

Opinions vary on the best way to attach the backing to the line. The traditional Albright knot is still useful. The disadvantage is that the knot creates bulk. Fortunately, an Albright knot usually passes easily through the guides on the way out--when it's traveling fastest. When the angler is cranking line back in, the knot presents more bulk but it's usually not moving as fast so this isn't a problem.

However, everyone agreed nail knots work just fine for securing the backing to the fly line. The Albright knot is fast and can be done without tools, but a nail knot is thinner and is sufficiently strong. If you carry a nail knot tool, it's also a fast and easy knot. John Smeraglio of Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop likes to do two nail knots: tie the first with a long tag end, then do another about one inch farther up the line. It's a belt-and-suspenders approach, but when the fish of a lifetime is ripping away from you, that extra knot can be comforting.

These experts seldom coat their line/backing knots with anything, such as 0881UV Knot Sense.

Other Considerations

The BBC's Martin James, who takes as much care of his gear as any angler I know, always unspools both the line and the backing from his reels when he returns from the Bahamas, Persian Gulf, or New England coast. He washes both line and backing to get the salt out and hangs them up to dry. This keeps salt from corroding the reel.

Joel La Follette likes to use two colors of backing: one for the last 25 yards next to the reel, and a different color for the rest. That way he knows when he's running low on backing and needs to start walking (or running) after that 30-pound BC steelhead or 50-pound trevally. See 0869Backing Splices for instructions on how to do a backing splice.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).