Odds 'n' Sods of Information and Opinion

The Importance of Calibrating Your System

Building Consistency Part II

I always start building my system from the fish back to the reel. It’s based on the presentation I want to achieve to reach the fish, then the fly design needed for that presentation, working back through leader, then head, running line, and finally rod and reel. All aspects have to work together and have to be based on a clear vision of the desired presentation.

Back in the '80s and '90s, I was a semi-pro stock and black and white fine art photographer using a variety of equipment, including large 4 X 5 cameras. If you have ever seen beautiful black and white photographs of the American southwest, its deserts and mountain ranges, you're likely looking at ones made by Ansel Adams. He produced an excellent system for black and white photography referred to as the "Zone System". No need to go into the details about it, but one essential feature of the Zone System was the requirement to calibrate every piece of equipment, film, chemicals, and paper, so that the results not only would be very consistent, but could also be anticipated before the shutter was released. Writers promoting the benefits of the Zone System heavily stressed these aspects of consistency and accurately anticipating the result. However, they didn't mention another benefit -- enforced simplification. One couldn't calibrate dozens and dozens of items -- the photographer was forced to limit lenses, meters, films, etc. to a workable amount.

While I like to have lots of rods and reels, and I'm not suggesting otherwise, it is important that our lines, leaders, and flies are calibrated to work together. Our fishing calibration problem is much, much simpler than the photographic version, however, it's just as important. Without such efforts, we could have our sinktip scraping the stones three feet under, while our fly sails merrily along only a few inches under. Believe me, I've seen it happen. The idea behind calibration is to produce a presentation where the fly is the lowest point in the system.

Applying the calibration concept to our fishing will yield similar benefits as does the Zone System for black and white photography. If we calibrate our shooting heads for consistent casting, the leaders for their consistent casting, floating, or sinking properties, our flies for their performance, ´┐╝we will also be forced to simplify our equipment to a reasonably number of items with known properties. While we might have lots of rods, reels, and lines, it's important that we're familiar with how each performs -- that suggests we should refrain from mixing and matching, as then we would be making the "familiarity" process that much more difficult.

While I didn't always think this way, I now firmly believe that successful anglers are not all over the map with their gear. They work with the same or similar rods, reels, lines, leaders, and flies day in day out, so that their properties and performance are well known. This constant exposure to the same gear permits a fine calibration of the equipment to produce consistent results. As a consequence of this calibration and simplification, the performance of my lines, leaders, and flies are thoroughly known. I can approach a new piece of water, pull out a head, loop on a leader, tie on a fly, and I will know exactly how it will perform.
In this photo, I’m using a graduated cylinder, purchased from a photo darkroom supplier, to test the sink rate of my flies. A cheap digital stopwatch, purchased from a sporting goods store, times the descent. The long magnet is used to retrieve the flies from the bottom so I can test each one two or three times to get an average. I thoroughly wet the flies first then drop them in from just touching the surface, so as to break the surface tension. I time the drop and use the results to calculate the fly’s inches per second rate sink rate. The same can be done with tips and Polyleaders.

Calibrating our fishing gear requires things like measuring the sink rate of flies, using a limited set of patterns and hook styles, standardizing on a set of leaders with known properties, sticking with one or two types of line systems, using a set of sinktips with known properties, staying with one brand of shooting heads, and so on. One of the things I've done to help my casting consistency is to match one particular line to one rod. So when I take out my 12’ shooting head rod, the vast majority of the time, I will only fish shooting heads on it. Whether I'm using a sinktip, shooting head, or a mid-belly sinktip, the leader construction will follow the same presentation guides and I’ll use the same sets of flies. The rods and lines might be different, but the approach I use for assembling the terminal tackle remains the same. I am now far less concerned about changing casting styles, as I am about changing presentation methods. I now believe that the consistency and efficiency of presentation is the major key to angling success. How you get the fly out there is of much less importance.