A year ago, I had the idea to explore the emergence of “retro” gear in fly fishing. Whereas very recently the necessary paradigm of equipment in the industry was always and only “lighter, faster, sleeker,” the past decade has seen many companies revisiting traditional elements. With the partnership of some premier fly fishing brands, I assembled a rod, reel, and line that all fit into this category: Orvis Superfine Glass, Pflueger Medalist, and Cortland Sylk. I’ve been fishing with the gear for a year, and today I’ll be looking at what makes Sylk an interesting fly line worth considering.
In a small industry like fly fishing, there are not a lot of companies to begin with. Given the nature of the market and the culture as a whole, there are few that stand the test of time. Yet in the middle of New York State, Cortland Line has been producing fishing line since 1915. Their first line was made from silk, and was soon patented into a signature fly fishing staple.
Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century, and fly lines were still being made by Cortland in New York. Technology had come a long way in the nearly hundred years since they began braiding silk in the very same facility. Moreover, fly fishing had changed. PVC replaced silk and other materials due to cost, versatility, and the unimaginable diversification of angling opportunities.
However, there was a certain niche that a silk-like line still fit into. “There have always been people who fished bamboo, and this line was specifically built for them,” says Brooks Robinson, manager of public relations and social media at Cortland. He’s speaking of Sylk, the contemporary fly line designed around 2000 to mimic the performance characteristics (and appearance) of traditional silk line. “It isn’t designed for fast rods. It has a taper that fits a slower stroke that is usually found in bamboo or glass.”
Just because Sylk doesn’t have the most aggressive taper or cutting-edge textured finish doesn’t mean that it isn’t a premium fly line. I’ve taken it from Maine to Virginia and fished it in all four seasons. I’ve casted Sylk across fast rivers and caught landlocked salmon on dry flies, and I’ve worked the banks of weedy ponds for giant carp and bass. The 6-weight line loads the modern fiberglass flawlessly, has low memory, and presents flies with remarkable delicacy. Plus, it sits in the surface film a lot like actual silk line.
“The goal was to create an ‘easier to use’ version of silk,” says Robinson. Whereas the natural product requires constant greasing to keep it floating, the PVC line has an additive to increase the specific gravity and slightly decrease the flotation to imitate the feel of silk line in the water. “It is also a little thinner than most other lines of the same weight,” says Robinson, “this assists in going through the thinner guides of bamboo.”
Along with bamboo, the meteoric resurgence of fiberglass has created a larger market for Sylk. That demographic is a little different than the majority of the fly fishing community. “Marketing is pretty grassroots,” says Robinson. “Bamboo clubs, rod building groups, and other fly fishing clubs in places like the Catskills are filled with people who like what they like. This line meets their needs, and is a much more consistent product than real silk.” Although real silk line can still be purchased, the cost, availability, and maintenance make the plastic alternative very attractive.
The real testament to the functionality of an innovation like Sylk is the fact that you forget that you’re using it. This isn’t a derogatory sentiment at all. Rather, it bolsters the designers’ claims that this is a line that precisely fits the profile of a particular type of fly fishing. The longer front taper and the narrow diameter matches the rod, which effortlessly complements the necessary casting stroke. The palpable connection an angler has with a fly rod, along with the usually high price, often steers one’s attention towards that piece of gear. However, it is the line that ultimately moves the rod and delivers the fly to the fish. At the end of the day a properly paired, quality fly line is invaluable.
Cortland Line, in many ways, is the perfect company to manufacture a line like Sylk. Brooks Robinson is excited about the impending launch of a new, revitalized website along with some marketing initiatives. But involved in that is the inclusion of some “throwback” logos and aesthetics. Today’s fly lines, among all their other offerings, are built upon a century of history in angling. This rich heritage is part of the future of Cortland, as well as the future of fly fishing.