This is a question that I have been getting a lot recently! Many anglers are coming into the shop, looking at new lines, and asking about different tactics for striped bass. During the conversations, I will usually be asked how/when to use a floating line for stripers. Or, when/how to use poppers and other top-water flies. With all the different lines available from full floating to full sinking, there's a lot of variation which intern creates a lot of confusion. To break it down, I will make a short pros/cons list instead of trying to dissect all the nuances. Hopefully these can help when figuring out which line is best for you, and your situation...
The pros + cons of using a floating line for striped bass:
- A floating line will allow you to effectively fish top-water/poppers. It will give you the ability to vary your retrieve and not worry about your fly slowing sinking into the water column (like an intermediate line will).
- During a feeding "blitz" a floating line will keep your fly in the "strike zone" either with a top-water or any general baitfish pattern. During this time, that's where the fish are looking and that's where your fly will be.
- Night fishing - a general rule of thumb is: "fish are looking up at night." Now this isn't 100% the case all the time, but it certainly is a "rule" that is proven true over and over. So with a floating line, taking advantage of a fish's habitual periphery at night, throwing a floating line can be very enticing.
- Skinny water - if you fish from a boat in very shallow water (think flats boat), then a floating line is probably in your arsenal. If you are doing this, then you are most likely sight-fishing and a floating line will allow you to present the fly delicately and also not constantly bump the bottom during your retrieval. Plus with a 7-9ft leader, this is all you will need to touch bottom if necessary.
- Limits your strike zone - unless you are throwing a very heavy crab/clouser/etc on a 20-30ft leader (I'm guessing you aren't), you are pretty limited in terms of where your fly will swim while using a floating line. Where even with just an intermediate, you can either start your retrieval immediately, or wait a little while after casting to adjust depth.
- Schoolies - schoolies are fun, but not when you know the bigger fish are directly under the schoolies! As mentioned in the "pros" - a floating line will put your fly where the fish are during a "blitz." Most times during these blitzes the schoolies beat the bigger fish to the fly. Unless you are seeing big tails on the surface, there's a good chance that the bigger fish are under the bait and schoolies. So, throwing a sink-tip or even intermediate line will help cut through the bait and schoolies to the larger fish underneath (being smart and letting the food come to them!)
- Waves and current - I do a fare amount of striped bass fishing in the surf, off rocks, and heavier tidal/moving water areas. When casting a floating line into decent surf and chop, it is increasingly difficult to "swim" the fly properly. One of the skills that separates, in my opinion, a good streamer/baitfish fly fisherman from the best, is his/her ability to swim a fly properly through waves/current/moving water. If you are casting a fly into the surf and your pattern is being ripped through the tops of waves, getting manhandled by current, and is simply not "acting like a real (bait) fish" then most likely a striper will see the same thing and ignore your offering. Using an intermediate/sinking line will cut through waves/chop and tidal current a lot better and further allow you to "swim"/retrieve your fly in a much more natural manner.
- Wind - It's never going away and us striper anglers are almost always dealing with it! One thing, in terms of casting, that a floating line will not do as well as an INT/sinking line will, is deal with the wind. A floating line (usually) has a thicker head (buoyancy) and is lighter. Specifically the thicker head does not cut through wind as well as the thinner sinking (tip) lines do. You will find very quickly that a floating line simply does not deal with wind like the INT/sinking lines.
For the most part, what line and when is a very circumstantial decision, especially a floating line for stripers. The right line is also very personal. So next time you are grabbing your gear to head out on the salt, I hope these quick pros/cons help you make a good decision on what line is best for you! Good luck!