Featherweight Fly-Fishing

Scaling down your fly gear will make big sport out of small fish.

Looks like a big one,” Janesonn Rome hollered as the rod curved and the line hissed through the water. I could feel every vibration and headshake as the tussle ensued. After some give-and-take, I landed the 12-inch largemouth, slipped out the barbless hook and released it to fight another day. Even though the bass wasn’t large, my 2-weight fly rod made it feel like a bruiser. With a heavier stick, that bass would have been a wimp.

Once you get the feel and rhythm of a featherweight fly rod, casting can be as pleasurable as any other tackle.

Once you get the feel and rhythm of a featherweight fly rod, casting can be as pleasurable as any other tackle.

The lightest fly rods come in 0- to 1-weight ratings, with 2 and 3 weights only slightly heavier. While 0- to 1-weight combos are intended only for tossing small dry flies and delicate tippets, many anglers mistakenly believe that 2- and 3-weight rigs also fall into this category. Actually, 2- and 3-weight fly rods can cast lightly-weighted flies and subdue fairly large fish, making them great choices for fishermen looking to add a fun new element to their bass, panfish and small-water trout fishing.

Flyweight Combos

Every year, fly-line companies produce lines that last longer, float higher, sink better and/or toss heavier flies. This technology is especially apparent in the 2- and 3-weight lines. For example, the Scientific Anglers Mastery Textured Trout Taper weight-forward 3 is a floating gem. Its textured design, much like the surface of a golf ball, reduces friction and adds effortless accuracy to casting. This configuration makes it possible to cast flies that were not practical with previous light lines. When devising a system for pursuing freshwater fish with lower-weight lines, the newest floating and slow-sink lines are tough to beat.

Today’s reels intended for 2- and 3-weight fishing are more effective and lighter than their click-and-pall predecessors. They are stronger, have better drags, and despite their small sizes, have large arbors to reduce fly-line memory. Two reels ideal for catching large fish on light fly gear are the Sage 3230 and the Galvan Torque 3. These reels lend themselves well to standard 20-pound-test backing.

Featherweight fly-fishing can make a trout like this one put up an even more exciting battle.

Featherweight fly-fishing can make a trout like this one put up an even more exciting battle.

The 2- and 3-weight rods made with the latest rod-building materials and technology pack a lot of punch for such light sticks. They come in a wider range of lengths than rods in higher weight categories, and can measure from 6 to 9 feet. The shorter lengths are best for casting in tight quarters, such as on small streams with overhanging brush. While most fish will put a deep bend in any 2- or 3-weight fly rod, these limber rods have enough muscle to land surprisingly large fish.

Generally, a fly-rodder thinks of matching his leader to the line and weight of the rod, which makes sense since the objective is to create a balanced outfit. However, when pursuing freshwater fish with light-line rigs, I suggest beefing up the leader with a stronger-than-usual tippet. For instance, instead of tippets ranging from 7x to 5x, I use 4x through 2x, which have breaking strengths of 8- to 12-pound test.

The heavier tippet enables an angler to subdue the quarry without exhausting or breaking it off. Also, a heavier tippet will easily turn over larger flies while reducing wind knots.
Whether my leader is mono or fluorocarbon, knotless or knotted, I always strive to use the shortest leader I can effectively fish. This allows me to cast a wider range of fly sizes with the light rod.

The Best Flies

Though smaller flies are easier to cast, they are not always the most effective for larger fish. A good portion of my light fly-fishing is for panfish, and though I sometimes see sunfish nibbling on size 16 to 20 insects, for most venues I don’t use a fly smaller than size 12. Sunfish and crappies are opportunistic feeders and will swipe at offerings that don’t exactly imitate the natural forage.

When probing for trout and largemouth bass, there are ways to make a small fly appear larger without making it difficult to cast on a 2- or 3-weight setup. Take a slender baitfish imitation and extend the tail with just a few long strands of rubber legs, Flashabou, marabou or bucktail.

fly box filled with nymphs, streamers, woolly worms, leeches, Gaines Black Gnats and Sneaky Petes.

For light-line work, the author keeps a fly box filled with nymphs, streamers, woolly worms, leeches, Gaines Black Gnats and Sneaky Petes.

When tying flies to cast on my 2- and 3-weight rods, I am a soft-hackle enthusiast, applying that concept to patterns such as ants, crickets, minnows, hoppers, and bugger variations. The soft hackles make these offerings “breathe” in the water, advertising “big food” to fish, plus they remain easy to toss with 2 and 3 weights. The extra-long hackle of choice is a Schlappen feather in brown, olive, or black, which gives additional movement and size to any pattern where a hackle is included. And, in my experience, you can’t make the hackle too long.

For light-line work, I keep a fly box filled with nymphs, streamers, woolly worms, leeches, Gaines Black Gnats and Sneaky Petes.

Loading the Rod

Casting with an ultralight fly rod is more challenging than casting a heavier stick. The action of a lighter rod tends to be softer—most designs flex right down to the butt–and the result is slower line speed with a wider loop. To adjust, slow down the casting stroke, hesitating longer at the top of the cast to allow the backcast to straighten and load the rod. Additional line speed can be generated by giving a subtle tug on the forward cast. Most casts will be short, but with the slight haul, lengths of 35 to 40 feet can be achieved.
As with casting using any tackle, it’s a matter of proper rigging, timing, and practice. Once you get the feel and rhythm of a featherweight fly rod, casting can be as pleasurable (if not more so) than most any other tackle.

Fish Fighting Strategy

Because of their relatively soft action, light fly rods are not designed to bury big hooks into bony mouths. Thankfully, when using the smaller flies for which these rods are intended, the only hookset necessary is a quick lift of the rod. Sometimes, just a sharp, short strip will set the hook.

Try to keep the rod bend fairly slight by angling the tip toward the fish. This puts the pressure on the rod butt, which has a surprising amount of power for such a light rod.

Try to keep the rod bend fairly slight by angling the tip toward the fish. This puts the pressure on the rod butt, which has a surprising amount of power for such a light rod.

Once the hook is set and the fish is on, these rods can exert a decent degree of pressure on the fish. While it’s true that light fly rods do not possess massive lifting capabilities, I’ve landed 21-inch pickerel and many 2-pound largemouth bass. Try to keep the rod bend fairly slight by angling the tip toward the fish. This puts the pressure on the rod butt, which has a surprising amount of power for such a light rod.

Enjoying the fight is the whole reason behind using a featherweight fly rod. An 8-inch bluegill can take you to the reel and even pull a little drag on a well-balanced 2-weight. Trout and largemouth bass will put up an even more exciting battle.

For the end game, a net will greatly improve your chances of landing your catch, as the final moments of a light-tackle battle are usually when a fish is lost.

Venues and Accessories

It’s best to concentrate on areas of water where wind is less likely to be a factor or can be managed more easily. I’ve located impressive largemouths in very small farm ponds and found sizeable trout in small country streams. Secluded, sheltered bays and coves frequently afford just about windless conditions, ideal for ultralight fly-fishing.

  1. Greg W

    Nice article
    I have always felt the fly fishing industry has pushed over weight rods (but no idea why). Most shops will push a 5 to 6 weight outfit to a new angler interested mostly in trout, when a 3 to 4 is much more appropriate. Or a new angler to salt water fly fishing will walk out the shops door with a 10 weight which is perfect for casting 400 gram +++ sinking lines and fighting fish over 30 pounds but feels like a broom stick with the under 5 pounds schoolies he will catching on a regular basis.
    I carry a 8 9 and 10 on my boat and a 9 when walking the surf but would recomend an 8 to a beginner.

    Reply
    • don

      Sir, I’m going to start fly rod fishing this spring. I have fished for years fresh and salt. Salt w will be my focus.
      So I have two rods that are rather lightcompared to anything salts. I believe they are 7’s. And 8ft and 8 1/2. In length. I. Have no lines yet
      I have read some, saying to use mono or braid as “backers” and then floating and/or sinking with fluro to finish. I’m from s new jersey expecting to meet up with strikers at some time.
      Do you have any info to get me started on the right foot?
      Your help would be appreciated,. Thank you. Don

      Reply
      • Joseph Manette

        Don asked about rigging a fly rod……Don , google DON’T FEAR THE FLY ROD -ON THE
        WATER and you will find a detailed article about your rigging questions. Many
        smart anglers use different gear as conditions dictate, catching more fish and they don’t miss out on the fun of each , fly rodding and conventional rigs.

        Reply
  2. marko

    Important to understand the point about fighting fish too long – if you use light gear learn to use it to its limits. I’ve killed some large fish with a 3wt by being way too cautious in fighting them. Eventually I went to a 4 wt, had just as much fun and fish mortality was next to nil.

    Reply
  3. Woody

    Marko I echo your comments, not sure why we need to push lighter rods in the name of prolonging the fight. Several key factors go in to the ability of a fish to survive after being caught, one of which is lactic acid build up. If a fish is stressed to the point that too much builds up due to a prolonged fight, there’s a good chance the fish will die. I’m not advocationg using a 7wt on trout but a 5wt is a perfect balance I believe for small and big water fishing in addition to being able to throw a small streamer.

    Reply
  4. Dave

    Always know your surroundings!!! – I think if you use the smallest weight set-ups, in the right places, and you know the resident population of fish are smaller than those in an average size body of water, there is no issue with fighting and releasing fish. If you take one of the smaller rigs onto bigger water just for giggles, then you start to run the risk of killing fish needlessly. Back in the 70’s the typical “beginner” set-up being pushed at local shops and by catalogs was a 9 weight. We had them sure, but they were ill suited for many situations we routinely faced. It was then that we started experimenting. We starting using 4 ft ultralight spinning rods with tiny single action reels and the lightest flylines sold at the time. The streams we fished were tiny and so were the native fish. We called it Flea-Rodding. It was great fun and completely ethical. We were 100% C&R on those small waterways… and we could fish it a week later and catch the same fish.

    Reply

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