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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.