Fly fishers may have to use ultralight tackle when catching large trout that eat small insects. The 1-, 2-, and 3-weight fly lines reduce line splash, reduce surface disturbance and allow fishers to use shorter leaders. Ultralight tackle does not cast well on windy days
IF YOU FLY FISH FOR TROUT MUCH, YOU EVENTUALLY FACE THE FACT that you operate in a world where bugs call the shots, determining not only where, when, but also how you must fish, and your choice of fly pattern, the length and strength of your leader, and the weight of line and rod you use to deliver them.
Often enough, it’s a pretty straightforward call. Anglers, like most people, tend to play the odds. They choose 4-, 5-, or 6-weight outfits, average “all-around” tackle scaled to the proportions of ordinary circumstance where water, fish, and insects all fall somewhere in that wide swath of the middle ground. But at certain times and places, circumstances cease being ordinary, and you’re faced with one of the most incongruous and fascinating situations in all of the fly fishing–larger fish sipping the tiniest of insects. When this happens, a whole new sense of scale comes into play, for the smallest of bugs require the lightest of tackle: 3-weight outfits, 2-weights, or the ultimate in ultralight fly gear, feathery 1-weight combinations.
The fact is, going small is more important to trout fishing than many anglers realize. On placid creeks, big tailwaters, and especially on lakes, tiny mayflies and midges and micro caddis are the rule rather than the exception. And where catch-and-release is practiced, trout who’ve seen it all grow finicky and selective. Smaller flies and more delicate techniques are necessary to catch them. Ultralight tackle is no longer the province of experts or a form of machismo stunt; it has become practical, and at times necessary, fox productive fishing.
“Ultralight” is not a term commonly used by fly fishermen, who typically employ the more specific numerical designations. But rods in this low-end weight class are nothing if not ultralight. They are also comparatively new, another product of the graphite-rod revolution and one, unfortunately, that has been undervalued in the modern obsession with blistering line speeds and long-distance casting–a quest for power that has had its price. The stiff rods that lay out long lines so beautifully have proven perfectly miserable for the soft, short-line presentations and delicate hook-sets that are the essence of small-fly fishing. Ultralight rods with sensitive, cushiony tips and unobtrusive, thin-diameter lines are a godsend in fishing diminutive patterns on fine tippets.
The bugs taught me this, though as usual, I proved a slow learner. On Idaho’s Silver Creek, the big draw is a small bug-the trio-a miniature mayfly that keeps banker’s hours, hatching from glassy currents in midmorning gathering in spectacular swarms, as thick as fog. The locals on the stream, it turns out, breathe through their teeth, a practice I soon adopted, though just for the record tricks don’t really taste too bad, kind of bland actually. Rigging up, I gave little thought to the 5-weight rod, worrying mostly whether the size 18 Trico spinner and 6X tippet were subtle enough to pass muster with the discriminating and preposterously large rainbows in this fertile stream.
Wrong on both counts, I went to a size 20 fly on a 7X tippet, and finally a size 22 on 8X, which won my first strike, a delicate, porpoising sip from a smaller fish. A quick, gentle lift of the rod, a momentary wiggle, and nothing but slack. I made half-a-dozen more casts, struggling to spot my fly amid hundreds of naturals before I realized that I hadn’t missed the trout. I’d broken it off. I tied on another size 22 spinner, and another, and then another, and a couple of hours later and several flies lighter walked back to the car with only the consolation that this was one of those rare occasions when you’d be justified in blaming your tackle. The rod was simply too stiff.
Certainly, some rods in the intermediate weights, particularly those of bamboo and fiberglass. have sufficiently soft tips and gentle actions to fish light tippets. But they cannot reproduce some of the other benefits of ultralight tackle. The narrow diameter of 1, 2-, and 3-weight fly lines allows for more delicate presentations than do heavier types, minimizing the line splash and surface disturbance on the cast that can spook trout in the smooth, clear waters that are often home to tiny insects. Thinner lines are also more supple, allowing for better drag-free drifts on moving water. These are significant advantages in themselves, but in combination, they offer another edge. Where heavier lines often require a long leader–as much as 16 to -18 feet-in order to distance the fish from casting disturbance and to promote a natural drift, lighter lines allow the use of shorter leaders, which improves both casting control and accuracy.
Anglers who routinely fish over larger trout may heft an ultralight outfit, gravely shake their heads, and wonder what this world is coming to. But such rods are surprisingly practical for handlings bigger fish. Graphite is remarkably versatile stuff, and with each generation of rods, designers are showing greater insight into how to work the material to achieve performance characteristics that are often conflicting such as strength and delicacy. Modern ultralights have surprising muscle in the butt section, and quite often, it’s more than enough. In light, tippet fishing, the true limiting factor is the strength of the leader, not the rod. When you’ve hooked a trout on a 7X tippet testing 2 pounds at best, the extra strength of a heavier rod is wholly irrelevant. The tippet will only withstand a small amount of pressure, and that amount is handily administered by even a 1 weight rod. And an ultralight is far more forgiving. Softer and more supple, it protects fragile tippets by cushioning them against the abrupt surges of a trout–precisely where a heavier rod can cost you fish.
Like all tackle, of course, ultralight fly gear has its limitations. Chief among them is that the low mass of the line and the relatively limber shall simply can’t buck much air resistance, so they cast poorly in the wind. A moderate breeze can diminish casting accuracy and control; a wind with some force can pick up a 30-foot cast and stuff it in your pocket. For the same reason, ultralight tackle won’t handle large or bushy flies. Nor are ultralights a very good choice for distance-casting; it depends upon the specific tackle (see sidebar) and the caster’s skill, but 40 feet or so is prexy much the limit of the comfort range. And there’s one last thing. Once in a while, when deep-bellied trout are rising to invisible bugs, an ultralight outfit can make you–feel, well, just a like bit naked, like you’re out hunting Cape buffalo with a .22. But you’ll get over that.
Despite the technical advantages of ultralights under certain conditions, it is a mistake to regard them as merely a calculated compromise made in the interest of what is fashionably called “technical angling.” The pleasures of fishing are often a manner of scale, of enjoying those occasions when everything is in harmony–the water, the fish, your tackle, and your expectations. And for many anglers, perhaps most if the truth be told, those expectations are fairly modest streams you can cast and wade across, and hip-deep pools where 10-inch fish are the norm and a foot-long trout can make your morning.
In an era of relentless, high-horsepower fly fishing, it sometimes seems that if you’re not out there hustling the big ones, you’ve somehow got it all wrong. But most trout streams are unassuming in size, with fish in perfect proportion to their surroundings, and they are among the most satisfying places on earth if you meet them on their own terms.
This is the best reason I know to fish ultralight. It’s not that such tackle is somehow more “sporting,” which is a notion wholly alien to the fish. A trout brought to hand on a 2-weight is just as “caught” as one landed on a 6-weight. Nor is it that ultralight gear makes average fish feel “bigger.” Rather it allows you to feel them for what they really are–which, in the end, is plenty. Overly heavy gear insulates you from the fish, and so from the fishing. Light tackle connects you, puts you in touch, transmits in detail the most interesting part of the whole affair the life and the vigor of a trout, the heartbeat at the end of a line. And what else, after all, do we fish for? Sometimes less really is more.