Ultralight Fly Rods that protect your tippets
article and images by Bill Byrd

There is a lot of confusion about the best weight tackle to fish in a particular situation. For instance, wind, fly aerodynamics, fly size, fish size, fish species, line weight, and the most subjective ingredient -- what we personally want in our fly fishing tackle -- all play a role in what determines the rod we select for a fly fishing situation. This article deals with a subtle subject that has not-so-subtle impact on our fishing!

Does your selected rod protect the tippet that you will fish? Big deal? To me it is a HUGE deal. Here's why. If we make the wrong selection of rod for fishing light tippets, we may break off and lose, or overplay and needlessly kill fish!

Because of what we've been told over the years, most fly fishers believe and will argue that it is a big, strong rod that makes it possible to land a fish quickly. They spout the "party line" on this issue. When our average fly fisher could easily be using a 2- or 3-weight rod, he'll fish a 5- or 6-weight. Why? Because the "party line" has always said to do that. How can "conventional wisdom" be wrong? How is "conventional wisdom" wrong in this case?

The Problem

Experience suggests to me that most fly fishers DO NOT understand their fly rods, and how to use them. With this thought in mind, at the 1998 Shallow Water Expo in Atlanta, I spoke with Scott Smith, at that time with Thomas & Thomas fly rod company specifically for this article. Based on our conversation, here is some information about rod design that may be useful to you.

A fly rod is designed in three basic sections. Lets look at these sections and their function.

(1) The tip, the weakest part of a rod is designed for quick loading and casting. It also should provide a cushion or shock absorption to protect tippets. A properly designed rod's tip section will load quickly and make it possible to cast readily. It also will cushion your leader/tippet against sudden energy spikes caused by setting the hook on a fish, or having a fish charge off after being hooked.

(2) The mid section connects the strongest part of the rod -- the butt -- to the weakest section, the tip, and transfers energy up and down the rod. The mid section is also instrumental in casting and playing fish.

(3) The butt section is THE strongest part of the rod, and SHOULD BE the main part of a rod to be used to fight fish. How do you maximize fighting power and properly USE your rod's BUTT STRENGTH? Keep your fish fighting angle LOW, and keep your rod at a SHALLOW ANGLE, or use side pressure to fight the fish. That puts the stress on the lower third of your rod and makes the fish fight your rod's strength. A high rod position keeps the fish fighting the WEAKEST PART OF YOUR ROD -- the tip -- and according to Smith "that is when many breaks occur".

These principles apply ALL of the time, but particularly on large, strong fish. Even when you are fishing heavy 0X tippets with a 5- or 6-weight or heavier rod, these principles count. When stealth is the rule and you are trying to make delicate presentations with a 5- or 6-weight using 3X to 7X tippets two MAJOR things work against you: (1) the line diameter of the 5- or 6-weight will scatter fish (2) the rod wasn't designed to protect such light tippets, so you will probably overplay the fish to try to protect your tippet, and to keep from breaking the fish off. When you overplay the fish, you will not exert as much pressure on the fish, hence you'll have to play the fish longer to land it. You will be defeating the purpose of using the bigger, heavier rod in the first place, which is to land the fish faster!!

The Solution

In these stealth situations downsize. If you will fish a lighter 2- or 3-weight rod DESIGNED to protect light 3X to 8X tippets, then you can actually PUT MORE PRESSURE ON THE FISH, without breaking it off. You will actually land the fish quicker, and accomplish your original goal -- landing the fish with the least wear and tear on it!

I accidentally discovered this principle after being surprised many times by large bass suddenly grabbing my small flies. I was fishing Ought- to 2-weight rods most of the time, and I quickly discovered that I could land bass up to 9 pounds on these light rods with 4 pound tippet no problem. The big bass left was a 6 1/2 pounder quickly landed on a Sage Ought-weight. In fishing season 2001, I have hooked eighty bass 4 pounds or larger and landed 50% of them on an Ought-, One-, or Two-weight rod using 4 pound tippet. If the principle I have just defined weren't true, I couldn't have landed all of those bass. I even had to drag some of those big bass out of woody cover. That is something one simply can't do with a 2-weight -- WRONG!

On a trip fishing the Cache la Poudre River near Fort Collins in northern Colorado with a friend, we stopped to fish a marvelous pool behind his cabin. I missed two 18 inch rainbows by pulling the size-22 brassie that I was fishing as a dropper, out of their mouths. I was fishing with my wonderful Winston 5 piece 2-weight pack rod, a really nice, light rod. I told Jim "I'm going to go to a really light rod and catch these fish." I pulled out my Sage SPL Ought-weight and rigged it. Jim said "you're gonna do what?" He couldn't believe it. On the first cast, I hooked another 18 inch fish, played it, landed it quickly and released it. I caught two more in the next five minutes. I wasn't pulling that tiny fly out of the trout any more. The Ought-weight has the backbone to fight those fish, but cushions the energy spikes that come in fighting fish.

Jim said " let ME see that rod for a minute." After effortlessly catching a couple of fish, he decided to go buy an Ought-weight. The Ought weight CUSHIONED my hooksets better than the 2-weight. All I had to do was raise the rod. Playing the trout I was able to apply more pressure even in medium fast current without pulling that tiny size-22 fly out of the fish's mouth. It was the difference in catching fish and not catching fish.

The prevailing notion touted in many fly fishing circles is that light fly rods kill fish. THAT JUST ISN'T TRUE! It is fly fishers who don't realize how to approach this issue, who are unskilled in the art of fighting and landing fish who kill fish, many times by the way they handle the fish after they are landed. Unskilled fly fishers kill fish with heavy fly rods, too.

Dave Whitlock (pictured left and below right) believes the issue of what rod weight to use depends on "what hook size, what leader size, the type of fish, and where you are fighting the fish." Whitlock suggests that "Ought- to 2-weight rods were primarily designed to fish very small flies on very light leaders/tippets particularly for panfish and trout." Whitlock was fishing with ultralight fly rods in the very early days of ultralight rod development, the mid 80s. Whitlock says "Years ago when Orvis came out with the two weight and then the 1 weight, I discovered real quick that I could land really large fish in swift water faster with those weights (1- and 2-weights) of rods with 5x through 8x tippets, than with a 5-weight using the same terminal tackle...because I can put more pressure on the fish without losing the fish or breaking him off." In addition Whitlock added "(the ought to 2-weights) are so deadly for presentation, plus you have the additional shock absorber in these light rods." These principles still apply today!

Doug Hannon "the bass professor" believes that "...if you skillfully land bass, as quickly as you can even on the lightest tackle, they generally are in a very survivable condition." According to Hannon, "...the giveup point on a bass...is psychological, the fish gives up when he decides its not doing him any good to fight anymore." You break the fish's will? "Yes, you fight the fish until he gives up and submits."

Hannon went on to say that many fish are killed because of combining the stress of catching the fish with the additional stress of weighing and photographing the fish after catching it, without a sufficient recuperation period first. It is most often not the use of light equipment: "...often its the handling in the minute or two after just after catching them that pushes bass over the brink. This has lead to mistaken impressions about what killed the fish."

Learn what weight rods protect what strength tippets. Then you can tailor your gear to give YOU true maximum fish fighting power! That power won't come from just using a big, heavy fly rod.

Consider the following suggested tippet ratings and rod weights.

Suggested rod weights and tippet ratings.

000-weight to 1-weight - 12X to 7X
1- to 2-weight ----- 6X to 4X
3- to 4-weight ----- 3X to 2X
5- to 7-weight ----- 1X to 0X

Suggested rod weights, tippet X-ratings, and fly sizes.

Rod weight X rating tippet diameter pound test suggested fly size

5-7 weight 0X .011 inches 9.0 pounds size-4 to size-6
5-7 weight 1X .010 inches 7.2 pounds size-4 to size-8
3-4 weight 2X .009 inches 6.3 pounds size-4 to size-10
3-4 weight 3X .008 inches 5.2 pounds size-6 to size-12
1-2 weight 4X .007 inches 4.3 pounds size-6 to size-14
1-2 weight 5X .006 inches 3.3 pounds size-14 to size-20
1-2 weight 6X .005 inches 2.1 pounds size-18 to size-26
0 weight 5X-7X .006-.004 inches 3.3-1.2 pounds size-20 to size-28
0 weight 6X-8X .005-.003 inches 2.1-1.0 pounds size-20 to size-28
00 weight 7X-11X .004-.001 inches 1.2-.4 pounds size-26 to size-32
000 weight 8X-12X .003-.0009 inches 1.0-.3 pounds size-28 to size-32

These pound test and diameter values will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and with different leader materials. I have found the hard way that the real test value of some manufacturers leader and tippet materials may vary GREATLY from their labeled or published specifications. Be aware that all tippet values from all manufacturers can be certified by submitting samples to IGFA for testing.

On average we fly fishers catch fish that don't weigh over 2 pounds. For warmwater and coldwater species, I normally fish Ought- to 3-weight fly systems. For stripers, most salt species, and really large species like steelhead and giant large trout taking large flies, I fish a 4- to 10-weight rod. Regardless of what rod I fish, I make sure that it will provide enough power for the situation, and still protect the tippets I need in that situation.