Some Common myths
about Light/Ultralight fly fishing.

article and images by Bill Byrd

Although I fish rods as heavy as my 9 foot 10-weight, I LOVE to fish with light/ultralight fly tackle. I began fishing ultralights more than 15 years ago, and I have had an INCREDIBLE time with them. With over four thousand hours fishing Triple ought- to 3-weight rods for most species, I have caught and released unharmed MORE fish and LARGER fish (like this Orvis Superfine 1 weight bass upper right) with light/ultralight fly tackle!

Ultralight fly fishing embraces every aspect of this sport. I catch up to 12 inch bluegills, up to 7 pound largemouth bass, even smallies to 5 pounds on rods as light as OUGHT weights. I have even caught 3 pound largemouth on my Triple Ought weight. These fish were are all photographed, then released unharmed. I have caught juvenile Tarpon (image left), Snook, Spotted seatrout, Ladyfish, and Spanish mackerel on 3 and 4 weight rods. A 6 weight system, sometimes an 8 weight system feels ultralight on a 10 pound Amberjack, a giant red drum, or a striper! If you understand the species and are selective about the conditions, you can enjoy ultralight tackle much of the time without harming fish.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of what I consider to be mis-information or myth about ultralight fly fishing being passed around. I hope my personal experiences and the experiences of others will give you cause to question some of these "myths". Hopefully my experiences will give you impetus to break new ground, allow you to form your own opinions about these questions, and enjoy fly fishing more.

I recently heard from a fly fisher who is VERY interested in adding ultralight fly tackle to his freshwater fly fishing arsenal. He went to a local fly shop where upon mentioning ultralight fly tackle, rods, lines he was made to feel like he was doing something wrong. Actually he decided to leave that independent fly shop rather than suffer the ridicule that came along with the questions he wanted to ask. Then he ordered a new ultralight fly rod from an ultralight friendly fly shop out west. He doesn't have plans to go back to the local shop.

How can this be? There are employees in some fly shops who aren't interested in ultralight fly fishing, and they inflict their own personal prejudices and feelings onto everyone who will listen. They probably have never developed skill with ultralight fly tackle. Most of the time I find it is their own ignorance of ultralight fly fishing that causes the problem. Also in many cases, these employees spend most of their time talking about fly fishing, and don't really get out there and fish. They do however exert power over those who come in and ask for advice. It is sad, it is poor business, and should not be happening, but it happens every day somewhere.

Fly Shop Mis-information

Years ago when I first cast and bought my 7 foot 2 piece Orvis Superfine 1 weight, I knew that it didn't load well on 15 to 20 foot casts with the Orvis recommended DT1F line. Some store employees at the Orvis associated independent fly shop where I bought the rod said about my new 1 weight "it is a piece of crap and won't cast well". You might wonder why they would say things like that about product they sold. I did! In fact, they were wrong! I shifted to an Orvis DT2F and that helped it load, but picking up 25 feet of line OVER loaded the rod. I knew that I was on the right track, but had not matched my rod with the right weight line.

When Jerry Siem co-developed the Sage Quiet Taper WF1F line with Bruce Richards of 3M/Scientific Anglers for the Sage SPL rod family in 1997, the line's front taper was designed to be farther forward on the line. I tried a Sage WF1F Quiet Taper on my Orvis Superfine 1 weight, and my little rod came to life!! Just enough additional line weight was set forward to load the Orvis 1 weight even with 15 feet of line out. With 25 feet of line out, the Quiet Taper's thinner running line kept from overloading my rod.

Later I discovered the reason for the Superfine 1 weight's loading problem was that in the early 1980s when Howard Steere and Jim West first designed the Orvis Superfine 1 weight, only one manufacturer made a 1 weight line, a double taper floating 1 weight line designed for "delicate dry fly" presentations assumed to be cast to trout. The Orvis 1 weight rod was not designed to the grain weight of that particular line, rather the Orvis Superfine 1 weight was designed for a line weighing about 11 grains more than the recommended DT1F line. That was simply a mismatch based on lack of having a proper line to match the rod perfectly. Orvis had NOT made a bad rod, the available line just didn't match it perfectly, or gave a very light loading and presentation. I fish my Orvis Superfine 1 weight today, but I use WF1F Sage Quiet Taper or Quiet Taper II line, or the newest Sage Performance Taper II, the latest WF line available 2-weight thru 9-weight. Together, the rod and line cast and fished flawlessly.

The anecdote above is a perfect example of the prejudices of fly shop personnel being the main focus, instead of helping customers get what they want. In this case what I wanted was a good line/rod match for MY ultralight fly fishing enjoyment. The rod wasn't a "piece of crap" it just wasn't loaded with the right line. When you select your tackle, YOU have to take charge and look out for YOUR best interest. The fly shop did not help me solve my problem. I solved it myself.

Some Basic Myths

"Selecting a Light/ultralight fly system isn't rocket science." Because this is such a subjective issue, I believe that combining the exact rod, reel, and line for the performance an individual desires is more complicated than rocket science. When selecting your next rod or ultralight rod, you have the following variables to deal with: (1) yourself and the feel you desire, (2) the rod's rated line weight which will vary, (3) the line's rated weight which will vary, (4) the line's taper which will vary, impacting its casting characteristics when -- casting, hooking fish, and playing fish.

Now maybe you understand why this process can feel so difficult. With a consistent approach and trying many rod line combos -- you can get the perfect rod/line match for you.

"Landing a fish on an ultralight does not involve a is more of a process of staying connected while the fish swims around and wears himself out." Experienced ultralight fly fishers use ultralight fly tackle aggressively to FIGHT fish. Dave Whitlock, Tom Wendelburg, and most knowledgeable ultralight fly fishers know that one can land large fish FASTER on ultralight tackle when using light tippets without fear of breaking the fish off. Hence they will apply MORE pressure on the fish, and land it faster. My experience in over 4,000 hours of Light/ultralight fly fishing confirms that I land fish faster on ultralight fly systems when using light tippets, which is 99 per cent of the time.

Tom Wendelburg was a well known contributing writer for Fly Fisherman magazine in the 1970s and 1980s and was one of the first fly anglers along with Dave Whitlock to begin fishing the Orvis Ultra Fine 7'9" 2-weight rod of the early 1980s. In his book on Catching Big fish on Light Fly Tackle among many other things he notes: The Ultra Fine's smooth action transmits momentum of the line down the rod in a way that eliminates snapping off a heavier fly on the back cast. When the fish takes the fly the rod's same advantage works in reverse. A big trout is less apt to break a hairline tippet against the cushioning spring of its light but strong tip.

To prove the point on a trip to a famous stretch of north Georgia trout water, fishing in pouring rain, I hooked a 5 pound plus Rainbow on a small streamer while fishing my Orvis Silver Label TL mid flex 8 foot 1 weight rod with 4 pound tippet. A guide timed me with his watch. I broke the fish out of deep water, pulled him cross current, led him to a sand bar and landed him in under 60 seconds. Fish image right.

Had I let this trout "...swim around and wear himself out..." he would have stopped in the next county!

Try to do that on your favorite 5 or 6 weight with 4 pound tippet, and not break off the fish! Most fishers over play the fish to protect their tippets, defeating the purpose of using the heavier rod! Yes, landing a large fish takes skill with ultralight tackle. It takes skill with a 5 or 6 weight, too.

A few years back, I spoke with Stu Apte about ultralights. He considers a 4 weight an ultralight, then again he spends most of his time on salt water. Stu has learned how to tame 100 pound Tarpon with a stout 6 weight. That seems ultralight to me. Do you expect that there is a fight involved in landing a 100 pound Tarpon on a 6 weight? I guess so! Understand that there is a lot more than rod weight going on here. Stu suggested a fly fisher can land just about anything if he can maintain one pound of pressure on the fish.

With ultralight rods, keep your rod angle low, fight the fish with your reel, and put smooth, consistent pressure on the fish. I consider that fighting a fish. Last time I was fighting a 10 pound Amberjack or 10 pound red drum on my 8 weight, I fought the fish the same way.

The idea that using ultralights magnifies the power of fish normally too puny to enjoy catching, is interesting. That is a negative view of the situation. To me, Light/Ultralight tackle allows us all to actually feel the power of smaller fish species without completely overpowering them. If you caught a 100 pound tarpon with a 100,000 pound crane, it would diminish the fun of catching the fish. Fishing a 7 weight to catch a 9 inch bluegill or 8 inch trout is like using a crane. On a 3 weight or lighter rod, you can actually feel the fish and enjoy the fight, hence most ultralighters actually enjoy catching the average fish available to them more.

I find that fishing in wind with ultralight tackle is no more difficult than with heavier rods. Truth is, air and water are fluids. Water is 7 times denser than air. When wind blows across a larger diameter (heavier weight rated) line, it exerts MORE force on the line because of the resistance offered by the cross sectional area presented by the larger diameter line to the wind. Fine diameter ultralight lines actually offer less wind resistance, and water resistance. I'm not making 60 foot casts with chicken sized flies, but I routinely fish 3/0 to 3 weights in wind up to 15 mph. I don't grab a 6 weight when a little wind comes up. Make slight casting adjustments, and you won't have major problems with wind while fishing ultralights. You can actually USE the wind to help your fly fishing! See my article Use the wind to CATCH more fish! in the Technical articles section.

"Ultralight reels need only hold your line." "Perhaps less important in ultralight fly fishing is a disc drag system." Based on my experience, I totally disagree. I recommend that any ultralight fly fisher buy THE best, physically lightest disc drag reel he can afford. When you hook that larger-than-you-can-believe surprise fish, and it WILL happen, being able to shift playing the fish OFF YOUR ROD ONTO YOUR REEL will probably be the difference in landing that fish. I personally use only physically light reels with very smooth, easily accessable and readily adjustable disk drag systems. Add light 10 pound backing to fully fill your spool. A large trout or bass can get you into your backing! See my article How important is your fly reel's drag? in the Technical articles section.

Balancing the weight of the reel loaded with your chosen lines and your rod is important to the issue of fatigue. If your rod is tip heavy, while holding the tip of your rod down over the water to strip line, it will increase fatigue. Fish like this all day and it has a serious impact on your primary fishing arm's stamina.

"The light tippets used in ul fly fishing all but eliminate your ability to pressure the fish" -- you'll kill more fish.. Your rod's light tip and your smooth DISC DRAG reel will allow you to put a lot of SMOOTH fighting pressure on even a large fish when fishing light tippets! You can't snap set the hook, and you need to learn to keep your rod at a low angle. Like a willow branch, your ultralight rod can exert more pressure on a fish without fear of breaking off your light tippet, if you aggressively fight it on a properly designed ultralight fly system. You CAN'T DO THAT ON HEAVY FLY SYSTEMS while using light tippets! See my article Rods that protect tippets, in the Technical articles section.

For ultralight fly fishing "a double taper is a better choice for dry fly presentation." If one is going strictly by the concept that tiny dry flies will be used to fish for all species, that might be correct. If you want to fish a WF floating line, use a longer leader/tippet to quiet your presentation.

There are advantages to a double taper line: (1) A quieter presentation when using a relatively short leader/tippet. (2) It takes up less space on your reel's spool, and weighs less. (3) Once you wear out one end of the line, you can reverse it on your reel and use the other end of the line.

If you are constantly fishing with even small poppers or leggy water spiders, with subsurface flies like suspending sinking flies or streamers you may need more weight located forward on you line to help cast your flies. If you need more stealth, increase the length of your leader/tippet arrangement.

" your rod first, then move on to the reel." I recommend that you select your rod, then match the line to your rod, and buy the best reel that will physically balance your fly outfit. To know that you have a good marriage, the reel must be loaded with the line you'll use, and be mounted on your rod. Hold the rod straight out comfortably in your casting hand, as if you had the rod down in stripping position. If the rod is very TIP HEAVY, you need to make a change. This tip heavy system will fatigue you in a short time.

I'm sure you'll hear more myths about Light/ultralight fly fishing. Common sense puts many of them into perspective. Just be careful about accepting what you hear from fly fishers with lots of advice, but little actual experience fly fishing ultralight. Don't be afraid to ask, "how many hours have you actually fished with Light/ultralight fly tackle?"

If you have questions about ultralight fly fishing or buying equipment or supplies, and run into similar problems email me, and I'll connect you with people who will help, not hassle you. Your desire to find tackle and supplies to fish ultralight will be encouraged at this website.