Fishing Ultralight Fly or Spin tackle?
your decision may depend on the fishing situation...
by Bill Byrd.

When I began fishing in 1954 in Marietta, Georgia, the first body of water that influenced my fishing life was a local pond named Booth Lake. Booth Lake on Sandtown Road was a pond located a short distance from our home . Harry Booth was the lake's owner, and if you pass through that area today you'll see Booth Road which was named for Harry. The lake bed is still there if you know where to look, but it was drained many years ago to keep local children safe. Development has all but covered the spot.

My fishing career started with the old 2 or 3 section cane pole. Add to that some 6 pound monofilament, number 8 hooks, small crimp on weights, worms, crickets, grasshoppers, a small float, and I was fishing. I caught a surprising number of fish on that outfit.

Then I graduated to spin tackle with a simple Zebco spincast outfit. It was made up of the Zebco Scottie 66 reel and a simple short solid fiberglass rod which I still have. I caught many fish at Booth Lake on that spin tackle, and now I realize that I learned a valuable lesson: If you take your bait (lure or fly) to the fish, you will catch many more fish.

Even in those days while others were sitting and waiting for the fish to come to their baits, I was walking the shoreline casting parallel to the shore and slowly reeling my bait along the shoreline. I covered a lot more water and caught more fish! Closed face spin tackle suited me then.

In 1967 I graduated from highschool, got married, and moved to Athens, Georgia to attend the University of Georgia. As an undergraduate in 1968 I met a crazy outdoors type in one of my English classes. George Taylor and I became fast friends and began fishing together. We fished in all types of waters for about 4 years before we graduated and parted company.

George was more experienced in fishing matters so he convinced me to try a lot of new things like worm fishing with plastic worms. I didn't think about it much, but I began building skill fishing subsurface with plastic worms on the sunken woodpiles at Lake George. During that time we caught many bass and some big bass. I still use that skill with fly fishing today.

In addition George and I caught giant bluegills, and an occasional catfish with spin or bait tackle. We pursued white bass, crappies, and some other varieties in local ponds, lakes, and streams using light or ultralight open face spin tackle with small jigs, also. It was all fun and we caught plenty of fish on level winders and ultralight spin tackle.

In later years I found George Taylor and we had a reunion lunch in downtown Atlanta, GA. George had gone on to become a guide on Lake Santee-Cooper in SC. We never managed to schedule the fishing reunion that I had in mind.

It was also in 1968 that time that I purchased my first fly rod. It was a 9 foot seven weight with 6-weight level floating line (above left), and a collection of too large flies (above right). It was a hard fly system to cast, but I still managed to catch bass and really big bluegills in Lake George and had some fun with fly fishing.

Wherever my career took me after graduation, I managed to continue to fish. During this period only occasionally did I fish my fly rods. The heavy tackle bass fishing insanity continued for 21 years until 1989. I caught some fish, and it was plenty expensive. Then one day I went back to Lake George to fish and the lake taught me another fishing lesson.

Many years had passed since my 1972 graduation at UGA, but whenever we were in the area, I slipped back to fish Lake George and to visit with the Helmreichs who owned the 360 acre farm and Black Angus operation where Lake George was located. Every time I returned I was welcomed back. Each trip back to Lake George was like a homecoming.

On June 3rd, 1989, I returned to Lake George to fish and my on-water experience that morning turned my fishing life upside down.

My Fishing Epiphany!

Epiphany -- the word means a sudden striking understanding of something. Usually this word is associated with religious experiences. Some might argue that for some including myself fly fishing is a form of religious experience.

When we examine the concept - religion the definition in Webster's 4: a cause, principle, or belief held to with faith... and religious 3: Scrupulously or conscientiously faithful. So I guess given the amount of my life that I devote to fishing/fly fishing that it takes on religious meaning to me. I have faith in the process and in catching fish.

The act of fishing takes me to some of the most beautiful natural cathedrals on the planet. Confronting and absorbing the incredible beauty can bring me to sensory overload and sometimes even to tears. It is for these reasons that I believe that fishing and especially respectful fly fishing is good for one's soul. It helps us to rebalance ourselves.

That summer morning, On June 3rd, 1989, I rose early, and prepared for a bass fishing trip on Lake George. At 6AM I hooked on the jon boat, loaded the gear, and began my hour and a half trip aross northeast Georgia through Athens to the farm. Sunrise was dazzling and beautiful.

Down the rough, dusty, winding driveway my truck, boat, and I bounced to the cabin to pay for the day's fishing. I said hello to the Helmreich's and headed through two gates to the old boat launching area on a peninsula created by a feeder creek to launch at what used to be the lake's swimming and picnic area. The sounds of four children, dogs, cats, parents, and big black angus cattle still echoed through that beautiful place.

The concrete picnic table was still where the willow tree that shaded the cove once stood. The creek still fed life-giving water to the lake. The weathered old diving board platform still stood in mute testament to more joyful, innocent times.

Just after 8AM my rods were rigged, equipment was loaded, and all was readied. My boat gently slid into the lake as if to say "I'm back old friend." Memories of a bass caught here and a bluegill caught there, or the fish that got away, began to stream into my mind. The blinding low angle sun peaked over the dewey meadow I'd just crossed and its bright rays brought me into focus.

The mist at the lake's surface created a surreal, tranquil waterscape. I grasped a rod with big spinner bait attached and focused on the water. I immediately saw and heard disturbances on the surface. "Bass, it must be bass" I thought. I fired cast after cast and tried every retrieve but could not buy a strike. I tied on a smaller quarter ounce crank bait and cast it, varying retrieves and felt pecks as the lure wiggled back.

It occurred to me that these huge boils could be made by large bluegills, but they would have to be huge. I had no fly rod and no light or ultralight spin tackle with me. A hurried search of my tackle boxes turned up an ought sized Beetle spin. "Perfect," I thought. As the splashing grew louder and more frequent, my anxiety level rose rapidly.

The only spinning rod in the boat was an ancient yellow Wright-McGill medium action fiberglass worm rod. Mounted on it was an equally ancient Garcia Mitchell 300 spinning reel spooled with 17 pound mono line. The water exploded around me with rise after rise.

There was no other choice. I tied the tiny beetle spin onto the 17 pound line and tried to cast. It wasn't heavy enough to pull the line, so I opted to "fly fish"! I pulled 20 feet of line out of the spinning rod and began to cast it, fly style.

I always liked to use the original beetle (green grub) but particularly like the Renoski minnow with black head that would slide onto the safety pin spinner rig.

Think about this: Casting a Beetle spin spinner on a medium action spin rod with 20 pound line is like casting a 6 weight fly rod with ought weight line and a beetle spin as the fly. It was incredibly ugly double-hauling, but I was determined to cast twenty feet to one of those nearby boils. I let the beetle spin settle just under the surface and began a slow retrieve.

On the reel's third revolution, the rod and reel were almost snatched out of my hands. In disbelief, I arced the heavy rod against a very strong, unhappy fish. After circling mightily, the surly male bluegill came along side the boat. "Unbelieveable" I yelled. I unhooked the fish, a fully grown bluegill ten and a half inches long. I estimated his weight at a pound. His girth was notable. What a creature! I released the angry fish on his own recognizance.

I repeated the cumbersome casting process and managed another cast near the shore. Easing the spinner through the boils, the rod snapped down and another strong fish took drag. 30 seconds later, an even bigger and more unhappy bluegill circled till he tired and came aboard. A little over eleven inches and a load on my heavy spinning rod, this bluegill was incredible!

Bluegills were striking all around me. My thoughts turned to my son, still asleep at home. Since he was a little boy, I had been trying to put him in a situation just like this. He would love it! I decided to fish through the morning and bring my son up the very next day. This time we'd bring ultralight spinning tackle and have a ball.

Giant bluegills continued to hammer my ill-cast ought beetle spin until mid morning, when the action slowed. I had caught and released 30 huge, powerful bluegills. I stopped fishing and reached for some coffee and a snack. I sat munching my snacks and reflected on what had just happened.

What had just happened? I had enjoyed fishing that morning as much as I enjoyed fishing when I was a 6 year old boy, that's what! I had re-discovered my passion for fishing. The joy was back. I was excited about fishing again.

After all of the hours of chasing bass, buying big tackle and bass boats in the pursuit of a few bass, I realized something that took me beyond all of that marketing hype -- I didn't have to chase bass with all the trappings to enjoy fishing. It was an enlightening and liberating moment. I was free!

I probed around the lake for more big bluegills, but they had slipped back to the depths. Fly casting the heavy spinning rod was difficult, so I decided to stop fishing before I dislocated my shoulder.

After a wonderful lunch spread on the old concrete picnic table, I loaded up everything and headed back home to get all of my light and ultralight spin tackle cleaned up and ready to go bluegillin' the next day with my son. I didn't know it at the time, but my experience at Lake George had changed my attitude toward fishing forever. What that change in attitude would bring me in the future I could have never imagined at that moment.

That night I couldn't quit thinking about and talking about the day's experience. My son eagerly agreed to go back with me the next morning and fish for these giant bluegills, so we serviced the ultralight spin tackle and prepared for our trip.

We were on the road early on June 4th, and repeated the drive to Lake George with great anticipation. We caught many bass and bluegills, and had a wonderful day together. For me, the excitement in fishing was back! I was back to fishing with modern ultralight spin tackle. I was re-hooked on fishing. My son still remembers that day fondly.

The Rest of the story

I fished for several years using ultralight spin tackle at a nearby lake in Atlanta and had a great time. I caught many more fish and enjoyed each one on my really light spin gear. Then I began to wonder what would happen if I began fishing with my old fly rods.

At first I tried to fish my first huge, heavy, long fiberglass fly rod. Quickly, I broke out my old seven foot Browning Silaflex 5 weight, bought some poppers and began taking it to the water along with my ultralight spin tackle.

I caught more fish, but missed many fish also. I began to consider what I'd have to do to cut down on the numbers of missed fish. My conclusion was to downsize my flies and my tackle. I was trying to get fly tackle that gave me the ultralight feel that the spin tackle did, and smaller flies to get more strikes.

Would you fish for a bonefish with a gantry crane? Would you chase a bass with a telephone pole? Some fishers do this every time they fish and aren't even aware of it.

As I progressed to lighter and lighter fly tackle one thing became very obvious to me. The lighter fly tackle allowed me to make MUCH quieter presentations. I had made the commitment to downsize the flies I fished and use flies that more correctly emulated natural insects available to the fish. Because of downsizing, I didn't have to continue to fish heavy rods, and I caught many more fish. I also caught many more larger fish!

Here's one principle that explains what I discovered. It has been assumed by most that small fish will eat small insects and organisms that are available to them. All my life, I have heard that you have to use large flies for large fish. That just isn't completely true.

If you ONLY want to catch large fish, then ONLY USE LARGE FLIES. If you want to catch lots more fish AND large fish too, then downsize your fly tackle.

I have made a fly fishing career catching thousands of fish and world record sized fish on flies not over 2 inches long! Fisheries biologist Reggie Weaver at Georgia DNR who manages Lake Lanier has sampled 30 pound striped bass in the huge Lake Lanier impoundment just north of Atlanta. He found their stomachs stuffed with 75 to 100 threadfin shad that were just a little over an inch long. He says that under the right conditions these giant fish will even gorge themselves on mayfly hatches.

Doug Hannon, "The bass professor" seen regularly on television has studied bass behavior for years. Hannon told me that bass will eat a large object when it feeds during the day, but most of the time it is sucking in small food items that are readily available. The items that are most plentiful will be the target of the bass most of the day.

Once I better understood the purpose of a fly rod, I began to better understand the increased benefits of light/ultralight fly tackle. In an interview with Dave Whitlock, Dave confirmed something that I had experienced but had never heard expressed before.

After Howard Steere and Jim West at Orvis created the first 2 weight fly rod, the 7' 9" Orvis Ultrafine in the early 1980s, Dave Whitlock fished it. He found that he could play and land a large trout on 5x to 8x tippets with the 2 weight and eventually the Orvis 1 weight even in strong current much faster than he could with the same tippets on a 5 weight rod. Why?

He could apply much more pressure on the fish without fear of breaking the fish off. The lighter fly rod was designed to cushion the fight of the fish and protect fine tippets.

I experienced a perfect example of matching a fly rod to a fly fishing situation while in the West. In the "canyon area" of the Cache la Poudre River northwest of Ft. Collins Colorado I was fishing for fat rainbows and browns. The flies were a dressed number 14 H&L Variant on surface with a #20 beadhead pheasant tail dropper on 14 to 16 inches of 2.2 pound or 7x tippet. I had been fishing my beautiful Winston 5 piece 2 weight pack rod, and I was catching strong sixteen to 18 inch fish. Then I hooked and pulled the fly out of two huge fish. So I went even lighter and fished my Sage Ought weight rod.

I had plenty of rod to cast and mend, plus I didn't lose any more large trout because of pulling out that tiny nymph. The elegant, smooth power of the ought weight gave me the power to hook the fish, and the tippet protecting cushion to not pull out the tiny hook making it possible for me to quickly land the fish. The lighter rod made all the difference!

I'll chase any species of fish that I can on the fly. Largemouth black bass, a sunfish family member, bluegills, bream, redbreast sunfish, redear sunfish, green sunfish, yellow perch, warmouth perch, the crappies. When possible I chase smallmouths, and their cousins, shoal bass and redeye bass, hybrids, and white bass. Being located with trout waters close by, I will pursue trout in the Chattahoochee, and in as many waters that I can get to.

Most Sunfish species don't grow as large as some other species, but they are readily available and wonderful to catch on ultralight fly tackle in most water across this country. The redbreasts that I caught on my Potomac River trip were just as strong and as much of a challenge as the smallmouths.

Consider this: The average bass caught in tournaments weighs about one to one and a half pounds. The notion that one must fish heavy tackle, big heavy flies, and heavy lines to catch bass is WRONG! Most people never see a six pound plus largemouth bass. The average bass, sunfish, trout, smallmouth, hybrid bass, white bass, perch, can all be taken on fly rods in the 3 weight to Ought weight range. Why use 5 to 8 weight fly systems and huge flies to catch these fish?

If you are fishing very heavy cover, use heavier tackle and stronger tippets. If you are in fairly unobstructed water, lighten down. If you fish a five or six weight system, drop to a four weight. Fish that for a while and then fish a three or a two weight. As you build skill with the lighter fly tackle, you'll enjoy it so much more you won't use your heavy tackle very much. I promise that you'll be amazed at the increase in numbers of fish and fun.

Advantages of Ultralight FLY tackle

(1) It is physically lighter and won't wear you out.
(2) It allows a much quieter presentation and will spook fewer fish.
(3) It will protect light tippets needed on small flies in clear water.
(4) It has the backbone to fight a fish without breaking it off.
(5) It has the ability to transmit the feel of the fish to your hand.
(6) It will make possible full enjoyment of fly fishing.
(7) Even with smaller fish, light tackle will allow you to enjoy catching the fish.

In summary, give yourself a break. Match your gear to the fish you pursue and match your flies to the local forage. Downsize your gear and flies -- you'll increase the number of fish available to you. The more fish you catch, the more large fish you'll encounter. As you build skill, the more large fish you'll catch. The net result -- you'll enjoy fly fishing much more!

UL fly tackle or UL spin tackle?

In the early 1990s I began to compare the effectiveness of ultralight fly fishing to ultralight spin fishing. In side-by-side on-water comparisons I found that I caught 10 times the fish on ultralight fly tackle. That is very significant. By mid 1994 I had begun to fish ultralight fly tackle subsurface with increased skill down to 10 feet or slightly deeper. I was catching more fish than I could have believed before. I set my spin tackle aside and fished ultralight fly tackle exclusively. That change has brought on another revelation.

I began to ponder why I catch so many more fish with ultralight fly tackle? Was I just that inept with spin tackle? I reasoned that it depends on the fishing situation. To this day I will suggest to fishers "If you are fishing below 10 to 12 feet, use ultralight spin tackle. Likewise if you are fishing in really strong winds (over 25 mph), switch to spin tackle. Otherwise I use ultralight fly tackle.

On a very recent fishing trip I brought along two very nice ultralight spin outfits rigged with 4 pound monofilament. My goal was to fish for sunfishes including bass, bream, and crappies. I tied on an ought sized Beetle spin rig on one rod and a roadrunner on the other. First I fished an area with the spinning gear, then with my fly rods. As occurred in the early 1990s I caught at least 10 to 1 fish with ultralight fly tackle over spin tackle. I set the ultralight spin tackle aside again.

Some reasons for these differences:

(1) It is harder for me to emulate insect based food sources with spin tackle.
(2) It is virtually impossible for me to cast small enough artificial lures/baits to catch the small mouthed species.
(3) It is much harder for me to create the most effective presentation to properly emulate these fish food sources.
(4)I have less casting control with spin tackle.
(5)There are no false casts in spin casting.
(6)There are no pickup casts in spin casting.
(7)There are enfuriating bird nests in spin fishing. Not in fly casting! Bird nests always hit at the worst time, too.
(8)Subtle strike detection is harder for me with UL spin tackle.
(9)Setting the hook is more diffucult for me with UL spin tackle.
(10)I have much less experience and skill fishing ultralight spin tackle.

All of the reasons above keep me from using my ultralight spin tackle more. With ultralight fly tackle I catch so many more fish it there's no point in changing.

Another influence for me is water depth: if I'm fishing in 12 feet or shallower water ultralight fly tackle rules! If I need to fish deeper and depending on the species, I might consider ultralight spin tackle. If I'm seeking ONLY minnow based fish, UL spin tackle presentation may work for me, too.

For instance chasing crappies, bass, yellow perch, warmouth perch, smallmouth bass, trout -- fish that eat minnows or the like and have larger mouths can be well accessed on UL spin tackle.

Most of the time I fish the top 12 feet of the water column and ultralight fly fishing beats everything else by a HUGE margin. PERIOD! That is why since mid 1994 I have fished exclusively with fly tackle, about 99.7% being with ultralight fly tackle and .3% has been with medium to heavy fly tackle.

In deciding whether to fish ultralight fly tackle or ultralight spin tackle, I always go with ultralight fly tackle first. If the water is over 12 feet deep I will consider ultralight spin tackle if I can't find and catch fish on ultralight fly tackle.

Let your own experience be your guide.

In the coming months I will interview one of the world's best ultralight spin fishers. He and I have had very similar experiences ultralighting for many fish species. We have both learned VERY similar principles about ultralight fishing. The main principles that we have learned will work in either discipline -- ultralight fly fishing or ultralight spin fishing. His comments will serve to confirm my experience and help build the case for intelligent ultralight fishing.