Since more and more fly fishers are finding my website and are moving to lighter fly fishing systems, it is time to discuss How to transition from heavier to lighter fly rods.
Fishing gear BEFORE buying it may prevent a real equipment buying mistake, and helps most fly fishers experience the transition to lighter fly systems on the water. Usually, it makes their transition to ultralight fly systems easier. The adjustment can be more difficult or easy depending on how much you fly fish and how much feel of casting you have. If you have the feel of casting, you can adjust to any rod/line in minutes.
This process varies from individual to individual. Most fly fishers don't have a problem with moving to lighter fly systems. All agree that lighter is MORE fun! I generally recommend that a fly fisher move two line weights down at a time. This is to keep the transition as smooth as possible. Also, many fly fishers can't detect the difference in a one line weight shift. If you can afford a whole closet full of rods, buy them in each line size, but fish them from heavier to lighter, and give yourself plenty of time to make the adjustment to lighter gear both mentally and physically.
NOTE: When I have taught brand new fly fishers to cast even on 3 weight systems, if they weren't predisposed by what they'd been told that they would have problems with these "lighter" fly systems, they didn't! Within an hour they were catching fish.
I have heard three main reasons for downsizing fly systems. (1) The prime reason given is stealth. "It takes stealth fly systems to catch today's more wary trout!" (2) Lighter gear is easier on us physically. (3) Light tackle on lighter fish is just plain MORE FUN! (3) I will add -- you can catch most fish species more readily with a stealth approach.
I will agree with all three reasons. In my experience all three are true.
There are multiple ways to lighten up your fishing system. You can switch to physically lighter rods and reels of even the same line weight. You can change lines weights on your current rod to give you a quieter, smoother presentation. You can assemble a lighter fly system with newer lighter rod, line, and reel. The one constant in all of this is preserving the feel that you desire.
In my article about the Sage SLTs, rod designer Jerry Siem said that what he was attempting to do in the SPL/SLT series of rods was to create "the familiar feeling of a heavier outfit with much reduced weight." The feel of the gear can be the same, just lighter weight if your rod and line are matched properly to give you the feel of casting that you expect. This is a totally subjective issue. That is where we all traditionally have problems setting up our fly tackle. That is why it is SO difficult for other fly fishers to recommend fly fishing systems for YOU.
In many cases, what feels right to one fly fisher is totally out of whack for another. Normally the right/wrong whizzing contest ensues. It isn't so much whether your system is set up right or wrong at all. What matters is that it is set up to feel the way you want it to feel when you cast and fish that is important -- PERIOD! Obviously you don't want to try to cast a six-weight line on a 3 weight rod, but the "familiar feel" is what we are after.
Rods of every line weight vary tremendously in length, action, and physical weight. This becomes confusing to us when selecting the "proper" rod, line, and reel to create the perfect system for us. "Fast" action rods require better feel in casting to master their load characteristics. "Medium" action rods generally offer a smoother loading characteristic and are considered by most to be "more forgiving" to less experienced fly casters, and are generally considered to be user friendly. "Slow" action rods require the same major adjustment as "fast" rods in that your casting timing has to be adjusted to properly load and unload the rod. Cane rods are notoriously or wonderfully slow -- based on your point of view.
Even in selecting rods for redfish, stripers, and other larger species I stick to medium action rods. They seem to facilitate casting and especially for novice fly fishers offer timing that is more comfortable.
Ultralight rods vary dramatically in length from just over four and a half feet to nine feet. Their length will greatly impact their casting characteristics. They may vary from 2 to 5 sections, and the number of ferrules in a rod generally impacts its "speed" making it a slightly "faster" rod. In today's rods, multi section rods are the best they have ever been due to design and materials. If you know what you want to FEEL in your fly system, you can generally create that feel with all of the equipment and line choices.
There are myriad choices of reels available. Just as with rods, this is BOTH incredible and confusing. We enjoy the best choices in reels today that has ever been. With it comes the confusion. It is hard to buy a truly bad reel today. Price, weight, features, drags, all vary. How are we to know. Again, what do YOU want in a reel? For Ultralight fly fishing, I want the physically lightest reel with an easily adjustable VERY smooth drag system.
Lightness, smoothness, and adjustability are available in the Orvis Battenkill Barstock disc 1 reel and I have several with interchangeable spools. The Orvis Battenkill barstock reels are very light, nice, and inexpensive. A Waterworks-Lamson LP1 or Litespeed LS-1 are good choices for lightness, smooth drag, and easy drag adjustment. I have several of these with spare spools. There are many other options from myriad manufacturers that I haven't even fished, but they are available to choose from.
Most manufacturers recommend reels for their rods and lines. You can go with those recommendations so long as the physical weight, smooth disc drag, easy to adjust drag criteria are met. Otherwise look for the lightest, smoothest, easiest to fish reel you can afford. Buy the highest quality reel you can afford!
On my first encounter with an almost 9 pound largemouth black bass, I was damned glad to be fishing my little Orvis 3-4 Battenkill reel with smooth, readily adjustable drag. It allowed me to change drag settings for changing needs during the battle, and helped protect my fine tippet. It also helped save my rod. Above all, it allowed me to land the giant bass on 4 pound tippet. I've heard many fly fishers say that a reel "just holds your line". Don't believe it. When you need a great reel to help land the fish of your life, a reel that "just holds line" can let you down when you need it most!
This choice is very subjective. On a given rod, how do you want it to feel when it casts? What are the constraints of fishing conditions? What is the average size of the fish you persue? What size and weight flies will you fish? What is your skill level?
To further confuse the issue, there are so many specialty lines these days. There are trout taper lines, striper taper lines, bass taper lines, tarpon taper lines. The choices are endless and confusing.
At some fly shops you will be able to cast rods with a worn out line line over concrete or asphalt to make your buying decision. The best "TEST" casting will be on the water. There you can FEEL how your rod responds to a line, not only casting it, but with the flies you are going to use in fishing conditions. You will also get a feel for how strong the rod is when you pick up line off the water.
A rod with too light a line won't want to load right, and you will have to add line length or additional power your cast. A rod with too heavy a line will feel like it is going to crush under the line's weight. A happy line/rod marriage will let you smoothly pick up your line/fly, load your rod smoothly, then unload it in your forward cast and lay out where you want it.
Most manufacturers recommend lines for their rods. Start with the recommended lines and line weights and see if you get the FEEL you want with those recommended lines. If not, adjust weight and taper until it feels right to YOU. Start with a weight forward floating line as recommended for your rod for most fishing conditions. Once you understand what you want you can adjust line to rod for feel.
Move down two line weights. If you are fishing a 5 weight, move to a 3 weight. Move to a "medium" action rod. Begin with a rod that is eight to eight and a half feet long. Unless you travel a lot, a two or three piece rod is fine. All of the major manufacturers make rods to fit my description in a three weight.
As you move to lighter rods, the choices diminish. Sage, Orvis, Winston, Thomas & Thomas, St. Croix, Scott, Hexagraph -- these manufacturers and more offer 3 weights, some actually build 2 weights. When you slip to 1 weights the list shortens to Orvis, Sage, and Thomas & Thomas, and now Hexagraph with my new prototype 1/2 weight, so far as I'm aware at writing of this article. Orvis was the first to break the 2 and 1 weight barriers in the mid 80s. Sage moved us a step farther with the SPLs from 2 to ought weight in 1997. Now Sage sells its SLT series ultralights. Thomas & Thomas came out with its 1 weight within the past year.
Now, we have a fair selection of 1 to 3 weight lower priced rods that cast well, and may allow you to buy an extra rod here and there. Cabela's actually has a nice 1 weight for $99.00. See my article New Fly rods under $200.00. Things are changing and the options are increasing.
When you slip to the Ought weight range, only Sage is left with the Ought weight rod and line co-designed to cast the ought weight best. It IS the world's lightest, and best in its class.
Becoming one with your new, lighter fly rod requires many adjustments. To cast the same small flies takes a certain amount of energy which must be loaded into your rod, then unloaded to produce your cast. As you cast lighter lines, you will have to furnish more of that energy. You will have to learn what amount of energy to apply, and at what moment in your cast to apply that energy.
If you are an accomplished caster, this will be a simple adjustment for you. If you are not so experienced a caster, it will require more work. This is a skill, and all skills require practice.
I can make adjustments to rod/line readily because I fish 530 hours per year minimum. I estimate that I cast 500 to 700 casts per trip. If I make an average of 600 casts per trip, that is 78,000 casts per year. For that reason casting is an automatic function for me.
When I move to an 8 or 9 weight, I have to focus on the differences, because I spend MOST of my time on 3- to ought-weight fly systems, going to the heavier rod/line requires a major adjustment for me. Don't fear the adjustment, understand what you have to do and PRACTICE! Cast enough to build the skill and you'll fully enjoy your ultralight fly fishing experience.
In this article, I have tried to simplify a topic that has no end in information and debate among fly fishers. Hopefully you can use some of this information to help you understand how to go about selecting the fly tackle that feels best to you, and allows you the absolute joy that can come from ultralight fly fishing. Because each of the topics above deserves an article, they will be covered right here in due time.
-- Bill Byrd
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