Sunday Classic / Weight is Great

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

I’ve hesitated to write on this topic because it seems so elementary.

Sort of a fly fishing truism but I’ve been encouraged lately after reminding several of my friends who are highly experienced anglers of this simple fact. If you’re fishing nymphs for trout and you’re not catching fish, the odds are very good that you aren’t using enough weight.

My split shot gets me laughed at. Fly fishermen have ideas about weight. I carry a box of the polite little split shot, made for fly fishermen, but I seldom use them. I go straight to the stuff made for the gear guys. I carry size B and BB but I also carry #7 (1/4 inch diameter) and I’m not afraid to use them. On several occasions lately I’ve been fishing with friends and come to deep runs where neither of us have been able to find fish. After we each fished the run thoroughly, I added one of those #7 shot to my rig and caught a fish on the first cast.

The fish are there in those deep runs but in the early spring with water temps still low, they’re hugging the bottom. They’ll eat a fly, they just won’t move for it. You have to put it right on their nose. It’s a changeling way to fish and dealing with heavy rigs requires making some adjustments to your casting but it gets results. I’ve always thought that the art of fly fishing is in showing the fish what he wants, not expecting him to eat what we want to fish. That often involves weight, lots of it.

The other day I found myself fishing a rig consisting of: two heavily weighted nymphs, three size BB shot and one #7 and a thingamabobber, all on a twelve foot leader. Best of all, I’m casting it all on an eight foot five weight Scott F2 glass rod. Hey, I was expecting to be fishing dries but conditions changed. I adapted and I caught fish. It was actually a great day.

With that in mind here are some tactics to help you find fish and deal with the extra weight.


Prepare for the Worst

It starts with caring big shot. You can stack up enough BB shot to get the weight of a #7 but I believe that the single shot is easier to cast. It’s also quicker and easier to change a single shot. Getting your weight right is all about changing. What works in one run will probably not work in the next. I like to have a good selection of big shot to use above my lead fly as well as some small ones to use between the lead and the dropper.

Casting Weight

Casting weight is a challenge. Fortunately when you’re fishing nymphs you’re not usually making long casts but some times you are. It’s a skill worth having. I like a slower rod for heavy rigs. I want a deep bend to carry the extra baggage. Slow down and open up your loop. Tailing a loop will end badly. The smooth application of power is vital. It’s also very important that the cast begins well. Be sure that all of the slack is out of the line and your flies are at the surface before you begin the casting stroke. It’s easier to maintain a cast than fix one. Don’t try to carry too much line. Shoot the line on your presentation.

Lengthen Your Leader

The point of fishing weight is to get deep. You can’t get a fly deep with a short leader. To really get down you may choose a 90 degree leader. In this system you tie a butt section of 20 lb mono about a foot long directly to your indicator. Then tie 4X or 5x tippet to the indicator as well in what ever length desired. The lighter tippet will cut through the water and not only get down quicker but farther because it hangs down at 90 degrees.

Use a Big Indicator

You will need an indicator big enough to float all that weight. I use the large thingamabobbers and will sometimes put on two. It’s not delicate but you won’t be spooking fish at the bottom of a deep run.

Find the Bottom

It doesn’t matter how much weight you use, if your fly doesn’t tick the bottom it’s not enough. I believe in over correcting. Put on more weight than you think you need. You may be surprised to find it’s still not enough. It’s better to over correct and take some weight off than to creep up on it a little at a time. You’ll find the right amount quicker and catch more fish.

Read the Bottom

Frequently deep runs are not a consistent depth but a series of drop offs or pot holes the fish hold in. You may need to fish the run in sections, dropping your flies just ahead of the drop offs and letting them fall in. Take the time to study the run before you start casting and you’ll spend more time fighting fish and less hung up on the bottom.

Smart Bomb

Plunge pools are a great opportunity for the angler who isn’t afraid of a little weight. Smart bombing is when you throw a heavy rig into the cascade of a plunge pool, letting the water and weight carry your flies straight to the bottom. Then, as your flies move back into the pool, lift them slowly to the surface. This simulates the way naturals travel in the eddies created by the cascade. The big upside is that your line is tight so you will feel the fish when he eats. It’s a great technique.

Put the Lead to Bed

I’m conflicted about split shot. Lead is the best thing for performance but it’s bad for the environment. I do fish lead for my smaller shot but I have a hard time throwing a chunk the size of a #7 into the river. It’s a compromise I’m willing to make. I do think it’s a good idea to spray paint the shiny nontoxic shot to dull them. I can’t believe they don’t distract the fish. I hope that the companies that make split shot will, one day develop nontoxic shot that has the density and flexibility of lead. It would make it easier to always do the right thing. In the meantime, use the nontoxic products that are available. Maybe it will encourage them.

Next time you’re fishing nymphs and not catching fish don’t be afraid to get heavy and get deep. Don’t let preconceived ideas about fly fishing get between you and a fish. Trust me, you’ll be doing the right thing.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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10 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / Weight is Great

  1. I have this conundrum going; I don’t seem to mind folks adding weight to get the fly down near the bottom of a run, but I almost laugh-out-loud when they then add a bobber to keep the fly up off the bottom. Ain’t fly fishing interesting.

    • People don’t use bobbers to keep their flies off the bottom, they use them to make getting a clean drift easier, to get a better sense of where their flies are and, as the name suggests, to indicate when strikes occur.

      • Surely you jest. All those folks I see on the Madison and Firehole ripping back when the bobber goes down are “tactical” fishing. Who would have guessed.

  2. Great tips. My challenge has been crimping split shot onto the line. Too loose and it slips. Too tight and it breaks the line. I started using tungsten putty which is fine for the normal riffles but probably no good for the deep pools mentioned in your article.

  3. Good stuff – thanks!

    I assume the reason you don’t care for putty is its tendency to slide up and down the line?

  4. The easiest way to get down deep is to switch to a Euro rig. With a Euro leader there is no need for split shot. You also don’t get slack in the line, so it’s easier to register and set a strike.

  5. I pretty much fish wooly buggers exclusively in my spot in north Georgia. You are exactly right about weight and I fish small creeks and rivers that go from1 ft to 6 ft quick. I tried thingamabobberz but found they aren’t as easy to move and sometimes kink my line.. instead I use a bobber that is for ice fishing, basically it has a little wooden peg that you take out and slide to the correct depth. They are green and yellow for high visibility. They are made by a company called thill and there are many sizes!

  6. Some interesting takes on fishing deep:

    Thomas McGuane:
    “In a perfect world, fishing with split shot on the leader wouldn’t be fly fishing at all. Neither would monofilament nymphing and maybe even shooting heads. Lee Wulff said that the fish is entitled to the sanctuary of deep water. That’s where most of us used to set the bar in trout fishing. We fished on top and tried to devise ways of catching big fish that way, fishing at night, fishing with greater stealth, hunting remote places that rarely saw an angler.”

    John Gierach:
    “I still do my share of dredging with weight on the leader – sometimes lots of weight, as much as it takes – but in the past few years I’ve tried to do it more sparingly. If there’s anything wrong with this kind of nymph fishing, it’s that it can be too effective. Lee Wulff once said that trout deserve the sanctuary of deep water, and I can’t help thinking about that every time I nip three split shot onto my leader and dredge up a fish that might have started rising in an hour or two if I’d left him alone. Maybe there was a time when this didn’t make too much difference, but with the crowds you now see on popular rivers – not to mention the beat-up trout you sometimes catch – maybe the idea of letting the fish hide, rest, or feed undisturbed from time to time is worth thinking about.”

    I knew an expert nymph fisherman who bragged about landing 800 to 1,000 trout in a season. The secret to his success was adding one more split shot than the next guy.

    I realize that guides can’t make a living as dry fly purists, but teaching clients to force feed trout with excessive weight and bobbers might not be the best way to promote the sport of fly fishing. Down deep (pardon the pun), guides that routinely fish this way must know they are pimping the sport.

    • Just cut the hook off the nymph and when you feel a tug know you fooled a fish no harm done. It’s just a fish folks. Maybe you should take up a diff hobby.

  7. So there I was, rising trout in the riffle on the Deschutes R. My phesant tail worked before but not this time. I added a split shot…nothing; I added a second split shot…still nothing. In desperation I added a third split shot and wham, a tight line followed by several more redsides to hand. Did the non lead weight work because the fly fished deeper or was it because it slowed down the fly in the riffle, or both?

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