Weight is Great

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

Lot’s of days, more weight means more fish.

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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15 thoughts on “Weight is Great

  1. In CA, if you fish for trout you fish with shot, sometimes a lot of it. I heard a saying a while back that captures our relationship to shot.

    What’s the difference between a decent and great California fly fisherman?

    Another split shot.

  2. Great advice! For many years I would mainly fish dry flies, sometimes a brass beadhead nymph or a dry and dropper, but I never used split shots, and I never caught a trout over 13 inches in all that time. Winter of this year I decided I wanted to start catching bigger trout, and start fishing a local public trophy stream more often, so I bought a better rod and I started loading my leader down with split shots. What a difference it has made! So far this year I have caught the biggest trout of my life – a 16 inch brookie on a delayed harvest stream; a 17 inch and a 20 inch rainbow on a difficult trophy stream. It definitely makes a difference! I don’t even want to tie on a dry fly anymore.

    • Dry flies are great when time is right but it often isn’t. The better rod and the shot are both good calls but if you really want to catch big fish try a streamer. The first ones free. Here’s my pager # if you want some more.

  3. Something I’ve taken to doing, both in the salt and fresh, is to carry a few tungsten beads with me. These threaded onto tippet or leader when extra weight is needed and can be secured using Prestik (Blu-Tac elsewhere in the world) to any point along the leader (works especially well on knots) or the right down over the eye of the fly.

    The beads are easily reused, moved up and down the leader and are far better than lead for the environment if lost.

    • Fred, You may have something you can market there! The on again, off again bead head fly! 🙂

      I can hear the ad now… ” Are you fishing over pressured waters where fish dart at the sight of a gold bead? Take it off! Do you need a little extra weight to get down into the feeding columns? Add it back on, and everywhere in between!”

      Hey if you strike it rich I’d better get a kick back! 😀

  4. Great article! I am using the Orvis Tungsten Putty now for my cold water nymphing on smaller streams near me with the ability to add and subtract weight easily. you can put it at a knot or at the fly head. I still use the big shot for my heavy water / steelhead in the Lake Ontario Tribs. I really like the idea of threading on a Tung beadhead-thanks for Posting that Fred.

  5. I carry shot everywhere I go, reguardless of how I plan on fishing that day. I don’t use it as often as I used to, but sometimes it’s just necessary. I’ve been using euro-nymphing techniques for a few years now, and the big school of thought is that you don’t need shot (it’s illegal in competition as well). For most conditions, no you don’t need shot. You’re throwing heavily weighted flies and lighter tippet, so the flies get down fast. That’s great, but I’ve run across plenty of scenarios where adding split shot to my euro rig has caught me fish. Mostly high, fast water, or deeper pools, and some funky currents. You can’t be afraid to add weight. Especially if it’s the difference in catching fish and not catching fish. We all want to catch fish, right?

  6. Some good ideas here. If you prefer to avoid the hinging effect of casting shot, try a fly with 2 tungsten beads on it. You can often incorporate at least one of them under the dressing of the thorax.
    Also, a small fly (albeit heavily weighted) allows thinner tippets (cut through the water better as mentioned in the post), and seems more dense than larger patterns, both factors contributing to a fast sink rate.

  7. Pingback: Weighted Nymph Rigs for Fishing | Stillwater Simplified | Stillwater Fly Shop

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