Skip to main content

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing

Gearing down for smaller flies, smaller waters, and memorable days.

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing

Small streams occupy a big space in our hearts. They deserve special care and attention from fly fishers using light-line tackle. (Dave Jensen photo)

The whole point of fly fishing is ridiculously simple—to have fun. The joyless angler is a pitiable creature. But we spend most of our time on a trout stream casting, and just a small fraction actually catching. And that’s on a good day. So we find pleasure in the process itself, apart from any success, which is one of the reasons that anglers obsess over rods. Most of the time, it’s just the two of you alone, so you might as well enjoy each other’s company.

But I think it’s arguable (or at least I would argue it) that the pleasure of just casting a fly rod diminishes by degrees as the line weight increases. I’ve handled some remarkably good 12-weights over the years, rods expertly designed to deliver a 3/0 tarpon iron in the wind with an assassin’s efficiency. But not one of them was actually “fun” to cast. The greater enjoyment lies at the low end of the spectrum, in rods for the lightest lines and that are often shorter than the 9 feet that has become a de facto standard.

Such rods have been around for quite some time; cane rod anglers had their Flea Rods and Fairies. But the advent of graphite opened up line-weight territories—2, 1, even 0 and 00 weights, where bamboo tips would prove dangerously fragile—and light-line rods got even lighter. Some series of such rods do include 9-foot 5-weights, which seems to me stretching the category unnecessarily, though admittedly they tend to have more delicate casting characteristics than their all-purpose counterparts. But the soul of light-line angling really lives in rods at the lower weights, and 2018 has been a big gear year for the introduction of light-line tackle.

Diminutive rods have held a place in the tackle market over the years, but it’s been a low-profile presence for a good reason—there are more things that a light-line rod can’t do than can do. Despite their specs, these rods aren’t toys, at least no more than any other fly rod is, but it’s a mistake to think about them, or fish them, as simply scaled-down versions of the typical all-purpose trout stick. These little rods are among the least versatile made.


When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
Coated nylon monofilaments are limp and flexible for realistic drag-free drifts. The coatings repel water, providing better knot strength when wet. (Cathy & Barry Beck photo)

But their limits can be liberating as well, absolving you of some of fly fishing’s less genial exercises: lobbing heavy ordnance under a strike indicator, jacking long casts into a 20-knot wind, lifting tungsten-head streamers on a sink-tip line to make a backcast, turning over dry flies the size of feather dusters at the end of a long throw. With enough determination, I suppose you could do some of these things with a 4-weight, but why put yourself through it?


What light-line rods are designed for is presenting small drys and wets—in short, the most pleasant fly types to cast. And the terminal tackle required for a day like that fits comfortably in a couple of shirt pockets. Light-line fishing isn’t necessarily synonymous with simplicity, but it does strongly imply it. An ultralight angler strapping on a standard-issue vest or pack bloated with the usual accouterments of the sport seems absurdly disproportionate, like wearing body armor to a squirt gun fight.

These smaller rods excel on smaller waters, where the trout too generally run small, but then that’s what you’re geared for. It’s certainly possible to fish light tackle for large trout and under the right conditions even land them. You can open a wine bottle with a screwdriver too, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.

Light-line angling is generally a low-stakes game, and part of its pleasure lies in the small, intimate scale of everything—your gear, the water, the fish—and you recalibrate both your expectations and the nature of your enjoyment accordingly. You don’t need to concern yourself much about getting The Big One because most small streams don’t have any, and you need not trouble yourself about where they are or what they’re taking or why you’re not catching them. And, too, the whole concept of a “big one” changes with circumstances. A 13-inch trout on the Bighorn occasions mainly yawns; on a small stream at the end of a 2-weight, it can make your season. I should add that this doesn’t occur regularly.

More often you’re rewarded with smaller fish that come somewhat more willingly and in greater abundance than the big boys, and I don’t know an angler, no matter how seasoned, who still doesn’t enjoy a day of catching trout, regardless of size. But apart from that, the tackle itself rewards in the pleasing lightness of its use, the appropriateness of its scale. It gives an easy, relaxed, uncomplicated quality to the fishing in a day delightfully free of double hauls and split-shot.




When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
Light-line fishing comes in many flavors, among them the author's favorite—small spring creeks that carve their way into soft soils, leaving head-high banks overhung with meadow grasses, weeds, and wildflowers. (Josh Hutchins photo)

In the classic scenario, a little mountain freestone flows beneath a low, leafy understory where long casts are as unnecessary as they are inadvisable. The opposite problem prevails—laying out a fly with just a few feet of line outside the rod tip—and here light-line rods with lithe shafts that load readily outshine anything else. The shorter lengths keep casts beneath the overhanging trees and makes the rods less awkward to carry around on brushy banks and trails. They handle comfortably and nimbly, darting out a fly with the compact motion often enforced by tight quarters. You work upstream, flicking a little Humpy or Royal Wulff into plunge pools, pockets, and miniature runs, plucking trout from here and there. When the time comes, you swap the dry for a small soft-hackle, swing some spots on your way back down, and pick up a few more. It is pleasantly absorbing work and as easy on your casting arm as lifting a beer can.

But light-line fishing comes in many flavors, among them my favorite—fishing those small spring creeks that carve their way into soft soils, leaving head-high banks overhung with meadow grasses, weeds, and wildflowers growing four feet tall. Here too a shorter rod keeps you underneath the offending vegetation and offers another indispensable advantage. Although most trout are on the smaller side, clear water and a surface as smooth as a windowpane make them exceptionally spooky—far more, you think, than their size should warrant. But the serpentine channel and high banks leave no room for a cast even at the short end of middle range. You have to get much closer to the fish than you’d like and present a fly with the utmost quiet. Light lines roll out gently, whisper to the surface, and settle on the water like duck down, giving you at least a fighting chance. And though seldom caught, big trout sometimes lurk here too, and should you connect with one, you get that rush that anglers both love and fear—the sudden flash that you’re punching way out of your weight class.

Almost weightless, ultralight rods are agile and maneuverable, and casting them is as close to effortless as it comes in fly fishing, snaking out a fly with a flick of the wrist. You have, or at least have the illusion of, a closer physical contact with the rod, a sense of more feedback, a sensitivity, an “in-touchness” with the tackle that bigger sticks offer in lesser measure.

Recommended


They have a way of magnifying physical sensation, in both casting and in playing fish. The term often invoked for this is “feel,” and a rod with good feel confers enjoyment simply in its use, in a way that stands apart from what we call “performance.”

Light-line rods won’t “put the fun back in fly fishing” if it isn’t there already. What they do is add dimensions of enjoyment in conditions where conventional all-around trout gear is both overkill and ill-matched to the job—on smaller waters with smaller fish. And there are a lot more small trout streams and small trout than big ones. A whole lot.


Sage DART Fly Rod

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$700 | sageflyfishing.com

Sage was an early player in the ultralight fly-rod market and pioneered the uber-light 0- and 00-weight models. When a company with two decades of experience introduces a new series of light-line rods, the Sage DART (0- to 4-weight), light-line enthusiasts do well to take notice.

I did and test drove the 7'6" 3-weight. The fairly fast shaft offers a little more punch and line speed than the norm, and though ultralight rods generally score low marks for versatility, I found the DART usefully adaptable to changes in line weights and types, allowing you to tune the rod to a wider range of fishing circumstances than you might expect in a short 3-weight.

For fishing that primarily involves close-range casting, the new RIO Creek WF3F, which packs weight up front (or overlining with a WF4) enlists more power from the rod under a shorter line and suits it beautifully to small freestone angling. It fires precise deliveries with that brisk, off-the-tip casting action that is a pleasure when the dead-drifts and swings are relatively short, when there’s a new target for every cast, and the water itself encourages a quicker fishing tempo. The Creek and the DART seem made for each other, and given that both are subsidiaries of the same parent company, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were.

On more varied waters that allow both short and midrange casting, a standard WF3 brings out enough in the rod at close range to make it highly practical, but the extra belly length allows you to carry more line in the air for fixed-range casts, and their greater accuracy, out to 30 feet or so. A WF3 is a good balanced-purpose line for the DART.

With a DT3, short-range performance, while still reasonably practical, falls off a bit, but what you gain is the ability to hold line in the air—40 feet is not asking too much of this rod—for bull’s-eye shots at a distance. And to me, at these middle to longer range distances you begin to see what the DART really has to offer and what separates it from run-of-the-mill length/line weight equivalents.

The rod is very smooth, responsive, and true-tracking with the kind of feedback to the hand that makes good equipment a joy to use. Though the DART is a fine choice for all-around small-stream fishing, it’s an exceptional one for those waters where close quarters make a short rod necessary but the fish demand you keep your distance. $700 | sageflyfishing.com

Winston PURE Fly Rod

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$850 | winstonrods.com

The news that Winston developed a new selection of light-line rods—the PURE series (2- to 5-weight)—instantly caught my attention because many Winston rods already seem to me light-line-ish, with the feel of rods rated for a line weight less. So I was curious about what these new models would feel like. Based on the 8' 4-weight I field tested, the PURE delivers pretty much what you’d expect—the light, fluid, responsive feel of a Winston. Only more so.

Though not especially noteworthy in curb weight (I measured this rod at 2.98 oz), it has an almost delicate feel in the hand, partly owing to the slim shaft. Winston designates it a “moderate” action; I’d put it on the faster end of the moderate spectrum, where you trade away a bit of performance at extremely short distances for a little more (but not exactly “high”) line speed. One of the more pleasing, and useful, aspects of this compromise is its adaptability to different casting styles. A comfortable, relaxed stroke lays out the line softly and surely, but you can push it a little more energetically to handle somewhat bushier patterns, longer leaders, or breezy days—or just because you like the feel of quicker casts that are deft and precise. On those occasions when you need it, this rod can give you some distance—40 feet, even 50 or more in the hands of a competent caster. But the real sweet spot seems to me from 15 to 35 feet or so, where you feel distinctly the easy smoothness of the shaft.

The rod proved admirably unfussy about line type and responded well to overlining should you want the extra weight for more wind-

resistant flies or simply enjoy a deeper flex in the rod. It gracefully handles double-taper and weight-forward lines, in #4 or #5, and is a lovely roll caster with a Triangle Taper, which is a big advantage on waters with limited backcast room. It has enough firmness for effective mending but isn’t so stiff that it requires an aggressive or jerky motion to reposition the line. On smooth water, it mends with little commotion

The rod will handle a range of fly types (within reasonable limits of size and weight), but it really seems to me in its element dry-fly fishing. Maybe it’s the smoothness of delivery; I feel the same way about a lot of Winston trout rods. Or maybe it’s just what their designers like to do most. And who can blame them? $850 | winstonrods.com

Redington Butter Stick Fly Rod

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$250 | redington.com

Many fly fishers are rediscovering the easy-casting joys and delicate presentations made possible with slower-action fly rods like those that were common in the golden age of fly fishing. The 3-piece fiberglass rods in Redington’s new Butter Stick line are constructed using the company’s T-Glass with cool retro styling and what the company calls its Heritage Taper. Redington says Butter Stick rods are designed for intimate situations where accuracy and finesse are more important than casting distance. The freshwater rods sport all-cork grips and slide rings and range from a 5'9" 1-weight to an 8' 5-weight. The saltwater models (8', in 6- and 8-weight configurations) have anodized aluminum reel seats and fighting butts. They come with a Cordura rod tube with dividers, and a lifetime warranty. Perfect for anglers who want to slow down and enjoy their time on the water.  $250 | redington.com

Scott F Series Fly Rods 

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$695 | scottflyrod.com

Back in the day when graphite first became a feasible rod material, most rod manufacturers jumped with both feet, as fast as they could, into the graphite game. Scott  Rods was among them, but at the same time, the company stayed righteous and kept a selection of short, light-line fiberglass rods in its product line. They’ve remained there ever since, occasionally revisited and revamped, out of Scott’s conviction that glass is an appropriate material for the more leisurely action, easy-loading rods that best meet the needs of small-stream anglers.

For 2019, the Scott F Series (2- to 4-weight) has been redesigned, combining E-glass with narrower tapers and hollow internal ferrules. The result, judging by the 6'6" 3-weight I fished, is a very light, deep-flexing rod that builds sufficient load with—literally—a few feet of line beyond the tip, and throws it accurately. This is a true 3 weight—no need to overline it—at a length that allows you to fish little brush-tunnel streams, neatly sneaking casts beneath overhanging branches, particularly since it’s a superior roll caster. And it’s an absolute hoot in playing even small fish; the rod telegraphs every movement to your hand.  

Anglers who ordinarily fish graphite may well need to adjust their casting stroke. Overpower this rod and you end up with all those things some people complain about in fiberglass—open, out-of-control loops; a tip that bucks around; a failure to get distance; too much work for too little result. But throttle back, slow down, and let the shaft do the work, and you get nicely formed, stable loops and pinpoint shots, all with virtually no effort. 

While this rod will drop dry flies smartly in the pockets, my favorite use was swimming soft-hackles and wet flies through seams and runs. The slow, sweeping action seems custom-made for swinging. But regardless of method, the supple tip is just the thing for light tippets. If you like to feel the rod you are fishing—and your fish—this one is a delight, tailor-made for close encounters of the best kind. $695 | scottflyrod.com

RIO Creek Fly Line

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$80 | rioproducts.com

RIO’s new Creek line (weights 0 though 4) pairs beautifully with light-line rods in short-distance, close-quarters fishing for the simple reason that it was made to do just that. A specialty line for specialty rods, it’s designed to load at close range for casts as short as 10 or 15 feet—often all the room you have to work with on small streams and creeks.

It achieves this kind of performance in a couple of different ways. The first is a taper strongly stacked toward the front end. With a short 5½-foot front taper backed by a beefier 5-foot body, the WF3F that I tested carries very nearly half its weight in the front 12 feet of line; that’s about 30% more weight than other WF3s I measured. With more mass up front, it takes less line to load the rod. The second reason for the short-range attributes of this line is a bit of a parlor trick, though one almost universally practiced among line manufacturers these days and in this case, I think, justifiable. The #3 line I used weighed in at 125 grains, which is actually at the top end of the #4 grain-weight window. In short, it’s a line size heavier. But for short-line angling, the upsizing makes sense as it acknowledges that virtually every rod, even moderate action ones, can profit from overlining for very close-range presentations. The combination of the overall weight of the line and its distribution toward the tip give the Creek an authority that makes for both easy casting and easy fishing. 

Odd as it may seem, the line profile and extra weight of the Creek bring to mind another type of specialty line: the powerful, front-loaded tapers used for delivering big streamers and heavily weighted flies, such as RIO’s InTouch Big Nasty or SA’s Mastery Titan. The casting requirements are the same—good rod load with a short line.

The Creek offers one other advantage in this respect: the short, heavy front end lets you shoot line with a very short backcast for those small-stream occasions when you need a bit of casting distance but don’t have much room behind you. You may not get the range in shooting you would with a standard WF3, but on small water you’ll probably reach out far enough.
That having been said, however, the design of the Creek overwhelmingly favors short-distance, fixed-line presentations, and it’s a superior line for the purpose. $80 | rioproducts.com

Amplitude Smooth Trout Fly Line

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$100 | scientificanglers.com

For multipurpose trout fishing on a variety of water types, the Scientific Anglers Infinity (page 12) line is a better choice. The Infinity is a half size heavier than the line weight standard and it has an aggressive front taper to turn over indicators, tandem rigs, streamers, and who knows, maybe even a bass popping bug? Amplitude Smooth Trout, on the other hand is best suited just for one task, and that’s dry-fly fishing.

This line is true to weight with a long progressive rear taper that reaches out past 60 feet, which means if you like to fish far and fine, this is your line. Your loop won’t collapse at distances over 50 feet, and the line will turn over neatly with as little disturbance as possible. For gulpers and size #18 Parachutes on

Hebgen Lake, for pods of rising trout feeding on spent Tricos on the Missouri, or Ephemerella dorothea hatches on the West Branch of the Delaware River, this is the line that will help you make clean presentations at ranges that won’t spook trout. While the Smooth Trout will throw small nymphs or swing soft-hackles if needed, our tester found it most useful for wading skinny water on big rivers, and especially for casting to risers from a drift boat, where the quarry won’t let you get too close. Available in line weights 2 through 7. $100 | scientificanglers.com

Cortland Ultralight Trout Series Fly Line

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$90 | cortlandline.com

The Cortland Ultralight Series (weights 2 through 6) helps throw smooth, controlled loops with delicate presentations at what most people would consider “normal” dry-fly fishing distances. With this line, that means inside of 40 feet with a 2- or 3-weight, and within 45 feet with the 4-weight and larger. If you cast much farther than that with this WF line, you’re into the running line and you lose your ability to mend and control the line to  defeat drag and get a natural  presentation.

These lines are dead on the AFFTA line weight standards, so a 2-weight (80 grains)  is really a 2-weight and the 4-weight (120 grains) is really a 4-weight. That means with most modern “fast-action” rods, you’ll be tip casting at short distances, or you’ll need to overline the rod by one weight. Where this line truly shines is paired with dry-fly-specific graphite rods like the G.Loomis NRX Lite Presentation, the Winston PURE, and especially on fiberglass rods suited for a smooth, relaxed delivery. What makes the Ultralight Trout Series truly special is the long 18' front taper—almost twice as long as other lines in this category to lay down small flies delicately in flat water. 

Remember that stealthy thin-diameter lines meant for flat water come with a price: They don’t float as well as buoyant large-diameter floating lines with thick tips, but the fine taper lands softly and the narrow diameter makes the line more limp and more flexible akin to using a much longer leader. Speaking of leaders, due to the long taper and fine tip of this line, look for a leader with a .017" diameter butt section so it closely matches the tip of the fly line and doesn’t create a stiff hinging point. The idea behind the long 18' taper on the fly line is to attach a 12' monofilament leader and essentially create 30' of gentle taper ending at the fly. The tip is aqua green, the body dark green, and the rear taper and running line are pale yellow to help you gauge distances and to load the rod correctly at the appropriate spots. $90 | cortlandline.com

TroutHunter EVO Tippet

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$10 | trouthunt.com

Here’s one simple thing you can do to improve your fishing for the coming year: find all of your nylon tippet material and throw it away. Or, better yet, recycle it. Whatever you do, don’t use it for fishing. Regular nylon monofilament is porous and it absorbs water. And it degrades quickly from exposure to ultraviolet rays. Exposure to the air, water, and sun drastically weakens your nylon tippet so all the stuff you carried with you through last season has likely deteriorated. Like a bad jug of milk, your old nylon tippet is well past its expiry date. But there’s a more important reason to upgrade: Nylon monofilament just got better.

TroutHunter EVO tippet material has a proprietary organic coating so knots seat better, and the coating also repels water, making these nylon tippets stronger in terms of real breaking strength in actual fishing conditions than other uncoated nylon monofilaments of the same diameter. According to Rich Paini of TroutHunter, the knot strength (not the tensile strength) of the new EVO tippet material is comparable or better than the same diameters of fluorocarbon. The coating also helps the nylon float better, and the airtight sealed packaging on each tippet spool makes sure you get a “fresh” spool of tippet each time. $10 | trouthunt.com

Cortland Super Supple Tippet

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$6 | cortlandline.com

We’ve all heard that fluorocarbon monofilament allows light to pass through it and is less visible to fish. It does not absorb water, it’s impervious to the sun, and its tensile strength—for the diameter—is stronger than nylon. It’s good stuff, but not the best choice in all situations.

You can justifiably argue that in hard-fished rivers and streams, most refusals don’t come from trout “seeing” the tippet. Refusals come simply because the fly isn’t moving naturally in the water. Nylon monofilament tippet has always been more supple than fluorocarbon, allowing your flies to move naturally in the water, and the newest iteration from Cortland is not only soft and flexible for more natural presentations, it also overcomes many of the problems previously associated with nylon monofilament.

Super Supple is coated with a smooth, glassy finish that protects the tippet from UV light and repels water. Because of this coating, the tippet floats better for dry-fly fishing, doesn’t soak up water, and therefore stays stronger with better knot strength even when wet.

I’m still a firm believer in fluorocarbon in stillwaters, on saltwater flats, and in other situations where you’re using a tight-line presentation. But when I want a natural, drag-free drift where the fly appears completely untethered, this new generation of coated nylon monofilament can’t be beat.  $6 | cortlandline.com —Ross Purnell

Abel TR Fly Reel

When Less is More: Light-Line Fly Fishing
$395 | abelreels.com

It’s my personal opinion that if you pour bottled steak sauce or BBQ sauce over a finely grilled ribeye, you cover up the flavors of the beef and at the same time offer up an insult to your chef. These condiments are sometimes necessary for an overcooked cut, but if you really want to experience the flavor of a Wagyu porterhouse, or a black Angus filet mignon, you don’t cover it up with sauce. It’s sacrilege.

Similarly, to fully experience the electric connection between a fly fisher and a trout, it seems a shame to mute it with a high-powered disk-drag reel that will stifle and subdue what should be a wild, erratic, and acrobatic moment. Most trout reels on the market today are simply too much sauce.

Abel’s TR reel is simple and elegant with only 21 machined parts, including the threaded quick-release cap and the reel foot. It’s missing some things you’re used to seeing on a trout reel, like a counterbalance and a drag adjustment knob. The precision-balanced clicker fixed on the spool opposes and counterbalances the reel handle, and since this lightweight clicker is not adjustable, there’s no need for a drag adjustment knob. Instead, this reel has a clean, no-snag face on one side, and handle on the other.

The TR puts very little between you and the fish so you can savor each moment of the fight. You can still land large trout if you know how to use the exposed rim to discreetly palm the reel without breaking the line, but the reel won’t just do it for you. You have to be a little more involved. I used the 4.65 oz. 4/5 TR extensively in Alaska, feeding steelhead-size Iliamna Lake rainbows that were gorging on sockeye salmon eggs. It produced some crazy wind-sprints downriver since the reel itself has absolutely no stopping power, but if you can use your feet to catch up to the fish, you can still deliver some “sweet chin music” and get the fish in the net. $395 | abelreels.com —Ross Purnell


Ted Leeson has published many instructional books on tackle and fly tying, including The Fly Tier’s Benchside Reference (with Jim Schollmeyer). His literary books, including Jerusalem Creek (2002), The Habit of Rivers (2006), and Inventing Montana (2015) are standard volumes in any fly-fishing library. His most recent article was “Fifty Greatest Milestones: Highlights of the Modern Era,” which appeared in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Fly Fisherman.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Fly Fisherman Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Fly Fisherman App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Fly Fisherman stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Fly Fisherman subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now