(This article first appeared in the June-July 2016 issue of Fly Fisherman and was titled “A Propensity for Density: When to weight the tippet, not your flies.”)
We're living in a time when compromise is becoming harder to find between opposing views. Everything from religion and sex to politics and gun control is seeing less compromise with greater barriers between both sides. Often the best solution to a problem arrives when both sides work together.
We even witness these great divisions between groups in leisure activities like fly fishing. Recently, with the tactic of European nymphing gaining popularity, I see fly fishers debating the virtues of using weighted flies versus unweighted flies with supplemental weight like split-shot or putty on the line. Although my former life as a competitive fly fisher helped me see the many advantages of European-style nymphing with weighted flies, I believe there is a time and place to add split-shot or putty to the tippet.
Too often I see Euro-style nymph fishers discussing the many disadvantages of using split-shot while the more traditional fly fishers talk negatively about using heavy beads on their flies. Both have positives and negatives; the real key is learning when each works best, and being adept at both methods so you can switch back and forth.
While competing and coaching Fly Fishing Team USA over the course of nine years, I moved away from using added weight, and focused on using exclusively weighted flies to follow the FIPS MOUCHE rules. FIPS is the organization that creates the regulations for international competitions including the European and World Fly Fishing Championships. The rules prohibit supplemental weight on the line.
The only permissible weight is in the fly itself or in a manufactured fly line. For nine years I was one-dimensional in my way of weighting nymphing rigs, and it wasn't until a few months after leaving the team when I began to see the important advantages of using added weight when conditions call for it.
I am not saying that competitive fly fishers are one-dimensional nymph fishers. Some of my best nymphing lessons have come from these anglers. What I am saying is that within some official rules that define fly fishing, these anglers are forced to restrict their options for weighting their nymphing rigs.
In the fall of 2014, I finally decided to leave competitive fly fishing altogether and began fishing with some old fishing buddies. One of them is an excellent nymph fisher who exclusively uses supplemental weight. We've been fishing together for a decade, and it was always interesting to me to see when his rig would outfish my rig.
I then began to realize that we both missed out on many opportunities because we were one-dimensional with our weight systems. That is, I always stuck with weighted flies and he always used split-shot. If we both would have been more willing to switch our tactics back and forth, we both would have caught more fish over the years.
I spent a good bit of time trying to isolate the variables that dictated the successes and failures of both approaches, and this article summarizes my thoughts based on those experiences. Hopefully this article will share with you my views of when supplemental weight is useful and when it is not.
There is never a cookie cutter approach to any fly-fishing situation. The things I enjoy the most about fly fishing are the changing variables from day to day, and from river to river. Seasons, weather patterns, angling pressure, water clarity, and water temperatures are several potential variables that can force fly fishers to change their nymphing approaches. As humans and anglers, we develop habitual tactics after some success and rarely ask ourselves the question "Is there a better way?"
Hopefully, there is, and these ideas get you thinking more critically about how you weight your rigs.
Advantages of Weight on the Line
Two important concepts to remember about nymphing are that you need to drift the fly at the feeding level of the fish, and drift the fly at a speed that encourages them to eat your fly. At times you need to drift the nymph faster than the current such as during an emergence; at the same speed as the current to imitate regular biological drift; and sometimes slower than the current such as during cold periods of low trout activity, where you need to hold the fly in front of the fish longer. A broad selection of weighting options allows you to present the fly at all three of these speeds.
Let's first look at some scenarios where split-shot nymph rigs often outperform weighted flies. The purpose of these scenarios is to get you thinking about the stream conditions when you fish, and understanding the situations where using supplemental weight may be more beneficial. This list is by no means comprehensive.
The BWO emergence is one of our earliest hatches in central Pennsylvania, and also in many other parts of the country. This hatch can start as early as late February and often is associated with higher springtime flows. Nymphing tactics can produce great results, but the problem with trying to exclusively use weighted flies is that you can't accurately build enough weight into a small #16 or #18 nymph to get the pattern down near the trout feeding zone.
Although an oversized bead and additional lead wire can add weight to the pattern, it ruins the proportions of a slender mayfly imitation. Too many of the weighted BWO patterns I see have bodies that are too thick, and beads that are too large. There's only so much weight you can put into small patterns, so you need additional weight on the tippet to get the pattern deeper, or you need to add a larger/heavier sacrificial anchor pattern to keep the rig deep. An anchor pattern is a good choice if there is a large secondary food source available—like stonefly nymphs—and the trout are not so focused on BWOs that they are willing to eat it. Otherwise, supplemental weight is a better choice, especially since anchor patterns snag bottom more frequently and are more expensive.
Another example is the Madison River in summer. Although heavier Euro-style patterns do work during this time period, I find that smaller patterns ranging from size 16 to size 20 catch more fish. But even during low-water years, the current is so fast that I cannot fish the deeper runs without an anchor pattern or supplemental weight.
Few anglers are able to wade midstream on the Madison due to the strong current, so the majority of wade fishermen pound the bankside water over and over again. The shallow depth near the banks invites lighter tactics like a dry/dropper rig. However, this pressure forces many of the fish to move away from the banks and into the deeper midstream channels and pockets where you must use heavier rigs. Pressured fish often seek the bottom of these deepest runs, and trying to rely solely on small weighted nymphs to gain that depth isn't likely the best choice, especially when trout are eating small #18 nymphs.
Supplemental shot also allows you to fish heavier diameter tippets. One reason many competitive fly fishers use smaller diameter tippets is to reduce the effects of water resistance, and allow their nymphs to get to the bottom quickly. Their flies are so light they must use thin tippets to get to the bottom.
On the other hand, when you add weight to the tippet you can more easily force your fly to the bottom, and thinner tippets aren't as critical. Heavier tippet results in fewer break-offs and allows you to land trout more quickly. This concept is important when fishing streams with woody debris (e.g. Michigan's Au Sable River). Due to the high probability of snagging wood with the nymphing rig, or hooked fish running back into the submerged timber to escape, I prefer to fish heavier tippets with supplemental weight. The heavier tippets will not guarantee freeing a snagged rig or landing a big fish, but will increase the odds of success.
Tailwaters, spring creeks, and other fertile trout factories often have weedy stream bottoms, and drifting a weighted nymph near stream bottom is almost a guarantee for a snag. This is one of the best reasons to use supplemental weight to anchor the rig. When fishing a shallow spring creek, I place split-shot or putty 10 inches or more up the leader from the fly so the fly rides just above the weeds. In deeper water, I use a bottom-bouncing rig with the split-shot on the end of the leader, and the flies tied to droppers above it.
When you use weighted flies exclusively, you have to carry more patterns according to the weight and the bead size of the fly. If I need a size 14 hook to imitate a specific insect I could use either a fly with a 7/64" or 3/32" bead for different depths.
This gives me two weight options for a single size hook, but also occupies twice the space in my fly box. A big advantage of split-shot is that you can use any pattern (weighted or unweighted) and merely add supplemental weight to get your flies to the correct depth. It's simpler. Again, I'm not trying to discount weighted flies, but instead provide some of the trade-offs between the two and let you decide what is best for your own system.
Disadvantages of Adding Weight to the Line
Here are a few disadvantages of using supplemental weight, along with a few suggestions on circumventing those shortcomings.
Loss of Contact
When using supplemental weight such as split-shot or putty as the primary means to sink your flies, and the weight is above the fly, you'll feel the weight on the line but lose contact with your flies. This disconnect from the nymphs causes a slight delay in detecting strikes, and in some cases may cause you to miss strikes altogether. To reduce this effect, and increase sensitivity, you can add the split-shot or putty at the end of the leader to create a bottom-bouncing rig and keep the entire rig tight.
Alternatively you can keep the weight on top but just add it closer to the fly. I add the weight 4 to 6 inches above the fly in riffles and pocketwater where there's a significant difference in current speeds between the surface and the bottom. With a greater distance between the flies, you're more likely to have more slack in the line and the fly will also be drifting more quickly and be positioned farther downstream, increasing the delay effect.
Another downside of added weight is its tendency to tangle more frequently. A single weighted fly tangles far less than a fly plus split-shot. The tangles come from erratic, jerky casting, or when you hook and land a feisty jumping trout.
When casting weighted nymph rigs, use a wide open loop with a smooth elliptical rod tip path so the weight and flies don't bounce around and tangle. [For more detailed instruction on this topic, see the feature story "Smooth Operators: How to cast weighted lines, heavy flies, and split-shot" by Lefty Kreh and Ed Jaworowski in the Feb.-Mar. 2016 issue. The Editor.]
When it comes to a fish jumping out of the water, you can reduce (not eliminate) these instances by keeping the rod tip lower to the water. When you raise the rod tip high, you encourage the fish to head toward the surface, but then, maybe the spectacle of a leaping trout is worth a little re-rigging here and there.
Sometimes you need a high rod-tip angle to keep more bend in the rod to protect lighter tippets, to reduce the chance of a running fish wrapping line around an obstacle, or finally to lift a tired fish into the net. However, I've often found myself raising the rod tip too soon during the fight.
When you do hold the rod high, try not to add so much lifting power that it boosts the fish out of the water. Maintain just enough tension on the line to keep the fish hooked, but don't force the fish to thrash on the surface.
You can often land a fish more quickly with sideways pressure—a high rod angle is the least effective method of subduing a fish quickly and efficiently.
I keep the rod tip lower to place greater pressure on the fish and to keep the fish deeper in the water. I eventually lift my rod tip to slide the trout to the net, but only after the fish is spent and ready to come to the net.
Good quality shot stays on the leader and doesn't slide, but it's difficult to remove from a leader. It's clamped on tight. Some removable split-shot like the type with wings is easier to get rid of, but it comes with a price—it's likely to slide. I use Non-Toxic Boss Tin oval shot or lead Blackbird Shot. Both products stay on the leader where I clamp them, and both have convenient dispensers that feed one split-shot at a time and don't dump their contents in my pockets. When I need to remove weight, I cut the tippet to remove it.
If you're constantly taking split-shot on and off the leader, and don't want the hassle of hard-to-remove shot, you'll need to create a knot on the leader to act as a stopper. An overhand knot in the line is an easy stopper, but it creates an inherent weak spot.
In this same vein, I try not to use split-shot at all with tippet diameters smaller than 5X as the crimping often damages the tippet and results in too many break-offs.
This is where a soft putty like Orvis Heavy Metal Extra really shines. This tungsten putty allows me to make constant adjustments with less hassle and no damage to the leader. With heavier tippet where I don't fear damaging the line, I often clamp the smallest size Blackbird Shot onto my tippet as a stopper, and then add as much putty as I need above the shot, which keeps the putty in place.
George Daniel is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and the author of the best-selling Dynamic Nymphing (Headwater Books/Stackpole Books, 2011) and of Strip-Set: Fly-Fishing Techniques Tactics, & Patterns for Streamers (Headwater Books/Stackpole Books, 2015). He is the owner of Livin on the Fly, a fly-fishing educational/guide company. He lives in Lamar, Pennsylvania and conducts seminars and clinics across the country.