Ultralight fly fishing is growing in popularity as more and more people discover those tiny streams that they might have once walked over to get to more popular water.
These little streams – twig waters as we call them in my birthplace of Australia – are great fisheries in their own right.
The small trout you find in these waters will usually take dry flies and aren’t too fussy about what patterns (we are mostly talking about trout fishing here, but the principles apply to chasing panfish too).
And because it all happens at such close quarters, it’s a very visual form of fishing and a great way to sharpen your skills for larger waters.
To help encourage you to try some ultralight fly fishing, we’ve compiled this expert guide.
What Constitutes Ultralight Fly Fishing?
There is no set definition of what ultralight fly fishing is, but from my point of view, any fishing involving a 3-weight fly rod or less is ultralight fly fishing. So these are rods that run from 0 weight (including 00 and 000 weight) up to 3 weight.
These rods are usually between 6.5′ and 8′, so shorter than the classic 9-foot fly rod, and allow for the angler to get in tight spaces and fire off short casts towards their target.
Casting small flies is almost effortless with these ultralight fly rods and once you use them in small streams I doubt you’ll go back to the standard four or five-weight fly rod a lot of people use for the full range of stream and river situations.
Ultralight fly fishing is also about a sporting approach to it – using a rod weight that’s small enough to make it a challenge to fight the fish.
Why Ultralight Fly Fishing?
There are many reasons why it is great to use ultralight fly fishing gear in situations that call for it. We’ve explored a few of them here.
Horses for Courses
Small tight waters need inventive casting. There’s not much wind, but space is tight and often a cast is as much a flick or roll cast. This is not territory for your fast-action five weight that you might use on freestone streams.
A Fair Fight
The medium action and light power of an ultralight fly rod are great for absorbing the shocks that small trout create bouncing around little pools. But the flexibility of the rod means you do need to use your angling skill to keep the fish from finding trouble.
Medium action rods are better technically for some of the casts you need in ultralight fishing – for example, bow and arrow casts and little roll casts.
They are also better for landing flies gently on the water so that fish don’t spook.
Increased Fishing Opportunity
The so-called twig water that I mentioned earlier is the kind of water you drive right by if you are fixated on getting on to bigger water. But once you get the ultralight fly fishing bug, these will be your go-to streams on some days.
There are many more of these small waterways and they are usually closer to home, so that makes for increased opportunities to go fishing.
They are also usually up little valleys well sheltered from the wind.
Ultralight fly fishing can be almost like hand-to-hand combat sometimes because you can get up so close to the fish. Often it is about hiding behind a tree trunk completely out of sight and then flicking the fly out when the fish has turned away from you. I love the sense of anticipation in targeting a cruising fish in a small pool when you’ve put your dry fly out on the surface and you peek around the tree and watch him turn and spot the fly as he completes his beat. Lift the rod and it’s game on!
Light Tackle Fly Fishing History
While it has become more popular in recent years, ultralight fly fishing has been around for ages with anglers such as Lee Wulff embracing this style of fishing as far back as the 1940s. Leading fly fishing rod and line makers have been making ultralight gear for decades.
Ultralight Fly Fishing Gear
Ultralight gear for fly fishing is not complicated, but you should pay careful attention to selecting each piece of kit. We discuss what to look for below.
Ultralight Fly Rods
The key things you need to choose with an ultralight fly rod are material, length, and weight.
Material: Carbon Fiber vs Fiberglass vs Bamboo
Material choice for an ultralight rod comes down to carbon fiber, essentially the standard rod material now, and the more specialized fiberglass and bamboo rods.
Fiberglass and bamboo rods tend to be slower action rods that don’t do well in the wind and aren’t capable of high-line speed casting techniques such as double hauling or punching tight loops into a gale!
While they aren’t the first choice for a lake rod or large river rod, they are a legitimate choice for twig water fishing.
The slow action is quite good for loading the rod with a very little line out and landing the fly gently for a delicate presentation. A fiberglass rod or bamboo rod will also withstand more of a bend and are much more durable in the case of striking trees and other objects (not uncommon in this style of fishing).
Nothing fancy here – the reel in light line fishing like this is really just to hold the line. Most of the time you’ll fight the fish with the rod and won’t need to get it on the reel to utilize the drag. The fish simply aren’t big enough. Small trout reels are what’s needed and choose one that is the right size range for the rod/line pairing.
Fly line backing in this kind of fishing is really just to pack out the spool so that you can wind the line up efficiently. You should add backing, but just be aware you won’t be required to use it to fight a fish at close quarters like this.
Line choice is important, particularly line weight (a floating line is all that is needed for ultralight fishing).
You need to choose a line that loads your rod without too much fly line out of the rod tip – after all, we are talking short casting distance. Loading the road with a short line helps minimize the number of false casts and is better from a stealth point of view on small streams.
The starting point for line weight should be choosing one that is matched with your rod weight – so a 0 wt line with 0 weight rod and so on.
You could consider overlining your carbon fiber rod by one line weight to get it to load with less fly line out through the rod tip, but test it first as you don’t want to buy a line that overwhelms the rod.
With fiberglass rods and bamboo rods, I’d be more inclined to stick with a fly line that coincides with the rod weight – there’s not much to be gained by overline these slow action rods as opposed to a carbon fiber rod.
Tapered leaders are better even for this close-range fishing. They allow for better delicate presentations and turn over larger dry flies better. Plus you are fishing with very light tippet so a straight leader of say 3lb test material is going to be too floppy to cast properly.
Leaders for this fishing should be 9 feet or so on average and can be shortened for fishing in really tight areas.
Light tippets are the go for catching fish in a small stream this way. Go with 5x as your starting point and consider 6x in the event you get refusals (see here for a table to convert this to breaking strains).
The small fish you encounter won’t break this fine tippet and good angling skills and a correctly chosen rod will help land any comparatively big fish you encounter. Fiberglass or medium-action carbon fiber rods are forgiving enough to cushion the runs of bigger fish, although the extra flex makes it harder to steer them out of trouble.
Fly choice for smaller streams is less critical than in the bigger hatch-driven rivers where you need to match the hatch. Trout in these smaller streams are opportunists and will take most smaller dry flies. I like to start with something buoyant like a Stimulator, Humpy, or foam beetle. These flies are also good to use as the indicator fly in a dry dropper rig if the fish aren’t coming up and you need to resort to nymphs or other types of wet flies.
Size-wise, we are normally talking about smaller flies (#12 to #18). But as always, match the hatch – so if you are seeing lots of large hoppers hitting the water, don’t be afraid to change up to an #8 or #10 hopper fly.
Light Tackle Fly Fishing Skills
Casting is fundamental to all fly fishing, but in this kind of fishing, it’s not so much about having a great casting stroke and more about being able to improvise.
Stealth is vital – particularly if you want to land large trout that are pretty ware – so often you are casting from behind structure or at an odd angle. Many times you are casting around rocks, bushes, and trees that prevent an unobscured back cast. Usually, you only need to cast a short distance.
Perhaps the best tip I can give you is to master the bow and arrow cast (video below) and the roll cast, so you can cast without any backcast. Also, practice casting off either side of your shoulder (ie with the casting plane angled away from the vertical to either side) and casting in a horizontal plane.
Another cast to master is the reverse cast (that’s what I call it anyway) where you turn around 180 degrees so that your backcast becomes your forward cast. This is a great way to maximize distance without snagging up when there is, say, a tree or bush in your forward cast. Because you are looking straight at it, you can see how close you are coming to it. What takes skill is releasing the fly and shooting a bit of line on the backcast to make the presentation. Again, practice makes perfect, but this cast will help you land bigger fish, who often live in the harder-to-fish pools in small streams.
The same principles apply in setting the hook to other types of fly fishing, but you have a big advantage – you are close enough to see the take and use that to your advantage.
If he’s taken in a bubbling riffle, be aware you’ll have to be quicker.
Use the Rod Well
Once the fight starts, get the rod tip nice and high to cushion the shocks but be aware you might have to steer it around trees and shrubs. Don’t try to release the line to get the fish on the reel – there’s not enough space for that usually. So just keep the line taught with your left hand (for right-handers) and the rod tip and work on steering the fish into a suitable spot to net it or land it on the shore.
Reasons to Try Ultralight Fly Fishing
I thought I’d finish this piece with five reasons to give ultralight a go.
- There are lots of spots to try it with few people
- These spots are close to home
- It involves a different skill set that is then transferable to certain tricky situations in fly fishing (ie the bow and arrow cast)
- It’s great fun
- These little streams and the fish that inhabit them are truly beautiful