I love catching fish on light tackle. Fishing with light rods, small reels, and light lines – known now as ultralight fishing – is one of the most enjoyable ways to chase sportfish.
I love grabbing a light spinning rod and heading up a mountain stream to try to catch a trout. That’s my version of ultralight fishing.
But for other anglers, it might be using their panfish rod to chase bass (fishing light can be an advantage in some areas) or a trout fly rod to chase salmon.
What Is Ultralight Fishing
I guess if I had to come up with a definition, ultralight fishing is using the lightest possible gear to target a particular species of fish.
Obviously what constitutes “ultralight” varies a bit according to the species.
But we are pretty much talking about freshwater species such as trout, bass, walleye, crappie, and other panfish with gear that is aimed at finesse and casting accuracy.
Usually, ultralight fishermen are targeting fish of up to 40cm in length.
Ultralight Fishing Setup: Rods, Reels, and Tackle
An ultralight fishing setup is comprised of three parts: an ultralight rod, reel, and tackle.
Ultralight Fishing Rod
For ultralight gear, graphite rods are the way to go. These are light rods that are responsive and accurate but have enough power to fight a fish and keep it out of structure. You need to be careful with them too as even the best ultralight rods will have a thin tip that is easily broken!
You need a good casting rod that will still have the power to fight a 50cm fish. You never know when a big fish will show up and you need an ultralight rod with backbone for these occasions.
In terms of length, ultralight rods will usually be between 6 feet and 8 feet long, with rods at the shorter end of that range more common. As a general rule, a longer rod will cast further, but you will usually sacrifice a bit of accuracy and control.
Ultralight Fishing Reel
Spinning reels are the type of reel most commonly used in ultralight fishing. That’s because they are the easiest to use to cast light lures using ultralight line.
Get the best ultralight spinning reel you can afford as it is a vital piece of tackle. It needs to have a good drag, high-quality components, and be well-matched to the rod.
In terms of reel sizes, you are looking at reels in 1000 to 2500 (or 10 to 25 in some brands) size range to pair with an ultralight rod.
I use a Shimano Stradic Ci4+ in the 2500 size as my preferred ultralight reel. 2500 is on the higher side, but it is a very lightweight reel and balances well with my 7-foot rod.
Ultralight Fishing Line
Moving beyond rods and reels, ultralight anglers need lines, lures, and terminal tackle to match. Usually, ultralight fishing involves line of 6lb breaking strain or less and lures that weigh between 1/24th and 1/8th of an ounce.
Ultralight fishing usually relies on accurate casts into tight spots so the low-diameter line helps the angler to cast the light lure a long way.
Ultralight fishing can be done with mono or fluoro, but perhaps the best setup is a reel spooled with braid with a fluorocarbon or mono leader of a rod length or so.
See here for our preferred braided fishing lines.
Ultralight Fishing Lures
Many types of lures come in size or weight that is suitable for ultralight fishing. But probably the most common types of lures used are spinners, crankbaits, soft plastic baits, and jerkbaits
These lures are relatively small and flicked into likely spots with an ultralight fishing rod.
Good ultralight fishing rods have a nice sensitive tip, which is good for detecting bites and ensuring that the lure is working correctly. For crankbaits and jerkbaits you can feel pulsing through the rod tip when the lure is working correctly. The same goes for spinners.
How to Use an Ultralight Fishing Rod
Casting with an ultralight rod is a bit different from casting with a larger spinning rod. Often anglers will cast the ultralight with a flick of the wrist. That’s enough to get the required bend in the rod to propel the lure and can be used to cast accurately over long distances.
Once you get used to this technique it is very effective. Basically what I do is lift the rod tip up beyond the 12 o’clock position to about 2 o’clock by bending both my wrist and elbow.
My casting hand is usually about level with my chin in terms of height.
Then I flick the rod forward to cast, hinging at the elbow and the wrist. The extra flick from the wrist adds to the speed the rod tip travels and puts more of a bend in the rod allowing me to cast further.
Once you commit to this type of casting you’ll find it becomes easier to control the power and the accuracy even with the lightest of lures.
Ultralight Fishing for Trout
Trout fishing in streams is a perfect option for ultralight fishing. Grab some spinners and some micro crankbaits and head up your favorite stream. You can go down to 4lb or so in terms of line and leader sizes without losing fish and that helps cast a light lure a long way.
The shorter rods we tend to use in ultralight fishing are great for fishing in heavily wooded streams where tree branches and scrub are frequent casting hazards.
Ultralight Fishing For Crappie
Ultralight fishing setups are perfect for crappie fishing. Crappie are often close to shore or structure – like a dock for example – and don’t require long casting distances.
They love small lures such as jigs and soft plastics (see here for our favorite crappie lures) and most importantly, ultralight tackle is good for ensuring you don’t rip the hook out of their mouths when you strike during the fight.
Crappie are nicknamed papermouth for having thin skin around their mouth and lips that is very easy to tear, so an ultralight fishing approach will help you hook and land more of them. The flex that’s built into ultralight rods provides decent cushioning and shock-absorbing qualities to make sure you don’t lose crappie to pulled hooks.
Ultralight Fishing for Perch
Yellow perch are another species that can be targeted on ultralight gear. They don’t usually grow much beyond 12 inches, so they can easily be handled with an ultralight rod. They also love small spinners, spoons, and blades, as well as soft baits and other micro lures. See here for some tips on catching perch that you can apply with ultralight gear and some rigs that you can use to tempt them.
Ultralight Fishing for Bluegill
Bluegill might be the quintessential ultralight fishing target – their small (but feisty), love taking little lures and are mighty tasty. Using an ultralight rod on bluegill is the perfect way to pursue these brilliant little fish. See here for some tips on catching bluegill that you can apply with ultralight gear. Some anglers love catching bluegill on fly gear.
Ultralight Fishing for Bass
Bass poses a bit more of a challenge on ultralight tackle, but it can be done. With ultralight gear, you will feel every run of the fish and need to be very skillful to land a largemouth.
If you are able to fish ultralight for bass you’ll find it a demanding but very satisfying way to catch America’s favorite sportsfish. Read more in our dedicated article on ultralight bass fishing.
Ultralight Fishing For Smallmouth Bass
Smallmouth is aggressive, strong, and feisty – a perfect species to pursue on ultralight tackle. With a light rod, you can cast your lures a long way and the rod tip will have the sensitivity to allow you to tell that your lure is working properly along with detecting any strikes. It’s also fun fighting these fish on an ultralight rod and requires more skill from the angler to get the fish into the net.
Ultralight Fishing For Walleye
Walleye can get to a reasonable size and pull fairly hard, but they can be caught effectively on ultralight gear. Fishing for walleye with ultralight tackle allows you to cast the spoons and blades that are effective in walleye fishing a long way. And if you are fishing with bait, ultralight line, split shot weights and small baits can be an effective combo and the ultralight rod will allow you to detect takes easily.
You’ll also get a memorable fight when you hook a walleye on ultralight gear. Just balance this against the stress on the fish if you are fishing catch and release to maximize the chances the fish will survive.
Ultralight Fishing FAQs
How Did Ultralight Fishing Start Off?
Ultralight fishing has its roots in trout fishing. Trout are often found in small, clear streams and are smart fish that are difficult to fool. Hence the use of ultralight lines and ultralight lures.
The ultralight fishing movement has now spread to fishermen that chase other species such as the ones listed above. Ultralight bass fishing is gaining in popularity with more and more fishermen going after largemouth bass and smallmouth on light tackle.
Notwithstanding these differences, if you had to pick a definition for what makes ultralight fishing you’d probably say using 6lb line or less and rods, reels, and lures to suit.
Usually, ultralight lures will be 1/8 of an inch or less (often significantly less like 1/16 or 1/32).
What Is an Ultralight Fishing Reel?
We are talking spinning reels. Ultralight fishing doesn’t really use baitcasting reels as they tend not to be as good at throwing the very light lures this style of fishing relies on. Get the best ultralight spinning reel you can afford as it is a vital piece of tackle. It needs to have a good drag, high-quality components, and be well-matched to the rod.
What Is a Good Ultralight Combo?
So an ultralight combo is a graphite ultra light rod paired with an ultralight spinning reel (1000 or 2500 size in Shimano spinning reel sizing) and line of less than 6 lbs. This will be an ideal ultralight setup for light tackle stream fishing and for fishing lake edges and throwing light lures and baits with accuracy. (Check out our guide to the best ultralight combos here.)
What Are Ultralight Lures?
Basically, any small lure that matches your ultralight tackle. This means jigs in the 1/16th, 1/20th, and 1/32 oz sizes and crankbaits, topwater lures and crankbaits, and soft plastics in small sizes. Small rooster tail spinners are also very popular ultralight lures and can be deadly on trout when thrown on light gear. These can be often made using one of the many fishing lure kits available.
Can You Use Baitcasting Rods for Ultralight Fishing?
Yes, for sure. While it is much more common to use a spinning setup to cast light lures, it can be done with an ultralight baitcasting reel and rod (check out our guide to the best ultralight baitcasting reels).
Can You Catch Big Fish on an Ultralight Rod?
Yes, for sure. You can catch 8lb bass or a big trout with an ultralight rod and reel. You just need to be skillful in the way you play the fish and have a reel with a smooth drag. As long as there is no damaging structure, you can allow the fish to make long runs against the pull of the drag tiring itself out before you bring it to the net.
Can You Fish Ultralight Gear in Saltwater?
Yes, for sure. I fish ultralight gear when I am targeting certain species around docks and piers. These fish are highly educated and will only take plastics or other lures that are suspended or sinking very slowly in a lifelike way. To cast these lures you really need to be fishing ultralight, both in terms of your line and your rod and reel.
Sure, it makes the fish a challenge to subdue when you hook up, but isn’t that what we are after right? And if you aren’t fishing ultralight in these situations, you just aren’t going to get the fish to eat.
Bays, harbors, piers, rock walls, and estuary flats are all good areas for ultralight fishing in the saltwater environment.
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