So you hate split shot, right? I’ve never had anyone tell me that they like using it. But for me, split shot is a convenient and useful tool in my vest, and I think it’s underrated. It does things for me that can’t be done any other way, and I like it. Yes, I like split shot. Sure, I prefer weighted flies over having shot crimped to the line. (My nymph box is full of tungsten beaded flies.) But I also carry a selection of unweighted patterns that get a regular workout while using split shot for the weight.
Here are some thoughts about all that . . .
Strike detection is better without the shot. Because any time we’re casting under the surface, what we’re really fishing is the weight — whatever form that takes. It’s the weight we’re in touch with while tight line nymphing, and it’s the weight that the yarn or bobber is in touch with while suspension nymphing. Only when that weight moves do we feel the take. That’s when see the sighter hesitates or the suspender jiggle. The weight, then, is better off placed in the fly.
And when a trout eats a weighted fly, the strike detection is immediate (if we’re in touch). But when that trout eats an unweighted fly with shot in front, the fish has to move the line enough for the split shot to also move. Only then can we detect the strike. It’s that simple. And there’s no denying the loss of strike detection when using split shot for the weight.
I should mention here that drop shot solves the problem of strike detection with split shot, but it comes with its own set of troubles. (I like drop shotting too, and I’ll write about it someday).
I’ve been told that changing flies is easier than changing split shot — that carrying a full set of weighted flies to vary the necessary weight is more efficient than crimping split shot to the line. I don’t buy that one. Like anything else, you need a good. And if you use the right shot, learn to take it off quickly, and store it in a convenient place, using split shot is just as efficient.
I know that’s going to ruffle the feathers of some guys who tie knots with the speed of a seamstress and can change flies in seconds. I can too, but it’s no faster than changing or adding shot. And when you factor in the extra flies to tie and carry, I’d argue that the split shot system is actually more efficient — slightly.
I’m not suggesting that split shot is better than weighted flies. I’m only saying that split shot has its place — there are times when it outperforms weighted flies, and you’ll flat out catch more fish. I use both systems on the regular, and sometimes I mix them together.
Let’s get to it . . .
Euro Nymphing and Split Shot
I think some things have gotten mixed up. There’s a misconception about tight line nymphing because its gotten tangled up with euro nymphing. There’s an idea that weighted flies are what make it all of this work. I disagree. Weighted flies are not an integral part of why tight line nymphing styles are successful. (Removing fly line, using a sighter, and limiting multiple diameters under the water are what make tight line systems work.)
This is a deadly nymph rig
Attach this tippet section to a tight line leader with a sighter, and it will perform just as well — maybe better — than a weighted egg pattern on the point.
I strongly prefer placing the upper fly on a tag, because I’m in contact with both the upper fly and the split shot below. The tag also allows my upper nymph (usually weighted) to ride closer to the bottom, and I can adjust that depth by simply varying tag length or distance to the shot.
Some patterns catch more fish when they’re built without weight. Going unweighted allows the flies to dance more in the current. They’re tossed around more freely down there — perhaps a little more naturally. There’s not a whole lot I can do in these paragraphs to convince a skeptical fisherman of this. Just give it a try.
Why and When
Here’s my theory . . .
Going unweighted is best for patterns which imitate things that don’t swim or move much, if at all. Primarily, that’s eggs and worms — especially eggs. Maybe it’s the look of neutral buoyancy that turns fish on a little more. Unweighted eggs roll behind the split shot, free to glide along naturally. But weighted eggs (especially tungsten beaded ones) drop quickly, and I think it’s an unnatural look.
I keep the split shot close to the point nymph, about 4-5 inches up. The nymph is then free to bumble along on a five-inch leash. And I think that freedom of movement makes all the difference sometimes.
Here’s more of my theory — so think about this: When we are in touch with our weighted nymphs, we’re moving them. Even with our best efforts to keep the flies stabilized, the nymphs are crossing through micro-currents or traveling up and down in the water column — just a bit. This happens because we’re directly in touch — and because we are imperfect people.
So we cannot be both in touch with the nymphs and also maintaining a perfect dead drift. (Although the ability to get close is what separates a good nymph fisherman from a great one). There’s always some accidental motion when we’re in contact with the weighted fly. However, that unintended, slight motion can look like a swimming nymph. And sometimes it’s just the right answer for fooling trout. Just as often, though, an unweighted nymph on the five-inch leash behind some split shot might do better — because it doesn’t have the accidental swimming movement quite as much.
So I think eggs and worm flies fish better unweighted. I also have a set of cress bugs and scuds that I fish with split shot for weight. Some days, simply changing out from the beaded versions of these patterns to unweighted ones with split shot gets me into fish. Who knows why? I’m just glad I use both rigs.
So the trouble with split shot is strike detection. To sense or see a strike, the trout needs to take our nymph and move the shot.
Fair enough. Everything is a trade off. And If you keep the distance between a split shot and the nymph short (just a few inches), the loss of strike detection is minimal. (Life challenges us with choices.)
Why not put another weighted fly down there instead of split shot?
I’ve heard this a lot: “I’d rather attach something to my line that fish can eat, so I use weighted flies instead of shot.” I think that’s a good point, but it only goes so far.
I can’t replace my split shot with a tungsten beaded nymph and fish two flies that are five inches apart. Oh, I’ve tried it. And for whatever reason, fish don’t respond well when two flies are so close together. But with split shot just a few inches from the fly, trout don’t seem to mind at all.
Mix and Match
At the tying vise, you can only tie so much weight onto a hook. And going heavier often means going larger. There’s no way around it. But sometimes I don’t want to go to a bigger fly, and to get the necessary additional weight, I simply add a small shot.
Adding a bit of shot above a weighted nymph is a quick and efficient way to adapt to a deeper pocket of water without changing flies.
On my favorite river, I often have great success with a #12 tungsten beadhead stonefly. And for much of the water, it’s the perfect weight to get me in the strike zone. When I approach a deeper and faster section, I don’t want to change out to a #10 or #8 stonefly just to get to the bottom. The larger stones don’t produce as well there. So I simply add a small shot above the weighted stone that I’m already fishing.
By adding only a small amount of weight (a #6 shot is often all it takes) I’m still in touch with the stonefly, because it’s the heaviest thing on my line. And there’s another good compromise.
Streamers with Split Shot
One more thing.
I recently wrote about my preferred way to fish streamers. It’s what I call the old-school method. I like to put the streamer at or near the bottom and give it enough motion to entice trout but not so much that I’m asking them to chase or attack anything. I try to make it easy for the fish. Weighted flies are great for this, but I’ve also found some streamer patterns and methods that work better with split shot.
The split shot allows for a more natural action to the streamer. Most baitfish don’t drop straight down — but heavily weighted flies do. To fish streamers, we surely need weight somewhere in the rig. And using split shot rather than built-in weight allows for a more gradual up and down motion. The further away the weight is from the streamer, the more moderate those motions will be. The streamer still falls, but it’s slower — and perhaps more natural.
I like to run the shot about six inches above my streamer. My fly then has a six-inch leash for dancing around with the currents. And I can do some unusual things by allowing the shot to touch or rest on the bottom. I’ve had good success with this method — especially at night. The shot touches bottom, but the fly does not. Instead, the fly stutters, twitches and stalls with every contact of the shot. It’s a good look. The unweighted fly often swings around from a head-downstream to a head-upstream position, doing what we call the Sawyer Pivot.
The downside: More weight equals less strike detection. When I use heavy split shot, I do have a harder time sensing takes. Again, the fish has to move the fly enough to move the shot — it’s the only way I’ll detect the strike.
Weighted flies catch fish. And split shot works too. It’s one of those timeless tools that will never go away. It’s how I got my fathead minnows to the bottom as a kid. And it’s a useful way to get nymphs and streamers down there too. I say try it all.
Good luck out there. Fish hard.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N