Split Shot vs Weighted Flies

by | Jan 26, 2017 | 32 comments

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

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).

READ: Troutbitten | Stop the Split Shot Slide

Efficiency?

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.

Shot and bobbers.

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.

Unweighted

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing in the Winter — The Go-To Nymph Rig

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.

Compromise

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.

Photo by Austin Dando

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.

Use It

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.

Photo by Matt Grobe

 

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

 

 

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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32 Comments

  1. I agree, Domenick. I’ve reasoned that placing a shot above the point fly and another above the dropper distributes the weight more evenly and allows for a better strike detection. My thinking is that placing both shot in the same place acts like and anchor and puts me more in touch with the shot than the flies. Does that make sense?

    Reply
    • Bruce, that’s a fine theory too. I personally don’t like to do it that way. I’d rather have my weight mostly in one place, although I do like weight built into the tag dropper. When I use shot, I almost always keep it in one place on the line, and it’s usually 4-5″ above the point fly, like in the illustration above. Just my thoughts.

      Reply
  2. Great post. Thanks.

    You mentioned in another post somewhere that when you fish two flies without using a tag, you like to attach the point fly by tying it onto a piece of tippet and then tying that tippet onto the main tippet above the knot that holds the middle fly. I find that using double Davy knots works really well for this application. But, here’s another idea: pull the middle fly out a little bit, so that it’s on a small tag. Now you have an adjustable dropper that can be on a tag as short as you want, and with a dropper fly that’s easily replaced. The downside to this technique is that when you get a bite on your point fly, the length of the dropper has to slide to the knot before you can pull the point fly into the fish’s mouth, but if you keep the tag very short, it doesn’t make much difference, certainly no more than when using a French slinky sighter. And, like with the slinky, it might cushion the strike a little bit.

    Reply
  3. Great post, my only issue with using split shot is modifying it. I never find it easy to remove and the shot I do remove is almost impossible to use again. I mainly use those bio degradable shot which makes it more difficult but even if I use lead it’s tough.

    Reply
  4. Okay, you can put me in the group that hates using shot, but you’ve got some good points Domenick. Thanks for some convincing arguments on why I need to rethink the way I do things.

    Reply
    • Right on, Howard. Thanks for reading. Good luck out there.

      Reply
  5. I’ve been thinking about shot, especially since Dinsmore Super Soft shot is apparently un-American, hence impossible to find in the U.S. I’ve like the idea of using tungsten beads for weight, but you need to use a tippet ring to keep them from sliding down to the fly and, as Dom says, it’s a bit off-putting to have to cut your tippet and retie it every time you want to adjust weight.
    So, here’s a hack. Use unslotted tungsten beads, the kind that have a small hole on one side and a slightly bigger one on the other. Make a loop with your tippet and poke the loop through the smaller hole (a hook can be poked through the bead and used to pull the tippet through). Have some 1/8″ or so strips of balloon ready. Place one of these strips through the tippet loop and pull be loop back through the bead until it just appears on the other side. Cut off the remaining balloon.
    You know have a tungsten bead weight that stays in place, can be moved, and can be easily removed (by just pulling it off the leader). More beads can be added, and positioned wherever you want on the tippet.
    I should add that this idea came to me at my fly tying desk. I haven’t tried it on the stream yet, so it may end up not working. So, for now, let’s classify it as a promising theory.

    Reply
  6. One thing I’ve found, for me at least……..Dinsmore split egg shot. I don’t use the simple lead shot. It slides, it hangs, and it’s not the same. The dinsmore clings, doesn’t hang up as much, and just plain works better. I doubted it too when I first had a guy show me, now I know……it’s true, and I don’t mind using it anymore. Also, I never clump them together. I space them out on the leader, and they almost never hang up, and in my view, if a #4 shot infringes your ability to detect a strike, well, you got me there. I can think of many times I played with adding just one more #4 dinsmore, and the bite started for me. Pure lead tosses better, but dinsmore works better for a variety of reasons.

    Just my opinion, what do I know, but I don’t buy anything else anymore.

    Reply
    • Alex, I do like the Dinsmore Green when I can’t find the Dinsmore Red. Good call.

      Reply
  7. Could you briefly go over what you like/don’t like about drop shotting? And, perhaps, the way you might set up a drop shot rig.

    Reply
    • Alex, someday I’ll make the time to write a whole post on drop shotting. But for now …

      I like to set up the rig similar to this:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8P0lKoE1QIU

      I like to put both flies on a tag. It seems to really improve the takes on the bottom fly.

      HOWEVER … that tag adds even more distance from the bottom to the point fly. Know what I mean? If the drop shot is six inches from the knot, then the tag is another four inches, then your fly could be ten inches from the bottom. Sometimes that’s OK. Other times I think it’s too far.

      In GENERAL, I like to drop shot when I really want to be in contact with the bottom. In some rivers, I like to actually slow my flies down in the current, and touch the bottom a lot during the drift. I think drop shotting is very effective for this. If the river has a lot of salad on the bottom, drop shot allows me to ride the bottom without getting crap on my flies every cast.

      Sometimes riding the bottom is a great strategy. Staying close and feeling the tick-tick-tick of the drop shot is a fun way to fish and really effective many times. Other times, the constant pausing and stuttering of the flies in the drift seems to turn fish off.

      Make any sense?

      Reply
  8. I would like to see a post about drop shot or bounce nymphing. What you say makes sense, however I wonder about how high the point fly would ride. Say the distance from the dropper knot to the shot is 6-8″. And say the tag is about 4″. That would mean that if the dropper fly went straight up toward the surface, it would be 10-12″ from the bottom. However, the angle from the shot to the indicator (or the rod tip if an indicator isn’t used) would lower the fly in the water column, plus, more importantly, even an unweighted fly will sink rather quickly. The result should be a fly that rides around 6″ from the bottom, which is where you want it to be.

    What do you think of my logic?

    Reply
    • I went to drop shot rigs about 2 years ago. This is better than euro, much easier to fish, tying is easier since can use unweighted flies.
      Less hangups. More fish. Only negative is management of tag ends. Still worth it

      Reply
      • Nice, Brent. I agree with all of that, until the situation changes.

        I do fish drop shot, but I still like weighted flies and no shot as my first option. And I actually like a split shot five inches from the point fly as my second option. Drop shot is a third option for me, albeit a good one.

        I actually don’t find it easier to fish. This probably comes from my propensity to change flies a lot. After a few fly changes, my tag is too short. Then I’m rigging again. And if I break the whole thing off on a snag, it takes longer to tie up. I don’t feel like I actually hang up less with drop shot. My target for nymphing is not the bottom, but really the strike zone.

        https://troutbitten.com/2019/07/28/forget-the-bottom-glide-nymphs-through-the-strike-zone/

        Another trouble with drop shot is what happens when I want to let the flies swing for some reason, or strip them while they’re downstream. Then the shot is in the fish’s face — in between the fly and the trout. I don’t like that.

        Overall, I like drop shot for certain, specialized circumstances. That’s my take. And I fish with guys who love drop shotting a lot too. Cheers to that.

        Dom

        Reply
  9. Another great article. We must fish streamers differently, and you probably catch a lot more fish than me. I haven’t used – or even contemplated – many of your tactics (until now). When I get a hit on a streamer it’s about as subtle as a big trout exploding onto a lazily drifting hopper. It always startles me.

    Reply
  10. Hi Domenick,
    What kind of split shot do you use that can be replaced? Mine are on for the life of the tippet. Yep, there’s conditions for split shot, weighted flies and non-weighted flies. I believe every stretch can provide a different approach.

    Reply
  11. Great article. This helps me make sense of a lot of things I’ve wondered about. You’ve done it again, Dom.

    Reply
  12. I too use split shot, some holes are just too short and deep for even the heaviest of flies (even with lead wraps) Rumpe makes some extra small shots for the fly angler. I’ve noticed if you get the Walmart or similar packs they get too big to quick in my opinion. And you don’t have to change flies if you are fishing a deep hole and then move to a more shallow run. Love your articles and have switched completely to the mono rig! Keep it up

    Reply
  13. Have you tried the Toobies instead of split shot? They are shot pushed inside surgical tubing which is slipped over the line. They are easy to add weight, reduce weight, to slip up or down the tippet, or to remove. They can be hard to find though. I ran across them in a fly shop closeout sale, and they are way easier and better than using split shot.

    Reply
    • Hi Larry,

      Thanks. And if you have something that works for you, without issue, then I’s stick with it.

      I did use that system for a while, and I’ve used para cord for holding split shot. But the truth is the are not, as you said, “way easier and better than using split shot.”

      For me, adding a split shot takes about fifteen seconds. Same to remove it. Lots more about having a good split shot system is found in the companion article to this one:

      https://troutbitten.com/2016/08/22/stop-the-split-shot-slide/

      Done that way, split shot is awesome. Seriously. It’s a fantastic tool in an efficient system.

      What I found, for me, was that the tubies or similar solutions actually complicate things more them they help. It become more of a pain or a hassle than it’s worth. And, lastly, most of the tubies kind of solutions are way too heavy than I need. All I require, most often is a #6 or #4 shot. Adding anything else to the leaders just isn’t necessary.

      Those are my thoughts. But again, whatever works for the next guy is good too.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  14. When im fishing im constantly changing shot from one hole to the next so before i even get to fishing i take an assortment of splitshot probably @12-15 shot in all different sizes and put them in the band on the inside of my ball cap
    This allows me to change shot very quickly and dont have to dig them out of my vest
    Very efficient and affective

    Reply
  15. Please explain drop shooting, and also what a “sighted” is.

    Reply
  16. “sighter”

    Sorry

    Reply
  17. How often do you think trout take the splitshot? I’m just assuming they would sometimes given they’ll occasionally go for stones, leaves, sticks, wool indicators, mop flies etc.

    Reply
    • Cool question. I think they try to eat the split shot very infrequently. I do understand that they are down there testing things. And especially stocked trout are known to try out just about anything. But when I use split shot, rigged as described, I experience no higher rate of missed strikes than I do with weighed flies (almost). I do like black shot, and that might help.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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