Fly Fishing Strategies: Over or Under? Your best bet on weight

by | Feb 8, 2018 | 12 comments

When nymphing or fishing streamers, I think most of us are trying to use enough weight to get the fly down and keep it there, and yet not so much that the damn thing snags a rock with every cast. You might think there’s a fine line to this, but honestly . . . sometimes the line’s not all that thin.

We use weight to get the flies under the surface and into the strike zone. But the range of effective weight used to get there can be fairly wide. Basically, there are three options for weight: just the right amount, overweight or underweight.

Given an ideal setup (where does that exist?) we use just the right amount of weight to get the flies in the strike zone, and our rig bounces along naturally with the current. We find the sweet spot, where the weight of the rig is balanced with the current speed — perfection. So the perfect amount of weight is the ideal middle ground, but we can also decide to go over or under it, right? Why would we do that? Why use more or less weight? Here are a few reasons.

— Overweight for more control.

— Underweight for more stealth.

— Overweight for a more stable drift.

— Underweight for a more natural drift.

How much weight do you need anyway?

Here’s my (very) general rule for finding the right weight in average flows: three seconds. Whether nymphs or streamers, I want my flies in the strike zone within three seconds of entering the water. While nymphing, I’m most often aiming for the bottom cushion of water — the strike zone — let’s say, the bottom 2-10 inches of the water column. My drifts are often short, and I don’t want to waste half of the drift with my flies outside of the strike zone. So I use three seconds as a guide. If my flies aren’t where they should be by the count of three, I’ll probably add weight to increase the sink rate.

Understand though, there are a hundred different variables you will come across, and three seconds is only a starting point for deviation.

Once the flies are in the strike zone, I want to keep them there. If I’m fishing streamers, I combine the right rod angle with a retrieve speed that keeps the fly in the strike zone. If I’m tight line nymphing, I lead the flies through the drift to maintain their position in the strike zone. And if I’m using a suspender/indicator, I do my best to keep the suspender drag-free on the surface.  With some luck and a lot of practice, the nymphs will ride in that bottom cushion (the strike zone) for the rest of the drift, and I might fool a fish.

That’s sort of the perfect set-up and perfect drift scenario. But I also purposely overweight or underweight my rig to meet certain conditions or to get a specific type of drift. Let’s look at that.

Overweight

My favorite days are spent in fast and deep pocket water, with a heavy anchor fly at the point of my nymph rig, and one trout after the other slamming the tag fly. It’s a blast to fish this way; the casts are close-up and the hits are jarring — the connection with a trout is immediate. To make it happen, I often overweight the rig. Because the water is fast and the drifts short, I use extra weight to get my flies down now. I like to use flies that sink very quickly. Once in the strike zone, I can feel the heavy fly (or split shot) on the bottom, and I can control it. I often catch more fish by over-weighting the rig and forcing a drift that’s significantly slower than the current. I think it gives trout more time to see and react to the flies. And fish in this kind of water are used to making split second decisions about food.

Over-weighting offers extra control: It’s easier to cast (especially with a tight line rig); it’s easier to feel, and it’s easier to stay in contact. In fast water and mixed current, a light nymph can get lost — we’re out of control, and strike detection suffers. Over-weighting helps stabilize the nymph rig in heavy, mixed water. It can also help keep a tight line rig anchored in the bottom current on windy days.

Sometimes I overweight a streamer rig too. Maybe I’m casting tight to the riverbank with short drifts, and I’m convinced that trout are holding close to the structure and right on the bottom. If my rig is under-weighted, the long fly never gets into the strike zone before it’s pulled away from the bank (and the trout). But by over-weighting and using targeted casts, I can put the streamer in the fish’s face as soon as it enters the water.

Underweight

Anglers seem to underestimate how spooky a trout can be. I often underweight my rig when fishing low, clear and shallow water. I choose smaller and lighter nymphs or less split shot — all in an effort to create less splash and less noise as the rig enters the water. Sometimes, it makes a huge difference.

I also underweight my rig to get a more natural drift. There’s some debate about this, but most of my fishing friends agree that lighter flies perform more naturally in the current.

I think this is especially important in slower water. When I’m suspender/indicator fishing deep pools or wide flats, I don’t care if it takes more than three seconds to get my flies down, because my drifts are long. The lighter flies (or split shot) are carried along by the current a little easier — more in balance with the flow — more like a natural insect or baitfish.

So overweight in fast water and underweight in slow water? Is it really that simple?

Nope.

Remember these points at the starting block.

— Overweight for more control.

— Underweight for more stealth.

— Overweight for a more stable drift.

— Underweight for a more natural drift.

But none of this means anything without your own trial and error, because the only education worth anything is time on the water. Thankfully, it’s gorgeous on a trout stream.

Get out there and get after it. Fish hard, friends.

 

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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12 Comments

  1. Hey Dom,
    I’d love to hear how you know where your flies are in zone in both tightline and suspender nymphing. I can’t usually see my flies when I’m fishing and have trouble figuring out where they are.

    Reply
    • Hey Josh, good question.

      I can’t usually see my nymphs in the water either.

      I think knowing where your nymph is starts with seeing the small splash as it enters the water. That’s the first reference point.

      The second reference point would be either the sighter or the suspender.

      Take tight lining first: if I’ve made a good cast then the nymph is upstream and in line with the sighter, above the water but over the same seam. I try to gain contact with the nymph quickly. I can see the sighter tighten a bit when the slack is out of the tippet and I’m in contact with the nymph. From that moment, and then through the drift, the sighter points to my nymphs. I can see the angle and I know the distance of sighter to nymph, so I have a pretty good idea where the nymph is.

      When using a suspender, it can be more difficult to know where the nymph is. But again, it starts with the cast. The nymph should land upstream and in the same current seam as the suspender, and with very little slack. In most currents, the suspender will ride downstream of the nymph throughout the drift and pull it along.

      Unlike the sighter, most suspenders don’t indicate the angle between suspender and nymph. To help show that angle, I use an orange Backing Barrel on my tippet 2-6″ below the suspender. Even in stained water, I can usually see the small orange dot, observe its relation to the suspender, and follow that angle or path toward my nymphs. Again, I know the distance between suspender and nymph and I know the angle, so I can make a pretty good guess about where my nymph is.

      Make sense or no?

      – Dom

      Reply
  2. Great post, the strike zone time limit can be used for dries as well. When I’m fishing really slack water and trying to be stealthy I’ll shorten my leader so the fly only gets a dead drift for maybe 2-3seconds. Sure you get a better drift with a longer leader but that’s also more line you have to lift up when a fish strikes.

    Reply
  3. Another discussion I would like to hear about, placement of weight. I’m somewhat interested in hearing about it placed below fly as opposed to above fly on leader. Enjoy the blog, with beautiful pictures too. Thanks,

    Reply
  4. Love your site! Something I struggle with is weight. I understand that every situation is different but everything I read or watch no one really says…”I’m using such and such tungsten bead on a size 12 as my point fly”. I could look at pics or video and compare to my water.

    What is your typical weights you tie into your point flies based on water levels and flows? Your answer would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks!
    Cory

    Reply
    • Hi Cory,

      Thanks for the compliment.

      Good question, and like everything else, it depends …. but I’ll try to give a baseline.

      For my #10 hooks, I use a 4mm tung bead and lead wraps to mid-shank of .020 lead. They weigh about 55cg.
      For my #12 hooks, I use a 3.5mm tung bead and lead wraps to mid-shank of .020 lead. They weight about 40 cg.
      For my #14 hooks, I use a 3mm tung bead and lead wraps to mid-shank of .015 lead. They weight about 25 cg.
      For my #16 hooks, I use a 2.5mm tung bead and lead wraps to mid-shank of .010 lead. They weight about 15cg.

      I also use heavier flies and lighter flies than those I listed. Of course too, the hook type will change the weight and even the bead style (slotted or countersunk). I also underweight or overweight certain patterns, but that’s my baseline above.

      Make sense?

      Reply
      • Perfect! Thanks so much and Tight Lines!

        Reply
  5. Do you ever drop shot nymph….some say it allows the fly to move more realistic.

    Reply
    • Hey Marty,

      I do drop shot quite a bit, but not necessarily because the flies can move more naturally. The standard way I run my nymphs (with tag droppers, sometimes weighted flies, and sometimes split shot in between the two flies, I feel like I get just about as much of a natural drift as a drop shot rig.

      I like to drop shot when I want to specifically hit touch the bottom, but not get junk on my flies. Or if I want my point fly above the bottom. I love drop shotting for the accuracy.

      There’s a bunch of different ways to rig it too, and that matters.

      Reply
    • Drop shotting is my fav…I do it 90% of the time. I feel like I’m always in contact with my flies/rig.

      Reply

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