Do you use weighted flies or split shot? It’s a common question with a flawed premise. Why choose? Why limit yourself to one or the other? And why use only one at a time?
Unless you’re a dry-fly-only angler, you need weight to get flies under the surface and down to the trout. Here in the golden age of fly fishing, we have a lot of options: beads, lead wraps, coneheads, dumbell eyes and molded leadheads on flies; then there’s sinking lines, sink tips, poly leaders, split shot and tungsten putty. What did I miss?
I waded a rising river yesterday. From daylight to dusk, the melting snow mixed with fresh rain and trickled into the creek at every major and minor inlet. The rain was steady. Not enough to blow out the river, but it created an excellent opportunity for any fly fisher willing to use enough weight.
For ninety minutes of the afternoon, the sky darkened so much that I thought I’d misjudged the time of day. I rarely wear a watch while fishing full days, and I turn phone notifications off. So when the darkening horizon moved in on me, my usually focused, head-down approach to fishing left me immersed in the moment and oblivious to the change. I was surprised to look up and find the sky dim enough that I removed my polarized lenses. That usually happens only within the last hours of the day, and I was confused. A quick look at my phone confirmed I hadn’t lost my sense of time. So I was put back on track and relieved to have some fishing hours left.
A few moments later, the dark sky brought with it a different kind of rain. Large, cold drops moved in quickly and were accelerated with a companion wind that cut through my many layers. I shuddered. I zipped up all the way to my neck and battened down the hatches.
I hunched my shoulders, leaned back under the hood of my raincoat, turned sideways and kept fishing, taking the pelting raindrops against my stripping arm.
I love this kind of weather, mostly because the trout seem to respond favorably, but also because there’s something in a good soaking rain that makes you feel more alive than you were a few minutes ago. It makes you more present in the world — more aware of who and where you are.
As raindrops pockmarked the water, I waded to the river’s edge, near newly stained lines washing in from a now overfilled spring seep, and I popped open the latch on my chest box. It was full of weighted flies. And when I tied on a copper conehead Half Pint, I glanced at all the weighty options in that box. I use all of it: tungsten and brass beads in various colors, dumbell eyes, cones, and jigheads on some patterns that look like Crappie lures. And I wouldn’t be without any of it.
The tungsten beads get me down with a faster sink rate than their brass counterparts. Earlier in the day at a shallow inside bend, the #12 Walt’s Worms were too heavy with tungsten beads, so I dug out the brass-beaded ones instead (identical in appearance, because the #12 pattern was catching fish).
Likewise, the lead-eyed dumbbells lend a particular shape to the sculpin I was using for much of the morning. The forward weight forces the nose down and provides a jigging motion on the retrieve, though not nearly as drastic as the ball head on that Craft Fur Jiggy. Around noon, I’d swapped out the lead-eyed fly for a conehead streamer — a smaller pattern, but more importantly, a streamlined fly, better for quicker strips, better for cutting through the water with each pull of the line.
The rain kept pushing, and I thought more about all the weight I’d used throughout the day. Having cycled off streamers in the afternoon and rotated through a handful of favorite nymphs, I mixed unweighted egg flies and lightly weighted worm patterns with split shot. And when I switched to a large stonefly, I used an unbeaded version and kept the split shot on the line so I could easily adjust my weight for the infinite variations of upcoming pocket water. I’d mixed and matched both tungsten and brass-beaded flies with and without added split shot the whole time. I’d even placed the split shot on a drop-shot tag for a section with too much rock algae — I used an unweighted Pat’s Rubber Legs for the bottom fly and a beadhead Pheasant Tail for the upper fly on a tag.
Mix and match. That’s what I’d done all day long.
The rain was hard enough now that in warmer months it would surely be accompanied by thunder. Casting to the bank with my back against the wind, the medium copper conehead on the Half Pint wasn’t enough to drop my fly through the stained water and out of site, so I needed split shot.
I turned into the wind with my head down. The rain pummeled the hood of my raincoat, creating a buckshot spray that sounded like small hail on a tin roof. With soggy fingers poking out through wool gloves, I reached into my vest for the disc-shaped container of split shot. I plucked out two #4 shot and quickly squeezed them onto the line.
And on the next cast, I watched the Pint sail in slow motion among the raindrops . . . before landing three inches off the bank. The extra weight of the shot sunk the fly a half-second quicker, just before the growing current could pull it downstream. So on my first strip, the Pint was near the bottom. I stripped. The trout attacked. I locked the line against the rod with my trigger finger and set the hook with a short, tight jerk.
It was the last good fish of a great day.
— — — — — —
Most times, I use whatever kind of weight makes sense. I use whatever fits the situation and matches my objectives, and I won’t limit myself to fishing only shot or just weighted flies.
When and why I choose one or the other (or both) is detailed in another article:
READ: Split Shot vs Weighted Flies
Fish in the rain. Fish in the wind. Fish because you can.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
I certainly agree. Most fly fishing scenarios for me require shot, tungsten beads, etc. to get my fly in the strike zone. When I was taught nymphing I was told to never weight the fly. But, in all of these years of nymphing, I’ve had rare occasions when weight was not required. Of course there are situations when it’s just not prudent. There are times when I sight-fish the shallows and use no weight. Also, maybe in very clear and skinny water. But, those times are rare for me. There is no one right way to fish flies. If one of my mentors would see me fishing a sighter (bobber) where I can’t get a good drift they would say mean things. I don’t like mean things. There are circumstances when an indicator must be used or there is no way of getting a good drift. You might as well move onto another section of water. In a book written by a local fly fisher, it says you will catch more fish by tailoring your tactics to the stretch of water at hand. He was taught that high-stick nymphing was the only way to fish. But, he learned, after he joined a fly fishing team he was being out-fished badly by his competitors. Only when he adjusted his fishing technique to the water at hand did his numbers increase. You can’t limit yourself to one method because you’re passing up a lot of fish. Of course it’s our business how we fish and we have that right. If high-sticking is the only method you want to use when fishing that’s your business. Hey, it’s your rod, reel, and fly, fish ’em how you like.
Love reading of your on the fly adaptations.
Domenick, since you say you carry identical patterns with both brass and tungsten beads, do you have a system to tell them apart in your fly box? Thanks.
Hi Drew. Yeah, I just use a different hook, one with a different finish, or a straight eye instead of a down eye, etc.
Great idea. I hadn’t thought of using different hooks. Thanks.