Distance: Know Your Weights and Measures — Part Two

by | Dec 30, 2020 | 8 comments

**NOTE** This is Part Two in a Troutbitten Short Series about weights and measures. This will all read a little better if you back up and read Part One first. However, the information in this article also stands alone. 

I performed a single haul on the back cast, and the fly rod flexed a bit more. Reflecting the morning sun, my rod smoothly released its reserve power into the long leader, and it shot the crossover-style fly out like a slingshot. The casting loop turned over in the air and straightened. When my fly reached the end of the line, it tugged on the rod tip and dipped its head like an Olympic diver, tucking straight down into the dark green pocket.

It’s exactly what I was looking for. The force of the cast, a moment of slack from a good tuck, and the near vertical entry took my #8 River Rat to the streambed in a short second. (There are many ways to get deeper.)

READ: Troutbitten | Six Ways to Get Your Fly Deeper

For the last two hours, on a crisp winter morning, I’d been using the heavier point fly in a crossover style (half nymphing presentations — half streamer tactics). And although a few trout tapped the River Rat, the takers were all on the tag nymph, about sixteen inches above.

My friend, Smith, continued wading downstream in my direction. He was focused on the opposite bank, with short casts quartering back upstream and a few quick strips off the dirt and logs. I recognized his fishing pattern for what it was — covering water quickly while relocating. Then, just as he got within earshot, Smith hooked a good trout.

“There ya go!” I hollered up to him.

Smith feigned difficulty hauling in the mid-teens fish, and we both chuckled as he kept wading my way, eventually releasing the trout without netting it. Just a quick twist of the fly, and the wild trout headed home.

A bit out of breath, Smith waded close and asked the requisite question:

“How’s the fishin’, Mister,” my friend said with a forced drawl.

“Pretty damn good,” I said, holding the rod in one hand and the extra line in my other. “I’ve been working that long bank seam from here,” I pointed. “Just wading upstream with the crossover.” I showed Smith the wet River Rat in my hand. “Most trout are hitting the nymph,” I said, signaling to the copper Walt’s dangling from a 4X tag.

“Fun,” Smith nodded. Then he stretched his long arm and pointed toward the bank with his fly rod. “Is everything in that lane?” Smith asked.

“Yeah,” I nodded. I’ve been working it at about forty feet, ever since I switched to the Crossover.”

The river swirled a bit, and the current spat a wisp of water into our faces.

Smith looked at me, then gazed back slowly toward the bank.

“That’s not forty feet,” he challenged.

“You don’t think so?” I asked with uncertainty. Already, I knew I was wrong. Smith is deadly accurate in his estimates of measurements, and he’s especially good at gauging distance.

Quickly, I gathered the first part of my leader and measured it against the rod. Then I finished the measurement by using my left arm, pulling the leader through my fingers in two-foot increments.

“Alright, thirty-two feet, smart guy. You’re right,” I said sheepishly. “I was off pretty bad there.”

“Yup,” Smith gloated. Then he stripped out some line and turned back toward the opposite bank again, ready to finish the pattern he’d been working with streamers.

“You probably overcounted your fish too,” Smith teased, yelling back over his shoulder. “Ya know, facts matter, Dom!”

“They sure do,” I chuckled. Then I turned toward my own bank to work the dark green seam at twenty-eight feet.

Photo by Steve Petuck

You Probably Suck at Judging Distance

Anglers are terrible at judging distance on the water, myself included. But understanding range lies at the heart of making good adjustments on the river. (More on that below.)

Maybe the moving water throws off our natural gauges. Maybe the open space changes our reference points. (Ever hold a nine-foot fly rod indoors and feel shocked by how long it is?) Whatever the reason, most of us are just bad at knowing real distances out there. But it’s very easy to bring accuracy back into your range estimates on the river.

I’ve seen anglers mark their lines and leaders every five feet. Some fly lines come with color changes these days. And we can use such markers and references, for sure. However, it’s just as easy to get a precise measurement of how much line you are casting, anytime, with any line.

Measure Like This

Make a cast and estimate its distance. Do you think you’re casting thirty feet to the inside of that log seam? Great, let’s check.

Let the line hang in the water downstream of you. Now grab the leader or line, and make it tight from the rod tip to the butt of your rod. Just stretch the line snug, from tip to butt, keeping the line against the measuring stick — your fly rod. Is your rod ten feet long? Good. So that’s twenty feet so far. Now measure the rest of the line in two-foot sections, bringing it through your hand and measuring against your arm — that’s your other measuring stick.

From the tip of my fingers to the front of my shoulder is exactly two feet, and I’ve used this measurement for many years. (Grab a tape measure and find the one-foot and the two-foot marks on your own arm.)

So, after using the fly rod to measure the first twenty feet, it’s easy to measure the remaining line and leader in two-foot sections. There. It’s twenty-four feet. And, like many, you drastically overestimated the length of line and leader you were casting.

River is six months old today. And he loves the snow.

Who Cares?

Why’s this matter? Well, there are a few excellent reasons to know the distances you are fishing.

Consider the hunter. Good hunters understand the effective range of their firearm, and they spend hours understanding and improving their effective range with that tool. One bow hunter may be comfortable at forty yards while the next wants to shoot at half that distance.

Similarly, all good hunters sight in their firearms. Last fall, my son and I spent hours at the shooting range, sighting in his new .22 rifle at fifty yards. Understanding that the bullet would drop about two inches at seventy-five yards and six inches at one hundred yards, it would also be dead on, or just a touch high, at twenty-five yards, where most of our squirrel hunting range was to happen.

Point is, we knew the range where we could expect perfection, and we knew what would happen if we chose to extend that range. Fishing is the same. And it starts by knowing your distances.

Factoring in Leader Diameters, Flies and Weights

This is where the other weights and measures come in. For example, I know I can get a great dead drift with negligible line sag from my Mono Rig at twenty-six feet paired with forty centigrams of weight (either in the fly or from split shot). But anything beyond that distance, with forty centigrams, and the sag from my leader on a tight line, is too much. So I either fish closer, fish with an indy, or I add weight to counteract the sag at further distances (like I was doing with the River Rat in the story above).

In the same way, I know that my favorite Harvey Dry Leader formula needs to end with at least three feet of 5X tippet to a #14 Parachute Sulfur shown to the risers in May. Any less, and I won’t have the desired s-curves in my leader. Any more than five feet of terminal tippet, and my accuracy suffers.

The adjustments to learn are infinite. And in truth, most of it cannot be learned by reading articles or watching videos. Experience is the only real teacher, and it takes a determined student — one who is willing to sacrifice a little fishing time to tie extra knots and experiment.

What will happen with three extra feet of 5X? You must try it to find out.

Photo by Bill Dell

Too Much?

After reading the previous article, Know Your Weights and Measures, some anglers commented that all of this was too much work. Some said that if catching trout required buying a scale and weighing nymphs, then they weren’t interested.

But you surely don’t need a gram scale to catch trout. You don’t need to know your weights, diameters or distances. Fish will come to hand without thinking too much beyond the basics. And that’s the beauty of fishing. You can make this as complicated or as simple as you like. Go fish. Have fun. And set your own goals. But there’s no doubt that improving your skills and your catch rate requires work and attention to detail. It’s fun work. It’s river work.

Making adjustments is the key to consistent fly fishing. It’s what long-term anglers love about this game. It’s how we solve the daily puzzles. And many of those adjustments are based on our thought processes around weights and measures.

The easiest place to start is to know your distances. Tackle that first.

Next up, in this Troutbitten Short Series, we’ll discuss your leader stats, like length, diameter and stiffness.

Fish hard, friends.

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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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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  1. Fascinating. I just measured my arm, fingertip to shoulder, and it was exactly 2 feet. Is this a universal measurement? I ask, because my sleeve length is only a 32, shorter than most. Good to know, huh? Thanks.

  2. I’ve read many times where the author says, ‘just do it’, ie. you’ll learn by doing. While that’s true, I think articles like these give a different perspective or just one little piece of information that makes all the on- stream experience gel into place.
    I’ve always adjusted nymph weight to water speed but hadn’t given much thought to the fly having to counter balance the amount of line out. what an ah-hah moment! Simple concept, but not necessarily intuitive. Thanks for the insights!

    PS. Might I suggest a slightly quicker way to measure the line. After measuring the first length against your rod, rotate your rod upstream while maintaining the anchor point at the rod’s butt end. Place the 2nd 10ft length against the rod. Keep measuring in 10′ lengths(or whatever length rod you’re using) until you no longer have a full rod-length of line. Then just measure the remainder against your arm… I think it takes longer to describe than actually do it!

    • Yes, George, I totally agree with your post! People get in ruts because they don’t abstract away from what they are doing that works or doesn’t work. People get stuck on flies and rigs that worked for them once. I have confidence flies, but I don’t have a confidence rig. Rigs are scientific. Right? I’m glad you are enjoying this series as much as I am. BTW, Domenick, I totally slayed ’em in NC with the ‘go to winter rig’ (egg). Just got back from 4 days solo in the mountains. It is a new Winter, confidence fly for me. Plus, it was a lot of fun being able to watch the eggs plummet into the abyss of some deep holes where, every once in a while, they would disappear with a flash . I laughed so hard every time it happened. Pure joy!

  3. Hi Dom. I’m commenting on something completely different. Went fishing today and it was cold. I went back into the archives and re-read the article on staying warm. I had the Fox River gloves and the hand warmers. Tucked the warmers under the glove at the wrist and applied the rubber bands. What a difference. Thank you so much for the tip and the how-to.
    Happy New Year’s!
    Jeff J

  4. Before Troutbitten I was playing checkers. Since Troutbitten I am playing three dimensional chess. Thanks Dom – great work.

  5. Mr. Swentosky,

    Are there any links available to the recipe for the River Rat fly pattern?


    • Hi David,

      Sorry, not yet. I’m working on it, though.

      But from that pics, you can see the platform.

      Scud hook
      Lead wire wraps underbody to mid shank
      Marabou tail
      Mono Rib
      Cactus Chenille
      Hen Hackle
      Sili Legs
      Thread hot spot collar

      Email if you need more detail, David.


      • Thanks,

        That will get me started!



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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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