An Expert Guide to Ultralight Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith explains why every angler should try ultralight fly fishing at least once and details the gear you'll need before heading out!

Person stands in the middle of an alpine lake fly fishing.

Photo by Alex Lange

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So, perhaps you have been talking to your fishing buddies, seeing posts on social media, or overheard conversations at the local fly shop, and the phrase “ultralight” came up. What comes to mind first? Anglers casting super short, “wimpy” fly rods to chase elusive four-inch fish? Maybe you envision hardcore anglers who will crawl 50 yards on their bellies through briars to fish the most inhospitable, inaccessible sites on small streams and creeks? What if I were to tell you this is the wrong idea and that ultralight fly fishing is something you need to try? Could I convince you that this might just be the way to spice up your fly fishing and make it much more exciting? Well, sit back and read this article! I hope to convince you that ultralight fly fishing is where it is at and that you will become addicted to it once you give it a try.

Why Ultralight?

A fish lays in a fishing net.

Photo By Ted Smith

Why should an angler try ultralight fly fishing? Simply put, the experience is worth it all.

Big Fight

With ultralight fishing, you no longer need to chase big fish. With the increased sensitivity of your gear, even the smallest fish will feel huge. Once you hook a fish, the addiction will take over. And then, when you truly hook a big fish, you will feel a rush like no other!

Technically Improve

With ultralight fishing, you will be able to target fish in hard-to-reach places. The standard fly cast simply will not work in many situations. Presentations will need to be refined. The increased sensitivity will also help you feel more takes and therefore increase your hookups. In short, you will improve your fly fishing skills!

Increased Fishing Opportunity

Do you ever get disappointed when it is too hot to fish for trout? Well with ultralight fishing, you can target panfish. These warm-water species will try your skills just as much as a wary trout. Likewise, with ultralight techniques, you can fish smaller streams and hard-to-reach areas that are traditionally overlooked when using your standard 5-weight 9-footer.

You Won’t Scare Fish

With the delicate casts that can be achieved with Ultralight gear, you will also be less likely to create that embarrassing splash that sends all the fish in the pool scurrying for cover.

Interested? Check out the example below of ultralight fishing in an overlooked urban stream.

History

Ultralight fly fishing is not just a popular trend. It has its roots with Lee Wulff back in the ’40s. Orvis waded into the waters by adding ultralight rods in the ‘70s, and Sage introduced an ultralight fly line in 1997.

Today, technology has taken off, and many different manufacturers are producing top-quality gear in this field. No longer is ultralight fly fishing limited to small, overgrown creeks and streams; anglers are using it to chase bigger fish in lieu of more traditional fly fishing gear. Once you feel the fight of a fish on ultralight fly fishing gear, you will understand why this is a growing field and why anglers are becoming ultralight converts.

Gear

Two fishing rods lay on the ground next to each other.

Two of my ultralight Setups. Photo By Joseph Smith

If you’ve read this far, perhaps I have piqued your interest, or you are just curious as to how much of your gear you will need to change to get into this. Rest assured, you will not need a total fly fishing overhaul, but let me break down the essentials for you.

Rod

Ultralight fly rods typically range from a 000 weight to a 3 weight. Although these rods now come in fast and medium action, most are slow action, and this is what you will usually want. The low bend of the rod will allow you to protect finer tippets and play the fish easier. Most of these rods are under 8’6”.

Again, you are not looking to launch large streamers 90 feet or handle heavy nymph rigs. These rods are for finesse and delicate presentations. Neat, accurate, and short casts are the name of the game.

You can go old school with a fiberglass rod like the Orvis Superfine Glass Fly Rod, as ultralight fishing has brought about a fiberglass renaissance due to the slow action of these rods; if you’re looking for a newer technology rod, the Douglas Upstream Series is a new offering designed specifically for ultralight fly fishing and comes in many different configurations.

Reel

The key feature of the reel is that it must balance with the rod. If it is too heavy, your arm will be tired after a day of fishing! When that rod tip loads with your line, you will want the reel to balance the setup. Historically, due to the size, most of these reels have been small arbors. Thankfully, due to technological advances, most of these reels now come in large arbor configurations, like the Orvis Hydros Fly Reel. This will aid in quicker line pick-up, especially if you are fighting a larger fish.

Speaking of fighting larger fish, let’s talk about drag. With the newer technology, disc drags come in just about any reel size. A nice smooth disc drag will protect those finer tippets and keep that bigger fish from breaking you off. Having said that though, there are many anglers, myself included, who like a click and pawl drag. There is nothing sweeter than the sound of that click and pawl! These reels tend to be less expensive and with practice, palming a reel is not that hard when extra pressure is needed to bring a fish to hand. The Orvis Battenkill is a tried but true click pawl classic that I use on one of my ultralight setups.

Backing

The standard backing and the amount recommended for your reel should serve you fine. I have yet to have a bluegill take me into the backing, but I have had an unexpected largemouth bass take me there! You never know what you might hook into. Backing will also help keep your fly line less tightly coiled, making it easier to cast. Line pick-up speeds will also be quicker and smoother with backing to lay the line on.

Line

The line really should be matched to the rod. As most lines these days are a half a size to one size bigger than the advertised American Fly Fishing Trade Association size, I would recommend just sticking with the line size your rod calls for. Again, we are talking about finesse here. You will not need sinking lines or tips.

And for that matter, often a double taper fly line is preferred to a weight-forward line; the trade-off in the delicate presentation to distance is worth it.

Leader/Tippet

Standard leader and tippet are all that is required—not much different than what you would use with your standard trout setup. For the tippet, remember that you’ll likely be using smaller flies, so 6x and 7x tippet should be on your tippet post.

Flies

Three boxes of flies for fly fishing lay on a wooden table.

A collection of ultralight flies. Photo by Joseph Smith

This is where your target species really come into play. For the most part, you will be doing quite a bit of dry fly presentations. They needn’t be small midges though. You should be able to cast a size #12 Adams fly without any problems. Nymph and wet flies can also be used as well. Since the rod isn’t going to be set up to cast heavy flies, you will have to focus on smaller flies, not as heavily weighted as a Euronymph rig.

For panfish, you should be able to cast small poppers and other panfish flies like a Bluegill Belly Bean (below). A Bluegill Spider Bully is a sure-fire recipe for excitement on a hot summer’s day.

Remember, plenty of big fish have been caught on size #24 Tricos, and if you really want bigger flies, smaller flies can be made to look larger by using marabou or tying in rubber legs. The fish will love the action and the fly will look bigger in the water than it is.

Fishing Skills

You are going to need to develop some new fishing skills to be successful.

Casting

Because many of the streams you will be fishing will not allow for backcasts, you should learn and become proficient at the Bow and Arrow cast and the Roll cast. Neither is as hard to learn as the Double Haul cast, and both will help you catch fish. As the Bow and Arrow and the Roll cast do not require a backcast, mastery of these will significantly cut down on the number of flies claimed by vegetation. For more casting ideas, check out the video below.

Hook Set

Playing fish will also be different with an ultralight setup. When setting the hook, don’t snap the rod tip up. Remember you want to protect the fine tippet. This is where the deep bend of the slow-action rod comes into play. Let the rod do the work. Just keep steady pressure on the fish and don’t let the line go slack or jerk taut as this is a recipe for a thrown hook or a break-off.

Know Your Reel’s Drag

Using the drag of your reel is also important. To protect your tippet on strikes, you will want to start with the drag set low. As the fish starts to run, you will need to gently start applying the drag to slow it down. If you are using a click and pawl, this is where the learned art of palming a reel comes into play.

Bottom line, this is ultralight tackle—you will not be able to horse a fish in or lift it with the rod. Just trust your equipment and you will be fine.

Limitations

As with all things, this method is not meant to be a total solution for catching fish. There are limitations.

If you plan to fish large waters, this is not your setup. Launching a streamer 90 feet through the air or tossing heavy nymph rigs in strong currents is not what ultralight is about. Use another fly rod for these scenarios.

Also, there is the question of ethics here. If you are practicing catch and release, you owe it to the fish you are chasing to release them with the best odds of survival. Sure, you could probably land a monster brown trout or large bass with an ultralight setup, but wouldn’t it be better for the fish if it was brought to hand quickly? Chasing large fish where there will be an extended fight time due to too light of tackle is really only for the angler’s ego. It does not honor the fish we chase; it is not sporting; and it should not be done. If you plan to target large fish, use the appropriate size rod and release the fish alive so it can be caught another day.

Final Thoughts

A man in a hat and rain coat fishes in a river.

Photo By Henry Smith

Ultralight fly fishing offers the angler a unique experience.

With the improved sensitivity, you will feel more strikes and hopefully catch more fish. Plus, the playing of the fish will be adrenaline-inducing as even the smallest of fish will feel like a trophy-class fish.

Additionally, you will fish water you typically pass over as being too small or tight to fish, and therefore you may see less of other anglers.

Finally, you will target more species and increase the time you spend fishing. This will only add to your skillset and increase your aptitude in the skills you already have.

In short, fly fishing will become more of an intimate experience for you. Try it. I’m convinced after your first fish you will become addicted. If you have any questions or want to find your perfect ultralight setup, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated. Tight Lines!

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Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

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