How Light is Too Light?

My first fly rod was an 8’6″ 6 weight. I did everything with that rod, from bass and lake-run rainbows to small stream trout and panfish. A few years later I added a 7’6″ 4 weight which quickly became my preferred rod for small streams. Even though it was a full flex rod it still had the backbone to handle nymph rigs and medium sized streamers. In the late 90’s the 4 weight was almost as light as it got. But over the past 15 years (give or take) there’s been a surge in popularity of light fly rods. As much fun as it is to catch 9″ trout on a 3 or even 2 weight, we should all be asking “when is light too light”?

I’ve fished small streams in Vermont and New York where a 10″ brookie is considered a trophy and the average fish is 6 or 7 inches. These boulder-strewn creeks are really where the under-4 weight rods are best suited. The worst case scenario with tiny rods on these waters is having a fish tangle up in a tree root and breaking the leader.

Before I go any further into the merits and limitations of sub-4 fly rods I will freely admit that I have never fished one. I’ve handled them plenty and know a lot of people who use them routinely, and those who fish them love them. But they also fish them responsibly. This means using  a rod heavy enough to handle the largest fish you might encounter. A 3 weight may have the backbone to handle a trout over a foot long, but it doesn’t have the tip strength and that’s where rod failure will occur. Where the fish are small and there’s no chance of hooking something big, they take their 3 and 2 weights. If you’re fishing water where there’s a chance you might hook a trout with some size to it, stay away from the tiny rods.

DCF 1.0

Rods less than a 4 weight are suited to small streams like this. Even so, big fish can come out of small water, so don’t get carried away with tiny rods.

Jim Becker of JH Becker Rod Works, maker of custom and semi-custom bamboo rods, had an experience that highlights this basic principle. A customer stopped in to have a tip repaired. He’d borrowed the rod, one of the “Headwaters Series” of 2 and 3 weights, from his father, who wisely warned him to not fish it on the Mettowee, a small stream with some trout measuring into the mid-teens. This customer didn’t listen and took it to the Mettowee anyway where he hooked and landed a 15″ rainbow, breaking the rod tip in the process. Had the rod been a 4 weight, the breakage would likely not have happened.

So, as much fun as it is to cast tiny dry flies to diminutive trout on these delicate rods, don’t be careless about it. They make great sport of 7″ fish but haven’t got the fortitude to handle bigger critters. If there’s a chance you’re going to tie into a foot long trout leave the sub-4 weights at home. And there’s almost always that chance.

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