Is the 5 Weight Fly Rod the Best All Around?

5 Weight Fly Rod

Kirk Deeter recently posed a question which took me by surprise. On a Trout Unlimited blog, he asked: “Will the 5-weight always rule trout fishing?”

My surprise came from my assumption that the most popular all-around fly rod for trout fishing was a nine-foot, 6-weight.

Whenever Trout Unlimited offered a nine-foot, 5-weight for anglers who purchased a lifetime membership, I figured it was because they got a great deal from Sage or Winston. Surely those companies saw that 6-weights were selling like crazy and that they had a large leftover inventory of 5-weights.

It turns out that I was wrong.

5 Weight Fly Rod of Choice

TU offers nine-foot, 5-weight rods because they are the rods of choice. Deeter wonders if 4-weights might take over if technology can make them “beefier” or if 6-weights might one day rule if it gets “lighter.” Then he says: “For now, I just don’t see the 5-weight ever being supplanted as the world’s No. 1 fly rod.”

All of this makes me wonder: is the best all-around fly rod for trout fishing a nine-foot, 5 weight? Or a nine-foot, 6-weight?

I really don’t feel like arguing about this until I’m blue or red in the face. It reminds me a bit of those arguments over whether a .270 or a 30.06 is the best caliber for a deer rifle. One is more flat-shooting, the other packs more wallop. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is a hunter’s ability to shoot steady and straight.

So whether a 5-weight or a 6-weight is the “best” all-around fly rod depends on you. Which one feels best and works best for you?

What Are You Slinging?

Jerry Siem, a rod designer for Sage, says that the choice is all about the size of flies you intend to fish. Kirk Deeter concludes: “Nothing really compares to the 5-weight when it comes to throwing either size 18 BWO dry flies or size 10 woolly buggers.”

However, after years of fly fishing big western rivers like the Yellowstone and the Missouri, I’m partial to a 6-weight. I suspect that’s why a lot of fly shops in the west suggest them to first-time buyers.

I follow the reasoning of the late Tom Morgan, the owner of the Winston Rod Company from 1973 to 1991. He preferred the 6-weight for handling wind (plenty of that in the west) and for making longer casts. He liked the delicacy of the 5-weight, but felt it was too delicate to be the right choice for an all-around rod—especially on the big rivers in Montana.

Personally, if I want more delicate, I drop down to a 4-weight.

This introduces another consideration: If you use multiple rods, do you want to go with even sizes (4, 6, 8) or odd sizes (3, 5, 7)? I like to go on the heavier side. By the way, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to own both a 5-weight and a 6-weight unless you have an abundance of disposable income or you are that good to appreciate the fine shade of difference.

How, then, should you determine what is the right size for your all-around, go-to fly rod?

Waters and Wind

First, consider what size of water you will be fishing and how much wind you will encounter. Trying to decide based on fly size is, in my opinion, a bit more difficult.

Second, get some help from the guides at a fly shop. You might want to talk to more than one guide to listen for recurring themes in their advice.

Third, and perhaps most important, try casting both a 5-weight and a 6-weight. Choose the one that feels best to you.

My brother, Dave, recently invested in a high-quality fly rod for his “go-to, all-around” rod. He asked me my recommendation. I strongly suggested he get a nine-foot, 6-weight. But instead of listening to his older (and wiser!) brother, he dissed my advice! He tried both a 5-weight and a 6-weight. The 5-weight felt better to him.

I am happy to report that my brother and I still speak to each other. Do we argue about whether a 5-weight or a 6-weight is best? No. We are too busy catching fish.

Unless you’re one of those people who has to be right about everything, get used to the idea that ideal rod-weight is in the eye of the beholder—or actually, in the feel of the fly-caster. Anglers — from novice state to expert stage — will continue to debate the merits of 5-weight versus a 6-weight.

The good news is that you won’t go wrong with either one.

S3:E12 Fly Fishing Grizzly Country

fly fishing

Fly fishing grizzly country should evoke a small amount of anxiety. Surprising a sow at her cubs while making your way along the trail to get to the river is no way to begin the day. In this episode, we discuss the 50-year-old events of the night of the grizzlies in Glacier National Park and come up with a couple takeaways for fly fishing grizzly country.

Listen now to “Fly Fishing Grizzly Country”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last portion of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

Have you ever fished in grizzly country? What precautions do you take? How do you prepare for a day in grizzly country?

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The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

For this episode, we are the Sponsor!

We’ve published a book called, The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

We like to say it is a book of bite-sized snacks. Maybe even like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

Visit Amazon to get your copy today!

Know Your Pattern: H and L Variant

H and L Variant

H and L Variant is a new fly. At least to me. I recently picked up the fly at a fly shop near Winter Park, Colorado. Frankly, I had not even heard of the H and L Variant until a friend put me on to it. Shows what I know.

The H and L Variant is no new fly, of course. Here is a snapshot of this oldie but goodie:

1. How it originated

R.C. Coffman (a western Colorado fly fisher) ostensibly tied the first H and L Variant. He apparently sold so many of the fly in the mid-to-late 1950s to President Eisenhower that he (Coffman) said he was able to buy a “house and a lot” (thus the “H” and “L”) on the Fryingpan River in Colorado.

Sounds apocryphal to me.

Using today’s math and valuations, Coffman would have likely had to sell $350,000 worth of $2 flies to buy even a sliver of real estate along the Fryingpan River.

I bet that Coffman was a really good story-teller. He certainly created a fly for the ages.

2. How it’s designed

I am certainly no fly-tying expert but when I saw the H and L Variant for the first time, it reminded me of the Royal Coachman chassis. Like the Royal Coachman dry fly, the H and L Variant has calf-tail wings and a body of peacock herl. According to Skip Morris, the H and L Variant body is created by partially stripping a peacock quill and wrapping it so “the bare quill forms the rear half of the body and the fiber-covered quill the front half.”

The other distinguishing feature is its calf-tail-hair tail, which along with its calf-tail-hair wings, gives it its buoyancy.

3. Why it works

The H and L Variant is what is known as a “rough water” fly.

That is, as one writer put it, “this fly floats like a cork.” It sits nice and high in swift-moving current and stays dry. I also love the fly’s visibility in low light. One writer called its calf-hair wings and tail “white beacons.” They are. And my middle-aged eyes appreciate it!

I should state the obvious: the H and L Variant is an attractor pattern, generally, though I did see at least one fly fisher mention that he uses the fly as a Green Drake imitation on western rivers, such as the Roaring Fork and Colorado.

4. When to use it

I’ve made the H and L Variant one of my go-to attractor patterns when I want to surface evening risers. I did that recently on the Fall River in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had caught several brook trout on Caddis emergers but not on a dry fly Caddis or a Purple Haze pattern, two of my favorites. Stumped, I tied on the H and L Variant, and within ten minutes I had my first brookie on a dry fly.

The H and L Variant is more visible (at least it is to me) than any other attractor pattern. So, if you are fishing small, swift-moving streams or rough water, this is the fly.

The H and L Variant Name

I do not mean any disrespect to Mr. Coffman, but name H and L Variant is just about the most clunky name for a fly that I can imagine. But I tip my hat to him for creating a dry fly classic with a rich legacy and a bright future.

Other Flies in the “Know Your Pattern” Series

    The Royal Coachman

    The San Juan Worm

    The Parachute Adams

The Fly Fishing Wit and Wisdom of Bud Lilly

Fly fishing wit and wisdom – you need both to truly enjoy the sport. If you’re planning on fly fishing in the western United States, do yourself a favor and find a copy of Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the New West. Read it. Then read it again.

This volume, co-authored with Paul Schullery, was published in 2000. But it’s still relevant a decade and a half into the new millennium. You’ll want to read and re-read it for two reasons: its wit and wisdom. Lilly’s dry sense of humor and his story-telling skills will keep you entertained.

But he will teach you a lot about fly fishing in the land where the buffalo once roamed and the deer and the antelope still play. Here is a sample of what Lilly has to offer.

Time of Day

Lilly says that the cool nights in the west mean you do not have to get up as early to fish as you do when you’re fishing lower-elevation waters on either coast. Nor can you count on the evening rise when fishing the big rivers in the western mountain valleys.

Lilly writes: “Over the years, lots of my clients said ‘We really want to get the best fishing of the day, and so we’ll meet you here at the shop at 6:00 tomorrow morning.’ And I’d say, ‘Well fine, I’ll put the coffee on tonight, and I’ll be over about 8:00.’ It’s just too cold at the hour for much to be happening. Only in the hottest dog days of August do you have an advantage in fishing really early and late.”

Streamers

Bud Lilly is a big fan of streamers. Large streamers. He fishes them any time of year and argues they give you the best chance to catch really large trout.

Lilly writes: “A study a few years ago in Yellowstone Park showed that large cutthroat trout tended to prey most heavily on fish that were 25-30 percent of their size. Twenty-inch trout commonly ate chubs of five or six inches.”

Rain

According to Lilly, rain can be your friend: “Many times a nice rain in the middle of the day has brought a stream to life for me or my clients. It can drop the water temperature just enough to cool the water and trigger a hatch or get the fish into a more active mood. A hard enough cloudburst can loosen bank materials, including worms and insects, also getting fish out on the prowl.”

I’ve experienced this myself. Recently, a ten-minute rain shower on the Boulder River (south of Big Timber, Montana) brought a sleepy run to life. I landed two sixteen inch rainbows on back-to-back casts in the same run where nothing was happening before it rained.

But let the fly fisher beware: “No hatch is good enough for you to risk waving a nine-foot graphite rod around during a lightning storm.”

Sunk Hoppers

If my hopper gets waterlogged and sinks, I tend to pull it out and dry it.

However, Lilly challenges that practice: “If your hopper sinks, don’t immediately yank it out of the water; hoppers drown, and fish take them just as avidly then. The fish are often looking for the drowned ones.”

Relax

Understandably, you’ll want to make the most of your fly fishing trip to the west. It might be the trip of a lifetime.

So listen close to this next pearl of wisdom from Bud Lilly: “If I could offer the visiting fisherman only one piece of advice it would be this: relax. You’re out here to have fun. You wouldn’t fish 16 hours a day back home, and you don’t have to do it here.”

As the old saying goes, there’s more where that came from. Yes, you’ll find a lot more wit and wisdom in Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the New West.

By the way, if you don’t heed Lilly’s advice, he won’t be offended. He readily admits: “There are lots of ways to catch a trout. Maybe that’s why there are so many experts.”

Before You Buy Your First Fly Rod

If you’re new to fly fishing, purchasing your first fly rod can be as bewildering as buying a car. There are so many variables to consider.

Besides, if you ask five friends for advice, you may get eight different opinions. It’s easy to get frustrated. Or even to feel stupid. Don’t. Selecting a fly rod should not resemble choosing a health care plan.

This should be fun!

Making some key decisions before you start shopping, though, will help you make an informed, confident purchase. It will also keep the fun in the process. So here are the decisions you need to make.

Price Range

How much do you want to spend?

If you’ve never fly fished before, a starter rod in the $100-150 range will serve you well. Less is more.

If you’ve fly fished enough to know that you really want to pursue this, then I’d suggest spending a bit more — perhaps in the $300-600 range. Buy a fly rod you will still enjoy using in two or three decades.

I purchased a Winston rod (see below) a few years ago, intending to use it for life. I paid good money for it (although the price I paid then looks quite reasonable now). I don’t regret the decision. At some point, you’ll want to buy your “fly rod for life” (unless, of course, there is a significant breakthrough in technology). If you’re ready to do so, then get a higher-end rod which fits your budget. But if you’re still experimenting, spend less.

Note: The mid- to high-end rods typically have a 25-year or lifetime guarantee. This means you can get your rod repaired for about 10% of its cost if you step on it in the dark and snap it in two (which I’ve done).

Brand Preference

I apologize in advance for leaving out some fine manufacturers. But here are some options:

On the lower end of the price range, some good options include Redington, Temple Fork Outfitters (TFO), St. Croix, and Cabela’s. For mid-range to high-end rods (in quality and price), I’m a big fan of Orvis. Sage makes a fine rod, too, and I was all set to purchase one until I picked up a Winston Boron IIx which was made in Montana. Loomis is another fine choice, as is Scott.

Don’t fret over the difference between a high-end Orvis or Sage or Winston. Choose the one that feels right.

Rod Size

If you’re fly fishing for trout in the big western rivers like the Yellowstone or Bighorn, a nine-foot, six-weight will be a good all-around rod. It’s big enough to handle streamers and make long casts in windy conditions. Some swear by a nine-foot, five-weight. That’s fine.

To me, it’s like the difference between using a 30.06 or a .280 Remington for deer. Either will do the job. If you’re fly fishing the spring creeks of Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, an eight and a half foot, four weight will be more appropriate. It’s a bit lighter and more delicate for those smaller streams which require more gentle casts.

Some fly fishers swear by an eight-foot rod for smaller stream fishing. One question to ask is, “Where will I be fishing most often?” If “smaller spring creeks” is the answer, then go with a smaller rod size.

Type of Action

A mid-flex or a medium action is the place to start.

This designation means that the rod flexes or bends in the middle when you cast your line. This makes it versatile (good in most conditions) and forgiving (not too temperamental). A tip-flex or fast action rod bends closer to the tip. The stiffness of this action gives you more power — especially on windy days. It is better for longer casts, but beginners sometimes struggle to get a feel for it. A full flex, or slow action rod, is easy to cast. But it’s better for short distances. You’ll have to work harder to get the line out on long casts. It’s like pedaling in gear 3 on a ten-speed bike as opposed to gear 9.

The pedaling is easier, but it takes a lot more effort.

If you can make (or at least think about) these decisions ahead of time, you’ll be in a better position to make a choice when you enter your local fly shop.

Yes, unless you’re an expert, buy your rod at a local shop.

You can often try casting different rods to see which one works best — and you’ll get a little bit of help with your casting, too. The guys and gals at your local fly shop will also help you choose the right reel and the right line to go with your rod (yes, more decisions).

Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy the purchase. I guarantee that buying your first fly rod will be more fun than buying a garbage disposal or a pair of dress shoes.

Episode 15: Gary Borger on Fly Fishing Spring Creeks

fly fishing guides

Fly fishing spring creeks is not like fly fishing the big freestone rivers of the American West. In this episode, we interview fly fishing legend Gary Borger on fishing in the Upper Midwest and, specifically, how to fish spring creeks.

Listen to Gary Borger on Fly Fishing Spring Creeks now.

At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

What adjustments have you made when fly fishing spring creeks?

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Links Related to This Week’s Episode

    Gary Borger’s Web Site