Lighten Up: How Downsizing Your Fly Fishing Gear Can Extend Your Opportunities

I stand knee-deep in moderate current, eyeing the grassy bank across and slightly downstream from me. I’ve walked to the end of my street to access a shallow, rocky reach of the river that runs through my backyard.

I strip some line and make a false cast; strip some more and make another. I surprise myself when the size 12 foam spider I tied 30 minutes before lands softly in an eddy. I am delighted when it disappears in a boil of water.

I slow the line with my rod hand and begin retrieving with my stripping hand. My rod bends nearly double as the fish at the end of my line makes a run for a submerged tree branch.

I’m grinning like a kid on Christmas morning by now. I’ll admit, I may even have let out a little “whoop!”

I bring the fish to hand and crouch to admire the brightly-colored 8 inches of fury that I have captured.

It was the beginning.

Red Breast Catch on the fly.
Sunfish — bream, perch, bluegills — punch above their weight and are ubiquitous throughout much of the U.S. This redbreast sunfish, coloring up for the spawn, fell to a “Humpy” attractor fly on a 3-weight.

For reasons that likely have to do with sloth and lack of imagination, it has taken me months – years, even – to figure out that the relatively diminutive inhabitants of the clear, spring-fed waters in my neighborhood are worthy of my time and attention, and that fishing for hand-sized sunfish and 2-pound bass can even be exciting.

The tipping point came before that afternoon on that backyard spring; it came when I realized that if nature had downsized the fish on the local water, it was entirely within my power to downsize my tackle. I picked-up a 3-weight rod and a simple clicker reel.

Because my neighborhood water is bereft of trout (except for a brief winter window when a pool is planted with hatchery fish),

As is true for trout in coldwater fisheries, in warm water streams small bass outnumber trophy fish by a large margin.

I find myself looking at the water and thinking about what the different available species need, where they are lying, and what they are eating.

These species include largemouth and spotted bass, as well as riffle-loving, native Guadalupe bass, colorful native cichlids and half a dozen species of sunfish. Larger pools hold carp (some are double-digit fish!), channel cats, and bass up to 4 or 5 pounds.

After sharing some pictures, a friend down on the coast (where I have done most of my fly fishing over the past 10 years) remarked that, while they weren’t monsters, catching fish like that must be good for the soul.


And that’s why most of us fish anyway. But it’s also relative. A scrappy 10-inch fish on a 3-weight rod and 5x tippet is, for me, every bit as exciting as a broad-shouldered, 28-inch redfish on my 8-weight and 14-pound tippet. It’s also a lot less tiring.

This longear sunfish is perhaps the most extravagantly painted of the common bream across much of the U.S.

Rods that cast line from 000 to 3-weight are categorized as “ultralight,” and there is an online community built around this niche within a niche. Many of the practitioners build their own rods, but there are some good production options readily available, and prices run the gamut from the TFO Lefty Kreh Signature Series II  in a 2-weight to a G. Loomis NRX Lite 2-weight.

Many of the graphite ultralight rods are relatively inexpensive, and anglers who are used to modern fast-action rods in larger sizes may find that the carbon fiber sticks match their casting style better. Something to consider, though, is picking up a fiberglass rod like the Redington Butter Stick. These throwbacks to yesteryear are popular with small stream anglers because the moderate to slow action of fiberglass allows super-accurate casts and effective roll casts at the short distances at which these rods excel.

This bass would have been fun on any tackle; on a 2-weight fly rod, it was a thrill.

While carp may be a challenge on a small rod, bass are not out of the question if played carefully. In other parts of the country, anglers routinely land 20-inch and larger trout on small rods.

Since most fish are played by hand, reels typically are simple and also relatively inexpensive. You can find a super large arbor machined reel with fully sealed disk drag in this size range, but, frankly, it’s overkill. Instead, look for something like the Redington Zero “clicker” or keep an eye out for a used classic. The bottom line is that for something south of $200, it’s possible to outfit yourself with competent gear that will last a lifetime.

Don’t be like me. Don’t waste time dreaming of the next trip to the flats or trophy trout water, when the neighborhood river – or pond – is likely chock-full of exciting and colorful quarry when matched with the appropriate rod.

After all, as a good friend pointed out to me, there are a lot more small fish in the world than big fish.

Ultralight fly rods and reels come in a variety of flavors, like the 6-foot, 7-inch fiberglass rod and disc-drag reel on the top and the 7-foot, 6-inch graphite model with clicker reel on the bottom.

Written by Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed is a native Texan who splits his time between the Gulf Coast and the Texas Hill Country. Now a commercial mariner, he previously worked as the news editor at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and written for a number of outdoor publications, including Kayak Angler, Texas Sporting Journal, Lone Star Outdoor News and many more.

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4 thoughts on “Lighten Up: How Downsizing Your Fly Fishing Gear Can Extend Your Opportunities

  1. Agree 100% with you. I did buy a Redington Butter Stick and love it. Paired it with a old Ross Evolution 1 reel from ebay and use it to fish for brook trout. Nothing more fun than pulling a bunch of 4-6″ brookies and then deep frying them for dinner.

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