RE-DEFINING ULTRALIGHT
Fly Fishing!

Article by Bill Byrd, Jr.

After 54 years of fishing, and a tremendous amount of experimentation, I have learned how to consistently catch thousands more fish each year plus even larger fish than I was catching before. YOU CAN DO IT, TOO, with Light or Ultralight fly outfits and small to tiny flies (flies sizes 12 to 24).

Why ultralight fly rods? THE PURE CHILDLIKE ENJOYMENT OF FISHING. As Dave Whitlock told me: "Ultralights are a lot of fun to use...", he continued,"...ultralights are deadly tools for presentation."

Tom Wendelburg was a well known contributing writer for Fly Fisherman magazine in the 1970s and 1980s and was one of the first fly anglers along with Dave Whitlock to begin fishing the Orvis Ultra Fine 7'9" 2-weight rod of the early 1980s. In his book on Catching Big fish on Light Fly Tackle among many other things he notes: The Ultra Fine's smooth action transmits momentum of the line down the rod in a way that eliminates snapping off a heavier fly on the back cast. When the fish takes the fly the rod's same advantage works in reverse. A big trout is less apt to break a hairline tippet against the cushioning spring of its light but strong tip.

These words have been true for over two decades and fishing 3-weight to 3/0 weight fly rods is still fun, but I believe it is time to re-define what Light and Ultralight actually mean today.

In the early Howard Steere - Jim West era, the Orvis Ultrafine 2-weight was introduced in 1984 and in 1987 Orvis introduced the Steere-West designed Superfine 1-weight. These rods were the only ultralights available. Hence I consider Howard Steere (pictured left), and Jim West the master fly rod designers at Orvis during Ultralighting's infancy, the creators of modern ultralight fly fishing.

Sadly Howard Steere passed away in 1997, but Jim West is alive and well. He is still cranking out rods today, repairing the rods we break, and working on our rods of the future.

Over the past decade we have shifted from only having the Steere/West designed Orvis Superfine rods of the 1980s, to having an additional later generation of ultralights from Orvis, Thomas & Thomas, plus the full line of Sage light/ultralight rods with matching lines and a few light/ultralight rods from a few other manufacturers.

Today the original styled 1980s cutting edge Orvis Superfine 2-weight and 1-weight rods are no longer generally available. Over the years we have seen several Orvis 1-weights and 2-weights in the Orvis selection of fly rods. In the January 2007 Orvis Fly Fishing catalog the new "Superfines" don't include a 1-weight rod. But according to Jim LePage, Vice President of Orvis Rod and Tackle, and a person very involved in Orvis' rod development still today -- a New Superfine 1-weight rod is forthcoming. It will be in the same design as the very modern and beautiful New Superfine Orvis trout bum rods.

Having an Orvis 1-weight in production is very important to me, because I have caught thousands of fish on my old 7 foot 6 inch Superfine 1-weight fly rod. My best was an 8 pound 4 ounce largemouth black bass caught with 4.4 pound tippet in 1996 -- see image right. At the time it was the heaviest largemouth bass reported caught and released on the Orvis Superfine 1-weight. If I told you how many 3 to 7 pound largemouths I had caught on that rod, you wouldn't believe me.

Times change and so do rod designs. Right now Orvis offers two New Superfine 2-weights: a 6 foot, and a 6 foot 6 inch version. Outside the Superfine family of rods, Orvis does offer a very nice T3 four section 7 foot 9 inch 2-weight which fishes nicely.

In the years just before Howard Steere's death in 1997, Jerry Siem, who had moved from Winston Rod Company to Sage Fly Rod Company totally reset the paradigm in ultralight fly rods.

First in 1997 he introduced the Sage SPL family of fly rods that used ground breaking new materials to produce the physically lightest rods of that day, with plenty of strength for fighting even surprisingly large fish.

The image left is my Sage SPL Ought weight with which I'm putting pressure on a 6 pound largemouth. I'm not kidding. Talk about ultralight rod strength! I kept my rod low to the water and put side pressure on the horse of a fish. When the fish ran I played it with my reel. The constant pressure was held by my fly rod.

I caught this 6 pound largemouth bass (below right) on my Sage SPL Ought weight with 24 inches of 4 pound tippet. What an unbelieveable experience! I was VERY patient, pressured the fish carefully, and landed the bass in 3 minutes. So much for wimpy rods!

Siem went a major step farther. Along with 3M/Scientific Anglers Bruce Richards, Jerry co-designed fly lines with his new SPL rods that matched his rods and cast perfectly from 3-weight to 0-weight.

These lines were called Sage Quiet Taper lines and featured an aggressive WF section followed by a finer than normal running line. This was a dramatic shift into cutting edge ultralight fly rod and line design. The result -- flawlessly casting rods with truly matched lines.

Jerry has subsequently designed two more generations of light/ultralight Sage rods -- the SLTs featured Sage Quiet TaperII lines and the TXLs with Quiet Double Taper II lines.

For 2007, the Sage TXL family of rods now features a 1-weight to 3/0 weight fly rods with Quiet Double Taper II lines to match retailing at $65.00. The other main line choice for light fly fishing is Sage Performance Taper II lines available in line weights 2-9.

Sage has dropped their Quiet Taper II lines and switched their line manufacturer. Over the past few years 3M Scientific Anglers has manufactured Sage fly lines. Sage has now switched to Rio to manufacture their lines.

Jerry Siem has pushed the envelope of ultralight rod and line design farther, so in 2007, I believe it is time to re-define the category -- Ultralight.


I have looked around the web and I've found some interesting information like the following:

On one website -- The following can be used as a general reference for size and use selection:

#2 Weight Fly Rods ~ Considered to be ultra, ultra light ~ Highly specialized for fishing tiny flies and very light tippets ~ Great for spooky fish where delicate presentation is the most important factor ~ Makes little fish seem bigger ~ Works best at short to medium ranges with flies under size #16

#3 Weight Fly Rods ~ Considered ultra light ~ Generally fits all the specifications of #2 weight rods for delicate presentation but the larger line mass is easier to time while casting and allows longer casts ~ Comfortable with flies up to size #14

#4 Weight Fly Rods ~ Considered light ~ Very popular size for spring creeks and mountain streams ~ Works well with 2 - 6 pound tippets, and fly sizes #12 to #20 ~ Casts comfortably to ranges of 45 feet

I wouldn't even have agreed on this evaluation 20 years ago, and I certainly wouldn't call a 2-weight ultra-ultra light! I surely wouldn't suggest using 2 pound tippets with a 4-weight rod which would snap those tippets in a hurry. There was no mention of the Orvis 1-weight which has existed since 1987.

On another website I found this line amusing: From ultra light three weight fly fishing rods to.....

On yet another website I found this: A three-weight line is in the ultralight range of fly equipment and a rod for it will throw only the lightest flies in a minimum of wind. Although the fishing conditions must be optimal, they are great fun to fish with.

Guess the fact that I've caught and released Spanish mackerels in wind on the gulf coast on a 3-weight doesn't match this evaluation.

Further I suppose these folks didn't know that we have entered a new age in fly fishing and have 2-weights to Triple Ought weights. Enough examples of those not really paying close attention. The web is full of this stuff.


For purposes of this website Ultralight will now mean 1-weight to 3/0-weight fly rods. I will consider rods 3-weight and 2-weight to be light weight rods. There won't be any change in the fact that light rods by the new definition are huge fun to fish. Now that the truly ULTRA light rods have been created, I feel it is time for this distinction.

As usual the descriptive term Ultralight is relative. This term as applied here means primarily for fresh water fish species weighing under 3 pounds. Yes you could catch fish weighing over 3 pounds on these rods and you could catch small saltwater fish on true ultralights, but most anglers will stay with light or even medium tackle for saltwater species. For large trout, big bass, and a host of many other species averaging larger than 3 pounds you may want to stick with light or even medium fly rods.

As I examine the latest rods for 2007 from so many fly rods manufacturers, I still see only a FEW true ultralight fly rods available. So far as I know at this moment only Sage offers 0-weight to 3/0 weight rods, Sage, Orvis, and Thomas & Thomas offer premium 1-weight fly rods 7 feet or longer. Only Cabela's offers a budget $99 true 1-weight fly rod 7 feet in length.

I still see 2-weights in rod lineups, but many 2-weight rods that are offered today are only short rods -- 7 feet or shorter. Sage, Orvis, Thomas & Thomas, Winston, Scott, and St. Croix still offer 2-weight premium fly rods. Cabela's and TFO offer budget 2-weight fly rods.

Most rod manufacturers actually have a good selection of 3-weights which qualifies them as Light action rods.

We have more rod, reel, line, leader/tippet and associated fly fishing accessories and support equipment choices than ever before. With the shift in the ultralight paradigm, we have added an even lighter rod -- the Sage triple ought weight -- but the number of choices of light and ultralight fly rods for 2007 by different manufacturers is actually decreasing. If that trend continues, Sage and Orvis may be the ONLY manufacturers of fine true ultralight fly rods in the near future.

On balance we still have the best true ultralight fly rods ever available today! Compared to the days not so long ago when there weren't these great choices at all -- I'll take what we have right now!

If we ultralight fly fishers don't buy product and/or at least communicate with companies who have traditionally built ultralight fly rods, lines, and reels and ask them to continue to create this product -- we may lose ultralight product altogether. A simple email could have a big impact.

Whether you are fishing light or ultralight by the new definition, you'll still have a ball!!

Have a tremendous year!

-- Bill Byrd.


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