Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Sixty-seven


By Steve Sywensky
Flyfisher's Paradise, 2603 E. College Ave., State College, PA 16801

Mathematics was never my best subject, not at the high school level, and certainly not in college. In fact, college level calculus and my struggles with it dictated a major change that got me into Liberal Arts, known at FFP as Preflyfishingshopownership 101.

But that's another story. To return to my equation, let's spell it out in English: Light Tippets + Light Lines + Long Fights = Dead Trout. It is my premise that overly light leaders, combined with ultralight fly rods and poor fish playing technique, take a deadly toll on the trout on hardfished waters like my home stream, Spring Creek. The sight of dead fish has become all too common as I wade the streams in Central PA, and I'm sick of it. Let's examine the component factors of my equation individually.

Light Tippets

Somewhere, somehow, and from someone, the notion that landing a large fish on a light tippet is a noble accomplishment got started. If I could exorcise that idea from the collective psyche of flyfishers, I would have accomplished something meaningful. If I had a nickel for each time I talked a customer out of using 5X to fish a huge Green Drake, 6X to fish a #14 Sulphur, or 8X to fish a #24 Trico, I'd be in Chile or New Zealand right now, instead of suffering through another Central PA winter. Just so there is no question as to where I stand on this issue, I consider 6X a viable tippet, 7X questionable, and 8x and 9X barbaric.

In this era of catch and release, it is the duty and obligation of every angler to play fish competently and quickly and return them to the water unharmed and as fresh as possible. To the extent that light tippets compromise this standard, it causes undue harm to individual fish and to fisheries. There is no glory in playing a fish to death.

Part of the allure of using overly light tippets is that it enables flyfishers to get more drag-free floats. For those who are convinced that lighter is better, I strongly suggest a thorough reading of Chapter 2 of George Harvey's Techniques of Fly Tying and Trout Fishing. Harvey's ideas on proper dry fly leader construction and drag-free floats alone are worth the price of this book, and they are strongly reflected in the writings of anglers like Joe Humphreys and Gary Borger. George Harvey, for example, who has probably caught more fish on Tricos than any person alive, fishes these little flies on 5X.

For those unfamiliar with it, there is a tippet selection guide known as the Rule of Four. Basically, divide the size of the fly by 4 to determine tippet size expressed in X. Thus, a #16 fly can be fished on 4X. One size lighter should do for finicky fish. A further benefit of employing strong tippets is the minimizing of lost flies. Whether you tie your own or buy them, no angler I've ever talked to has a good supply of every necessary pattern. A strong tippet means less flies lost to rocks or vegetation or festooning the jaws of unfortunate fish.

Good knot tying and frequent checks of the leader for flat spots and abrasion help, too. Modern tippet materials are incredibly strong, nearly twice as strong as those used 20 years ago. If they have a flaw, it is that they are slippery and require more attention to knots. Similarly, since most tippet materials these days are relatively soft, they tend to abrade easier. I rarely fish a tippet more than an hour or two without changing it.

Light Lines and Light Rods

I hesitate to broach the subject of ultralight (1-, 2-, or 3-weight) fly rods in this discussion, but I firmly believe that when these noodly rods are combined with light tippets and poor fish fighting tactics, the synergy is deleterious to trout. Put another way, wimpy rods kill trout.

I own an 8-1/2,' 2-wt. rod (I use a 3-wt line on it) that is a pleasure to cast. With a chronic bad casting shoulder and a casting elbow that sometimes cracks like a .22 shot, I can well appreciate the appeal of the ultralight rods. There is a stretch of Spring Creek I fish very occasionally that is filled with eager 6-10" trout. This is the perfect water to fish a 2-wt., since I can derrick most of these little wild browns even on the light rod. I would no sooner fish this rod on water where 12-14" fish are common than I would use a 9-wt. rod on Spring Creek. In competent hands the stiffer 3-and 4-wt. rods with good strength in their butt sections can probably subdue most good trout. Used badly, however, light rods can harm fish and your fishing.

Such an incident embarrassed me on Spring Creek a number of years ago. Stealing a late May evening away from my tying bench, I arrived at Fisherman's Paradise at dusk, just in time to witness an incredible Sulphur Spinner fall. I hurriedly rigged my 8-1/2, 2-wt., knotted a #14 Sulphur Spinner to a fresh chunk of 4X, and jogged downstream. A few small fish were quickly landed and released, but, as dusk deepened and the spinners dropped lower, better fish started to rise. I cast to a group of risers tight to my bank, saw a subtle rise, and was soon in contact with a strong trout. I leaned back hard on the rod, knowing I had ample tippet strength to back me up, but this heavy 16" fish had other ideas. The 2-wt. rod bent to the handle. The trout ran completely across the stream and jumped three times at the feet of another angler. This fellow reeled up in disgust and left, since the trout I couldn't handle put down the fish he was trying for. I landed the fish some minutes later. He had also put down his compatriots on my side of the stream, ruining the opportunity to try for another good trout that evening.

Long Fights

Light tippets and too light tackle cause undue stress in trout, but perhaps nothing harms trout more than poor fishfighting tactics. Nothing disturbs me more than seeing a flyfisher with his rod high overhead, worrying a trout, rather then playing it quickly. The "12 o'clock high" pose may look good in magazine photographs, but treat trout more kindly.

If you want to know how to fight a fish, take heed of the guys who fight fish measured in pounds, not inches. Watch Billy Pate or Stu Apte fight a tarpon weighing 80 or 90 pounds on a 12 or 16 lb tippet. Saltwater anglers learned a long time ago that hard side pressure tires a fish quickly. It works with trout, too.

Last summer I conducted an experiment with a particularly nice Trico-sipper. For purposes of this experiment only, I used 7X Dai Riki tippet instead of the 6X I normally employ. From the time of the hookset until the fly was removed was a timed one minute, 22 seconds. This fish was a fat, broad-shouldered 16" brown that jumped three times. There is no need to fight fish longer.

From the moment of the take, which is really the ultimate flyfishing rush, a responsible angler should be most concerned with getting the fish released as quickly as possible. Put the rod sideways and lean on the fish with pressure near the limit of the breaking strength of the tippet. Most fish 12" or smaller will give up quickly. Quick release of a good fish is paying the ultimate respect not only to the quarry, but also to the sport.

Debarbing your flies is also part of a fast catch and release. There is simply no excuse for having to dig barbed hooks out of trout. Even if you don't care about the fish, care about yourself. If you ever have the misfortune to put a sizable hook deeply into yourself, you will be happy it is barbless.


When I selected this topic, I was fully cognizant that I would offend a number of people. I was also aware that with the onset of better weather in March, numerous anglers would be fishing midges and small Blue-winged Olives, often to the detriment of the fish. It is my hope that at least a few of you will make choices favorable to the fish and the fishery, not just the fishing.

At one of the last flyfishing symposiums held at the Seven Springs Resort in Western PA, I was privileged to hear Gary Borger speak about the uniqueness of trout and trout water. His words stayed with me. In his talk Borger presented the incredible statistic that one-millioneth of one percent of all the water in the world is trout water. How wonderfully unique and special is each piece of trout water. Each trout is equally valuable and unique and deserves the ultimate respect an angler can pay it--a quick and safe release. ~ Steve Sywensky

©Flyfisher's Paradise-2000

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