Ultralight Finesse

Making the most of midget tackle.

Field & Stream Online Editors

When the going gets tough, the tough go ultralight. That's a good way to view the world of ultralight spinning, often the ultimate tackle for difficult fish in skinny water. That such gossamer gear also makes ordinary fish feel like superheroes at the end of your line is an appealing bonus.

Scaling down to the ultralight realm, however, can be a game of skill in itself. Everything that's good and bad about spinning in general becomes curiously magnified in this minute arena. For example, spinning gear allows you to cast light lures efficiently. With ultralight, you'll cast still lighter lures proportionally farther. And though standard-scale spinning reels are famous for occasional line-twist problems, those who carelessly crank an ultralight mill will invariably spin themselves a nylon nest beyond repair.

Ultralight Tackle
As commonly construed, ultralight spinning means 5- to 6-ounce reels spooled with 2- to 6-pound-test monofilament (most commonly, 4-pound). A top-notch, satin-smooth drag is essential, as is a smoothly rotating line roller. Line capacity is usually not an issue in freshwater as most such reels will accommodate at least 100 yards of 4-pound-test. If you're going to take your ultralight gear into saltwater, where it also excels for many inshore species, you'll want to look harder for the lightest possible reel that will carry 200 yards of 4-pound-test.

Oddly enough, at a time when major reel makers are increasingly producing ultrapremium spinning reels at comparably high prices, you'll have to search hard to spend more than $50 for an ultralight. That high-end trend just hasn't been extended to midget spinning reels. This remains true even though such 1960s-vintage ultralight classics as the superb Alcedo Micron routinely sell for $150 or more from dealers in used tackle. When a modern maker finally produces a high-end ultralight, I'll be the first one at the door.

Ultralight spinning rods are a tougher question. Many makers' versions are simply too stiff to cast accurately. Microlures of 1/16 ounce or less are too light to bend such rods during the casting stroke, and the net result is like fishing with a midget broomstick. Better rods will flex to some degree during a casting stroke made with no weight attached, an attribute you can easily check in the store aisle before buying.

I've been happy with ultralight rods from Fenwick, St. Croix, and most recently Quantum. The latter's Micro-series rods are unique in having an extraordinarily fine and flexible solid-graphite tip wedded to a more standard tubular blank. The resulting casting qualities and shock protection for hairline monofilament are excellent.

Line choices are likewise difficult, mostly because of the line-labeling shenanigans for which major makers are notorious. Understand that the smallest-diameter line of a given pound-test rating will give the best casting and fishing performance on ultralight gear. (This assumes other things such as limpness and relative knot strength being equal.) So if the line you buy is labeled 2-pound-test but is really 4- or 5-pound-test in disguise, you inadvertently pay a performance penalty. The line will work okay, but not as well as it might.

The sole exception I've found so far is Tectan Premium, an imported mono from Cabela's that performs superbly on my stable of ultralight reels. In smaller diameters (down to 2.2-pound-test, .0036 inch), the line's limpness offers excellent casting qualities.

For many applications, 2-pound-test is too light and 6-pound is too heavy, which means using 4-pound mono is a no-brainer. I use 2-pound only when I know I'm not going to be fishing in-line spinners like Mepps or Panther Martins. The lightest of lines offers too little resistance to twisting when fished with such lures. The larger diameter of 6-pound-test lines, on the other hand, means a rapid fall-off in casting peerformance with lighter lures.

Tips on Tactics
You can do things with ultralight that are nearly impossible with any other tackle. The low water of many summer trout or smallmouth bass streams is a good example. Long clear pools of slow-moving water hold lots of fish, but as soon as an angler raises so much as an eyebrow above a nearby rock, those fish are darting for cover.

Using a hands-and-knees approach, you can position yourself just below the pool's tailout while staying well under the fish's line of vision. From that position it's easy to cast a small spinner or spoon far up into the pool.

Shallow-water hangups on the bottom are a potential problem. A split second before the lure touches down, sweep the rod upward while trapping the line against the spool rim with the forefinger of your casting hand. Close the bail by cranking the reel at the same time. This gets the lure under control before it can reach the bottom rocks.

What happens next is pure magic. Dark shapes are suddenly darting back and forth around your slowly moving lure. Chances are you'll see the take and struggle to keep your cool and not pull the lure away. And if you're really good, you'll ease the hooked fish out of the pool and down to your feet without spooking the remaining fish upstream. It's times such as these when going ultralight is more than just a good way to fish. It's the best way.