Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Part I of this article discussed the importance of fly depth, determining the right depth, weighted flies and sinking lines. Part II delves into use of split shot, a few thoughts on “water” density, and an interesting less common leader setup.

While it’s no secret that weighted flies assist in the quest for the right depth, often that’s not enough…or it’s an approach eschewed for various reasons. Sinking lines are a serious solution, but one that’s less instantaneously added to a morning’s fishing. Let’s see how good ol’ lead weight can be applied.

Split Shot

Whoever invented the small round blob of lead that you bite down onto a line (the Earl of Split? …probably not) changed the fishing world. There have been attempts to dethrone it–heavy putty, lead ribbon–but it’s still king. Perhaps the most important attribute of split shot is that it can be placed on the leader in the quantity you want, precisely where you want it…and almost instantly. And it can then be removed or altered a moment later when the need changes. This flexibility is an advantage unsurpassed by other methods.

It’s available in a precise graduation of sizes, including some so small a caddis fly’s head is larger. Each size is standardized by weight and assigned an index number. Some manufacturers are more accurate than others, some deviate from the standard, and some only address spinning fishermens’ needs. I provide an accurate table that covers the few sizes I find useful for fly fishing in streams. It’s the progression that’s important–if you have too much on, go to the next size smaller. With just a little care to avoid dropping one, split shot is usable dozens of times over. Some are sold coated in polymer to help protect tippets from being nicked or crushed, which works very well and also serves to encapsulate the lead from the environment. I believe lead shot is quite safe for the ecosystem anyway, honestly, since on exposure to oxygen (even in water) its surface almost immediately becomes the inert Lead Oxide, but “lead” shot is also available in tin (barely bigger for a given weight) to appease lawmakers. Anyway I can’t remember the last time I lost one.

Figure 5—Split Shot Index Table

My Own Simple System

For the many current strengths I encounter and the rod and line I use…and this is admittedly arbitrary…I think of a #4 (0.20 grams) as a single “unit.” So one of them on my leader can be thought of as just “1X.” Looking at the chart then, a BB shot is double that weight, or 2X. A #4 and a #6 together constitutes 1.5 units, or 1.5X. This simplifying scheme lets me add shot in multiples of that unit–I don’t have to add up the grams to figure out if I’m using a heavier setup than I did the last time, or by what percentage. And I carry #8 but never use them–too small for moving water. I carry a five-size little box: BB, #1, #4, #6…and yes, #8, which one day I’ll find a use for.

One unit is a perfect amount for one wetfly in average riffles where the bottom is only 2 or 3 feet down; 1.5X is ideal if the depth goes to 4 feet where the water is still moving. I’ll go as high as 2X for this reason or that. Very simple.

The simple system of your choice should work well for you–once you adopt one, try combinations of shot until you get a feel for how much weight is about “standard” for a given current strength. (I’m betting your system will look a lot like mine.)

Spacing Out Your Bites

Now that we can figure out how much shot to put on, where do we want it? Here’s where the subtleties begin to arise–where the Art is. First, how close to the fly do you want it? A good idea is to ensure it’s far enough away to let those nuances of current caress that fly’s drift. Shot crimped eight inches or more from a fly can let the fly wander a little in the flow (if it’s a weighted fly, it’ll wander less). Shot further up than that can avoid confusing a fish that might otherwise become distracted by the shot itself (and by the way, most anglers choose dull-colored shot to minimize that very risk). Too far from the fly means you have less authority over the fly’s depth, and too close to the butt of the leader means the shot will have minimal sinking effect unless you’re using both shot and a sinking line.

Figure 6—Shot Placement

A significant piece of shot some feet up from an unweighted fly will also have the effect of forming a discontinuity in the leader’s path–potentially enough to make a hook set ineffective–enough even to prevent a subtle take of the fly from being felt at all by a tight-line-style angler. The discontinuity is worse if the weight of that single piece of shot is greater, and gets worse as the sinking progresses too. So how and where the weight is applied can make a big difference.

To help figure it out, we go back to the amount of weight we’re applying. If we want 1.5x, we can use a piece of #1, or we can add a #4 and a #6 spaced a little apart from each other…or even three separated #6 (although that may be a little extreme). A distributed approach will keep the leader to the fly a little straighter, although not without paying the price of a slightly slower sink rate. Here’s why:

How fast a piece of lead sinks is a factor of how heavy it is and its cross-section–its parasitic and induced drag as it travels downward through the water. Plus, there’s both parasitic and induced drag from the leader on either side of the shot. But if 0.30 grams of shot is applied with a #4 and a #6 a foot apart from each other, they’re dragging the leader on either side PLUS a horizontal piece of mono or fluoro between them. More drag, thus a slower sink rate. A #4 and a #6 set a foot apart will sink more slowly than will a #1, even though the weight is the same.

But that might be an advantage; it’ll still get you there and it’s a softer descent. And the weight distributed across some length of leader serves to round out the “kink” in the leader’s path, which can allow those subtle takes to be felt.

Figure 7—Distributed Sink Weight

Sink tips and sinking lines are naturally best at distributing sink weight across larger lengths, although typically they’re not as close to a fly or group of flies as split shot can be.

Visualizing what’s happening down there and developing a scheme that accomplishes what you need is the split shot art. There are a million ways to set things up; know how each setup will behave, and know what you want yours to do, and the best solution will fall out of that. Convenience and adjustability will factor in too, and split shot is very hard to beat for both.

Myself, I’ll use between 1X and 2X (again in my simplified system). I’ll try to spread the weight across a foot or more of leader length, which I think mimics the way a poly-leader sinks to some small degree. I like to ensure that the shot closest to the fly is still about 14 inches from the hook eye. If I can, I’ll crimp the shot on just above a tippet knot or a leader knot (yes, I still tie my own, even though those blood knots collect algae), so that the shot doesn’t slide toward the fly during each cast. (It won’t slide because of a retrieve.) I’ll limit the weight I use to what I can still cast gracefully (2X at most, for my 5-weight), and just cast further upstream of my target stretch if it’s still not getting down enough. But all those preferences are just my own; I like them partly because I’d rather fish a taut line and watch the line itself than to use an indicator. There are lots of ways to rig split shot, and lots of experts who each has his or her reasons. Art has more variations than there are fish in the stream.

Water Is Not Water

Kayakers know this because a few of their friends have died from it. Water is not water is not water. What I mean is that you cannot just think of water as a constant density and expect your leader rig to behave exactly the same each cast when it’s “down under.” So-called whitewater is partially air, and the whiter and frothier it is, the less dense it is in that frothy zone. (There have been wildwater boaters trapped in hydraulics, still in their boats and still wearing their ultra-high-float life jackets, still technically “floating,” but with heads under the surface because the water there couldn’t support their weight–it was half air.)

While froth is usually just near the surface, and while usually the fish will be parked in “greener” water to either side, you’ll find pockets that are frothy to the bone–especially in eddies behind rocks. These bubbly zones can push a leader rig in any direction, including letting it sink far faster than it would in a more laminar flow. You can get snags a’plenty, and snaggy debris does tend to collect in such zones. Just be aware that “water” can differ in density and in the float force it applies.

Flies That Ride Higher Than Shot

A fly with a little floatation to it can let split shot or a sinking line pull it down, but can continue to ride a little higher while fished. Figure 8 illustrates. Such a scheme can be a good way to avoid snags, but it does create a path discontinuity in the leader that again could impede subtle takes being noticed. Naturally a savage strike isn’t going to be masked. And it depends a lot on how much float force the fly has–just a little can be a good thing.

Figure 8—Fly Riding Higher than Shot

In fact using split shot followed by a fly that has a little floatation is a workable alternative to the so-called bounce rig (which employs a piece of shot at the end instead of a point fly). With the shot-then-lightly-floatable-fly scheme, the shot can kiss the bottom, thereby “indexing” the depth at which the fly rides, but the fly itself tries to stay just a little off the stones. I find this preferable to the normal bounce rig because I don’t have to dangle flies off the leader with right-angle bits of tippet…which invariably end up wrapping themselves to the leader. If I “index” the fly’s depth with a piece of shot above a lightly floatable fly, the whole thing casts well and a fly tends to stay low but not too low.

An angler could even employ a “pull-up fly” for this very purpose, and use it to manage other flies’ depths–it can help to hold other flies off the bottom (if they’re not weighted). Figure 9 illustrates this.

Figure 9—Pull-Up Fly in a Multi-Fly Rig


Stripping a fly will of course cause it to move toward whatever sinking line or poly-leader or split shot it’s riding behind. If stripping cross-current or from downstream, that can make it dive. If stripping upstream, such as when swinging a wetfly (in current, not in backwater), both the fly and whatever you have pulling it down are likely to rise in the water column. You can make them sink again by releasing slack after some stripping, and by giving the flies time to get pulled once more toward the bottom. This tends to work a little better, with a little more authority over what’s happening, if you don’t have a hundred feet of line out.

In general the longer the sinking thing (such as a sinking line), the less readily the fly will rise when you strip it upstream. Eventually it will, of course. A sinking element in one localized spot (such as shot) will come toward the surface on each upstream strip, since your tip guide is higher and your floating line is also bringing it up. Common sense, and easy to picture.

The End Result

A point fly ticking over the stones along the bottom, as long as you’re not hanging up in algae or debris, may (or may not) be what you want. A fly following the flow just above the bottom is also good and perhaps better if there’s material there to foul a hook, although whatever method used to get it there will have to be drifting similarly, because if split shot further up the leader is seriously dragging it can “whip” the point fly into the bottom too, as the point fly “flags” in the current. A piece of shot kissing the bottom can be useful; a piece of shot parking on the bottom is more a worm-soaking thing.

You’re working in three dimensions…actually four, because timing is equally important. And the bottom is never constant. Absent an indicator or bounce weight at the end of the tippet (two schemes that use different assumptions and different methods), expect to get the drift you want for several good seconds, and then “work” the area by repeatedly casting to varying points.

There are a world of variations on the “best” leader rig, including many I’ve probably omitted, but the main point is to understand how the elements will react when fished. The perfect drift of a subsurface fly just might be achieved without indicator and without anything touching the bottom…just a lone fly of the perfect density adrift in the current, any shot or sinking line too far from it to be of concern to a large fish that watches it come right toward its big ol’ hungry kype….


    1. Thanks Joe, I appreciate you reading it. Again it’s still an overview–there are a world of ways that various methods can be used. With a little imagination an angler can leverage the strengths of a given approach to accomplish whatever a situation calls for. Myself, I find that one of my most practiced fly fishing skills is biting shot without losing it in the stream. : )

      – Mike

  1. The word pictures Joe uses really helps me to visualize the ‘rigs’ I have used recently. Excellent article and very helpful.

  2. Great piece. You mentioned the length between the fly and split to about 8 inches. Later you mentioned 14 inches being ideal. Different set ups? I realize the depth is the key to any kind of fishing, so thanks for the article!

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