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A New Look at the Six Weight in the Salt

Fly Fishing for Baby Tarpon

My son Stephen prepares to release a baby tarpon caught on a 6 weight fly rod.

For the last 50 years an 8 weight outfit, and occasionally a 7 weight, with a 9-foot leader or a bit longer in clear water or calm days, has been my main rod. Whether fishing for bonefish or redfish in the flats, working a shoreline for snook or casting to mackerel or snapper on a chum line, the 8 weight did it all. And did it well.

My light rod, for fun, was a 6 weight often used for baby tarpon or areas of small bonefish. And my 10 weight I use for big tarpon fishing, permit and light blue water. I also had, and still have, a large variety of fly rods for other applications, such as trout fishing up north, fishing for billfish, big sharks and such.

But times are changing, and fishing pressure in the salt, specially in flats and coastal areas, continues to increase every year. So it is not unusual today for fish in shallow water to spook from the fly line in the air. Or to be more sensitive to the splash of the fly line landing on the water. Also, today’s fish are more aware of terminal tackle—that is, the diameter of the tippet and bite tippet. And in areas where they see lots of flies they are more difficult to fool.

For a while, I reacted to all the difficulties mentioned above by going to my 7 weight, mostly with a 12-foot leader, when conditions became difficult. And it helped some, but not enough for my taste. So on flat calm days or very clear water in the backcountry, I started to use my 6 weight with 12-foot leaders and lighter tippet or bite tippets. And it paid off very well. But still, I went back to my 7 and 8 weight with the shorter leaders, probably by force of habit.

But over the last few years I have unconsciously started to use my 6 weight rods more often, and for bigger fish, not just for fun little fish. The only limitation has been the size, weight, and bulk of the fly. Then as time went by I started to use the light rod on windier days. I just shorten the leader to 9 or 10 feet to make the turn over easier. And the result has been a lot more fish landed.

And frankly, fishing a light 6 weight rod is a dream. For me it’s a lot more fun, and a lot less effort than casting an 8 weight all day. So it’s now to the point that when fishing for bones in the Keys or snook in the Everglades, the 6 weight is my first choice, if conditions and the size of the fly needed allows it.

I am well aware that some of you are already using a 6 weight in the salt, even a 5 weight. But I’m so excited about this that I need to tell you about my 6 weight outfit. And be careful, this way of thinking is contagious.

The Rod

I generally choose a saltwater 6 weight rod, 9 feet long with a fast taper. This action helps me cast further, which is needed in areas of high fish pressure. Tailing fish these days usually need a long cast to reach them. Also this action generally offers more backbone in the rod, a big help in fighting a large fish.

However, there is a place for a fly rod with a progressive action that is a bit softer. These are areas that generally require short to medium cast most of the time, such as off color water or close quarters like some areas deep in the Everglades. Here a rod that bends deeper into the blank while making a short cast is ideal. And you can still fight a big fish with the slower rod; just make sure you fight the fish deep into the butt section of the rod, close to the cork. You’ll do fine.

The Reel

As you’ve read above, I am using the 6 weight for bigger fish. So I want a smooth drag and at least 200 yards of backing. But at the same time, I have a strong preference for a light reel. I don’t like a heavy reel that makes my 6 weight outfit feel like it’s a 7 weight. Also, and more importantly, a heavy reel throws the outfit out of balance, and you are conscious of it every time you false cast. When you are using a balanced outfit you are not aware of it at all. Indeed you should be concentrating on the area you are aiming at while sight casting or working a shoreline.

The Fly Line

Here you can choose from two fly line designs: a long belly (often called bonefish taper by some manufacturers) and a short belly (often called redfish taper by some manufacturers).
For long casts and delicate presentations a longer-belly line is best. However, for short and medium casts, a shorter taper is better. But really, both lines will work if you know how to cast.

Also, I often use a clear floating line, which when combined with a 12-foot leader can be deadly on spooky fish or when blind casting. However, since the clear line is hard to see in the air in some light conditions it can be harder to cast and harder to be accurate with it. It’s not a line for beginners. But if you are an intermediate caster or above, I suggest you try one out and see how you like it. Frankly, I use both lines, depending on conditions.

The Leader

I mostly use a 12-foot leader, with the 60/20/20 formula, which means that 60% of the leader is butt section, 20% mid-section, and 20% is tippet.

The Butt Section

After the fly line has done its work during the last false cast and finished turning over, the heavy butt section takes over and helps turn over the rest of the leader and fly. The butt section is really the backbone of the leader. On a 6 weight line I mostly use a 30-pound test for the butt section. But occasionally I’ll even use a light, soft 40-pound test material, which helps turn over bigger flies.

Mid Section

This is the leader’s transition from the fat butt section to the thinnest and weakest part of the leader, the tippet. I may use one or two pieces here, depending on how big the difference in diameter between the butt section and the tippet.

The Tippet

On a 6 weight, my tippet is usually 10-pound test for bones, small permit, and other fish that don’t have abrasive teeth. And when using a bite tippet for snook and tarpon, then my regular tippet can go as high as 12-pound test.

The Bite or Shock Tippet

Bite tippet is needed to overcome the abrasion of snook, tarpon (even baby tarpon), lady fish, and others. My bite tippet in the Everglades has always been 40-pound mono, but with my 6 weight I’ve gone to 30-pound fluorocarbon. And here the thinner diameter of 30-pound test and the lower visibility of fluorocarbon gets me a lot more strikes. On the other hand, #40 mono does give you a bit more protection against the abrasion of a big snook. You’ll have to decide which one to choose. Life is a compromise.

When it comes to length, I like to stay within IGFA rules, so I use 12 inches or shorter. Besides the smaller the bite tippet is the easier it is to cast. And a very long bite tippet in clear water gets less strikes.

The Flies

A well-balanced saltwater 6 weight outfit, with a long butt section on the leader, can turn over a pretty decent sized fly. Even weighted flies with bead chain or small lead eyes should be no problem, including smaller poppers and other surface flies.

What About the 8 Weight?

Well, my 8 weight still goes with me on every flat and coastal trip. After all, the 6 weight has its limitations. The main reason I go to the heavier 8 weight line is to be able to cast a heavier or bulkier fly. Also, when casting against a strong wind the heavier mass of an 8 weight is much better. But that’s ok, because you are bringing both rods, right?

And I use my 9 weight mostly to fish for permit when using some of the lighter flies I use for permit these day, or to cast to a large barracuda in the flats (one of my favorite things to do), where one has to turn over a big, long fly and a wire bite tippet. It’s a task for a heavier fly line.

Now, back to the 6 weight: if you are going to fight a big snook or redfish with such light tackle, you have the responsibility to learn to do it efficiently. Taking too long to fight a fish, especially on hot summer days, drastically increases the chances that the fish will die. Or that he will be too tired to get away from a predator, like a shark or a barracuda, after being released. It happens all the time.

So fight him from the butt of the rod and don’t “high stick” the rod. One way to learn to fight fish in a short time is to hire a guide to go shark fishing with your fly rod. Chances are you’ll hook lots of sharks and get the practice necessary in a day or two. Besides, it’s lots of fun.

With the 6 weight in hand, casting is wonderful, presentations are delicate, yet deadly, small fish are fun, and there is quite a thrill when you hook a big fish. For me, this is truly fly fishing at its best. You are going to love it. I guarantee it.