All Wired Up

February 20, 2011 By: J. M. Chico Fernandez

ONE COOL FALL morning a few years ago, a friend and I were drifting over a reef in about 80 feet of water. We were looking for snapper and grouper, and some mid-water species, such as jacks, Spanish mackerel, and kingfish. My friend was using a spinning rod with a lead jig. I was using a fly rod and a fast-sinking line.

After some inactivity, my friend landed a Spanish, or cero mackerel. As soon as he boated that one and dropped his jig again, he had another on. I watched the second fish fighting down deep and noticed that we were over a large, loosely knit group of ceros. It was only a matter of time before my fly would catch the attention of one of these super fast members of the mackerel family.

I was retrieving quickly, with my rod tip a few inches under the water and aimed at the incoming fly. A few strips and I knew I had had a strike. Never felt it, mind you; but I knew a fish had hit because the slight pressure of retrieving such a heavy fly line was gone. In fact, my fly was gone as well. One of the large ceros had cut me off because I’d been in too much of a rush to rig that morning and had put on a piece of mono shock tippet rather than wire.

But the fish were still hitting my friend’s jig hard, so I hastily grabbed one of my rolls of wire (which turned out to be a size No. 7), and tied it to a 12-inch piece of 16-pound tippet. I secured another fly and got back in the water. No one was going to cut me off this time!

And no one did, mainly because nothing took the fly. The large diameter wire, let alone the length, kept the ceros at a distance. They would follow it, often all the way to the boat, but they would not strike. After about half an hour, I gave up and took the time to rig what I should have rigged from the beginning. That is, I tied on a piece of dark wire much less than 6 inches, and in the thinner No. 3 or No. 4 size. Then I re-tied a glass minnow fly, but of course the ceros had long since lost interest.

Taking the time to rig, even if it’s cumbersome wire tackle, was a lesson I should have already learned well. But sometimes I need to relearn things.

Wire Size Diameter Approx. Test Species
No. 3 .012 32 lb. Spanish Mackerel
No. 4 .013 40 lb. Small ‘cudas, kingfish
No. 5 .014 43 lb. Large ‘cudas, small sharks
No. 6 .015 61 lb. Sharks over 50 lbs.


Only a few weeks later, I made a trip to the lower Keys, mainly looking for barracudas. It was a calm, cool day with good visibility and everything looked good. But I had ignored my own oft-preached sermon about rigging all the way to the fly the night before. I had my butt section and mid-section tied and a loop ready. But I had no tippet, no wire, and no fly rigged.

As soon as we shot the engine and started poling, we spotted two large barracudas swimming straight toward the skiff. I quickly looped a 12-pound tippet to the mid section of the leader and again grabbed one of my wire rolls. I cut a piece, tied it to the tippet, and tied a fly to the other end. The ‘cudas were 80 feet away and coming.

But when I tried to put the fly line in motion, it felt as if the many years of casting had suddenly disappeared. I simply could not develop enough speed to get the fly in front of the ‘cudas. I lengthened my casting stroke, and it helped a little, but not enough to reach the fish. The wire was simply too heavy. Finally, the ‘cudas saw the boat and turned toward deep water.

I had again selected the heavy wire (No. 7 or so) that I use for large sharks. I can cast this wire fine with a 12-weight rod, but not with a 9-weight. Besides, I had also, in my rush, tied over a foot of wire for a shock tippet. The combination of heavy and long simply killed my casting.

To make matters worse, I had not brought any lighter wire with me. I was stuck with the heavy shark wire. So the best I could do now was to use the smallest piece of steel I felt I could get away with and still not have the barracudas swallow the whole thing and cut me off at the tippet.

I was able to take a couple of ‘cudas that day, but there is no doubt that a lighter wire would have had produced fewer refusals and longer casts. Finally, I had learned my lesson.

Getting Wired

Using a wire shock tippet on your fly rod always feels a bit unnatural, and certain fish do often shy away from the rig. But, if you are after toothy critters, such as mackerel, kingfish, barracudas, or sharks, then you are better off with wire.

After many years of experimenting, I have come to the conclusion that using wire on a fly rod is the art of knowing which is the thinnest and shortest piece you can get away with. Bearing this in mind, let’s choose the proper wire size and length and then discuss how to tie it to your tippet.

HayWire Twist Pass the wire through the hook eye and give it 3 to 5 uniform twists. Then begin barrel wrapping the tag end around the standing line for another 4 to 6 close wraps. After the last wrap, do not cut. Instead, bend the tag end at a right angle to form a small lever. Rotate the wire in one direction until it snaps off cleanly at the knot. (Wire diameter exaggerated for illustration.) Albright Knot Form a ‘U’ in the wire. Lay the monofilament into the loop. Pinch the first wrap against the wire and continue with another 8 or 9 wraps. Pass back through the head of the ‘U,’ moisten and draw tight on the tag end first. For extra strength, double the monofilament, or tie a Bimini twist and then tie the Albright as close to the Bimini as possible.

So-called straight or “hard” wire (as opposed to braided cable) comes in several sizes, from about a No. 1 to about No. 19 or so, depending on the manufacturer. Fly fishermen should carry from No. 3 to about No. 6 or 7. And because of the glare the bright wire produces, most of us prefer the dark wire, called coffee color.

For smaller fish like Spanish or cero mackerel, I use three to five inches of No. 3 or No. 4 wire. For barracudas of more than 20 pounds in both flats and reefs, I like six to eight inches of No. 5 wire. If you use a shorter length, a large ‘cuda will often eat the whole rig and cut you off. But I find that with six inches or more I can often strike before they swallow the leader. And this length is a good compromise between getting hits and making the long casts that are often needed for barracudas in the flats.

For sharks, say over 50 pounds, I like No. 6 wire as a good all-around choice. It is heavy, but I am usually using a 12-weight rod and can cast the wire and the big fly that goes with it.

Not all that is wire is bad, though. Often, while trying to get a fly down more than 50 feet with a fast-sinking line, you’ll find that the small piece of wire helps sink the fly into the strike zone. It is not unusual on a day of deep fishing with a sinking line and a fine-wire tippet to take mackerel, snapper, grouper, and jacks while using a No. 4 wire. I’ve done it many times.


There are probably as many ways to connect wire to mono as there are methods for tying mono to a fly. However, here are a couple of my favorite ways. Double the butt end of the wire in a U and tie an Albright Special with the monofilament, much the same way that one would tie to 80-pound mono when tarpon fishing. To make it stronger, I like to double the tippet and then tie the Albright. Or, for really large prey, such as sharks, I will tie a Bimini Twist in the tippet, and then take the doubled line and tie my Albright as close as possible to the Bimini knot. I tie my Albrights with at least nine turns, or sometimes more for extra strength, and I have not had a problem landing big fish. The fly is best tied to the wire with a classic Haywire Twist (see illustration).

Coated cable also works fine, and the soft plastic cover ties well with an Albright knot. However, when using coated cable, many fly fishermen prefer a simple figure-eight knot to the fly. There are disadvantages to both wire and coated cable. A hard-wire knot will tend to pick up grass and other debris. On the other hand, the plastic cover of coated cable increases its diameter and therefore its visibility. So I’m staying with regular wire for the time being.

But remember that whether you use wire or cable, it’s a good idea to tie several of these tippets with wire and loop the night before. Then, when opportunity presents itself, you will be ready.