Catching trout with nymphs is dependent on your ability to get your flies in the fish’s face. And since trout hang out near the bottom, getting your flies deep as quickly as possible is often what’s required. To do this, some amount of weight on your leader is necessary — split shot and weighted flies are your best option.
When to Use Split Shot on Your Nymph Rigs
Adding split shot to your nymph rig is a convenient way to get your flies to sink. With a wide range of split shot sizes available, adjusting your rig’s sink rate and depth is as easy as moving to a larger size shot or simply crimping on a few additional small ones.
Using split shot instead of weighted flies also gives you a lot of flexibility in customizing how your flies ride in the water. With a typical two-nymph indicator rig, crimping your split shot above your flies will cause them to ride very close to the river bottom, more or less in a horizontal line. If you crimp the split shot between the two flies, however, you’ll have one that rides higher and one that trails behind lower. Another great option is to crimp your split shot below both flies off a short section of tippet — known as a “drop shot rig” — which keeps your split shot in contact with the bottom and the flies at two different depths.
Split shot also affords the ability to fish unweighted flies of any size at practically any depth. Go ahead, fish a size 24 Zebra Midge down to 20 feet — just keep adding split shot! With weighted flies, however, you can only add so much weight before the fly gets too bulky and loses its imitative qualities.
While there are many benefits to using split shot, there are also some downsides. One concern is that continuously adding and removing split shot can damage your leader and create weak spots vulnerable to breakage. In terms of performance, if you place your split shot above your flies, your strike detection sensitivity will be slightly compromised as the fish will have to move the split shot for you to feel it. Finally, some states and rivers ban the use of lead split shot due to environmental concerns, in which case you’ll be limited to using “non-toxic” split shots or weighted putties.
When to Use Weighted Nymphs
Weighted nymph flies are typically weighted with either bead heads made of brass or tungsten, wraps of wire on the hook shank, or a combination of both. With the weight built-in, weighted flies can be fished without split shot in most cases, which comes in handy for competition anglers who can’t have any extra weight added to their lines. Even if you aren’t competing or fishing water in which split shot is banned, weighted flies minimize extra “junk” on your leader and keep things simple.
Increased strike detection is another huge gain offered by weighted nymphs. Without split shot getting in the way, you can stay in direct contact with the fly for a more pronounced feel and better hooksets.
Adjusting your depth when using weighted flies requires you to change flies completely, but as long as you have the same fly patterns in a range of weights this maneuver is easy. If you aren’t prepared with flies of different weights, however, using split shot has some significant advantages over using weighted flies.
Another slight downside to weighted flies is that they don’t drift as naturally as unweighted flies. In fast, turbulent water, the extra lag of a weighted fly may go unnoticed, but in slower water, it could be a dead giveaway.
Double Down and Fish Deep!
Of all the conditions you must adapt to during a day of fishing, water depth and current speed often eat up the most bandwidth. That’s where weight on your leader — either from split shot or bead-head flies — comes into play. Split shot is extremely convenient and offers a high degree of adjustment and customization, but weighted nymphs often get deep just as quickly and minimize clutter on the leader.
The best advice?
Use both. Keep split shot of various sizes in your vest at all times and make sure you have a selection of weighted nymphs on board as well. Use what’s best for the situation, and don’t forget — you can always fish weighted flies with split shot to get super deep STAT!