High water and fast currents require a different mindset fly fishing.  Heavy flies are needed, but the age-old question is how much weight and where to add it on your fly fishing rig.  On a recently, I fished conditions that demanded I change things and go heavy.

using split shot fly fishing
using split shot fly fishing

As the boat drifted down the river I started debating if I should tie a heavier fly on in the slower deep water.  The river was running high, snow run-off and the April rains had raised the level to near-flood stage. The big browns and ‘bows would be near the bank looking for the stonefly nymphs migrating to the shore.

Guide Tip:  In high water the fish tend to hug the bottom or the banks.  The banks are nice because different food is being dislodged and high water tends to have less visibility.  Remember trout want – Food, Shelter and to Conserve Energy

About a quarter mile downstream I eased my boat into an eddy. The rubber-legged bugs we were using were moving too fast and too shallow to interest the trout. Tossing the flies close to the bank caused the rubber legs to swing back close to the fly negating the whole reason for using the skunks that I had tied on.

When to Switch Up Flies and Go Heavy

I swapped the fly with the same pattern, but this time with maximum weight built into them.   I immediately felt the difference casting. 

Guide Tip: A word of warning heavy bead head flies WILL break a rod tip, learn to cast with the rod forming a slight oval.  This helps the dreaded fly tick caused by a fly striking the rod.

I technique I learned a few years ago is to put a little yellow dot on the head of the fly to signify it has some wraps of lead on the hook shank.

Heavier weighted flies will look the same, but how they react casting and drifting is completely different.  I recommend opening your casting loop, you can do this by loosening your wrist, causing a slight rotation of the rod tip.

open loop fly cast
open loop fly cast

At least for me, I feel like I can cast more accurately with a heavier fly.   I don’t know this for a fact, but it feels like it.  With streamers you want to get close to the bank, but still have enough water for the fly to drift out.  

On this trip casting a heavier fly within a foot or so of the bank did the trick.  Within 20 minutes I had a bent rod and a chunky two-and-a-half-pound brown in the net.

So why did this work?  Doesn’t a Heavy Fly Have Less Action?

Before the trip was over, I landed 4 or 5 more trout. Probably if I had more experience, I could have used lightweight flies and still fished them effectively by casting very close to the bank, keeping as much line off the water as possible by holding the rod tip high. 

Remember what I mentioned trout want food, shelter and to save energy.  Fishing close to the bank was providing all these factors.

The added effort would prevent faster currents from grabbing the line and unnaturally dragging the flies away from the shore. The heavier flies would have presented a problem if fished in the same river during a low water event, like late summer or when we don’t have quite as much snow melt.

Water levels can vary so much that the same fly should be weighted in many ways to compensate for the changing conditions.

How Much Weight Should You Add to a Fly?

Adding weight to a fly can be done in several ways. The fly can be tied on a heavier hook for a starter. Big bucktail that I use frequently are tied on extra-heavy-wire salmon hooks. Occasionally I add a few turns of lead wire at the bends of these big #3/0 hooks to swim the fly properly in heavy water.

If a heavier fly is needed, copper, brass, or lead wire may be necessary. The quickest and most common weighting method is to wrap the wire on the hook shank. The wires are available in many diameters and even in a square shape.

Where to Add Weight on the Fly

YOU ALSO MAY APPLY LEAD to your flies with strips of wire or brass pins tied to the sides of the hook shank to add weight and produce a flattened body shape. To offset the buoyancy of dubbing, hackle and wing material, a single length of wire tied to the underside of the hook will sink your offering in slow or Stillwater.

Also available are lead eye designed for large nymph or crayfish imitations. They can be attached to the shank with thread.  They are flat and tapered like the body of the natural. Brass beads, like those used in Bear Andrew’s Hex nymph patterns which are deadly with steelhead.

hex nymph fly for steelhead
hex nymph fly for steelhead

The amount and position of the weight will affect your fly’s swimming action. Drop a live nymph into the quiet waters along the edge of the stream. Observe how the nymph swims to the bottom, the head angling downward as it wiggles its way to the streambed.

One of the best fish-producers in my fly arsenal is the Pheasant Tail nymph. Layers of wire used to build the thorax of the Pheasant Tail cause it to swim head down, like the natural. I’ve modified the PT by adding add more weight to meet the demands of my local waters. This is done usually with a bead head that is either brass or tungsten.

BH Pheasant Tail for Nymph Fishing
BH Pheasant Tail for Nymph Fishing

The small diameter copper and brass wire used in the Pheasant Tail is an integral ingredient in shaping this nymph to duplicate the natural mayfly. The thorax is the heaviest part of the insect’s anatomy, a natural place to hide the wire and enhance the form.

Adding weight to these small flies allows a good entry into the water, more accurate casting than with shot on the leader, a heavier tippet, and easier manipulation of the fly in the water.

Adding Split Shot to Your Leader and Tippet

Adding weight to the leader and tippet will change how the fly drifts to the bottom.  Essentially the weight is leading the charge down in the water column which can spook some finicky trout. 

What I like about this solution is the speed of making weight adjustments. Squeezing on another split shot if need only takes seconds.  If I know the spot is fishy, I’ll continue weighting the leader and tippet until the bug gets to heavy to drift or breaks off.

Where Do I Add Weight to the Leader?

I try to always add split shot above a knot.  In fact, I’ll clip the line and re-tie it to add a knot so the split shot doesn’t slide down. 

Dry Fly Setup
Building a Fly Fishing Leader

If possible, try to spread the shot out on the line, having a more than wo pieces of split shot is a receipt for getting hung up on the bottom and breaking off.  One exception to this is when tying a “chuck and duck” rig.  You can read more about C & D in this article: How to Setup a Fly Rod for Chuck and Duck

Add a Heavy Fly into a Multi-Fly Setup to Pull the Fly Down

Most meadow waters abound with smaller aquatic life forms. These tiny flies are difficult to weight without destroying the delicacy of the form. Tiny caddis flies like Zebra nymphs and rainbow warriors are tied to be streamlined to sink.

Unfortunately, the tiny size though hinders weight being added to the fly. One technique is to tie a heavy point fly like a weighted scud.

Want to learn a bit more about multi-fly setups? Read this article describing what a leader fly is – What is a Point Fly in Fly Fly Fishing (plus setup)

Fishing combinations of variously weighted flies can be very productive. Early in the season on one of our local spring creeks, I fish two moderately weighted cranefly larva imitations. The absence of aquatic weed growth in the spring produces a low water situation.

Fishing a very heavy fly then would result in its being constantly fouled on the bottom and appearing lifeless. It is often necessary to add enough weight to fish the fly as deep as possible.

Weighted Streamers for Fly Fishing

Most of my streamers are weighted in various amounts to get the fly down. Big flies offer more resistance to the current and are more difficult to sink. A rule of thumb is the larger the fly the more lead required. Of course, too much lead can produce a monster that cannot be cast. You’ll know the limit when the fly becomes too heavy.

Guide Tip: Streamer fishing with floating line is my ABSOLUTE favorite method of fly fishing in faster water.  I have a complete guide to Streamer Fly Fishing with Floating Fly Line

When weighting streamers and certain stonefly nymphs very heavily, tying on straight-eye hooks will insure the fly swimming right side up. Although most of my streamers are weighted, I still prefer to add split shot to the leader, against the eye of the hook, enough to cause the fly to swim head down.

Sink Tips on your Fly Line to Fish Streamers Deeper

Another method of getting a streamer down is to combine a weighted fly and a sink tip added onto your floating fly line.  What I like about this method is that the section of leader adds action back into the streamer. 

The streamers can tend to be a bit lighter and the added sink tip gets the fly down into the water column.

Using Jig Heads on Flies?

A fun technique is to use a jig head fly.  Seriously you’ve seen those “Mr. Twister” jig heads they can be deadly to deep trout fished from a boat.  During the shad kill on the White River this style of fly below a bung fly is amazing.   What is a “Bung” read about it in this article: What is a Bung in Fly Fishing

A jig head fly can be lifted off the bottom and then allowed to fall again, emulating the action of a crippled bait fish. This jigging technique in pocket-water rivers that contain good sculpin populations can be devastating.

A favorite streamer the Black Matuka Sculpin has lead tied into its head to obtain this action without adding shot to the leader. This jigging fly also makes an enticing lure for lake or pond fishing. Another favorite the Bunny Leech can be tied with lead in the front third of the body to achieve the jigging action. When the Leech is used in a river, the entire body should be weighted.

When Fly Fishing Fast Pocket Water – Heavy Weight Nymphs are Necessary

Pocket water, in tumbling mountain streams or rivers like in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, require extremely heavy flies. The fly must reach the bottom very quickly in the short, fast pockets if trout are to see it. The fish, in this type of water, will have less time to be critical of the presentation.

Fly Fishing Pocket Water
Fly Fishing Pocket Water

On certain symmetrically tied flies, which appear the same when viewed from any position, such as the Muskrat nymph, no special treatment is needed to weight the fly. Fortunately the faster white-water streams have an abundance of stoneflies and sculpins. Representation of the naturals are big and give the tyer a large hook to add an extra portion of lead.

Other Factors to Consider When Weighting Lines and Flies

Factors governing the amount of lead are your casting and mending habits, length of the leader, length of the cast, size of the fly, water temperature (affecting trout activity), depth- and flow-rate of the river, and whether you are wading or floating.

Guide Tip: Read about fly fishing journals and how my notes have saved me in this article:  Best Time to Fly Fish During the Day and How Does Water Temperature Effect Fly Fishing

I try to write notes in my journal.  Type of fly, flow and water levels are critical.  I will review the notes a couple months after the trip, but I haven’t remembered when I’ve pulled the books out when fishing.

What I will say that making the notes reinforces what I learned during an outing.  Having those notes are akin to jotting down notes when you were in school preparing for a test.

The Last Cast

If your fly isn’t getting down to wear the fish are at, your missing opportunities.  As tough as it is to cast and mend a heavy setup, tapping a fish in the nose is the best way to get a bite.  If trout are to come for your fly, the imitation must be moving realistically, and one means of accomplishing realism is with weight.


More Nymph Fishing Articles – WHY because NYMPHS Catch Fish!


David Humphries at Guide Recommended

Hey David here the maker of Guide Recommended. I’m super passionate about everything fly fishing fishing; writing, teaching and even video.