Ultralight Fly Fishing: The Essential Guide For Backpackers

Ultralight Fly Fishing

Ultralight fly fishing means, simultaneously, different things to various groups of people.

If you’re a backpacker ultralight fly fishing probably means reducing the physical mass of the gear you’re carrying.

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On the other hand, if you’re a fly angler, ultralight fly fishing probably means fishing with specific types of gear.

I suppose if we were to cross the two concepts we would come to a hybrid understanding. This might be a world in which anglers carry both physically lightweight gear, but also niche types of fly rods. To truly embody this concept, the exemplary ultralight fly angler would use the least heavy rod and reel in the range of 3wt or below.

In this article, I aim to focus primarily on lightweight fly fishing gear for the backpacker.

Advantages of Ultralight Fly Fishing for Backpacking

If you’re a frequent visitor of this site you’ll already know that we espouse ultralight and lightweight backpacking. When you catch the bug to take your fly gear on the trail, however, ultralight concepts can make life much more enjoyable. That is if you’re willing to leave the large fly boxes and endless spools of tippet at home…

Advantages

  • Having a lighter pack means more room for fly gear
  • Lightweight fly gear tends to be simple – easy to use on the trail
  • Light gear can disappear in your pack for days until you get to your fishing spot
  • Truly minimal gear can be an “every day carry” just in case you find a spot
  • Backpackers have access to some of the best fly fishing waters on the planet, in total solitude

If you’re an ultralight backpacker and a fanatic angler, like me, you may come to heads with decision making. We cut every ounce out of our pack at any opportunity. Yet, here we are, contemplating carrying fly fishing gear “just in case” or “just for fun”. It seems like a bit of a misnomer.

However, when we start taking a look at truly ultralight (weight) fly gear such as Tenkara setups, you may be surprised. With very little bulk and 3 ounces or less, you can be ready to fish anywhere!

I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to trade a scant few ounces such as that in exchange for pulling brook trout out of some of the most remote headwaters on earth!

And here we have the “trade-off” concept. Some backpackers will save weight by not carrying toilet paper only to “trade it off” by carrying an ultralight pillow. It’s a quality of life decision at the end of the day. What can you live without and what do you need to carry to get the most enjoyment out of any day on the trail?

Now, don’t get me wrong, you should never leave gear behind that will compromise your safety just so you can carry a fly rod! But, if it’s a decision between a Jetboil or my Tenkara rod… the rod is going and the stove is staying.

Essentially the lighter your gear setup is (and the less bulky) the easier it is to justify tucking it away in your bag.

Choosing an Ultralight Fly Fishing Rod

So we’ve decided to pack some fly gear but we want to keep weight to a minimum. How do we find ultralight fly fishing gear for backpackers?

Traditional Fly Rod Weights

“Weight” when it comes to traditional fly rods is a measure of the power of the rod – the size and type of flies it can handle casting. Weight is measured usually from about 3wt – 10wt for most fly fishing applications.

There is some correlation between wt and weight in terms of mass, but it’s not direct. For instance, you could have a 5wt fly rod that physically weighs more than a 3wt fly rod. That said, however, a lower “wt” rod will usually tend to be a bit lighter than a higher “wt” rod.

This is for two primary reasons. As rod “wt” goes up, the rods tend to get thicker (to handle heavier flies) and longer to cast the correspondingly larger flies. Of course, a thicker, longer fly rod will usually weigh more than a thinner, shorter rod.

For example:

Let’s look at the Piscifun Sword fly rod – a packable, affordable, and popular fly rod.

As you can see, the 4wt rod weighs 3.9 ounces while the 9wt rod weighs 5.3 ounces. As rod “wt” increases, overall physical mass increases linearly as well.

Now, choosing the correct fly rod weight for your needs is a different story and becomes rather complex.

Most backpackers will enjoy a 4wt or 5wt for general trout fishing in the skinny headwaters of alpine passes with a variety of modern tactics using smaller flies.

If you insist on longer casts, fishing larger water, targeting bigger fish, or fishing with large, heavy streamer type flies then you might err more toward a 6wt or 7wt fly rod.

Fly Rod Segments

Most fly rods will either be 2 piece or 4 piece rods.

Two-piece rods are faster to assemble and more sensitive overall because the tactile feel is transferred more seamlessly. Meanwhile, four-piece rods pack down much smaller, take longer to assemble, and have a very minimally reduced performance due to the number of segments.

For backpacking, a four-piece fly rod is a must-have due to pack size restrictions. Most two-piece rods won’t even come close to fitting in your pack.

Fly Rod Material

Fly rods are generally made from three different types of material. Here are those materials from lightest to heaviest:

  1. Graphite
  2. Fiberglass
  3. Bamboo

Note: Bamboo and fiberglass can change places in terms of which is heavier depending on how each rod is made. They’re relatively similar in weight.

By far the lightest material you can find for a fly rod is graphite. This material is currently the most widely popular material for most fly rod construction as well. That makes it a top pick for ultralight backpackers looking for a backpacking fly rod.

While the conversation on fly rod material can be (and is) a substantially deep topic, we’ll consider graphite the material of choice for backpackers looking to shed weight.

Backpacking Fly Reels

Fly reels get an awful lot of attention in the fishing world. However, I’m going to turn that upside down in this article. For backpacking, particularly with a focus on keeping gear compact and lightweight for fishing remote mountain streams, I content that the fly reel is little more than a line-holding device.

Small skinny-water trout in remote streams that most people are likely to encounter on a backpacking excursion should need little more than a short, lightweight rod, and a minimalist reel. We don’t need fancy reels with sealed drag housings for fighting huge steelhead or landing sailfish. We simply need a lightweight fly reel that will keep our line organized.

I contend that the most ideal ultralight fly fishing setups for backpackers focused on weight and bulk don’t even have a reel at all.

Note: When choosing a reel, be sure to choose a reel that matches the “wt” of the rod you’re using. Typically, a 3/4wt rod would use a 3/4wt reel (and 3/4wt line).

Fixed Line Fly Fishing

Fixed-line fly fishing might be the penultimate ultralight setup for backpacking.

Given that our goal is to keep things lightweight, compact, and packable for targeting small to moderate fish in relatively small headwaters and alpine lakes fixed-line fly setups make a lot of sense.

With a fixed-line fly setup, you have, simply, a fly rod, a set amount of line, and a fly.

There is no reel. You’re limited to a fixed and predetermined amount of line (usually 9-14 ft or so).

Fixed-line fly fishing has become popularized lately by a method known as Tenkara. This, originally, Japanese method of fly fishing has gained popularity both as a novelty and as a specialty.

Tenkara Fly Fishing for Ultralight Backpackers

Tenkara rods are telescoping rods that weigh from (approx.) 1-3 ounces in total. These rods use a fixed-line to cast which is most often the length of the rod or a bit longer.

On the end is attached a fly called a “kebari” which, for this article, is simply a very lightweight, usually quite small, simple “fly” for fishing everything from panfish to trout.

Let it not be overshadowed that Tenkara is a Japanese fishing method and art – the extreme intricacies of which I am not intimately familiar. It was originally developed for fishing small mountain streams, however, to the best of my knowledge. Today’s tenkara rods do exactly that with very little bulk and weight and they make a divinely simple setup for ultralight backpackers.

Note: Many lightweight western-style flies can be cast with a tenkara rod and tenkara rods now come in many different styles to handle just about any type of fishing you’d want to do.

Because this method lacks a reel it weighs substantially less than even the lightest western-style fly rigs. That said, it also comes with many drawbacks.

Advantages

  • Simple
  • Lightweight
  • Extremely compact
  • Easy to learn and get started
  • Little gear required

Disadvantages

  • Fixed casting distance
  • Requires extreme stealth
  • Can be limiting in some situations

Please, don’t take this as “Tenkara is better than other fly fishing methods.” Tenkara just happens to be a great method for backpackers due to its inherent advantages when it comes to the lightweight and compact needs of hikers.

Price

Of course, the last factor we need to think about is the price tag on any given piece of gear. Most of us, and our readers, aren’t willing to spend nose-bleed prices on gear so we need to find lightweight gear that is accessible and affordable without compromising performance.

For that reason, we won’t be listing crazy-expensive fly fishing gear unless it is substantially better and lighter than the more affordable options.

Best Ultralight Fly Fishing Gear for Backpacking

Ultralight Fly Fishing Rods for Backpacking

This fly rod has everything we could ask for in a lightweight fly rod for backpacking.

  • IM7 Graphite rod
  • 4-piece rod
  • 4wt – 9wt available

For skinny headwaters and tight streams, you’ll do well with the short 8’6″ 4wt rod (3.9 oz) – perfect for smaller fish. If you plan to have access to bigger fish and bigger waters you can go with the 5wt 9′ rod (4.2 oz) that will give you a little more backbone for fighting and landing larger fish in faster water.

If you order the 4wt rod it comes with a rod tube that is 29.5″ long – all of the larger rods come in 31.5″ tubes for storage and protection.

It’s worth mentioning that this rod is well-loved by users and comes in at an inarguable price for beginners.

Another 4-piece fly rod, this one has a little more versatility in the options available. There are a total of 12 rod lengths and weights available with the lightest being a 3wt 8′ 4″ (3.25 oz) up to the longer 9′ 6″ 5wt (3.99 oz).

At the end of the day, this rod is a little lighter than the Piscifun Sword so if shaving every ounce is your game then look here.

  • IM7 Graphite rod
  • 4-piece rod
  • 3wt – 10 wt available

It’s worth noting that I like the rod case for this rod better than the Piscifun. It comes with foam inserts that help keep each part of the rod from banging into one another – great for traveling and backpacking.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any data on how long the rod tube is.

Far and away the lightest rod on our list, the Hydrogen rod is a perfect match for the Redington Zero reel (see below).

At just 2.1 ounces (7’6″ 3wt) the creek rod is an insanely lightweight 4-piece rod that will be a great ultralight companion on any backpacking trip for small streams.

  • Skeletonized reel seat
  • Rod tube with dividers
  • 2wt – 6wt available

There’s only one reason this rod doesn’t top our list – it’s several times more expensive than the others. We’re talking about a multi-hundred dollar difference in price tag for a weight savings of about 2 ounces in most cases (less in some).

If you’ve got the cash to cough up you’ll find superior performance and lighter weight from the reputable Redington Hydrogen.

Best Ultralight Fly Reel for Backpacking

By far my top pick in the ultralight fly reel lineup is the Redington Zero. This reel, aimed at the lightweight trout angler, is ideal for ultralight backpackers.

  • 4 colors available
  • Die-cast aluminum
  • Clicker drag

Redington knocked it out with this one by using die casting processes to make a lighter reel. The 2/3wt reel comes in at just 2.7 ounces (which is crazy light) while the 4/5wt is barely lighter at just 3 ounces.

Again, as long as we’re shopping for lightweight reels to handle moderate streams and moderate fish while backpacking there’s no reason the Redington Zero can’t keep up!

Note that additional spools are available in all colors and the reel features a quick change mechanism to swap out spools if you want to carry more than one.

This reel is convertible between left and right-hand retrieves.

For backpackers fishing skinny waters targeting small to moderate fish, there’s little reason for extremely expensive reels with bleeding-edge drag systems. Instead, we need something affordable and lightweight like the Piscifun Sword II.

  • Aluminum reel
  • 3wt – 8wt reels available
  • Green or black color

At just 4 ounces for the 3/4wt reel it’s comparable to many reels in the multi-hundred dollar price range but won’t destroy your wallet.

This reel is available in forest green or black color and features a mid-arbor design. The reel does have a cork and stainless steel drag system and you can change the retrieve from left to right hand if desired.

Best Tenkara Rods for Ultralight Backpacking

While the world of Tenkara is large and growing quickly, one rod stands out as the backpacker’s top pick.

DRAGONtail Tenkara makes a wide range of western-adapted Tenkara style rods and the Talon 330 is specifically designed with the backpacker in mind.

  • 10′ 7″ rod length
  • 2.9 ounces (rod only)
  • Comes with the line, tippet, and kebari

This rod collapses into itself (like all Tenkara rods) and is just 17″ long when stored. It comes with a hard case for protection which can be left behind when you hit the trail to minimize weight even further.

Without the case, the rod itself weighs just 2.9 ounces and measures a lofty 10′ 7″ long. Combine that with a similar line+tippet length and you’ve got over 20′ of fixed-line casting length.

For an amazingly affordable price, you’re ready to hit the trail with less than 5 ounces of gear (including line, tipped, kebari, etc.) and get fishing!

There are plenty of tenkara manufacturers out there, but DRAGONtail sneaks in to steal both spots on our list.

This Hellbender rod is the next step up in tenkara rods. It’s made to handle larger fish than the Talon 330 so it makes a good choice for those looking to get into bigger streams with a chance at some legendary trout or bass.

  • Zoom rod (adjustable length)
  • 3.4 ounces
  • 24″ collapsed

As a zoom tenkara rod, you can remove a segment to adjust the rod almost instantly from a 13′ rod (good for larger areas) to an 11′ rod (good for tighter spaces).

Likely the biggest drawback of this longer, more powerful tenkara rod for backpackers is that it only collapses down to 24″. That’s a bit too long to fit in most backpacks so you’ll be relegated to carrying the protective case and strapping the whole thing on the outside of your pack which is both heavier and bulkier than many prefer.

However, if you want those bigger fish, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. Besides, it’s still a lot lighter than even the nearest competitive western-style fly rod and reel.

Conclusion

Fly fishing is a very broad and very deep sport. When you get into the details and technicalities of specialized lines, rods, reels, and fishing styles things get tricky very quickly (and expensive).

For this article, I’ve tried to give some advice and tips on melding fly fishing with ultralight backpacking. Of course, the more experience you are with backpacking or fly fishing, the more you’ll want to tailor your approach to suit your needs. For those looking to understand the broad strokes of hiking with lightweight fly gear, you should now have a place to start.

Remember to always support your local fly shop and your local backpacking outfitter. When in doubt go see them to get advice and gear – most fly shops have extensive experience in local waters.

Remember that ultralight fly fishing and ultralight backpacking are two different animals. Blending lightweight fly fishing gear with an ultralight backpacking approach can be a great way to fish streams that rarely see another angler.


About the author

Casey Fiedler

Professional ski instructor and backpacking guide, Casey Fiedler went to school with CWC and NOLS for Outdoor Education and Leadership. Want to read more about what it takes to lead great adventure trips? Casey writes about outdoor education at caseyfiedler.wordpress.com

2comments
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Justin - February 20, 2021

Thanks for the this write up! I’m new to fly fishing and I was getting overwhelmed by how many options are out there. This helped me narrow down some options that would be good for backpacking. So far my only experience with is with a tenkara and a spinning reel.
I like the tenkara for small streams but it’s short casting distance can make it a struggle when fishing on lakes. I’ve caught plenty of fish on lakes with a tenkara but my spinning set up is significantly more effective.
I have found flies to be really effective when floating them down small streams. Spinning reel lures like rooster trails and spoons sink too fast and get snagged really easily in shallow streams. Bobber/grub setups can be too much presentation in the cast and float on small streams.
I’m hoping that a fly rod/reel setup will give me casting distance for lakes and give me that delicate float presentation on streams.

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    Casey Fiedler
    Casey Fiedler - February 26, 2021

    You got it, buddy!

    Reply
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