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Ultra-Light Tackle Fishing Guide
written by Wade Bourne

Light tackle tactics yield heavy-duty action.
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The purpose for this downsized tackle is to enable an angler to cast tiny lures:  Jigs, crankbaits, spinners, etc. that weigh 1/32-1/8 ounce.

Sometimes, a little bit of fishing is better than a whole lot, at least as far as tackle and lures go. In this case, "a little bit" equates to "ultra-light" bantam-sized rods, reels, lines and baits. Frequently, such diminutive tackle and lures and the special techniques required of them will catch more fish than their heavy-duty counterparts. And they don't just catch small fish! Little baits draw big bites, and skillful anglers can catch lunkers on this so-called "toy tackle."


Still, many anglers shy away from using ultra-light. They're afraid of its wimpy nature. They don't understand its advantages, and they've never experienced its pleasures. Indeed, fishermen using ultralight tackle average getting more bites, and they increase the challenge and (hopefully) satisfaction in playing fish.


So, exactly what is ultra-light tackle? Technically, ultra-light is a term which describes a rod action. The term is relative lighter than light action. Ultra-light rods typically quiver like buggy whips when shaken in the air. They have parabolic actions (uniform bend from butt to tip) and the techniques required to use them are a bit different from your medium- or heavy-action gear. 


Ultra-light rods are matched with small spinning or spincast reels. These reels are spooled with spiderweb-sized lines, typically 2-6 pound test.


The purpose for this downsized tackle is to enable an angler to cast tiny lures: Jigs, crankbaits, spinners, etc. that weigh 1/32-1/8 ounce. Many times fish will take these smaller offerings more readily than larger ones. Also, ultra-light allows anglers to fish artificials for crappie, bluegill, rock bass, trout and other panfish which feed on smaller natural foods. 


Further, many experienced fishermen prefer ultra-light tackle for such larger species as black bass, catfish, walleyes and even stripers or striper hybrids. Using ultra-light on big fish increases the challenge in playing big fish and the satisfaction when they are landed. 


Ultra-Light Lures:  Big Attraction in Small Packages


By using ultra-light lures, anglers don't eliminate any fish. If it swims and preys on other aquatic creatures, it will dine on ultra-light. This is true of everything from madtoms to muskies. True, these ultra-light lures come in several categories: crankbaits, jigs, topwaters, spinners, soft plastics and spoons.  Most of these baits are very natural in appearance and resemble some natural prey. Crawfish, minnows, worms and insects are favorites of predator fish, and even though these downsized lures take more small fish than large ones, that's because there are more small ones to start with. 


Anglers should stock up on lures in each category, then experiment to see which the fish prefer on that given day. In clear water, natural colors are best brown or green crawfish, silver spinners, and spoons. However, in dingy water, such bright colors as chartreuse and yellow work well.


Playing Fish on Ultra-Light


Ultra-light is sporting tackle, not "horsing" tackle. With these diminutive rods, reels and line, anglers have to play fish carefully and wear them down before attempting to land them. This is why patience is a key element in successfully taking fish with ultra-light tackle. 


However, "ultra-light" describes more than tackle. It defines a total concept in fishing downsizing to get more bites and to have more fun. You should not try to "muscle" in fish with ultra-light tackle to do this will result in a broken line and resulting frustration. Anglers must not hurry a larger fish to the boat or bank. 


Using ultra-light on big fish increases the challenge in playing big fish and the satisfaction when they are landed. 

Using reel drag properly is essential with ultra-light. It should be checked before each outing and adjusted so the drag will slip before the line breaks.


Many anglers use the "feels right" method for setting drag, loosening the setting, then pulling line off by hand to check the amount of resistance. However, this method is very imprecise.


A better method for setting drag is to attach the end of the line to a fixed object, then to back away and unreel 20-30 yards of line. Next, tighten down on the drag so it won't slip, then back up so tension on the line is near the breaking point. Then loosen the drag slowly until it slips the first time this is the proper setting for fishing.


When playing a fish on ultra-light, keep the rod tip up so the fish is pulling against the spring in the rod.  This is the quickest way to wear the fish down.


Proper use of the reel is a must in playing a fish with ultra-light. In open water where snags are minimal, an angler simply has to hold on and wait for the fish to tire.  However, in confined waters where snags are close, chances are the fish will head for the cover.


In this case, the ultra-light angler must hold on and attempt to steer the fish away from the cover with steady pressure. Or he can give the fish line as it heads under a log or into a treetop, then apply pressure again when the fish stops. Sometimes a big fish burrows straight into cover, then will turn and come straight out again without snarling the line.


A landing net is a handy accessory when ultra-light fishing for larger fish. If no net is available, a fish should be fully spent before it is landed by hand. One last headshake at the boat may break the line.


Eliminating Line Twist


One major nemisis for ultra-light anglers is line twist. Thin monofilament and narrow-spool spinning reels are a recipe for teeth-clenching snarls.


However, ultra-light users can take any of several measures to eliminate this problem. For starters, spool fresh line onto the reel. New line has less "memory" than line that's been spooled on for a lengthy period.


The underspin is another great reel to your ultra-lite set-up. 

Another way to reduce twist is to soak your line in water for a few minutes before fishing with it. Monofilament line will soak up water, which causes it to be limper than dry line.  Remove the line spool from the reel, drop it into a bucket of water and leave it for 3-5 minutes. Or, simply strip 20-30 yards of line from the reel and allow it to soak in the water. Then wind the line back onto the reel for fishing.


A third way to reduce line twist is to spray the line with a commercial lubricant. These line treatment products are sold under a variety of brand names.


Some anglers unknowingly cause line twist by using their equipment improperly. When the bait is hung, don't pull hard enough on the line to cause the drag to slip.  This will impart severe line twist. 


A fourth way to reduce twist is to manually close the bail of a spinning reel after making a cast. Most anglers don't realize that closing a bail mechanically builds sing a bail mechanically imparts a small amount of twist to the line. After a lengthy period of time, this can accumulate to worrisome twists and loops. 


If line twist does occur, remove the lure, then strip 50 or more yards of line off the spool and allow it to flow freely behind the boat or downcurrent. Resistance from the current will cause the line to untwist itself.


"Super Lines:"  Super for Ultra-Light 


Monofilament lines have been the choice of ultra-light users for years, but now many anglers are switching to new "super lines" for the unique combination of properties they offer.


For starters, super lines (i.e., Berkley Fireline) are remarkably strong, yet thin. Ten pound test super line has an equivalent diameter of 4 pound test monofilament. This means anglers who spool with these lines can cast tiny lures yet have more line strength for playing fish. Also, super lines are extremely limp and sensitive, two additional qualities which are a boon to ultra-light users.


One other property of these lines is winning ultra-light converts. Super lines are extremely resistant to twisting. An angler can cast an in-line spinner notorious for causing line twist all day virtually twist-free.


Choosing Ultra-Light Tackle


Today, consumers have a broad range of ultra-light tackle from which to choose, and quality runs the gamut. Anglers would be well-served to lean toward upper end products in terms of quality and price. Playing a large fish on ultra-light is no time to worry if the rod, reel or line will fail.


There are several indicators of high quality. Perhaps the best one is price. In buying tackle, you usually get what you pay for. High quality ultra-light rods and reels can cost as much as heavier tackle.


Beyond price, look for quality in the type materials used and features offered. Today, some top quality ultra-light reels have 5 ball bearings. Rods may be constructed of IM6 or IM7 graphite. 


Many anglers make the mistake of mismatching their rod and reel (for instance, buying an ultra-light reel and putting it on a rod with a light or medium-light action). For casting distance and accuracy with small lures, the reel, rod and line must be precisely balanced.


A silky-smooth drag is a must. Also, check the overall appearance of a rod how it is finished, how its guides are mounted, etc. Look for consistency and overall care in how the rod is assembled. This is where high quality will show through.


Rod length is another important consideration. Ultra-light rods measure from 4 to 7.5 feet. Shorter rods are good for casting in confined areas (i.e., narrow streams), but they don't yield the same casting distance and fighting power of longer rods. Longer rods will cast ultra-light lures farther, and their extra length provides more shock absorption for fighting big fish. However, longer rods can be unwieldy to use in tight situations. Everything considered, the best all-purpose ultra-light rods measure 5-6 feet.


Standard monofilament line sizes for ultra-light use are 2, 4, and 6 pound test, with the former two sizes the most popular. Different companies' lines in the same pound tests will have different feels and break strengths (despite what the labels say). Ultra-light anglers should experiment with different lines and fine-tune their tackle for best feel and performance. This job is similar to precision-tuning a custom rifle and its load for maximul accuracy.


Situations for Using Ultra-Light


Ultra-light tackle and methods may be used anytime by anglers who find this style and philosophy of fishing appealing. However, there are a few special situations where ultra-light is also the most practical, most productive fishing method available. Specific examples include:


  • Where fishing pressure is heavy Heavily pressured fish get spooky, and they become less likely to bite large, fast moving baits. However, they are much more prone to eat lures that are inconspicuous in terms of size and action. Finesse pays off in heavily fished areas.
  • Waters that are extremely clear   Crystal clear water is another condition that makes fish spooky. Thin line is less visible, and smaller baits are more visible, and smaller baits are less threatening, hence more appealing, than larger lures with abrasive actions.
  • Post-cold front conditions When a cold front blows through and the barometer rises, bass get uncomfortable, much like a human with indigestion. Offer him a steak, and he will turn it down flat. But pass a spoon of vanilla ice cream in front of him, and he'll probably take it. Ultra-light is the vanilla ice cream of fishing. 
  • When natural forage is small Sometimes, when minnows or insects are small, predator fish refuse to bite larger baits, but ultra-light lures which approximate the size of the natural food will still work. 

Don't Forget the Pliers


One must-have accessory for ultra-light fishing is a pair of needlenose pliers, or some type fisherman's tool with pliers included. Hooks on ultra-light baits are small and sharp, and they're best removed from deep within a fish's mouth by using the needlenoses. Doing so protects both fish and angler.


In addition, ultra-light anglers might also consider carrying three other accessories to make their sport more effective and enjoyable: Line clippers, a small hook file, and magnifying glasses for tying and checking knots in thin line.

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