Is the Five-Weight Obsolete?

Posted on September 01, 2016 by Dirk Fischbach | 3 comments

For more than a century, the five-weight was the workhorse of all freshwater fly fishing. From cane, to fiberglass to carbon fiber, the five-weight held the position of prominence, even as the standard rod length moved from 7 ½’ to 8’ to 8 ½’ and finally to 9’ as materials became lighter and stronger. Its ability to handle the broadest range of angling challenges made it the go-to arrow in every angler’s quiver.
In the 1990s, I started a manuscript (which remains unfinished) called “Around the World with a Nine-Foot Five-Weight” — my tribute to what was at the time the ubiquitous rod of serious anglers.
But, as the fly fishing game has changed in recent years, the five-weight, while still a leader in sales (mostly because it is still marketed in kits and beginner’s packages), has seen its popularity eroded somewhat.
The reasons for this are two-fold.
The first attack came from the move to bigger, articulated flies, which simply can’t be worked effectively on a line as light as a five-weight. When “trout fishing” became a matter of throwing the biggest, ugliest flies into the toughest holds, the torch was passed to seven-weight and even larger rods. The advent of over-weighted lines like the Wulff Ambush and Rio Outbound Short favored rods sturdy enough to handle excessive loading. These rods also were better suited to muscling the bruisers out of cover and handling the strain created by tippets that were measured in pound-rating rather than “x” sizes.
As industry insider and casting wizard Joe Hodge noted, “a six weight throws a dry fly a lot better than a five-weight throws a streamer.” And, thus the five-weight has lost out on the heavier end of the trout spectrum – a spot that it once ruled.
The attack also is coming from the other side, too.
In the early days of the sport, a four-weight was a very specialized tool. Only dedicated small-stream anglers had such a luxury. These were the rods of dry fly purists and were never viewed as general application rods.
Part of this was because in bamboo, a rod of greater than 7 ½’ was fairly heavy simply due to the materials used, and thus pairing a longer rod —which would be needed for bigger waters — with such a light line made little sense. (Prior to 1959, lines were designated based on diameter, rather than weight — but even taking this into account, the rods of the day were no lighter than a modern four-weight.) For reference, remember that a Paul Young Midge rod was a five-weight.
But, with modern carbon fiber, designers can now make four-weights of up to 9’ that are still light in the hand, and also powerful enough to do modest nymphing or wet fly work. Line manufacturers have pitched in, too, developing tapers that give a four-weight more muscle than it ever had before.
I still don’t consider a four-weight a suitable all-around trout rod, but many anglers do. And, as the four-weight expands its useful range, the five-weight again takes a hit.
So, while the death of the five-weight is s till a long ways off — most manufacturers still consider the 9 x 5 the benchmark for new rod series roll-outs — there is no doubt that it has lost the unquestioned dominance it once held.



3 Responses

jack sprague
jack sprague

September 12, 2016

A five weight keeps one from being embarrassed when trying to cast an “average” 6" brown.

With a seven, your unnoticed take becomes a “flying fish” on the back-cast! With a four, it’s an “aggressive” hook-set with a snapped tippet. Fishing a five allows you to pull off the casual air of the unnoticed fish in front of your buddy without the embarrassment of trout flinging or the frustration of tippet snapping.

Seriously, the trend toward “extreme” in our sport is a function of the Trout Industrial Complex. Even the cat litter my wife buys and has me haul upstairs is labeled “extreme.” It’s cat litter. It’s marketing.

Throwing streamers – perfectly acceptable to trout in sizes 10,12, and 14 tied of sparse bucktail or the older feather-wing classics – has evolved into an exercise in enticing the aggressive strike with half a bunny skin dyed fluorescent pink and lashed to a spare hay hook. Sure, I appreciate both the Kelly Galloup-style intent and results. I ask however: is it more fun?

Casting small and fighting the average Michigan fish is fun on a five however we’re fishing. On a four, it’s a blast and an occasional challenge. Gearing up to the “mousing seven” for an afternoon’s outing because there is perhaps a 24" brown under one log in the river means every alternative fish is over matched. Where’s the fun in that?

A five is perfect (I say at 8 1/2’ instead of 9’ because of our closed-in eastern waters rather than the wide-open classic western waters) for the #16 dry or soft-hackled evening and the #10 early-to-the-river afternoon bucktail in yellow-and-brown (or red-bellied bucktail if those browns share the water with smaller brookies). The soft-tipped four isn’t as pleasurable casting moderately weighted streamers though it likes dry #18s and #20s well.

Solution for the delicate presentation? Ditch the nylon 3x or 4x leader and use a soft thread furled leader. 4’ of tippet in 5x staged to 6X allows for even the most gentle of presentations (and drift) with the five weight. A 3’ 3x flouro on the end of the same leader works fine for small summer streamers.

There, we’ve brought fine sport back to the languishing five weight.

I pick gear for the fun factor and not for the enrichment of members of the T.I.C. Remember that the average brown hasn’t become “extreme” in the past eight decades and the need to up-gear completely evaporates.

In fact, I’d argue that the serious quiver ought to include the short 3wt (in glass or cane) for the increased sport so many small-water tributaries offer here in Michigan. Let’s not be thinking of putting the 5wt in the front hall closet with the old golf clubs quite yet. There’s better sport than that available when “feisty” is on our minds instead of “fierce.” Michigan trout are feisty first. Five weights are the rod to fish them all.

Steve Burkhalter
Steve Burkhalter

September 01, 2016

It depends a lot on where one is fishing. In the Holy Water of the big A there is nothing I can’t fish on a 8 1/2 5 weight Winston WT. Casting distance is not an issue there, casting precision is. A six weight is just too much rod for sulphers, and maybe even drakes, and WAY too much rod for small stream brook trout chasing. And the large articulated Musky sized streamers while great below Mio are two much fly for most of the Holy Water. The five is definitely the ticket up there. But as a former “industry insider” the ideal trout arsenal in MI needs two five weights, a big-water fly for throwing hoppers, drakes or making distance presentations on bigger water and a “Staff of Moses” for the holy water where accuracy and soft presentations rule.

William Clark
William Clark

September 01, 2016

Your article is right on. It shows that you were not introduced to the sport last week, and that you have earned your place by putting in your time. My thoughts on why it is are very much the same. What I would add is that over the last 20 years the focus has become more and more about “MEAT”! bigger and bigger! It seems that if your content with a 1lb trout or less, on a 18 or less fly, you can just stay on the porch! I have always grimiced when in the conversation I mention that I fly fish, they ask what the largest steelhead or salmon i’ve caught. The industry has changed over the years, i suppose change is inevitable, and for suppliers to stay in business they have to change too (I could rant about the Yeti brand right now, ) I still use my five weight, first rod I owned, still a lot of times my go to rod. I guess If everyone is going down stream, you most likely find me up stream.

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