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.