Ask the Experts: How do you know how many and what size split shot to use?

A few years ago, we introduced a new weekly “Ask the Experts” Column and asked you to pose some questions for our panel of experts. Our latest question comes from an anonymous reader, who asked: “How do you know how many and what size split shot to use?”

I put the question to our panel of experts, and their answers are below. If you’ve got a question you’d like to ask our panel, write it in the comments section below.

Joe Demalderis, Cross Current Guide Service (Milford, Pennsylvania):
The first thing to ask yourself is, do I even need to use split shot? Maybe a tandem nymph rig with a nice heavy point fly–edible weight instead of a ball or three of tin or tungsten crimped on your leader–and some diligent mending will get your fly in the zone it needs to be in. Or even two heavy flies.  But, sometimes not, so out comes the split shot.

How much and how big becomes an educated guess based on past experience–and depth and current speed, and whether you’re packing lighter tin shot or heavier tungsten shot. Take your best guess, and then use a little less than you think and see how it goes. You can always add another shot or two or go bigger.

Now having said that, think about foregoing split shot for added weight and get a container of reusable non-toxic tungsten putty. You can shape it how you want, so it’s less likely to hang up; and if it does, you can usually pull free and just lose a bit of putty instead of a fly or two. You can also use it to turn an unweighted, non-beadhead fly into a beadhead by simply making a little ball with the stuff and jamming it on the eye of the hook.

In the past, I had issues with sink putty getting all gooey on the leader, especially when it was in the sun. When I took it off, the leader would be slimed with it too. For quite awhile I stayed away from using it because of that. Then I switched from brand X and started using the Orvis putty, and the problem was eliminated. It’s the best I’ve found. So give the putty a serious consideration. It doesn’t mess up your leader, it goes on easy and comes off the same way, and you’re not in danger of breaking a tooth. (I know: you shouldn’t bite split shot to crimp it, but hey, we’ve all done it at one time or another.) If it turns out you don’t like it, go back up to the first two paragraphs and carry on. It’s all about how to sink your flies, so use the method that best floats your boat.

Tim Linehan, Linehan Outfitting Co. (Troy, Montana):
Split shot come in all shapes, sizes and weights. Determining how many and what size to use is actually easy and logical. Use these 6 steps to gauge how much weight you need for any given situation.

  1. Determine where in the water column you want your flies to ride.
  2. Determine the approximate depth of the water you intend to fish.
  3. Gauge the current speed and decide what size (weight) split shot to start with. Keep in mind the current is always faster near the surface and that it’s most important to have your flies quickly penetrate the first 24 inches of the water column in faster currents. Give it your best guess and always stay lighter from the start since you can always add more shot if necessary.
  4. Make a cast upstream with just your leader and watch how quickly your split shot and flies sink. If your chosen split shot didn’t penetrate the water column and get your flies down to the depth you desire, add more. Adding more shot can mean another shot of the same size, a smaller one, or a bigger size. That will all depend on conditions.
  5. After you’ve added what you think is the appropriate size and number of additional split shot, make another cast upstream with just the leader, watch your gear, and see what you think.
  6. Continue adding or removing split shot until you notice your flies are riding at the depth you desire. It really shouldn’t take more than a few casts.

Maggie Mae Monaghan, The Tackle Shop Outfitters (Ennis, Montana):
Using the correct amount of weight or split shot is crucial when nymph fishing. Water depth, current speed, and the weight of the flies are three things to assess when adding weight. If I am fishing with large stonefly patterns or streamers, I will not add much split shot. If I have smaller flies and am fishing a deep, slow moving hole, then I like to add weight. There have been multiple times where I have been fishing and not getting any strikes because I did not have the correct amount of weight on and was not getting my fly down where it needed to be. The second I put split shot, BAM! Fish!

I would rather add a larger split shot such as a #4 or #3 than adding a bunch of smaller split shot. I feel it’s easier to cast one large one, versus casting many small split shot. I also notice it’s easier to adjust one larger split shot and change out.  I will add enough weight to where I am knocking the bottom occasionally and getting stuck. If it’s getting stuck too much, then I simply adjust to smaller weight. I like to carry various sizes, and lots of it!  Next time you’re out nymph fishing and you’re not getting any strikes, add some weight and see what happens!

Doc Thompson, High Country Anglers (Ute Park, New Mexico):
My basic theory is if I don’t hang up on bottom every now and then, I probably need more weight.  Basically the amount of weight is dictated by depth and speed of water. Deep fast current water usually requires more weight than the same depth water that is a slow current. Start a little light then add as you need it.

Brown Hobson, Brown Trout Fly Fishing (Asheville, North Carolina):
The number one thing for me is that trout are much more likely to eat something above them than below. So too much shot might be the worst situation to be in. I do find trout will pick flies like eggs and leeches off the bottom in winter, but that is really the only time I want flies rolling across the bottom. If the trout are down low, I will add shot until I hit bottom or get bites. If I hit bottom, I’ll back off a few pieces of shot with my goal being right above the bottom. By starting light, if fish are suspended, I’ll find out before I get below them. Oftentimes in early spring, I’ll be fishing super heavy, like maybe two AB weights, all morning.  After lunch, I will have lost my bite. What I’ve learned is that often fish have come off the bottom to eat swimming bugs and I’m now below them.  I’ll take almost all the shot off or switch to a dry-dropper and be back in fish.

Mike Canady, Ellensburg Angler (Ellensburg, Washington):
That is a great question, as we are always playing with split shot here on the Yakima. When we get to a deeper bucket, we will definitely add another shot or two, depending on the depth. If we are ticking the bottom a lot, we will take a little off, but if we aren’t ticking bottom in the deeper buckets, we will add another shot. But I would say that, over the day while fishing from a drift boat and covering lots of water, we usually keep the same amount of split on. If we are wade-fishing, we are constantly adjusting our depth and length of tippet to match the water.

4 thoughts on “Ask the Experts: How do you know how many and what size split shot to use?”

  1. I fish the Deschutes, if I need weight to get my fly into the strike zone, which is most of the time, I’ll use a big stone and a dropper. I always figured if you need weight you might as well use something that may get you a fish.

  2. I seem to do best with a double nymph rig with the larger heavier fly first. I like it to be a weighted attractor pattern with the second fly matching the local food source. The trout mostly take the second fly. Have even doubled with this rig! When fishing two smaller flies I add shot when needed.

  3. Depending on the name of the water you’re standing in here in Pa and the time of year, your options range from unweighted nymphs and simple bead heads to the heaviest shot you foolishly think you can cast. Whenever I can get away with it I don’t use split shot at all, but often times I am bound to use if I want to go home with fishy hands and a smile. I start off with an educated guess of what size shot, only one shot right now, to use. After a cast or two, if I feel it is too much I will remove it, or if it is not enough I will add another shot of a varying size or remove it and add a bigger one. I don’t like having more than two shots on my leader, preferably only one at most. If you consistently fish with split shot added, consider using tungsten beads or non toxic wire to weight your nymphs. This improves your hook sets because you are setting the hook on the fly and not the shot. If you need to fish your flies as close to bottom as possible, and don’t want to re-rig every 3 minutes, make a fly fisher’s version of a slinky rig. Using a lighter tippet than your leader, tie an improved clinch knot on your leader above your blood knot (you can also tie off a tippet ring). Next, tie a pretzel knot 1-3” from your improved clinch depending on how many shots you think you will need. Trim your tippet tag end and add enough shot to get you on bottom and move at the speed of the current. This rig snags a lot less often and comes free easily most of the time, and in the event of breakoff all you lose is your shot. This is a popular method with steelhead fishermen in the Great Lakes tributaries, I did is for a few hours yesterday and only snapped off my weight twice even though I constantly felt bottom. Now get fishing.

    1. Oh, and if you do add two or more shots to your line, space them apart from each other instead of putting them right together. This will also decrease the number of snags.

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