(Ultra)Light It Up

By Nick Simonson

There’s something special about taming a charging bull bluegill on line as thin as a spider web.  Few fishing sensations are wilder than a white bass tearing up the sunset reflecting off the surface of a lake.  Even a ten-inch trout brings a wondrous battle as it twists and turns in the current with a tiny jig in the corner of its mouth.

Fishing with ultralight tackle provides a challenge and even the smallest species put up an honorable fight when hooked on light line. When panfish make their first forays into the shallows after ice out and a new crop of stocked trout hit local waters, spring is the perfect time to join other anglers enjoying this increasingly popular angling niche.

While there is no definitive line in the sand that separates ultralight tackle from standard tackle, generally, ultralight rods are six feet in length or less and the monofilament is four-pound test or lighter. Jigs in weights from 1/16-ounce down to 1/64-ounce are the standard presentation, but over the last ten years or so, the ultralight tackle market has grown by leaps and bounds. Now there are many alternatives to tying on a crappie jig or doll fly, including small crankbaits like the Rapala Size 1 Countdown, Rebel’s Crickhopper and the Yo-Zuri Snap Bean.   For around fifty dollars, anglers can gear up with rod, reel, line and a selection of light jigs, plastics, spinners and crankbaits to last an entire season.


The allure of ultralight angling comes from the fact that any fish hooked fights like a champion.  With modern graphite rods able to detect the subtlest bites and withstand the charging runs of even the biggest panfish, sensitivity and strength are combined to give the angler an awesome encounter.  But the benefits of employing ultralight equipment go far beyond the experience after the hook set.

Even big panfish eat small things.  Tiny creatures, like daphnia, scuds and bloodworms are sizeable snacks for bluegills, perch and crappies.  Lighter rods and small-diameter line allow anglers to cast tiny jigs, and present them effectively to fish.  The panfish that inhale these petite imitations are ones that would not be caught on standard tackle.  Downsizing will result in more strikes and more fish, particularly on days following cold fronts, which are a common springtime occurrence in the upper Midwest.

What’s more, ultralight angling helps with fishing techniques above the water.  When wading a stream choked by alders, buck brush or other vegetation that can limit a cast, a compact ultralight rod can be used without snagging on bushes and trees.  This setup allows anglers to flip, pitch and short-cast their jigs, spinners or flies in cramped quarters to the holes where stream fish like brown and rainbow trout hide.


The challenge when a big panfish or moderate-sized bass is hooked on ultralight tackle is managing drag and line angle in order to win the battle.  The drag should be set to hold firm on the hookset, with just enough give so that the line does not break, and then be loosened to compensate for the runs of the fish.  A smooth drag mechanism that is easy to adjust without a whole lot of fumbling around is an important feature on ultralight reels.

Fishing with ultralight tackle will also teach anglers to keep their rod tips high to maintain leverage on the fish.  Firm line tension keeps the hook in place and the fish on.  Ultralight angling is a true test of an angler’s attention to detail in the heat of the battle.
The most obvious shortcoming of ultralight equipment is that it is not designed for large fish. Light lines are easily broken, and when they aren’t, the tackle requires that big fish be worn down to exhaustion to be landed.  But if a fish can be played properly and landed quickly, the threat of overstressing it is reduced.   Try to match your tackle to your target, and when the occasional big bass or pike takes your ultralight offering, have a net handy for an early landing.

While not recommended as a primary method for catching big fish, hooking the occasional monster can produce quite an ultralight memory.  A friend of mine once battled a 37-inch pike on his four-foot ultralight until I was able to get my shoes off, wade into the river and net the fish.  With a quick revival in the cold spring water, the fish shot off toward the main channel with a splash.

Get ready for spring’s arrival with the ultralight tackle that will connect you with popular panfish, but don’t forget the many other species that provide a ton of fun on little rods, like rock bass, creek chubs and other less-heralded fish to add to the excitement and life list!

Featured Photo: Ultralight tackle allows for precision presentation of small jigs to panfish like crappies and bluegills, and provides fun and challenging battles on smaller rods. Simonson Photo

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