Note: This article is specifically referencing 9' 5wts. Longer or shorter rods are an exception and will be discussed later.
This is another question that I get asked a lot at the shop. It's a very valid one and the response I give in some ways mirrors that of the 8wt or 9wt For Striped Bass article that I wrote a little while ago. Most times, I think, the question is asked because the customer is going to fish somewhere where they suspect the fish are bigger or smaller than their current/regular spots. The most recent time this discussion came up was about a week ago when a customer, who is planning a trip out to Montana and Utah, wanted to know if he could get away with fishing his 5wt (which he uses here in Maine) the whole time while he's out west. The main point of this trip for him is to fish, so it will be used a lot. My response: "no need for another rod....BUT..."
You very well might find yourself catching, on average, larger fish on a trip to different water. Especially if you are going to very fishy locations like Utah and Montana, this can be very true. But for the most part your 9' 5wt can handle any sized trout you will come across. (Unless of course this is referencing places like Jurassic Lake, or something similar where these are unique situations/locations). The 5wt rod is sort of considered the "universal trout rod" for fly fishing. It can throw dry flies fairly well (although a 3wt is better) and it can throw streamers if needed (although a heavier rod is better). It's not that the 5wt can do everything perfectly well, it's that the 5wt can manage to do everything at least alright. So it boils down to what you'll be casting and not really what you'll be catching...
So, here is when you should consider not using a 9' 5wt on your next trout adventure:
- Heavier Streamers - For the most part, a 9' 5wt can cast a lot of various trout streamers. From bucktails like a Micky Fin to buggers, a solid 5wt and a decent caster can manage a lot of various flies. But, for those heavier conehead leeches or articulated streamers, a heavier rod like a 6 or 7wt can be a great advantage. I talked a little about this in my article and gear reviews about fishing in Labrador: Here + Here. The heavier rod does not do presentation/dry flies as well, but they are a great tool for streamers.
- Hopper-Droppers - This was something that I realized while fishing in Patagonia last year. For a good amount of my time trout fishing there, I was throwing some form of hopper-dropper setup. Something like a Chernobyl Ant and a smaller Pheasant Tail nymph (as the dropper) was common. It wasn't that these two flies are heavier, but the hopper can be wind resistant. Add in consistent wind and a big wind-resistant foam hopper and casting can require noticeably more muscle.
- Heavier Leaders/Tippet - One of the added advantages to using a lighter rod like a 5wt or even 3wt, etc., is that it can help protect the lighter tippets. The rod has more flex and can act like a cushion while playing fish. Trying to fight a trout on 6x tippet with a (stiffer) 7wt streamer rod would not be ideal. That tippet has a good chance of breaking. This is why throwing smaller dry flies on spring creeks with 6x is much more successful with lighter/smaller rods like a 3wt. So if you plan on rigging up no less than 3x, the 5wt might not be necessary.
- Nymphing Rigs - Two flies, a strike indicator, and split shot can all add up to a lot. A lot of stuff to get tangled and a lot of additional weight. Although there is usually not much "casting" when using these rigs, managing a heavy setup like this can put a strain on a softer rod. But when you do need to get a little more line out and "cast" these things, a more substantial rod can help.
I hope that all helps! If you have any questions, please send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Words + Photo: Josh Thelin