Lead Weight for Nymphing

It is often said that the difference between a good fly fisherman and a great one, is one split shot.  This is a lot of truth to that, and being able to adjust the amount of weight on your line, is critical to nymphing success.  And that amount varies from each spot to another, and may vary from another spot just a few feet away from the last on a river.  Moldable lead or tungsten putty best solves that problem.  Adding or subtracting split shot is difficult and time consuming.  Putty makes it easy.  But not all putty is the same.

In 2005, Rudy, the manufacturer of the little rope Shape-A-Wate died of a heart attack, taking with him the secret formula for the pliable lead putty that nymph anglers had been molding onto their lines in place of lead split shot for decades. Wally Allen, the owner of Ligas Flies in Boulder and the sole worldwide distributor of Shape-A- Wate has since found a replacement, but it’s not exactly the same, though it comes in the familiar round white pillbox, but “Ligas Shape-A-Wate Now with Tungsten” and not in the two small round logs, but now in a small disk.  However, that has also now been discontinued for some time.

Some may even remember when the Shape-A-Weight came in the round green pillboxes, which were replaced with the white ones in the early 1990’s, if my memory serves me right. No one besides Rudy knew the secret formula and apparently Rudy never wrote it down.

In 2006, when the supply dried up, some fly shops and others were selling the last cans for $100 and up, when it had originally retailed for $4.95, which is a testament to its popularity. Some went back to using split shot or Twistons, or have moved on to the various tungsten stuffs which have since sprung up in the market in several forms. The new Shape-A-Wate seems to have died off along with the old, as shops have replaced their pegs with other (and more expensive) tonics. The problem with split shot is it cannot be adjusted in small grain-like increments, which enables precise adjustments to the depth of each riffle or hole. The shot is also difficult to take on and off the leaders, unless it is hinged, which snags on the bottom and weeds. The thin lead strips or Twistons, slide up and down the leader and aren’t as pliable as putty.


The trouble with the tungsten, tin, or bismuth alternatives is that their consistency is usually either too sticky or too hard, though they are more environmentally friendly than lead. While these environmentally friendly alternatives started appearing back in 1995 when there was talk of a federal ban for fishing, most serious fly fishers drifted back to lead putty after testing the inferior alternatives. The new alternatives, such as Orvis Heavy Metal Sink Putty, Di-Do (available in three different densities), H&H X-TRA Tungsten Putty, or Hareline Tungsten Tacky Weight, sell for two to three times the price of the popular small tubs of Shape-A-Wate, but some offer acceptable alternatives to our beloved Ligas Shape-A-Wate.

Here’s an informal comparison of the original to the alternatives, conducted over the last few years of experimenting with them for nymph fishing applications:

  • “Ligas Shape-a-Wate” $4.69 (by far the best, but discontinued by manufacturer)
  • “Ligas Shape-a-Wate now with Tungsten”$9.95 (very good, a second best, but now discontinued as well)
  • PPW13010 Moldable Lead Weight, this seems to be an identical replacement for the original Ligas Shape-a-Wate (lead weight made for model trains, but has the same texture and appearance)
  • JP’s Mojo Mud Gray $10.95 (excellent and a very good replacement, sink rate is 1.5x faster than lead and it’s non-toxic)
  • Hareline Tungsten Tacky Weight $5.95 available at Cabella’s (very good and at this price, is an excellent choice)
  • Airflo Di-Do 1 Sink Putty (lightest) $10.99 (green and nearly the perfect Ligas replacement for winter conditions)
  • Airflo Di-Do 2 Sink Putty $10.99 (just right, nearly the perfect Ligas replacement for summer conditions)
  • H&H X-TRA Tungsten Putty (very good replacement, but hard to find)
  • Orvis Heavy Metal Extra Sink Putty $9.95 (large container for the price and seems right in every regard except if you leave it in your hot car it gets too sticky which causes it to get all over your fingers, your car seats, but otherwise this one is a second best)
  • Anglers Image Tung Fu Moldable Tungsten Putty by Wapsi $6.95 (acceptable but a tiny bit too sticky, but not bad)
  • Rogue River X-tra Tungsten Putty (good enough, but a little too dry and crumbly)
  • Orvis Tungsten Sink Putty$6.95 (brown and acceptable but also now discontinued)
  • Airflo Di-Do 3 Sink Putty (heaviest) $10.99 (too hard but fastest sink of all putties)
  • Rio Tungsten Putty $17.95 (too sticky)
  • Mojo Mud Brown, which is now known as JP’s Brown Nymphing Mud, $10.95 (brown and too crumbly)
  • Loon Deep Soft Weight $7 (horrible too soft and stains, but can be mixed with some of the drier ones above and the combination is good)


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2 Replies to “Lead Weight for Nymphing”

  1. Could you tell me if you use the PPW13010 Moldable Lead Weight by itself or whether you mixi it with another putty?

    1. I have used it both ways, straight by itself, or mixed with a little tungfu (or one of the putties that is too sticky). When using it (either way), you have to rework it first by smashing it all together and kneading for several minutes. There is kind of a flaky crust which develops from storage and it dissolves back into itself after kneading. You had to do this with the Ligas Shape-A-Wate a little bit as well, but perhaps not as much. It’s usually a one-time thing, I haven’t seen the need to knead it again after the first time and I’ve had it now for several months.

      After having completed nearly 10 years of experiments buying every putting now available, the JP’s Mojo Mud Gray $10.95 is an excellent and a very good replacement to the old Ligas.

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