Several seasons of my 25-year experience in fly-fishing passed before I turned to nymphs — flies like the Pheasant Tail, Prince, Hare’s Ear and many more — as my preferred fly patterns in fishing for trout. Key to my delay was that I perceived nymph fishing as the most difficult method of fly-fishing. I always found it easier to strip a streamer; I rarely found it difficult to mimic a baitfish with a Wooly Bugger or a Muddler Minnow. And I could float a dry fly with the best; after all, I could watch that Olive Caddis, Blue Winged Olive or Pale Morning Dun ride the current into a likely trout lair.
When I began to read about fly-fishing for trout with nymph patterns and other flies presented beneath the surface, I found several references that cited trout feed under water about 90 percent of the time. That makes sense, when those same references generally agree that primary trout prey — mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and midges — live in their adult form above the water line just six hours to two days. It goes without saying, then — it’s not rocket science, after all — that these insects live nearly their entire life under water. Once I accepted that fact, it was clear that if I could utilize nymph fishing tactics effectively among the gravel, rocks, boulders, debris, grasses and currents where trout feed on the bugs they eat, I would improve my day-to-day fly-fishing success.
BUGS ARE BUGS
Across the nation stoneflies, mayflies, caddisflies and midges dominate as aquatic-borne trout foods. Admittedly, hundreds of fly patterns are also borne across the nation, as well, in anglers’ attempts to mimic — if not downright replicate — these insects. Fly-fishermen are always inventing — perhaps, re-inventing — flies in pursuit of perfecting a pattern or specializing a pattern to a more specific food supply in their local waters.
But fly shops — and fly-fishing guides — far and wide rely on time-worn nymph, pupa and larva patterns for success, day-in-day-out. The Pheasant Tail, Prince and Hare’s Ear mentioned above have long proved their effectiveness in catching trout. So, too, will a Zebra Midge, Griffiths Gnat, Copper John, Flashback, Brown Stonefly, Girdlebug and Caddis Pupa. Still, any competent fly catalog or fly bench will hold myriad more fly patterns as “take-offs” from the originals. Use the hatch charts and advice of local fly shops and fishing guides to narrow these patterns into an effective selection of specialty patterns that complement your general selection of flies.
It’s key to your success in fly-fishing under water that you choose your fly pattern sizes relative to the size of the natural insects below the water’s surface. From winter to summer, most nymph, pupa and larva life forms of a trout’s aquatic prey generally grow larger and are categorically sized from small to large. Individual species — such as hexogenia and isonychia — display characteristic sizes, and exceptions always will be found (it is fishing, after all). But mayflies and stoneflies in their nymph forms will grow during this period to a size approximating their mature size.
In nymphing, large flies are sized 8 to 12; small flies are sized 14 to 18; tiny flies are sized 20 to 24. Stoneflies tend to be the larger patterns, but beware of periods in late winter when small stoneflies can appear. Mayfly nymphs and caddisfly pupa typically are small flies, with some larger specimens appearing in locally seasonal cycles. It’s the midges and some very small wintertime mayflies, such as the venerable Blue Winged Olive, that are tied in the tiny sizes. In some circles of fly-fishing insanity you’ll find midge patterns as small as size 28.
WEIGHT AND LIES
The weight of your nymph, pupa or larva pattern is generally controlled by the presence (or not) of a bead at the head of the fly and/or the addition of lead wire to the fly pattern while it is being tied. The weight of the fly, joined with the length and diameter of the leader, controls the fly’s descent into a trout’s lie.
You may not realize the relative weight of any given fly pattern at the time of purchase; but with good observation of your first few casts, you should soon discover if your fly is getting deep enough to provide an effective presentation to the trout. All three of the underwater life forms live among the substrate of a stream or river, so it goes with little more explanation that your best presentation is made when the fly is on or near the stream/river bottom. When more weight is needed to carry the fly into the feeding zone, simply pinch one or more tin or lead (where permitted) split shot to the leader from 6 to 18 inches above the fly. Size AB (.60 grams) and BB (.40 grams) are common and very useful, but shot can be as small as .07 grams. I’ve used as many as four AB shot squeezed onto my leader when fishing heavy “bucket water,” such as that found on the upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers of Northern California.
Beware, too, that the length of your leader profoundly affects the depth at which your fly drifts. A long and light leader with no additional weight generally provides a “leash” on the fly, which will drift and swing high and wide in the current. A light leader with a shot or two pinched onto it tends to carry the fly deep into the current, limited in depth only by the length of the leader. Indeed, you’ll discover your success in fly-fishing underwater is based on a curious combination of stream/river flow, leader strength and length, fly size and weight, and added weight (if any at all).
INDICATOR OR NOT
In the scheme of all things fly-fishing, it’s not that long ago that strike indicators were introduced to modern fly-fishermen. What would be called a “bobber” in just about any other circle of fishermen, a “strike indicator” is some form of a floating object fixed to the fly leader. For some fly-rodders, the indicator is a simple tuft of yarn or lamb’s wool tied into the leader. Squeeze-on rounds of peel-and-stick foam suffice for others. Small (and large) closed-cell foam “eggs” in bright colors work well for still more fly-fishermen, as do the latest seamless plastic balls — such as Thingamabobbers — that wind onto the leader with a simple twist of the indicator.
No matter your choice of indicator style, use one and you can surely increase your odds for both detecting a strike and increasing your catch rate. When fishing nymphs well on a dead drift or without drag of the fly line, an indicator easily reveals the take of a trout. Sometimes it’s a mere wobble in the indicator. Other times the indicator stops, or it dives for the bottom! No matter what action the take imparts upon the indicator, it’s a wondrous thing, indeed, when your sense of a strike is met with resistance against your hook-set.
The indicator also allows you to vary the working end of your leader. Most indicators are easily attached and removed from a leader. Move the indicator up your leader to lengthen the working end. Likewise, move the indicator down your leader to shorten the working end. In either case, you’ll find from fly to fly, from run to riffle, from pool to plunge, the indicator is a tremendous aid for perfecting the depth of your presentation — and catching more trout!
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Like many fly-rodders, dry flies — and the surface strikes they draw — still drift atop my most exciting ways to take trout from streams and rivers. But the bottom line for taking more trout from your favorite stream indeed, lies in fly presentations beneath the surface where the aquatic insects that make up most of a trout’s diet live most of their lives in nymph, pupa, larvae and other emerging life forms.
About the Author: Bob Borgwat leads the guide team of Reel Angling Adventures (www.ReelAnglingAdventures.com), based in the southern Appalachian Mountains of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.