May 17, 2022
It’s May and stoneflies are moving from the center of the river to the banks where they dry their wings in the surface film and dance on cloudy afternoons. In the soft runs and the seam edges, the first caddis of the season struggle to break through. In the slow water and back eddies, midges appear in small black clouds.
This month holds the promise of the dry fly fishing to come, but right now the vast majority of insect life has not yet hatched, and an angler’s success is dependent on his or her nymphing game.
Let’s re-imagine nymphing and put the heat on river trout with subsurface tactics informed by the latest tight-line and indicator methods. A lot of anglers get it almost right. We choose the right fly but don’t fish it in the right feeding lanes.
Our leaders aren’t long enough or they create too much drag. Our flies are one size too large. Let’s ditch the floating indicator, focus on the details and fine-tune our nymphing presentations.
River waters are warming now. Some streams may be full of snowmelt, but other tributaries are clearing. With the warmer water, bugs are on the move, especially in the shallows and sun-kissed riffles, close to the banks and around islands. May is target-rich with bug life. Now is when our flies should command attention.
To turn the heads of trout, consider buying or tying flies with oversize beads or with enhanced detail—slightly longer legs, a red collar, oversized eyes or articulated bodies.
Check out the French-style Pheasant Tail Nymphs with light purple or fluorescent collars. Think about adding fluorescent colors to standard flies. Add flo-green to the tail of a Hare’s Ear. Put flo-orange beads on a black Double Bead Biot Stone.
Tying with scud-style or jig-style hooks can transform the ways our bugs fish. Instead of brass, use blood red or nickel or black nickel beads. Another way to revise a pattern is to put Krystal Flash in the wing or collar. The idea is to create contrast while maintaining “buggyness”—the lifelikeness of the imitation in question.
Aside from catching the attention of trout, the fly has to reach down into the water column to the level where fish feed, and fast. That means tying with tungsten, using wire wraps and sometimes coating nymph bodies with epoxy or trimming back components to allow the fly to drop like a rock.
SEE THE STRIKE
Nymph anglers get way more bites than they know about. Trout can suck in a bug and spit it out before the strike registers in the line. Most of the time we cannot see the fish and we take it on faith that trout are down there, that they see our bugs.
We have to make our lines difficult for fish to see, and in doing so have made them all but impossible for us to see, so we’ve resorted to using floating strike indicators to provide the visual cue. However, a lot of us would catch more fish if we would ditch the indicator and get rid of the hinge it creates in our presentation.
One of the basic principles of hydrodynamics is that surface water moves faster than bottom water. If we are fishing right, our flies are on the bottom. With an indicator speeding faster than our flies, we are invariably going to have drag, no matter how many mends we throw.
To succeed in presentation (and ultimately in strike detection) we need to customize our leaders, tailoring them to the rods we use, the waters we fish and to the trout.
To construct the leader, start with about four feet of a 0X white or orange indicator monofilament and add 20 inches of two-tone 2X pink/chartreuse (or black/white) indicator monofilament, known as the “sighter.”
To join the sections of leader requires tying blood or surgeon knots. Usually, anglers trim the ends of the knots. Instead, try leaving a few inches of tag. This tag will be unobtrusive from the fish’s point of view, but you’ll be able to see it in many stages of water clarity, and it’ll help you keep track of the leader position.
Next, tie on a tippet ring. To the tippet ring, add about five feet of 5X fluorocarbon. Now cut a section of the tippet and reattach with a triple surgeon’s knot. Leave one tag end long enough to tie on a smaller beadhead. Tie a larger, heavier nymph to the end of the line.
And now what not to do: The standard way to construct a two-fly rig is to tie on a fly then tie another piece of tippet to the bend of that hook—two flies in tandem. It works, but it does not work well. The problem is the drift of the primary fly is constrained at the head and tail. Instead, tie the dropper on a tag off the surgeon’s knot, allowing the fly to drift with more freedom.
Orvis, Umpqua, Rio Products, TroutHunter, Scientific Anglers and others offer Euro Nymph leaders like these to make it easier to get into tight-line nymphing. One size does not fit all situations, so be prepared to trim up the leaders as necessary.
DITCH THE DRAG
While getting the size and profile of the fly right to match the natural forage base has a lot of advantages, it’s not an approach that should push out all others. Experiment with strike triggers like oversize beads and UV or fluorescent contrasting colors. If the fly is still “buggy” to the fish and yet stands out from the mass of natural food, trout may be more strongly attracted to it.
Color and size are important but are only part of the equation. A fly that is perfect in size and color and shape will fail to look like food to a trout if that fly moves unnaturally through the water. Most aquatic insects have almost no ability to fight current. If your fly moves unnaturally, trout are likely to ignore it or even be alarmed by it and stop feeding.
The goal is to achieve a drift through the feeding zone as naturally and free of drag as possible. Start with the fly line. The line’s bulk is the enemy of drag-free drifting because it is subject to being caught in the wind or in surface currents.
For tight-line nymphing, the solution is to make shorter casts whenever possible and to hold the rod at a high position to control the drift and make micro-adjustments as needed. Similarly, light leaders help. A 5X leader is less susceptible to being dragged by current braids than a 3X leader.
A high rod allows you to hold the leader tags mentioned earlier above the water—perhaps 2 to 20 inches above the surface—as an indicator or visual cue.
The fly should either be catching fish or bumping bottom. Try to feel the tumble of that heavy anchor fly as it drifts. Imagine the lighter fly circulating a few inches away, presenting a second menu option.
Cast or lob your offering, then follow the drift of the line with the rod tip, allowing the nymph to search out the bottom. Watch the whiskers, keep the line somewhat taut—just enough to stay in contact with the nymph but not so tight that you drag it around in the water—and then follow the bottom contour with the cast, keeping track with the sighter leader.
One of the simplest factors in catching more trout is to spend more time with your fly in the water where the fish are. While changing either leader or fly on the stream is often necessary, it can cut down the time you spend fishing.
And it can take a maddeningly long time to tie a No. 20 fly onto a thread-thin leader when you are standing thigh-deep in cold, rushing water, your buddy is fighting a fish, your digits are nearly frozen and there is a 10 mph wind blowing up the canyon.
Plan ahead by pre-tying leaders and fly set-ups. Bringing a second rod to get back in the water quicker during a hot bite is also an option to consider. Nymphing on a tight line is intense. Everything happens at a rod’s length. The grab is close, an electric shock is felt in hand and wrist. Elevate your nymphing game this season and you just might shock yourself.
When nymphing, the idea is to keep the nymphs close and the fish no more than two lengths of the rod away. The less line you have in the water, the less drag you will have and the more life-like your drift. The downside of using less line is that you are only fishing relatively close to the end of your rod. For this reason, a longer rod helps cover more water, and a rod with good butt strength and a sensitive tip allows the flyrodder to stay in touch with the weighted flies tapping the bottom.
For most western rivers, a good starting point is a 9 1/2-foot rod or longer—perhaps a 3-weight on a smaller stream or a 4- or 5-weight on waters where the fish might be measured in pounds instead of inches.