8 Tricks You Already Know To Improve Your Nymphing
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8 Tricks You Already Know To Improve Your Nymphing

Nymphing has been maligned by fly fishermen as going to “The Dark Side” for years. Let’s face it, when most of us were drawn to the sport, watching an indicator (i.e. bobber) for hours on end never came into our minds. But unfortunately, trout and the trout gods have conspired against anglers and the dry fly from the beginning of time.

Typically a trout feeds under the surface of the water over 80% of the time. Their feeding habits are dictated by opportunity, quantity, water temperature and net caloric expenditure. The last being a fancy way of saying that fish are wired to not expend more energy to eat something than they will gain from the tasty morsel. These factors propagated the use of sub-surface flies since way back when. The use of which probably started after Izaak Walton ran out of whiskey on his third day of staring at the same run without seeing a fish rise.

Fly fisherman standing in the Mckenzie River in Oregon fighting a large Rainbow trout he hooked on a Possie Bugger fly. Getting a good "dead drift" is one of the keys to hooking fish like this one.
Nymphing is an art form

But most anglers know that there is much more to slipping on a bobber and tying on some random fly. They know their unseen representation of a mayfly, caddis, or whatever they hope appears on the surface by the time they get the last barb on their

fly crimped is somewhat crucial. But there are a lot of simple, over-looked things that you can do before and while you dredge the depths that will positively impact your time spent nymphing. Here are a few of them.

Do More Than Roll Some Rocks…

This one is fly fishing 101 but is often ignored by us all. Often we know or think we know by the time of year, air temperature, or by what some friend told us what is going on in under the water. But don’t limit yourself by just rolling a rock or two to see what might be clinging to the bottom of it.

Get a bug seine, I have a little aquarium net and take several dips into the water.  Take your first samples from where the bottom hasn’t been disturbed and at various depths. This will tell you what insect pupae or larva are bobbing around the various water columns and in what numbers. Then dip the net in where you have scuffed your feet through the mud and rocks. Often times the insects that you get from each of these different samples vary greatly. By dipping your net in several different locations and water speed will give you a snapshot of what the trout might be eating now and later.

Pocket Bug Book

I hate carrying a bug book but I still have a little one I pack around most of the time. Rarely do I consult a hatch guide for dry flies. However, I do look at it every now and then after I have seined up some creature I don’t recognize. This is often more out of curiosity than anything. It also helps let me know what I might expect to hatch later (or not). The little book will help determine the fly you possibly should be using that you probably don’t have in your box.

Indicator Color

This has nothing to do with the fish. It has everything to do with your ability to see the bobber. Light-colored indicators like white and yellow often get lost in the glare if the sun is out or you are fishing a riffle or fast water. My preference is the darkest red indicator that I can find. If the glare gets really bad I will put a black line around it with a Sharpie. This has really helped me when doing particularly long drifts.

Yellow and white-colored indicators have their moments. In low-light conditions and on spring creeks they become very useful.

Let’em Swing

This is often overlooked by fly fishermen. Everyone wants that perfect dead drift. I relish it for myself and my clients. But at the end of your drift make sure that you let the flies swing around naturally with the current. Try not to let the belly of your line grab all of the current and sweep your flies at Mach 1 across the stream. This can be accomplished by a little mend out and away from you. Don’t worry if you move your indicator a little. Then let your flies swing slowly across the current until they are below you. You might be surprised how many fish you pick up, particularly if you are just starting to see the beginnings of a hatch.

What this does is let your nymphs rise slowly towards the surface almost like an emerging insect. This is why I often will fish a nymph with an emerger of the same insect about 18″ behind the nymph. If I have an idea when the hatch has been starting I will make sure that I tie an emerger on about an hour and a half before I think “it” is going to happen. Remember to slow the swing with a mend and let your flies swing all the way below you to a stop. That is oftentimes when you will pick up a fish.

Double Down

I am a firm believer in fishing two flies at a time(if legal). I won’t go into the gory details of how I like to rig my flies. But I will say it is fast and simple. I have tried various knots and loops and attachment gadgets and I always end up going back to tying my trailing fly to the shank of the hook of my first fly with a clinch knot.

Unfortunately, many anglers look at the first nymph in a double bug rig as nothing more than a sinker. Often the only prerequisite criteria that are used to select this first fly is how much weight it has. Don’t get caught in this trap.

I have one friend who religiously ties on a #10 Golden Stone every time we go fishing. He then will add a trailing nymph that he has actually seen in the river. Several very good fishermen I know to do this, but why? History and habit are the usual reasons.

For instance, my friend with his Golden Stones caught his largest trout ever on one that had half a spool of lead wrapped around the shank of the hook.

Catching fatty Rainbows like this one on a Sage fly rod and a Ross Evolution LT is the goal of nymph fishing when they aren't eating dry flies.
Nymphing technique matters!

His rendition of that fly is so massive that you can hear its splash from 100′ away, even if it lands in a Class 2 rapid. In twenty years I have never, ever seen him hook a fish on this fly but he still fishes it because; “I need to get down.” I always tell him split shot are cheaper. His stock answer is; “I like having two flies in the water.”

I will nymph with two versions of the same fly. Maybe one will be a size larger or have some sort of color variation. But the pairing is always an insect that I have seen or know is in the feeding environment of the fish I am seeking. Don’t tie on a fly just for weight,  you are ahead to add a sinker and fish flies that are actually on the menu that day.

Two flies don’t mean that you will hook double the amount you normally hook. What it does mean that you can test various flies twice as fast and cover the water column a little more thoroughly.

Heavier Isn’t Always Better

In the raging torrents of spring with the cooler water, it is often easy to get wrapped up in thinking that your flies have to get to the very bottom and bang the trout in the nose. As the water warms in the spring or you are fishing lighter current, we (being I), sometimes forget that heavier isn’t always better. The reasons for this are somewhat obvious but fly fishermen tend to over-think things, forgetting that a trout’s brain is the size of a used #2 pencil eraser.

Taking into consideration the water temperature, speed, and light conditions, as well as the nymphs you are fishing, should give you insights into how you should fish during the day.  An example of this is when I am fishing imitations of PMD larvae and emergers in riffles. The water tends to be warmer when these insects hatch which causes trout to move into the more oxygenated riffles. Anglers often automatically go to more weight when they see faster-moving water of a riffle. But this will cause the flies they are using to either go beneath or beside the fish without good results. The trout are probably concentrating as hard as they can with their little brains as they look for the little silhouettes of PMD nymphs zipping above them.

I count the times that I have put a lighter fly combination or taken a split shot off of a client or friend’s line and it has immediately paid dividends.  Knowing a little bit about the insects in the water and the environment the fish are in, water temperature and sunlight to name a couple, should dictate how deeply you would like your flies to pass through the water column.

Mending You Fly Line

This is the most important skill of nymphing flies for trout as far as I am concerned. Treat your indicator like the #14 Adams that you painstakingly try to get to float drag free. Your first mend will often dictate the quality of your drift where you are fishing. Trying to salvage a drift when your bobber starts putting out a two-inch wake halfway through the run is almost impossible. Make your first mend with confidence and authority and this will set you up for success from the get-go.

Try to mend your indicator or line before they start to “drag” in the current. This will make moving your flies less likely and keep them in the feeding zone that you are trying to fish. Mending a little extra line out of your rod when you mend will also help continue a drag-free drift with the bonus of increasing the amount of water that you are covering.

Downstream And Across The Current For The Win!

Don’t be shy when it comes to setting the hook. If your indicator wiggles give it a tug unless your positive that is a rock or twig(which you can’t be most of the time). I have seen many fish hooked when I have told people to set while he or she is busy telling me it is the same rock that they have been hanging up on for the last five minutes. You can give a quick, short hook set and if nothing happens throw a mend into the line and finish your drift with minimal effect

A fly fisherman in Alaska setting the hook, downstream and across the current - I said don't be shy when setting the hook. As a guide I would rather see a wrong hook set than none. But there is a right way to do it and it will improve your fishing dramatically if you aren't already doing it. By simply sweeping your rod tip just off of the surface of the water across the current with authority you will hook more fish.
The downstream-and-across hook-set by the author.

I said don’t be shy when setting the hook. As a guide, I would rather see a wrong hook set than none. But there is a right way to do it and it will improve your fishing dramatically if you aren’t already doing it.  By simply sweeping your rod tip just off of the surface of the water across the current with authority you will hook more fish. Sounds easy enough but learning to do this every time you set the hook will take time. Over-riding the instinct to lift up the rod tip when an angler sets the hook is probably the most difficult fishing habit to break. Here is why it is important to set downstream and across the current.

When an angler is nymphing there is almost always some slack line on the water. When a fish causes the indicator to move there is limited time to get the line tight enough to pull the point of the fly’s hook into the flesh of the fish’s mouth. If the fly fisherman lifts straight up, he might have to move the rod tip over his head or behind his head possibly to get the line tight. Seeing someone fall backward into the water on a hook-set is fun. It is horribly ineffective for anything other than creating a good story for cocktail hour.

The goal of setting the fly is to get the line as tight as possible as quickly as possible to drive the hook into the fish’s mouth. The downstream-and-across-the-current hook-set achieves this almost instantaneously when executed properly. The reason for this is that the water acts like a fulcrum that the line is being pulled through that almost instantly tightens the line. Often it takes less than one foot of movement of the rod tip to set the hook when performed correctly.

The keys to achieving success setting the hook this way are keeping the rod tip low over the surface of the water and no setting too hard. The first key is the most difficult to learn and the second is the most obvious since it applies to all hook-sets. When learning how to set this way there is a tendency to move the rod tip much further and powerfully across the water than is needed. This means that flies are lost and the fisherman gets frustrated. The lower the fly rod tip is above the water the less distance the rod tip has to travel to tighten the line making the need for extra movement even less.

Go Try!

There is no re-inventing the wheel here. Catching fish on a fly ultimately comes down to choosing the right fly and physically executing the proper techniques to get the trout to eat the fly. Remember, eighty percent of the time a trout feeds under the surface of the water. The importance of learning and discovering methods to effectively fish nymphs to make your day more successful on the stream or river can’t be understated.