Many dry fly fishermen scoff at nymph fishing, considering it too easy. Nymph fishing is harder to master, however and does not work when executed improperly. Nymph fishing can result in catching larger fish. The technique is described.
All to often, the technical complexity of nymph fishing for trout can leave a fly fisherman feeling as if he’s entered the Twilight Zone. Here’s a way to bring this productive method down to earth.
By some stroke of ill fortune, I was recently forced to endure the near-apoplectic rants of three confirmed dry-fly fishermen who read me a book, chapter, and verse on the evils of fishing nymphs. “Bait dunking!” huffed one. “Bobber fishing!” fumed another. “Marginally acceptable,” conceded a third, “for children and the mentally infirm.” The final affront, they heartily agreed, was that nymph fishing is not as difficult as dry-fly fishing.
It seemed pointless to tell them the truth: nymphing is harder.
THE BIG THREE
A close look at any river reveals the obvious truth: water has depth. This third dimension complicates matters considerably and presents the nymph fishermen with three unique problems. First, reduced visibility (you can’t see the fly) makes detecting strikes difficult. Second, though a river has only one surface, it has many depths. You must get the fly down to the exact spot where the fish are feeding. Third nymph fishermen contend with two types of drag: the usual horizontal drag that results from differing current speeds on the surface of the water, and vertical drag, which occurs because water velocity is slower at the bottom of the river (where the fly is) than at the top (where the fly line is).
Although nymph fishing can get a bit complicated, it isn’t rocket science. These problems can be solved, but be forewarned: you’ll work harder than you would if you stuck with a dry fly. The payoff? More–and bigger–fish.
Strike detection is perhaps the simplest problem of the three, and the solution lies primarily in selecting the proper strike indicator (see “Strike Indicator” sidebar). The other two problems are more difficult to solve. Understanding what happens in a typical nymph-fishing situation–a quartering-upstream cast, for example–is a good place to start.
THE SWEET SPOT
The entire presentation can be divided into three parts, as shown at left. First, make the cast. The line is on the water and the fly begins to sink. But it doesn’t sink freely. It will pull the leader underwater with it, which slows the descent of the fly into the feeding zone. The likelihood of a strike during this segment of drift is low.
When the nymph has reached its maximum depth, fly, leader, strike indicator, and fly line are all moving freely downstream. This is the sweet spot; during this portion of the cast, the chance of a hit is greatest.
In the final part of the cast, either surface or vertical drag sets in. The leader is pulled taut, and the fly lifts off the bottom. The show’s over.
Unlike a dry fly, which is in the feeding zone the moment it touches the water, a nymph takes time to sink before it enters the sweet spot. Even then, the nymph is presented effectively only for a short time in the mid-portion of the cast. That means you not only must work the river in smaller pieces, but move more often to ensure that the fly hits the maximum number of sweet spots. As a rule, it takes more time as well as more casts to cover the water with nymphs than with dry flies.
The real skill in nymphing is to make the sweet spot last as long as possible. You do that by getting the fly to the bottom as quickly as possible and keeping it there as long as possible without drag: Since somewhat different measures are required in each case, let’s look at them separately.
The most important way to minimize the first segment of the presentation, when the nymph is sinking, is to throw slack into the line and leader during the cast. When a cast lies perfectly straight on the water, the strike indicator becomes a kind of fulcrum around which the nymph is trying to pivot the entire straight length of leader. The nymph does not sink immediately but swings slowly around this fulcrum. But when slack is introduced into the leader, the nymph can drop nearly straight to the bottom.
How do you get this slack into the leader, It depends on where you stand in relation to the fishing water. The “Stream Position and Casting” sidebar explains the three most common nymphing positions and the corresponding casting techniques that will produce the necessary slack.
If the fly is cast properly, and the nymph still sinks too slowly, the next recourse is to reposition the strike indicator farther up the leader. The general rule is that the distance between the fly and the strike indicator is twice the estimated depth of the water. But this is only a guideline. In faster water, the difference in current speed between the surface and the streambed is often greater than in slow water. To a certain extent you can encourage the nymph to sink faster by setting the indicator higher up the leader (in essence giving the fly slacker).
If the strike indicator is already set at the tip of fly line (its maximum depth setting), and the fly is still not reaching the proper level, or if the leader is shorter than twice the depth of the water, lengthen the tippet. Because the tippet is the finest-diameter monofilament in the leader, it offers the lowest water resistance and interferes least with the sink-rate of the fly. If the water is deep or fast, a tippet section 5 feet or longer may be needed.
If all else fails, add more weight–either a heavier fly or split shot pinched to the leader about 14 inches above the fly. Adding weight makes casting more difficult and less precise; however, some weight is absolutely necessary to sink the fly, and you shouldn’t shy away from using it. The trick is to use as little as possible and still get the job done. Charles Brooks, one of nymphing is greats, once claimed that if you’re not ticking the bottom every couple of casts, you’re not fishing. This is still good advice. Continue adding weight until the fly is on the bottom; you’ll be able to tell because the strike indicator will regularly pause or sink as the fly momentarily hangs up.
When casting technique and tackle have been adjusted to sink the nymph quickly and deep, concentrate online control to increase the duration of the drag-free drift. Keeping the fly line upstream of the nymph and indicator is the best way to avoid surface drag.
There are a couple of approaches here that will serve in almost any situation. Once the indicator is direct across from you, reposition the fly line by mending it. Lower the rod tip to the water; with a sweeping arc of the rod, lift the line resting on the water and set it down upstream of the strike indicator. Since the fly line is now on the fly, surface drag won’t be a problem and the nymph will continue to drift freely.
When the indicator has drifted past you, begin putting the more slack line on the water to increase the length of the drift. This technique is sometimes called stacking the line. It’s pretty simple; after mending, strip some line off the reel. By wiggling the rod side-to-side or up-and-down, you can shake the line through the rod guides onto the water, providing slack for the indicator to float farther downriver. Keep shaking outline until the indicator sinks. At this point, simply raise the rod, draw the indicator upstream a few feet, and set it down again. Then stack more line. You’ll drag the nymph for a moment, but will gain yards of added drift afterward.
Casting, mending, stacking is the basic mechanics of nymph fishing, and they all serve one goal: keeping the strike indicator drifting freely, just as though it were a floating fly. And that, perhaps, is the best description of nymphing that I know–dry-fly fishing in three dimensions.