The Freestone Drifter: Nymphing
If you're unfamiliar with the term "nymphing" then you're probably new to fly fishing. And there's nothing wrong with that, but you better get to know about fishing with nymphs if you want to increase your catch rate. If you're not sure what a nymph is, it's pretty simple. A nymph is basically the first stage of an aquatic bug's life cycle. Nymphs are generally found on the bottom of rivers, lakes and ponds. Some swim, some crawl, some cling. Whenever you see a mayfly, a caddisfly or a stonefly in its adult form (aka a dry fly) this means that it's at the last part of their life cycle. They were once a nymph and they were lucky to escape. Because fish eat lots of nymphs.
There's a general term in fly fishing that you'll often hear about fishing eating 80% of their food subsurface. I don't know where they get this title from, but let's just say the feed a lot under the surface. If there isn't much going on for dry fly fishing then nymphing is probably your best bet. The first time I heard about this term was when I was getting into fly fishing for the first time and an old time fly fisher that I know, who loves to fish dries and streamers, was talking about this thing called nymphing, and he wasn't really sure what it was all about. The second time I heard about nymphing was at LL Bean when I asked an employee if he could educate me more about this term. I'll never forget that he drew a great diagram on an orange piece of paper. It's one of those things that I brought around with me in my fishing vest everywhere for a little while, and I wish I had taken a picture of it as a memoir.
On the infamous orange sheet, this employee, who was extremely german and reminded me of an actor from a James Bond movie, drew an explanation of how nymphing works. Basically, he explained it like this. You want to have about a 9 foot tapered leader with a nymph (usually a somewhat weighted/heavy nymph) at the bottom. From there, you take about 18 inches of fluorocarbon tippet (because it's more invisible to the fish) and tie on your second (usually smaller) fly. The piece of tippet is attached by a simple clinch knot to the bend of the hook of the first fly. Now you have two flies in tow. The heavier fly will be bouncing along the bottom and the trailing fly will be suspended a little in the water column. He wasn't done there. About 6 inches above the first fly you pinch on some non-toxic split shot. How much you attach depends on the speed of the current. More on that later. The last piece of the puzzle is attaching a strike indicator somewhere further up your leader closer to the actual fly line. This strike indicator will twitch/sink/move awkwardly when your fly gets interrupted, either by rocks, logs, or fish. He said the general rule for the placement of the strike indicator is 1 ½ times the depth of the water you're fishing. (e.g A 4 foot hole would require your strike indicator being 6 feet above your first fly)
After several hundred flies (easily) and about 10 years of nymphing, I'm still using the original tactic that this nice German gentleman taught me that late snowy night in the LL Bean Fish/Hunt Store. I've caught many trout and salmon using his tactics. However, I have made several tweaks over the years that have drastically improved my hookup rate. Next, I'll talk about strike indicators, weight, leaders, techniques, flies and rods.
I started out using a strike indicator called a Thingamabobber. It is what it sounds like. You simply loop your leader through the little hole on top of the indicator and undo it anytime you want to adjust it. I caught lots of fish on Thingamabobbers. They work well and do what they're supposed to do: Alert you when a fish has taken your fly. The big con to Thingamabobbers is if you're a cheap ass like me you don't want to keep replacing your leaders. The Thingamabobber throws a giant kink in your leader that is hard to get out. Anytime you move it, you get more kinks. Not ideal if you plan on using that leader later for some dry fly or emerger fishing.
A couple of years ago, the Airlock Indicator came onto the market and has been a game changer for us who don't like to mess up our leaders. This is essentially the same thing as a Thingamabobber, but it has a twist cap on the top so that your leader doesn't kink. Problem solved. I've now switched to this indicator and don't see myself going back. The only drawback is that if that little screw-on cap falls in the water, you're out of luck. Best to carry several different colors and sizes of these indicators. I like to carry several, not just in case of losing that piece, but for lighting conditions and strength of current. I find that on sunny days it's harder to see white indicators on the water, so I like to carry bright orange and pink to help myself focus on the indicator. Lose it in the glare and miss a big fish and you'll want to be buying different colors. It's also important to carry different sizes because the smaller indicators do very well in slow moving, quiet trout water, but often sink quite a bit in heavier currents. Naturally, the more powerful the run, the larger the indicator.
There are other types of indicators that use corks and stickers, but these are the two that I prefer. I've been experimenting more with what's called a strike indicator fly line. It's a fly line that's made up of several different, very visible colors. You high stick nymph, another term I'll get to later, and watch for movement in that fly line. This is a method that is centuries old and produces often. I'm trying to practice this more, but with lots of success on the Airlock indicator it's hard to pry myself away from it.
As a general rule, you should place your split shot about 6 inches above your first fly. I've never wavered from this rule and have had good success. I usually start out with a smaller split shot, depending on the speed of the water, and add on more if I'm not hooking up. You want your flies to be as close to the bottom as possible, so if you aren't catching bottom every now and then you probably don't have enough weight on. Without proper weight, those flies are fishing higher than normal in the water column and fish won't likely be enticed. I find myself adding two small split shot and then adding more and more until I either catch fish or the bottom. I typically crimp on the split shot with small pliers or my teeth.
The faster the moving water, the more weight you'll want to start with. Nymphing can turn into a royal pain in the ass if you're constantly getting snagged on the bottom. I feel very, very lucky when I get hung up, but manage to get my whole rig (both nymphs and weights) back. Sometimes you just lose the bottom fly. Sometimes you lose both flies, but not the weight. And other times you lose the entire thing. I can tell you that I don't get frustrated much when I'm fly fishing, but when I spend a good 3-5 minutes putting together a nymph setup and I lose it all on to the bottom on my first cast the profanities start flying around.
To summarize, faster water equals more weight. Start small and work your way down the water column.
I like to buy a 3x or 4x leader with 9 feet in length for nymphing. I cut off the first six inches of the leader because the tippet at the end can be real fragile. Something that has come to help me land more fish in the past couple of years has been extending my leader significantly. I typically add about 3-4 feet of tippet material with a double surgeon knot or a blood knot to the end of that 9 foot leader. I find that I keep more leaders this way, but for some reason, which I can't explain, the longer the leader the more fish I've been catching. I think it's as simple as my flies are just hanging around the bottom a little more and I'm getting a longer drift out of that leader than i would with only about 8-9 feet of line. I wish I could pinpoint a reason for you, but all I know is that 12 feet has been the magic number for me on the freestone rivers that I fish. I don't buy fluorocarbon leaders (because again, I'm a cheap ass) and I just tie fluorocarbon tippet to the leader. And that's all I have to say about that. (Forrest Gump voice)
Sorry if you didn't like my Gump reference, but if you don't have a sense of humor and a long line of movie quotes then you're not really somebody I want to fish with! My wife has a decent sense of humor, but is absolutely horrible with movie quotes. Probably a big reason that she doesn't fish with me much. Or it could be the ravenous black flies and mosquitoes. Love you honey. I know you'll never read this far down my blog, so it's okay.
Back to nymphing techniques. I love showing first time fly anglers how to nymph because you basically don't have to be able to cast for shit and you can still catch fish. Overhead casting is almost unnecessary. The key to being an efficient nymph angler is not about long casts. The longer the cast, the more likely it is that you'll have to mend a lot. Because there are different currents in front of you (some move faster than others) the longer you cast the more you'll need to work hard and mend like crazy to get that perfect drift. A perfect drift is constituted as having your indicator moving at the same speed as the bubbles on top of the water or even a little slower, if possible. What I like to have clients do is cast at a 45 degree angle upstream, lift all of the line off the water by holding your elbow up high in front of you and just keeping that indicator on the water. By doing this, you're eliminating the need to mend.
Often, I find myself getting stuck in one spot and wanting to stay there for a while. Well, by using the high stick method I just mentioned, you need to move around a lot. You basically need to dissect every piece of a run by simply moving your body. If it's a run with a little white water, you moving around slowly will not spook fish. Just the other day I caught fish that were within 5 feet of me. The key is to keep that line off the water and keep that indicator moving at the same speed as the surface water. After you cast upstream at a 45 degree angle, keep that rod tip high and that elbow up, follow the indicator with the tip of your rod and as the indicator gets to a 45 degree angle downstream of you, lower the rod tip down to the water and continue to follow the indicator with your rod tip. This part is called the swing. What is happening is that your flies are now moving up to just under the water surface and imitate emerging nymphs. Swinging your flies at the end can be an extremely effective way to fish your nymphs, especially if your trailing nymph is imitating an emerging caddis or mayfly.
After the swing, your line is now directly downstream of you. Simply pick your rod tip back up, lift the strike indicator about a foot off the water and recast back upstream. No need for false casting or lots of backcasts. Just keep it simple because a lot of casting will result in your flies getting tangled with your weight. The less "hero" casting you do and the simpler you keep things, the more your flies stay in the water.
I basically employ the same technique that I mentioned above when making further casts, but the big difference is that my line is now on the water and demands several mends for each drift. By mending, I mean that you're simply moving your line upstream of your strike indicator to keep it from pulling it through the water column. I've watched people fish with nymphs and have their line in front of their indicator all day, just dragging your flies through the water at light speed. Yeah, that's not going to catch you fish. It's best to mend as much as possible to anticipate further drag. If you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, hire me for a day and I'll show you how to nymph like a champ!
This is a topic that I could write about for days, and days, and days. After fishing certain rivers long enough, you trial-and-error enough flies to know what kind of works for each part of the season. There are several flies that just seem to work time and again. Instead of going into "why" I like these nymphs, I'll just refer to several that I like to use and when I like to use them. A general rule for nymphs is that the colder the water is, the smaller the nymph that you use. This doesn't always apply, but nothing does in fly fishing. It's just a general rule. As the water starts to get almost too warm (high 60's), it's time to get back to using those small nymphs again.
Beadhead Pheasant Tail- Works best in early spring, spring, and summer. Not my favorite fall nymph, but it still can be effective. This pattern imitates a lot of different nymphs from caddis to mayflies, but is a well known mayfly nymph pattern. It works great in freestone rivers.
Prince Nymph- This is a great pattern for imitating stonefly nymphs. The white wings, I think, represent a dislodged stonefly nymph's belly. I like the beadhead on this fly because it just gets it down a little quicker. This is a great pattern throughout the entire season.
Copper John- This pattern imitates a lot of things, especially scuds. I find this pattern to work really well in landlocked salmon heavy waters. I've caught trout on it, but salmon seem to love them. They can be a pain in the ass to tie, so going with a brassie pattern (basically the same) has become my go-to pattern.
Pat's Rubber Legs- You'd think I wouldn't just give this information away for free. This fly is a brook trout sniper. Just tie a bunch of them in a coffee pattern and fish them in the spring. Enough said.
Zebra Midge- A great early spring and late fall/winter pattern. A super, simple tie and very effective as your trailing fly.
Green Caddis Larva- These little leprechauns are all over the rocks right around Memorial Day. If you see these all over the place, put two on your line and get ready. Trust me.
Egg Patterns- I don't even know where to start. So, I won't. Just fish egg patterns during times of spawning and bring a camera.
With all of the high sticking methods that I'm a big fan of, the longer the rod the better. A 10 foot 5 weight rod will get the job done for most freshwater species in Maine. If you want to have some more fun, go down to a 4 weight. If you're going to fish for 18-24 inch trout and salmon, don't be stupid. Go with the 5 or 6 weight and land your fish. Any 9 foot 5 or 6 weight rod will get the job done. I just prefer that extra foot to get extra length I need for longer drifts.
Believe it or not, there is a lot more to nymphing. If you don't know anything about it, hopefully this article has been helpful to you. Get out there and try it. Once you start hooking up, don't be afraid to try different types of nymphing to expand your horizon. If you're a "dry fly only" type of fisherman and don't view nymphing as "pure" then that's just fine. You can cast your dries all day and watch them continue to float by you, fishless. Last spring season, I watched a renowned Maine Guide fish with his client for 4 hours, while I guided right across from him. His client only fished dry flies and didn't connect with one fish. My client landed 7 fish in the same timespan. I am NOT a better guide than this person and have a lot fewer years of experience under my belt, but I don't know why he continued to let his client fish with a dry fly. Some people only want to fish dry flies, but if you go out with me, I like to put you in the most successful position to catch fish. My final word of warning is that nymph fishing can get addicting. If you have an addictive personality, go fish with nymphs and keep feeding the beast!
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Aaron Broaddus is a passionate fly fisherman and a Maine guide.