How to catch trout on nymphs, streamers, and drys
Now that you know the food items fish eat and know your basic casting principles, it’s time to get to the meat of fly fishing: presenting the fly. Presenting the fly isn’t just about casting; it’s the entire strategy of not only putting the fly where the trout will eat it, but also allowing the fly to move in a natural manner.
In most dry-fly fishing, a “natural” presentation is dead-drift, which means your floating fly is moving at the same speed and direction as the surface current. [Some insects such as stoneflies and caddis skitter or crawl across the surface of the water and require a “skated” dry fly. Other surface flies such as bass popping bugs require an active retrieve but aren’t normally referred to as dry flies. The Editor.]
Dry-fly fishing is considered by many anglers to be the most enjoyable kind of fly fishing. In subsurface fishing, you usually guess or try to predict where the fish is, you can’t see your fly or track its progress visually, and the strike is not visual—you must feel it or get visual clues from a strike indicator.
Conversely, fly fishers love dry-fly fishing because they usually know where their quarry is, they often observe the fish feeding—which gives them accurate insight into what they’re eating—and, most importantly, they can see the fish take the fly.
A trout eating a dry fly is the singular moment in fly fishing that sets it apart from all other types of fishing. So how do you get to that point? A good dry-fly presentation has three critical elements: position (of the angler), casting, and then mending and line control.
First, you must walk, wade, or maneuver your boat in the most favorable position relative to the fish. You may be the world’s best caster but unless you move to the best position, you are not planning your presentation.
The best position is one that gets you as close as possible to the fish without the fish seeing you, and one that inherently helps you defeat drag. Of course, the depth and speed of the water, trees and shrubs along the bank, the riverbank itself, and many other obstructions limit your options.
If you are fishing a river that is easy to wade, a uniform 2½ feet deep, with a golf-course manicured riverbank, you can stand wherever you want but in most waters, things are complicated and you’ll have to do more strategizing.
There are five main presentation positions, each is described relative to the position of the fish: downstream, down and across, across, up and across, and upstream.
The upstream presentation is often the easiest and most effective for dead-drifting dry flies because you are downstream or directly behind the fish. While you are in the trout’s “blind spot” (directly behind it) you can often get close to the fish—regularly within 30 feet or less.
Because the current is coming directly toward you, all you have to do is make a straight upstream cast directly over the fish. There is very little mending or fancy casting involved.
The fly line should land behind the fish, the leader should land just behind the fish, the tippet just over the fish, and the fly should land in front of the fish in its feeding lane. If you cast too far and allow the fly line to splash down on top of or in front of the fish where it is watching for food items (or predators) you will likely spook the fish and lose your opportunity. This is called “lining” the fish.
When you make the right cast, the fly lands just upstream of the fish. As the fly and line drift downstream toward you, put the line under the index finger of your rod hand, and with your opposite hand, strip in line to remove slack from your system.
In most other dry-fly presentations, you often need to introduce slack to create a dead drift. However, in an upstream presentation, the distance between the fly and your rod tip begins to shrink as soon as the fly touches down, and you are usually standing in the same current speed as your target.
You must remove slack efficiently so you can effectively strike when the fish takes the fly and so that if/when the fly passes the fish, you can effectively pick up the line and quickly cast again. If you have coils of loose slack you won’t be able to strike or cast—you’ll just end up with a tangle of line around your legs.
The upstream presentation is most effectively and commonly used on big rivers when fish are rising in shallow water close to the bank, and also in shallow tailouts and other areas where you can sneak up behind the fish. In small creeks and streams it is often the only presentation possible—close shrubs and bushes and spooky fish often prevent you from coming at the fish from any other angle.
The up-and-across presentation presents a more complicated scenario. If the fish is upstream from you at a 45-degree angle you are potentially in its field of vision, therefore the distance to your target is often greater than in an upstream presentation.
More importantly, when the fish is up and across, you generally have the current working against you, pulling at the line between you and the fish, and making the fly act unnaturally.
Imagine that you are standing in the center of a medium-size stream, and a trout is holding near the bank, upstream from you, eating drifting mayfly duns. Because of the current and streamside foliage, the middle of the stream is the only place you can stand. You make your first cast perfectly (you think) and the line unrolls at a 45-
degree angle across the stream, and the fly drops just 4 feet ahead of the trout.
“Perfect!” you think, but then the current between you and the trout quickly pulls the line into a U shape with the bottom of the U hurtling downstream much faster than the current along the bank. Before the fly even gets to the trout, the U-shaped line draws the fly away from the fish. This is called “drag”—it’s the opposite of a dead-drift, and it’s exactly what you don’t want.
To prevent drag in this situation, the easiest solution is usually to anticipate the affect of the current, and place slack in the line to counteract the downstream drag. To do this, you must make an upstream reach cast or an upstream mend (or both).
Make your reach cast at the end of a normal cast, just as the line unrolls in the air. Reach your arm far to the side (upstream), while keeping the rod tip high, and lean your body to the side to place the belly of the line farther upstream than the fly. The extra length of line on the water, positioned upstream of the fly, may give your fly enough time to drift naturally down to the trout.
Mending is a line control/manipulation method that happens after the line is already on the water, and your fly is drifting toward the target. If you are making an up-and-across presentation, and can see that the current is dragging the belly of the fly line and will soon drag the fly, you can make an upstream mend to counteract it. To make an upstream mend, lift your rod tip high—try to lift only the line that is dragging—and then with an upstream flick of the wrist, “mend” the line upstream.
Mending your line in this way is an extremely valuable skill. Your goal is to try and control the line on the water to defeat drag without moving the fly. If your mending moves the fly unnaturally, you may be doing more harm than good, so keep your eye on the fly while you are mending and don’t over-do it.
When presenting a fly to a fish directly across-stream, you have many of the same problems as in the up-and-across presentation, namely: the current between you and the fish is pulling the line downstream and dragging the fly. A reach cast or an upstream mend (as above) can counteract drag but you have other options as well.
Instead of introducing one large upstream-oriented section of slack, you could use a tug cast or S-cast to create slack along the length of the line. As the current draws the line downstream, it will remove this extra slack, and your fly will (hopefully) drift naturally until the curves disappear and the line begins to draw tight.
To make a tug cast, put more line in the air than you need, as if you are about to overshoot your target. As the line unrolls in the air, jerk or tug the line backward slightly so your fly hits the target and the extra line in your system falls into a series of S curves on the water.
Down-and-across presentations also provide good opportunities to use tug casts. When you tug the line backward, you should be able to create enough slack in the line to drift the fly down to the fish. Be sure to allow the fly to drift past the fish and then out of the fish’s feeding lane before you pick up and cast again.
You can also use an S-cast to create slack for down-and-across presentations. To make an S-cast, stop the rod on your forward cast as usual, then as the line falls to the water, make a series of wig-wag horizontal rod movements to create back-and-forth S curves in the line. As your fly floats toward the trout, the line will gradually straighten, but your fly will float dead-drift long enough to (hopefully) fool the fish.
On most waters, the down-and-across presentation is one of the least-used, because if the trout is feeding near the bank, you must be out in the main current, and on many large rivers it’s not possible to do this unless you are on an anchored boat. Also, on small streams, you spook too many fish moving downstream, so fly fishers usually move and fish upstream.
However, the down-and-across presentation may be the best presentation you can make on waters where the trout are highly pressured and wary of overhead lines and leaders.
On the Henry’s Fork of the Snake, near Last Chance, Idaho, the river in many places is wide and shallow enough to wade far into the current, and cast back toward the bank, and many expert anglers prefer this presentation to all others. Others prefer a direct downstream presentation when fishing from the bank to “bank feeders.”
The advantage to this presentation is that you never cast over the fish. The fly reaches the fish first and if the fish refuses, the fly floats past, and the leader and the line float to the side of the trout.
A straight downstream presentation is sometimes the most advantageous presentation—such as when a trout is rising in front of a large boulder or when fishing downstream to bank feeders.
The best downstream presentation is usually a combination of a tug cast, S-cast, or a reach cast.
To introduce even more slack as the line is floating directly away from you, use stack mends—flip the rod tip up and down and use water tension to draw extra line out of your line hand and onto the water in loose coils.
As you progress as a fly fisher, you’ll learn many more casts—like the slack leader cast and the stack or parachute cast—to help you defeat drag. The casts discussed here are just starting points on your journey toward becoming an expert fly fisher.
It’s called nymph fishing or “nymphing” because you usually imitate the nymphal form of aquatic insects such as mayflies and stoneflies. Nymph anglers also imitate caddis and midge pupae and larvae, sowbugs, scuds, cranefly larva, snails, worms, fish eggs, and a host of other subsurface food items that are not technically nymphs, yet, like a mayfly nymph, they cannot swim or are poor swimmers.
While nymphing, you generally dead-drift your flies just as you do when dry-fly fishing, but you are drifting them close to the bottom where the fish are.
Most people use strike indicators when they are nymphing, and while this is a good choice for most people most of the time, strike indicators aren’t always required and sometimes are not the best choice.
Tight-line nymphing, short-line nymphing, and high-sticking all refer to a technique where you stand close to your target area and intentionally keep your fly line off the water by keeping the line “tight” between the weight near your nymphs (sometimes a heavy nymph is the weight), and your rod tip.
By using a heavily weighted rig and a tight line, you can feel the flies drag, bounce, and tumble along the bottom, and you follow their drift closely with your rod tip.
If the flies hang up on the bottom frequently, you may have too much weight. If you can’t feel the bottom and your flies quickly sweep downstream, you don’t have enough weight, or may be fishing in water that is too deep and too fast for this type of presentation. High-sticking works best in knee- to waist-deep water with moderate current.
When a trout takes your fly, it may strike violently and drive the hook into its mouth so you don’t need to set the hook at all. More often, however, when your fly is drifting directly toward the trout, you will feel the weight “tick, tick, tick” along the bottom, and then, when the trout opens its mouth and picks up the fly, you will feel nothing, or just a slight hesitation or pause. This is when you must quickly set the hook or else the trout will eject the fly.
To set up this type of rig use a 12-foot or longer leader and tippet. Your goal is to have no fly line on the water at all as the wide-diameter fly line easily catches the current and pulls your flies downstream too quickly. The narrow part of your leader and tippet is thin enough to slice through the water, allowing your flies to stay at the right depth, and drift at the right speed for the greatest amount of time.
If you can comfortably and smoothly cast two flies without creating a tangle, attach one nymph at the end of your tippet, and then tie a 12- to 18-inch piece of monofilament to the bend of that fly and use that tailing piece of monofilament to attach a second nymph. Pinch your split-shot to the tippet between the two flies, that way one fly will ride slightly higher in the water column. You’ll have greater contact with the top fly and better ability to detect strikes. The bottom fly will drift more naturally in the current and possibly attract more strikes, but the slack line between the weight and the nymph may cause you to miss a few more strikes.
In any two-fly nymph setup, try to use dissimilar patterns such as one dark and one light-colored fly, one small and one large fly, or one caddis and one mayfly. It doesn’t pay to have two similar flies on a tandem rig.
Strike indicators. Fishing with a strike indicator is not only productive, it can be more visually entertaining because you fish the indicator like a dry fly: you drift it through the same places, mend the line upstream or downstream to control your drift and to avoid drag, and when the trout strikes, your indicator shows the strike by pausing, twitching, or sometimes violently plunging underwater.
There are many types of indicators: sticky, pinch-on foam indicators;
stick-on putty indictors; small and large corky-type indicators of all shapes made of painted Styrofoam; bushy yarn indicators; and many more.
If you are drifting large or heavy flies (and split-shot) near the bottom of big rivers, you’ll need a supersize indicator that can suspend your flies without sinking. A sinking indicator still works as long as you can see it under the surface, but if it gets pulled completely out of view, it is worse than useless.
For big-water nymphing, a large macramé yarn or foam bobber-type indicator is best because it floats high, is easy to pick out from a distance, and won’t get pulled under by heavy flies. Solid indicators usually have a hole through the center. Thread your tippet through the hole, and then thread the tippet through again from top to bottom so when you tighten the line, the indicator stays in place.
Forget about the toothpicks that may come with your bobber-type indicator. More often than not they fall out, and if you do get a toothpick securely lodged, they are difficult to remove when wet, making it difficult to adjust the distance between your flies and indicator. With the “twice through” method, it’s easy to slide the indicator up and down, but it won’t move accidentally while you are casting.
Large pre-made yarn indicators are also buoyant and easy to adjust. These types of indicators have a loop at the bottom. Slide a loop of your leader through the indicator and then pass the indicator through the loop to form a loop-to-loop connection. Again, this connection is secure when the line is tight, but you can slide it up and down to meet changing river depths.
Instead of a pre-made yarn indicator, you can also loop smaller pieces of yarn directly onto your leader using a slip knot. This allows you to use a small yarn indicator with small flies or in shallow, flat water where a large indicator may spook fish.
To make your own yarn indictor, snip a ½” hank of yarn as thick or thin as required by the flies and water conditions. Make a simple overhand loop in the leader butt where you want the indictor. Reach through this loop with your thumb and forefinger, pinch another section of leader and pull it through the loop creating a slip-knot loop. Place the yarn in the slip-knot loop and pull it tight. Use your fingers to “puff out” the individual fibers of the yarn, and treat the indicator with fly floatant.
The distance between your indicator and your top fly should be roughly 1½ to 2 times the depth of the water. For instance, if you are fishing in water about 3 feet deep, adjust the position of the strike indicator to allow about 6 feet of leader between the indicator and the fly. In fast or deep water, double the water depth is usually about right, and in shallow or slower water a shorter distance is better. These are rough estimates you’ll need to fine-tune to your specific fishing situation.
Pinch one small split-shot above the tippet knot and be prepared to readjust this weight frequently as you fish different water depths and speeds. You should also adjust your strike indicator position (and therefore leader length) as the depth changes. The best anglers constantly change their weight and leader length as they fish to get the best drifts.
Fish your indicator as you would a dry fly, and with the same presentations: upstream, across-stream, down-and-across, etc.
The upstream and up-and-across presentation angles work best for most nymph anglers most of the time because they keep the fly, weight, and indicator in a relatively straight line and therefore in similar current speeds, helping to telegraph the strike. When you cast directly across-stream, your nymph and indicator are likely to be in dramatically different current speeds, which can create slack and cause you to miss strikes, or cause your fly to drag so you don’t get strikes.
With an indicator and nymphs, use a slow smooth casting stroke with a wide loop to avoid tangles. If possible, avoid false casting altogether, just lift the nymphs from downstream and with one smooth motion lob them upstream, letting the line shoot through your fingers.
When the nymph and indicator hit the water, transfer the line to under the index finger of your rod hand and strip in line as the indicator drifts toward you for better hook sets. You can also raise your rod to take in slack, and in many cases it pays to keep the rod high to keep your line off the water and avoid currents that may pull the line and drag the indicator and flies.
Your goal is to create and maintain slack in your line so the indicator drifts freely, with no dragging influence from your end of the line. However, if you have too much slack in the line you won’t be able to pick it all up and set the hook when the strike comes. Have as little slack as possible to allow a dead-drift, and no more.
Watch your strike indicator closely as it drifts in the current. Learn to differentiate between the steady “tick, tick, tick” of the split-shot bouncing along the bottom, and the pause or hesitation when the trout takes the flies. In the high-stick nymphing technique described previously, you feel the flies ticking the bottom. With an indicator, there is much slack between you and the weight so you will see (not feel) whether your flies are on the bottom or if they are sweeping rapidly downstream.
Watching expert nymph fishers can pay big rewards: observe how they mend their line upstream to create slack and avoid big downstream bows in their lines that can pull the indicator; watch how they stack mend to extend the drift and how they flick their rod tip to throw slack into the line as the indicator drifts away from them; sometimes they hold their rod high to lift the line away from drift-ruining currents; when the fly is close, the water flat, or a strike is expected they may keep the rod tip low to allow for an effective strike.
Nymph fishing is a constantly changing game through just a single drift—one that requires attentive fishing and constant observation and evaluation. Once you become a good nymph fisherman, you can catch fish throughout the day and throughout the seasons, not just when insects are hatching and trout are rising.
Choosing a fly. Before you begin nymphing, wade into a shallow riffle and lift a few rocks from the bottom. Test rocks in midstream as well as a few along the shore to give you a good idea of what you’ll find. In most trout streams you’ll probably find many caddis cases built of small pebbles or twigs, a variety of small mayfly nymphs, and a few larger stonefly nymphs.
Use nymph imitations that match the most prevalent food source. Remember that while there may be many cased caddis, these insects don’t end up in the water column as frequently as some other free-ranging insects.
What you should be looking for are larger, or at least more robust mature nymphs that may have darker or swollen wingpads and seem ready to transform into adults. These insects are likely to be in the water column soon, and many more have likely been in the water column for days or weeks. These are good choices to imitate.
When trout are rising to a single type of emerging insect, using the right imitation can be critical. On a hot summer afternoon when nothing is hatching, the best nymph patterns are not strict imitations of a single food type. The best nymphs often represent a broad range of food items, they have a bead to get the fly down and provide a jigging action, and they often have flash to catch a trout’s attention in deeper, turbulent water. Our favorite general-purpose nymphs include: John Barr’s Copper John (black, copper, and red; #10-18), beadhead Hare’s Ear and Pheasant-tail nymphs (#12-18), beadhead Prince Nymphs (#6-12), San Juan Worms (red and brown; #6-12), and egg imitations (chartreuse, cheese, buff; #14-16).
The dictionary defines a streamer as a long narrow flag or pennant. Streamer flies also tend to be relatively long and narrow and unlike hard metal conventional fishing lures they are made of mobile materials like bucktail, marabou, rabbit strips, and feathers that undulate in the water much like a flag flies in the wind.
This movement allows fly fishers to imitate food sources that swim like minnows, sculpins, leeches, damselflies, and immature gamefish.
Possibly the most popular streamer of all time is the Woolly Bugger, developed by Russell Blessing on Pennsylvania’s Manada Creek, and now used on streams around the world. The Woolly Bugger has thousands of variations like the Bow River Bugger, the Sculpinator, Krystal Bugger, Rubber Bugger, Beadhead Woolly Bugger, and the list goes on. The common denominator is the marabou tail and hackled chenille body.
Other important and useful streamers include Bob Clouser’s Deep Minnow, the Zonker, and the many variations of the Muddler Minnow.
In small to medium rivers, fish your favorite streamer with a floating line and a 9-foot, stout tapered leader ending in 2X to 3X tippet. To dead-drift a nymph you cast mostly upstream, allowing the current to create slack as the fly drifts toward you. You have the opposite intentions with a streamer, so a frequent strategy is to cast directly across-stream or down-and-across and allow the current to pull the slack out of the system and draw the fly across the river, broadside to the trout that are facing directly into the current.
The current working against the fly makes it move and undulate, but most anglers add extra action by stripping in line as the fly moves across the current. You can make short, fast jerky pulls to twitch the fly erratically like a sculpin; slow pulsing strips to swim the fly like a leech; or long, steady pulls to move the fly like a baitfish.
Your fly will quarter across-stream and end up hanging in the current directly below you. Sometimes fish follow the fly, so let the fly pause and then give it a few extra twitches before you lift it from the water for your next cast.
Streamer fishing is a great way to move quickly through large expanses of water looking for the most aggressive fish. Take a step downstream after each cast so your fly tracks through unfished water on each cast.
Streamers represent large potential food items, so trout often move a long way to chase and attack the fly. When the water is clear and shallow, your streamer doesn’t need to be deep to attract aggressive fish. Pinch a large split-shot or two to the tippet knot above the fly and you’ll get a dramatic up-and-down jigging motion that trout find irresistible. When you pull the line, the fly swims upward, when you pause, the fly falls, inviting an attack. The more weight you have on a streamer, the more pronounced this jigging action becomes—part of the reason the dumbbell-eyed Clouser Minnow is so effective on so many species and on so many waters.
When a fish strikes, you will feel sudden tension or a strong tug on the line. Often the trout hooks itself, but just to make sure, continue stripping the fly toward you until you drive the hook firmly into its jaw. Then quickly allow the line to slide through your fingers as the fish takes line or else a big trout may break the line on its sudden first surge.
Streamers are tied on large, dangerous hooks. Be sure to crimp down the barbs on your streamers—not just to facilitate the safe release of the fish but also to make it easy on yourself should you accidentally hook yourself or a fishing companion.
If the water is deep, especially fast, or turbid, you may need to use a sinking-tip fly line to get the streamer down to where the fish are. This is also true if the water is cold, and the fish are unwilling to move far. With a sinking-tip line you fish a streamer the same way: cast across-stream and allow the fly to swim quartering across-stream below you.
With a floating line, you use a relatively long monofilament leader to reduce the influence of the floating line and allow the fly to sink. When streamer fishing with a sinking-tip line, you want to increase the influence the fly line has on the fly, so use a short leader. In many cases, 2 to 3 feet of monofilament leader is all you need from the end of a sinking-tip line. This helps your fly sink. Don’t worry, the trout are rarely putt off by the dull gray fly line, especially in deep or off-color water.
Because they are large flies and sometimes require sinking-tip lines, you usually need a heavier rod to properly fish streamers on big rivers. A 5-weight is a great all-around trout rod, but if you want one rod especially suited for just streamer fishing, try a 6- or 7-weight rod with the backbone to cast large flies into a headwind, and lift a sinking-tip line from the water effectively. Fly Fishing For Trout