October 14, 2022
This article originally ran in Fly Fishing Made Easy.
The old man looked angry. Deep wrinkles on his face ended at a down-turned mouth full of frustration. “How did you do?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“It was terrible,” he replied. “I’m trying this Euro-nymphing thing, and I just can’t make it work.” But the fishing wasn’t terrible. My friend and I had a great morning, catching lots of trout on nymphs beneath our bright orange bobbers. I smiled, gave him a couple flies, and suggested he try nymphing with an indicator.
The old man told me he already knew how to do that. “I always catch fish that way,” he said. “But this new nymphing is harder.” I told the man that Euro nymphing is great. I’ve been lucky to fish with some of its best practitioners, and they catch a lot of trout. But most of them don’t do it all the time. And Euro nymphing isn’t always more effective than other nymphing styles.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve been reading about it everywhere. It’s supposed to be deadly.” As we parted company, I began thinking that if such an experienced fly fisher could be perplexed as he tried to understand how, when, and why to use a technique, imagine what it’s like for a beginner. Where do you start when so many anglers are telling you different ways you’re supposed to do it?
The vast amount of information available about fly fishing is one of the sport’s greatest attributes. But it can also complicate things. Many of the newest books and videos show you multiple ways to fish dry flies, nymphs, soft-hackles, and streamers. But they don’t always tell you that you don’t have to use—or even understand—every technique to catch fish regularly. Some new techniques are intended for very specific, limited applications. They aren’t always more effective than traditional methods, though that point is seldom well articulated. Some methods, including Euro nymphing, require anglers to buy rods and other tackle that’s well suited for doing only one thing: The 10- and 11-foot, 3-weight rods that many Euro practitioners use aren’t ideal for fishing dry flies or streamers, at least not in most streams.
There are four basic fly-fishing skills that I believe new anglers should learn. Each can be performed with a standard 9-foot, 5- or 6-weight rod and a floating fly line. The four skills provide a foundation for every fly-fishing method, and they’ll help prepare you to try something new down the road—if you want to do that. But if you become really good at these four skills, you won’t have to learn other methods to be a very successful fly fisher.
Reach Cast for Dry Flies
There are two primary ways to fish dry flies: blind casting and casting to rising fish. Blind casting is performed when you don’t see rising fish. You fish the water, casting to likely areas where a trout might be holding. Blind casting drys is fun, and I do it often. But you don’t really learn how to fish a dry fly during a hatch by simply casting one into the water and hoping a fish eats it. Conversely, if you can catch a rising trout during a hatch, you will also be able to blind-cast drys effectively.
To catch a rising trout, you must first determine what it’s eating. A basic understanding of the most important aquatic insects will help you do that. You don’t need to know a bug’s exact species, but being able to determine if it’s a mayfly, a stonefly, a caddisfly, or something else is a big advantage. There are lots of book, magazine, and Internet resources to help you do that. Next, you’ll need to choose a fly that imitates what the trout are eating. Match the natural’s size and color shade as best you can, and tie that fly to your leader. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a Cahill to imitate a Sulphur. If the fish eats it, you picked the right one. If not, try another.
You need to be in the best possible position to present your fly to the fish. Most of the time, this means you should be slightly upstream from where they’re rising. Now it’s time to perform the most important dry-fly skill: a reach cast. Cycle from a backcast to a forward cast. With your fly line in the air in front of you, before you lay it on the water, sweep your rod upstream as the line is straightening. Then gradually lower your rod tip toward the water, allowing your line, leader, and fly to settle on the surface, completing the cast. The fly should land at an angle, downstream from your line and leader. This allows the fly to float naturally as long as possible without dragging across the surface as it’s pulled by the line.
If your cast didn’t land correctly, or if your fly is dragging, let it pass a few feet below the fish before you pick it up and try again. Keep doing this as long as the fish keeps rising. If the fish doesn’t eat your pattern after a few drag-free drifts, watch it feed again to try to determine if it’s eating something that looks different than your fly. Go with the best pattern option in your box, and try again. Determining what a trout is eating, matching it with an artificial fly, and catching that one fish is the historic essence of fly fishing. Achieving good, drag-free drifts with dry flies will also prepare you to do the same thing with nymphs and a bobber.
Nymphing with a Bobber
Most nymph anglers use some type of brightly colored floating material to help them know when a fish has taken their sunken flies. You’ll often hear snooty fly fishers call them “bobbers.” Using the moniker “bobber”—rather than “strike indicator”—is meant to be derogatory, equating them to the plastic red-and-white bobbers children use on their bait rods—but the fly-fishing strike indicators called Thingamabobbers aren’t concerned with the connotation.
Don’t get fooled by semantics. Some anglers use the fly line’s brightly colored tip to detect strikes. Others employ fluorescent leader material, or floating putty or yarn. But they are all really just differently shaped bobbers, and who cares? Bobbers are excellent nymphing tools.
One of the most important aspects of bobber fishing is where to place one on your leader in relation to your nymph(s). Anglers often suggest attaching it one and a half to two times the depth of the water. I’ve also given that advice. But how are you supposed to know the water’s depth? And won’t that depth constantly change as you move along a stream? Of course it will. A better plan is to place your bobber at approximately one-third of your leader’s length. So, if you’re fishing a 9-foot leader, place the bobber about 3 feet from your line. If you’re snagging the bottom too often, move it a little closer to your flies. If you’re not catching fish, or not occasionally ticking the bottom, move it a little closer to the fly line. But you may be surprised at how often a bobber placed one-third of the way down a leader works just fine.
You want to fish your bobber as if it’s a dry fly, riding down the currents drag-free. Reach casts and on-water mends—where you flip your fly line, usually, but not always—upstream will help you do that. I often tell anglers to “mend to the bobber,” which means moving all the fly line that’s on the water to a position upstream of the bobber. Just like the dry-fly reach cast, this helps achieve the longest possible drag-free drift.
Adding weight to your leader will help your nymphs descend to the feeding zone. But you’re not allowed to do that in the fishing competitions that spawned Euro-nymphing techniques, so Euro enthusiasts often use flies designed to sink quickly. Many of these flies are very effective. But they will still catch fish when they’re dangling under a bobber. I often use them that way.
Swing a Soft-hackle
Fishing with dry flies and bobbers is a visual skill. You can clearly see a trout eat your dry from the surface, or a fluorescent bobber being pulled subsurface. Fishing soft-hackles and streamers can be visual too—if the water is clear enough to see the fish. But casting soft-hackles and streamers more often involves feeling a fish take your fly. Being in contact with your flies to feel a strike while fishing soft-hackles will help you in the future if you decide to forgo a strike indicator for one of the nymphing methods that don’t use them.
Soft-hackle flies are designed to sink, but they can impart lifelike movement to your fly presentations. Most of the time, anglers want their dry flies and nymphs to float drag-free, at the same speed as the water. But this isn’t always the case with soft-hackles. There are multiple ways to fish these flies, but the best way to begin is by swinging them. Cast your fly (or flies) across from you at a slightly upstream angle. In small to midsize streams, this often means aiming for the edge of the opposite streambank.
Point the rod tip at the end of your line as it floats downstream, and follow its progress. This gives the flies time to sink, though trout will sometimes take them at this point. Your leader may suddenly jerk or stop if this happens. As the flies float past you, stop following them and hold your rod steady. This tightens your line and causes the flies to drag toward the surface. The line tightening and intentional fly dragging have two impacts. First, they remove any line slack that may inhibit you from feeling a trout strike. Second, the dragging imparts movement, making artificial flies appear alive, like emergent aquatic insects.
After the flies have floated as far downstream as your line on the water will allow, let them dangle below you for a moment or two. Strip in line, a couple inches at a time, pausing and allowing the flies to dangle in the water after each strip. This mimics an aquatic insect struggling to emerge in the water’s surface film. You will feel a tug on the line if a fish takes your fly. If nothing happens, strip the flies back to cast again, take a couple steps downstream, and begin the process again.
Soft-hackles are particularly valuable for imitating emerging caddisflies, or mayfly species that emerge on the stream bottom and swim to the surface. But they also work well when the fish aren’t active, and you’re simply fishing a stream in hopes of finding trout. Trout can become wary, usually late in the season on highly pressured water. They begin to key on “proof of life” before they take flies. This proof often arrives when they see an insect move. Swinging soft-hackles imitates that. And the manner in which you twitch and pull them back to you will help prepare you to strip streamers.
Strip a Streamer
Anglers new to streamer fishing often struggle, for two reasons. First, many tie on a streamer only when nothing else is working. This may occasionally produce a fish or two, but if fish aren’t also eating drys, nymphs, or soft-hackles, it’s often because something else is off. Maybe it’s water level or temperature. Perhaps many of the fish are hiding due to bright sunshine. Every fly-fishing skill has a time and place when and where it’s most effective. Streamer fishing is generally best in low-light conditions, when the water is higher than normal and/or off-colored, and when pre-spawn fish are aggressive in the fall or early spring.
Beginners fishing streamers frequently struggle to understand when and why you’re supposed to use a full-sinking or a sink-tip fly line. Many of these lines have specific applications that aren’t always pertinent, depending upon where you’re fishing. Forget about them until you master the most basic technique: stripping a streamer with a floating line. If you fish streamers in small to midsize streams (you should do that) a floating line will work well, just as it will if you’re casting to the banks of a large river from a boat. Many streamer-eating fish are hiding in relatively shallow water, at ambush points, near the banks, or beside in-stream structure such as boulders and fallen trees.
I fish streamers with heavy tippets, often 0X and seldom lighter than 3X. You can use a short leader to do this. But you can also attach a 3-foot section of heavy tippet to your line, though not through a fly line’s premade welded loop. The tippet’s diameter is too thin, and it will eventually cut the loop. You need to cut off the factory loop and nail-knot a 4-inch piece of heavy leader butt material with a perfection loop at its end. Or take that same 4 inches of leader butt material, tie perfection loops on both ends, and attach it to the fly line’s welded loop as you would a leader. I attach tippet to the loop with a clinch knot, and it doesn’t quickly cut it.
Fishing a streamer is the easy part, as long as you choose a pattern light enough to cast with a 5- or 6-weight rod. Forget about those giant articulated flies for now, and focus on small to midsize, single-hook options. Cast your streamer toward the far bank, as close to the shore as possible, and pull the fly back to you with three or four strips. If a fish doesn’t eat or follow your fly, take a couple steps downstream and do it again. If the fish are following your fly but not eating it, it’s often best to strip faster to try to elicit a predatory strike. You cannot strip a fly too fast for a fish to catch it. Sometimes a fish will eat a streamer if you pause your strips while it’s chasing. But most of the time, you’ll want to move the fly throughout its drift. Don’t make more than a cast or two to each spot. If the fish are keyed onto streamers, they usually eat one the first chance they get.
New techniques often push our sport forward, keeping it alive and vibrant. And new techniques are fun to learn. But those of us who write about and teach fly fishing are sometimes just as culpable of causing confusion as we are at advancing our collective skills and knowledge. If you’re like the old man at the beginning of this story and want to try new techniques—and the equipment that facilitates them—to expand your abilities, that’s great. But if you’re a beginner or an intermediate angler who just wants to catch some fish, work on the four foundational skills and you’ll achieve your goal. Where you go from there is up to you.
Paul Weamer is the author of Fly-fishing Guide to the Upper Delaware River (Stackpole Books, 2011) and Dry Fly Strategies (Stackpole Books, 2021). He is the owner/operator of Weamer Fly Fishing LLC and lives in Livingston, Montana, with his wife Ruthann and his English mastiff Olive.