March 18, 2020
By Jay Nichols
This story was originally titled: Breaking the Rules: Rigging Hacks from Fly Fishing's Top Competitors.
If you haven’t seen and followed with some interest the slow and steady assimilation of tippet rings, jig hooks, and fly-tying materials with European labels into our sport over the last five or so years, then you’ve either been leading a very solitary fishing existence or you are in a state of upstream-only, dry-fly denial. It’s almost become a cliché to state that competition fly fishing has contributed much to our sport, as a steady outpouring of articles and books and videos continue to showcase the effectiveness of Euro, or tight-line, nymphing.
What is more interesting, perhaps, is how the top competitors (on the regional, national, and world stage) have turned many of fly fishing’s norms upside down—whether that is fishing streamers like nymphs, nymphs like dry flies, or even abandoning traditional fly lines altogether. Further, and slightly ironically, as tight-line methods become more common and widely implemented for use in all water types—not just fast pocketwater—a lot of the conventions associated with tight-line or Euro nymphing have also been flipped on their heads.
In this article I showcase four of the country’s top anglers to show how some of these new and emerging norm-challenging techniques can help all fly fishers—or at least those with open minds—catch more fish in a wide range of conditions, from frog water to riffles and rapids. In October 2019, in the current U.S. regional competition rankings (used to determine the Fly Fishing Team USA that competes in the World Championships), Pat Weiss, Devin Olsen, and Michael Bradley hold the top three spots, and George Daniel’s legacy as a competitor and educator in competition fly-fishing methods is unparalleled. The common thread that runs through all these anglers—aside from their mastery of fundamental fly-fishing skills, reading the water, understanding of their quarry, and competitive drive—is their ability to think for themselves.
George Daniel: Jigging Streamers
The most common ways of fishing streamers are with either sinking lines or floating lines with longer leaders, but in both of these scenarios you typically have a lot of fly line on the surface or in the water, causing drag. Often this line on the water makes it tough not only to get deep quickly, but also difficult to keep your fly in the proper zone for the time it takes to interest or annoy the fish into striking.
Inspired by a rig that swaps standard fly line for monofilament running line, which his mentor Joe Humphreys showed him years ago, George Daniel has been experimenting with a method of nymphing streamers that enables him to keep his fly in the zone for the longest period of time. He uses a long, 10-foot, 3-weight rod to hold up all of the monofilament running line so that there is a direct connection to the streamer, and no line on the surface of the water to create drag on the fly.
“When you are trying to imitate dead, dying, or wounded minnows, one of the most challenging things to do with a conventional fly line is to really slow things down and provide an easy meal for the trout,” says Daniel. “By twitching the rod tip or stripping in line, you control the speed of the fly instead of the currents controlling the fly.”
Daniel says this technique excels in pocketwater and other mixed currents, and also when fishing long, deep pools: “Fish in slower, deeper pools, in my opinion, are not always in prime feeding mode—often the ones that are dead center are just resting, or, at best, not very active. In this type of water, I use this rig to get my fly right on the bottom and move it very slowly in front of the fish to try and coax them into eating the fly. It’s one more tool to have in your kit when fishing is tough, or maybe you are the sixth boat down the river and the fish have retreated into the deeper water on account of other angling pressure. This slow, enticing retrieve is often far more effective than rippin’ and strippin’.”
Pat Weiss: Dry-Fly Nymphing
Tight-line or short-line nymphing offers many advantages over indicator nymphing, but it does have one major downfall: In its original form at least, it requires that you be fairly close to the fish in order to make an effective presentation. Weiss has compensated for this with a system he has fished for almost 20 years. It allows him to present his flies from farther distances to remain stealthy, but also stay in contact with his nymph (or nymphs) without a strike indicator.
Not only is he careful about his approach and movements around the trout stream, but while in the water he fishes more deliberately and with more concern for all the fish in a run than anyone I’ve ever watched fish. This sensibility has been sharpened in Weiss through having to catch as many fish possible in short competition beats, as well as learned strategies for all crowded waters where anglers are both up- and downstream.
“I like to fish everything I can from the position that I am in before I move, so that I can take advantage of the small piece of water that I may have,” says Weiss. “Every time you move, you are spooking the fish between you and the target. Those fish are reporting to other fish, and pretty soon every fish knows where you are.”
Sounds simple enough, but to fish all the water within reach of your rig from one position requires mending the line in the air and on the water, constant adjustment of weight, and adjusting the angle at which the tippet and flies enter the water in relation to the sighter. We’ve seen illustrations of “casting around the clock” when dry-fly fishing, and this is very similar, but with the added element of having to consider another dimension of depth. According to his teammates on Fly Fishing Team USA, no one has better mastery of all these moving pieces than Weiss.
The core of the system is the sighter, for Weiss 5 feet of Sufix, that is thicker in diameter than many of the sighters competition anglers are using today, and that helps it float. Rather than using the rod tip as the point of straight-line contact to the fly (as in a traditional tight-line rig) in Weiss’s rig, the end of the sighter is the hinge point, allowing him to present his flies from a much greater distance, which gives him a farther effective range, helpful for clear or slower-moving water. In many ways, this is similar to how good anglers use strike indicators as hinge points for their flies, but Weiss gets to leverage the maneuverability and low profile of a leader unencumbered by any other adornments, as well as maintain a relatively tight-line connection to his rig.
Another key difference between this method and traditional tight-line methods is that a lot of the line manipulation happens in the air, before the flies hit the water. Weiss considers a tapered leader a liability for reasons that are contrary to popular fly-fishing practice or thought: “A tapered leader will turn over a certain way each time, and this can be desirable for anglers wanting a consistent result. But a level leader is more adjustable based on your casting stroke. You can manipulate it in the air, similar to how you’d manipulate line with aerial mends while dry-fly fishing.”
You can adjust how the leader hits and where it lands to adjust the depth of the fly without having to change the weight of the fly each time according to the contours of the stream bottom. The steeper the angle of entry, the deeper the flies fish. According to Weiss, one of the common difficulties of learning this technique is that anglers want to cast their nymphs to a point on the water, but the trick is to aim for a point in the air, above the target. “This is very much like dry-fly fishing. You have to cast at a point above where you want the flies to land so that the leader has time to straighten or tuck (depending) before hitting the water. Think about controlling the arc in which the flies enter the water.” Mending on the water also controls the depth of the fly. After the cast, you can mend upstream to stall out a lighter fly to get it to sink into a deeper pocket, and then as the line straightens the fly will rise up out of the depression.
Weiss likes to start with a shallow angle first and then work down in the water column, each time increasing the amount of tuck into his cast to get the flies deeper. By starting shallow, laying out the cast almost like a dry fly so that leader tension keeps the fly up high, the tighter connection registers strikes more easily. You are fishing first to the fish suspended or eager to eat, and you don’t risk lining your fish on the first cast.
“When you are nymph fishing you don’t always want to be right on the bottom. Fish are used to feeding on naturals drifting in all levels of the current, depending on the time of year or time of day. If you can get your flies in the middle of the drift, instead of hanging up, then the takes will register a lot better, and the fish will also feel less resistance because you are not tight to the rod, and the fish will tend to hold onto the fly longer, giving you time to set the hook.”
Michael Bradley: The Tight-Line Myth
In competition, Michael Bradley is known for his focus, time management, and deadly accuracy. When I asked him what he does differently—that might not be as obvious to others—he quickly mentioned line control. “A lot of people think that you have to be tight to your flies in order to catch fish, but, at least for me, fishing some slack gets a lot more bites. If you watch my line it may look tight, but I am always tinkering with slack so that my flies are drifting in the currents naturally.”
Paying constant attention to his flies throughout the drift, Bradley lifts and raises his rod tip in short, barely detectable movements, maintaining a finely tuned awareness of the flies. When he perceives weight other than the weight of his flies, he sets. This sounds fairly obvious until you try to do it with #16 flies and fast water. “If I lift the rod tip and feel only the weight of the flies, then I know there is no fish, and I’ll go slack again. Half a second later I’ll go tight again to check in and see if there is a fish. Sometimes you see your sighter or leader twitch, but a lot of times you don’t, so I fish by feel a lot.”
Like many other great nymph anglers, Bradley doesn’t always go straight to the bottom with his flies. “I want to be able to control speed and depth. It is possible to drift under fish at times, go too deep, even if they are only sitting three inches off the bottom.”
The tackle that he uses is key in helping him detect the “presence of weight” through the drift, which signals a fish is there or he is tapping bottom, which then requires further adjustment. The long 10' 2-weight Master Nymph rod that he fishes has a soft tip that telegraphs the slightest of movements in his flies, and the braided-core Cortland Competition Nymph Line (.022" diameter) along with a no-stretch fluorocarbon leader provides extreme sensitivity. (Bradley points out that braided line to a fluorocarbon leader is also preferred by top bass fishermen for its sensitivity.) The 7X tippet offers fast sink rate, sensitivity, and, of course, the least amount of detection by the fish.
The illustration shown here is an adaptation of a light-line nymphing rig that he uses with his clients to get the flies down in the deeper pools. His personal rig does not use an indicator, just the Cortland Competition Nymph Line, 10' of 3X fluorocarbon, 2.5' of 3X Umpqua indicator tippet, 4' of 6X, and then 2 feet of 6X (or the same lengths with 7X).
Bradley doesn’t use a tippet ring to attach his sighter to his tippet, because he doesn’t trust the knot strength of a clinch with 6X or 7X around the tippet ring. Instead, he uses a unique connection of tying a double Davy knot through and above a figure-8 stopper knot.
Because this can be a game not of inches but of centimeters, every motion counts. Not only do you have to have a plan for adding the slack with purpose, but also a plan for controlling it. Bradley holds the line under his pointer finger and over his ring and middle finger of his rod hand. Not only does this provide extra sensitivity to read what the flies are doing throughout the drift, but it also helps control the slightest bit of intentional slack in his presentation: “I use my fingers to make micro adjustments to the line through the drift by spreading my fingers apart to pick up a few inches of slack.”
Another key line management technique for Bradley is the vector pull retrieve, popularized by Mac Brown, which first appeared for general consumption in the February 1996 edition of Fly Fisherman and later in Brown’s now out-of-print book, Casting Angles (Highland Press, 1997). The basic technique is to hold the rod straight out in front of you and grab the line with your left hand above the line trapped in your right hand. Drop your left hand and smoothly extend it to behind your body, and you’ve used physics to at least double the amount of line in a single retrieve. (For more detail, read the article at flyfisherman.com.)
According to Bradley, this technique offers many advantages over a more conventional retrieve where you strip in line behind your rod hand. “You are literally stripping in at the same speed as the water, and because it is all one speed it is much easier to keep up with your drift. By gathering slack in one long, continuous motion, you reduce rod tip bounce, which in turn allows you to read your sighter better and remain in contact with your flies throughout the retrieve.” You can also set the hook more efficiently and gather line quickly if the fish runs toward you—and every fish counts in competition.
Devin Olsen: Dropping the Anchor
One of Olsen’s goals when he wrote his new book Tactical Fly Fishing (Stackpole Books, 2019) was to teach his methods for fishing all of the water in between the easy-to-read pools and runs. “Even on the busiest days, there will be pocketwater, riffles, glides, or even nondescript water that doesn’t look sexy but holds fish, and there is no one fishing it.” Olsen explains that a lot of this water is turbulent, with complex currents that make standard suspension tactics nearly impossible—or, at best, extremely inefficient—because of drag.
This type of water is ideal for tight-line tactics, but there’s a problem that needed to be solved. Fish on his heavily trafficked home water, Utah’s Provo River, don’t typically eat the large flies that were traditionally key components of a Czech-style rig. “On a lot of rivers that we fish, the fish aren’t willing to eat larger-than-life morsels, and we have a lot more success with size 16 to 20 patterns. This has been a sticking point for a lot of anglers who come from tailwaters where fishing indicators with a pair of micro-size flies has been very effective.”
Czech nymphing broadly means using a heavy anchor fly on the point with one or two other flies on droppers. The anchor fly plummets the rig to the bottom, and the angler leads the fly through the drift, all the while maintaining tight line tension to the bottom fly. In the traditional Czech rig, anglers compensated for the sag in their line and leader with a heavier fly that pulls everything tight for better strike detection.
One of the major drawbacks to this type of rig is that your bottom fly doesn’t really have the ability to flutter and drift in the current like the naturals. Though Olsen acknowledges there are places where larger, flashier flies work, those areas tend to be freestone rivers with lots of diversity of insects, and also rivers with less pressure: “You still have to play the snooty game with some trout in some places to get them to eat.”
Olsen plays this small-fly game with what he calls a micro leader, essentially a leader system using a shorter-than-average, 12-foot level leader of indicator mono and a longer-than-average, 10-foot, extremely light tippet. “With a lighter leader that has less mass, you can fish with so much more finesse and stay in contact with lighter flies (#16-20), as well as have a lot more sensitivity in strike detection and less drag.” By adjusting your cast and angles you can fish even light, small flies deep, and just as easily swap out larger flies if you need to.
One key to the flexibility of Olsen’s rig is a mobile sighter, painted on the tippet with Skafars Neon Wax. This paste-like product comes in a range of colors, and you can paint it on or take it off quickly (easy to remove with a rag or tissue) as you require for fishing different water depths. The wax on the leader won’t suspend nymphs like leaders designed for that purpose, such as George Daniel’s tag end sighter or even Pat Weiss’s thicker sighter, but for Olsen that isn’t the purpose of this system. “With micro-thin leaders we don’t really need to float the sighter to register takes. There is so little sag in the line and leader system that we can hold all of it off the water.”
When casting these lighter leaders, it is critical to maintain constant tension throughout the cast. According to Olsen, if you break contact during the cast, the flies swing to the side. “I teach what I call the helicopter cast, which I cover in my book,” says Olsen. “It involves a super-wide casting arc through the air and using almost entirely your wrist—very little shoulder or arm.” Though most traditional instructors teach you not to use your wrist in a cast, by casting in this manner you get maximum rotation at the rod butt, and the rod tip travels in the widest circular arc, which in this case provides the best control over the cast with minimal arm movement. What would Lefty say?
Jay Nichols is the Northeast Field Editor for Fly Fisherman, owner of Headwater Books (headwaterbooks.com), and author of Keystone Fly Fishing.