We know that trout feed subsurface most of the time. In streams and lakes much of their food is aquatic insects (nymphs) such as mayflies, caddis, midges, stoneflies, damselflies, or other invertebrates such as scuds, snails, and sow bugs. These food sources, and other food items such as fish eggs, daphnia, and salmon flesh, drift along in the current and are consumed by relatively stationary trout waiting for food to come to them.
There are few times when trout in a stream do not feed on nymphs. Even during a good hatch, more and bigger trout feed on nymphs than on adult insects floating on the surface. Dry flies and streamers provide only sporadic action.
Most of this subsurface feeding or "nymphing" occurs in the lower third of the water column. I have tried dozens of nymphing rigs and techniques to catch these deep-feeding trout but none is more productive than an uncommon method I call bounce nymphing. This nymphing style keeps my flies suspended close to the bottom, at nose level to the trout, much longer than regular nymphing.
Bounce nymphing is a term originally used in Utah by Provo River anglers to describe their technique of fishing artificial nymphs on a spin or fly rod with monofilament line and a spinning reel. I experimented and adapted its best traits to fly-fishing tackle, and it's now my favorite nymphing system. I am a guide and often use it to help first-time fly fishers catch fish. More experienced clients go crazy for it because they recognize the advantages. Bounce nymphing with small nymph imitations is especially good for selective fish in heavily fished waters, but this technique works in most places and with most nymphs.
In regular slack-line nymphing, the fly takes a long time to get into the strike zone near the stream bottom. Once it sinks, it is near the bottom only a short time before it swings up at the end of the drift. When you use heavy weights to overcome these problems, the rig quickly hangs up on the bottom.
High-stick nymphing keeps little slack in the system. With experience, you can keep the nymphs at the right level and detect strikes quickly, but you can't fish effectively at long distances. Drifts are short, so this works only in swift, shallow water where you can approach the fish closely. The slight tension on the line common in high-stick nymphing sometimes discourages selectively feeding trout.
When bounce nymphing, the weight is on the end of the leader with two short droppers above. This keeps the flies suspended just off the bottom and slows the flies to more closely match the speed of the naturals in the slower water near the stream bottom. Bounce nymphing keeps the flies near the bottom two to three times longer than other nymphing techniques because the flies sink quickly and don't "ride up" until the very end of the drift.
Because there is no hook on the end of the leader, this rig also reduces the number of stream-bottom hang-ups. Several small split-shot in a row, or some other weighting methods (see sidebar), rather than one large split-shot reduces the likelihood of the weight wedging between rocks and makes weight adjustment easier. Tie an overhand knot on the end of the leader to keep the weights from slipping off.
Setting up Your Rig
The distance between your buoyant foam or yarn strike indicator and the bottom weights should be about three times the water depth, so I use leaders from 8 to 16 feet long. You can fish a bounce-nymph rig without a strike indicator, but it works better with a visual reference.
I start with a 5- to 7-foot tapered leader and add 3 to 9 feet of 3X to 6X tippet. Long, thin monofilament allows the nymphs to sink faster and stay down without being pushed upward by the current. Use as light a tippet as possible given the size of the flies, the water conditions, and the size of fish you expect to catch.
Place the droppers 6 to 12 inches apart and keep them short (2 to 5 inches) to help avoid tangles. The bottom dropper should be about 6 to 12 inches above the weights. To make a dropper, connect two tippet sections using a double surgeon's knot or blood knot. Clip the upper tag end and leave the lower tag end long enough to attach the fly.
This rig is designed to drift with a taut line between the weights and the strike indicator and a slack line between your rod tip and the strike indicator. This gives you the advantages of both slack-line and tight-line nymphing. The taut portion drifts more slowly than the surface currents because of the weights dragging and bouncing along the bottom. This taut section transmits strikes better than standard nymphing rigs where there is often slack between the flies and the indicator.
The indicator bounces and twitches as the weights negotiate along the stream bottom, but the rig should not hang on the bottom if you use the right amount of weight. The flies should not drag on the bottom; they should drift suspended 2 to 12 inches above the stream bottom, so do not use weighted flies.
For bounce nymphing, use a 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight rod with a clean and conditioned floating line. Lighter lines are great if you can cast them with weight. Heavier rods and lines cast weights better, but the stiffness and water resistance of heavier lines reduces their effectiveness at achieving a natural drift.
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Casting the bounce rig is more difficult than casting a dry fly. With a heavily weighted nymph rig you don't cast the fly line so much as lob the indicator and flies, keeping a wide-open loop. Tip casting and tight loops are for dry flies and will only give you tangles once you add an indicator, weights, and multiple flies to your leader.
It's essential to start the cast with no slack line between the rod tip and the weight. If you have slack in your system, strip in line or allow the current to pull the line tight to eliminate the slack before you cast. Using water tension to help load the rod, you can often cast the flies from downstream to your target in one smooth stroke.
If you must false-cast to lengthen your distance, wait at the end of each stroke for the leader to straighten and the weights reach to the end of their trajectory before you start the next stroke. The sudden stop that creates a tight loop when you are dry-fly fishing will cause the flies and weights to rebound in midair and cause tangles, so you must develop more gradual stops and starts for an overall smoother cast and fewer tangles.
I most often cast up- and across-stream and drift the flies down below me, but you can cast straight upstream or slack between the rod tip and the indicator so the line does not pull the indicator in any unnatural direction.
Try to keep the indicator downstream of the flies. This keeps the line tight between your indicator and flies and helps instantly transmit any strikes. The indicator twitches and jerks as the weights bounce along the bottom, so don't set the hook until the indicator stops or you see something else unusual. Often, the tight line and tension from the indicator causes the trout to hook itself.
In fast or deep water use a tuck cast to sink the nymphs to the bottom faster. Combine the tuck cast with a reach mend for the perfect drift. Mend the line upstream to introduce more slack or eliminate a downstream belly of line that may pull the indicator downstream too quickly.
When you make a full mend to the indicator, follow it by wiggling out more slack line for a longer drift. When the indicator is downstream, you can also lower your rod tip and wiggle out extra line to extend your drift. Add a small downstream belly to your line if you want to speed up a drift that is dragging on the bottom too much.
Bounce nymphing is not intended to replace other nymphing methods. It's just another effective tactic to add to your repertoire. Bounce nymphing works best in gravel runs, riffles, and troughs to about six feet deep with moderate to fast currents. Slow currents make it more difficult to get a good bounce going but it works fine when you downsize your weights and strike indicator.
Extreme nymphing is a variation of bounce nymphing for fishing water 2 to 20 feet deep or more. Where regular nymphing fails, extreme nymphing excels. Depending on your skill, you loose the ability to catch fish with standard strategies at a point from 4 to 8 feet deep in rivers. Although regular bounce nymphing works well in up to 6 feet of water, it is difficult to fish any deeper unless you use an extreme nymphing rig. I've personally used these rigs to catch trout 20 feet deep in rivers and 30 feet deep in lakes.
For extreme nymphing I use the same terminal rig as bounce nymphing but no strike indicator and a narrow-diameter fly line. Cortland 444 Lazerline Running Line (www.cortlandline.com) has a .022" diameter and 12-pound-test Dacron core. Rio Powerflex Core Shooting Line (www.rioproducts.com) has a monofilament core and .024" outside diameter. The Rio line is stiffer and tangles less. With enough weight on the end of your leader, these thin lines cut through the water and cause less drag than a normal floating line. The fly line coating allows normal mending and easy handling.
These thin, light lines don't load the rod like regular tapered fly lines. Use the weight on the bottom of your leader to make a chuck-and-duck cast, and then shoot line after the forward stroke. The extra weight quickly carries the flies and thin floating line out into the water and down to the stream bottom.
If you use enough weight, you can also use a pendulum cast. First, strip 20 to 80 feet of line off the reel. Let the weights swing freely a rod length from the rod tip. Then swing the weights all the way up and over with a single haul, releasing the line as the trajectory lines up over your target area. It's like a spinning rod cast but with more line out to start and a single haul during the stroke to increase line speed for more distance. The weights released at high speed carry the flies and thin shooting line along with them. Use a stripping basket if you have one.
Make an up- and across-stream cast, hold the rod tip up, and feel the weights bounce along the bottom. If the weights don't touch the bottom, add weight. If the rig hangs up too much, take weight off. A belly in the line is inevitable but is balanced out by the right amount of weight to get a good bounce.
Some say nymphing this way isn't real fly fishing because the leader is weighted more than the fly line. Yet it is legal in most fly-fishing-only waters and certainly legal in any artificials-only water. It is effective because it allows you to catch fish in the deep, swift water that is impossible to nymph any other way.
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Use a regular bounce nymphing rig in lake shallows simply by casting it out, letting it sink to the bottom, and fishing it back with a slow retrieve. The flies are suspended off the bottom to intercept shoreline cruisers. Strip the line slowly or quickly to imitate the naturals. A fly with a foam back or wingcase helps suspend the fly away from the main leader. The weights disturbing the lake bottom silt or weeds do not deter fish. Instead, it seems to trigger interest in trout, bass, and panfish. These predators investigate the disturbance, see the flies suspended nearby, and take them eagerly.
When fish are feeding 5 to 30 feet deep in a lake, use the extreme nymphing rig out of a boat, float tube, or kick boat. Shoot the line out as described above, feed additional line out, and let the weights sink to the bottom. Carefully watch the line as it sinks. Tension caused by the sinking weights keeps the line taut from your rod tip to the weights. When the weights hit bottom, the release of tension makes the line go slack. It's not uncommon for fish to hit while the nymphs are descending, so watch and feel for twitches on the way down.
When the weights hit the bottom, begin a slow retrieve or slow troll. Here again the weights disturb bottom debris and pique the interest of nearby trout. In addition to nymph patterns, this is a good way to fish leeches, crayfish, streamers, and aquatic worm imitations.
In even deeper water (20 to 60 feet), where depth creates security for trout, this rig can also be used to jig the flies up and down directly underneath your boat or float tube.
I love the aesthetics of traditional fly fishing, but sometimes I just want to catch fish. It may not be as sublime as fishing a dry fly during a mayfly hatch, but bounce nymphing can get you into more trout. Give it a try, and you may be surprised at what you learn.
Larry Tullis is a fly-fishing guide and author of six books, including Nymphing Strategies (Lyons Press, 2001). He lives in Ogden, Utah.