How to Drift Nymphs
January 01, 2016
Stop your nymphs from doing the backstroke
If you're like most fly fishers, you probably imagine that your meticulously tied artificial nymph drifts along the river bottom in a horizontal posture, either parallel to the surface or bouncing off the bottom, with wingcase up, hook down. When most tiers sit down at the bench and add flashback wingcases and legs to their nymphs, that's exactly what they envision.
In reality, however, most weighted nymphs swim down the river head up, tail down, canted to one side or completely flipped over, as if doing the backstroke.
If a fly is upside down, what good are those flashback wingcases when they're facing the bottom and not even visible to the fish? I'm not interested in impressing snails or other crawling denizens of the river bottom with my fly-tying skills. I need my nymphs to swim freestyle, with their backs facing up, just as I designed them at the fly-tying vise.
If you doubt that your weighted flies are turning over, select a few sparse beadheads, such as caddis larvae patterns, and swim them in a bathtub. Unless they were tied using some of the ideas I'll describe later in this article, I think you're going to be surprised.
Does it really matter whether our flies drift upside down? They have successfully fooled fish for years, haven't they? That's certainly true, and it may not matter for hatchery trout, or opportunistic trout in unfished mountain streams, but that's not where I spend my time.
My passion is sight-fishing for large, suspicious tailwater trout. These rivers are frequented by the most talented fly fishers in the nation, and the trout see artificial flies every day of the season.
I don't need any handicaps. Just the opposite: I'm looking for every possible advantage.
Equally important, my success rate is a function of my confidence in the pattern tied to the end of my tippet. It's a mystery why this should be true, but based on more than 40 years of fly fishing, it has been borne out. If I believe in a fly, it usually produces. If I lack confidence, results will reflect it. To maximize my success, I need to believe that my flies look like miniature filets mignons served on an invisible plate—not a piece of Spam artificially propped up on its edge.
The frustrating propensity for weighted flies to turn over is not new to me. Fifteen years ago, my friend Howard West, then general manager of Scientific Anglers, gave me a few of his Stalker nymphs, a weighted pattern tied on a Tiemco 200R hook. He knew that it took very little weight to flip this hook over, and to appear realistic, the fly's wingcase had to be tied on the bottom.
The pattern was appropriately named. Howard is the best stalker of large browns I've ever known, and his pattern produced its share of what he called "bookers," trout over 20 inches.
The Stalker Nymph started me thinking about nymph posture, and over the years, I performed some haphazard evaluations. Yet, in the back of my mind, I suspected most of my weighted patterns were flawed.
A long winter combined with a case of retirement boredom kick-started me to resolve this problem. The first step was to create a predictive screening model, one that evaluated the variables affecting a fly's posture, for instance the type of hook, weight, weight placement, fly style, and other factors.
The model would have been easy if the addition of weight on a bare hook simulated an actual fly, but to my consternation, it didn't. When I conducted my bathtub testing, the bare hook provided different results than with a body, so a body became a prerequisite. I chose yarn, because it's faster and cheaper than dubbing.
Once the predictive model was finished, the results were validated—or not validated, as the case might be—by testing actual patterns incorporating those variables. If I happened to be in an especially perverse mood, I even tried negative engineering—discovering what modifications screwed up a perfectly good fly.
Not adding weight is the simplest solution to keep a fly upright. The majority of unweighted flies tied on conventional nymph hooks don't flip over; some might be slightly canted, but I can live with that. There is another subtle but important benefit of fishing unweighted flies. A little bit of turbulence can cause them to flutter or rock side to side, while weighted flies are more likely to plow through like miniature submarines. Stoneflies, in particular, are poor swimmers, and when dislodged they tumble down the river until they find a firm footing on the bottom. This natural movement makes unweighted flies appear more realistic to the fish.
To my frustration, weighted scud hooks are especially prone to flipping over. In the water, some of my realistic scud patterns, artfully layered with multiple coats of epoxy or Sally Hansen Hard As Nails, looked like they had suffered a massive cardiac arrest. The good news is that scuds are underwater acrobats, scurrying about upright, on their sides or upside down. This fact saves my old scud patterns from the trash bin. Yet, knowing that my scud patterns flipped over bugged me enough that I banged out some new upright versions.
Beadheads are the polar opposite of unweighted flies. It's a challenge to keep any beadhead from turning over, and the larger the bead, the greater the instability. Regardless of the difficulty, if a wingcase is tied on top, the fly should be upright; otherwise, why bother?
Here are a few steps that keep my beadhead nymphs from tipping: First, use as small a bead as possible. Splay the tails, and lock them in place with a tiny dab of Dave's Flexament or Super Glue. This is especially effective with biot tails. Compress the top and bottom of the body with forceps. It's almost unimaginable that this simple step would make a difference, but it has converted wire-body flies from being upside down to upright. Unless the body material is fragile, I compress all nymphs.
Most important, use stiff fibers for legs and tie them in at the sides. Some recipes calls for soft-hackle legs, but I have better results with end-tip fibers from Hungarian partridge feathers, or dry-fly hackles. Also, don't skimp on the number of fibers. I'm guessing stiff legs act as stability outriggers. Finally, don't coat the wingcase with epoxy. It's a great look, but any added weight can be the tipping point, literally and figuratively.
In terms of large weighted flies like stonefly nymphs, the fatter the body and the heavier the hackle, the more likely the fly won't tip over. One of my fast-water stoneflies has a thick yarn body with a dense soft-hackle collar. It stays upright, even with a heavy 5/32 bead, which kicks over sparser patterns.
Deer-hair legs are another consideration. Not only does deer hair provide added buoyancy and stability, but it represents stout stonefly legs better than thin feather fibers.
The simplest solution for weighting flies on standard nymph hooks, especially beadheads, is to tie them "in the round." Tied this way, the fly looks identical regardless of its position.
Despite a long history of successful in-the-round trout flies, American fishermen have gravitated toward realism at the expense of in-the-round patterns. Yet, in the north of England, especially counties like Yorkshire, soft hackles are still synonymous with subsurface fly patterns. Charles Brooks's Montana Stone, designed for the rough-and-tumble waters of the Madison River, was tied in the round, as was his Ida May, an imitation of the Western Green Drake.
Think of all the wonderful flies tied in the round. The Brown Hackle. Bird's Nest. Leisenring's Gray Hackle. Polly Rosborough's Casual Dress. Pete Hidy's Flymph. Whitlock's Red Squirrel. The Woolly Worm.
I commonly use a realistic pattern for my bottom fly, and a heavy in-the-round pattern as my top fly. My realistic flies are almost always the best producers, but it's not uncommon to catch the biggest fish of the day on the in-the-round pattern.
When I want a realistic weighted nymph, I tie it upside down with the wingcase on the bottom of the hook, like the Stalker nymph mentioned earlier. The posture is self-correcting once the fly flips over.
Upside-down patterns have other advantages. First, keeping their upside-down position in the water is more controllable. With upright flies, sometimes a subtle variation in technique creates an unnoticeable difference, and the same pattern will be upright one time and flipped over the next. If tied properly, this rarely happens with an upside-down fly. Second, if the fly bounces off the bottom, it doesn't flop over; whereas, an upright or canted fly skids downstream on the side of the hook. Third, having the hook pointed up lessens the number of break-offs on snags and rocks.
Several authors have suggested upside-down hooks might increase the chances of a hook penetrating the fish's brain, but I don't buy the theory. I've fished upside-down nymphs for three decades. If I had any inkling that I was killing fish, these flies would have been trashed long ago. In my opinion, there are a multitude of extraneous variables that determine where in the mouth a hook penetrates. Trout deep in the water column commonly roll to their side to pick off a nymph. When a trout masticates, the fly is repositioned in the fish's mouth, something that occurs commonly before a strike is ever detected. During the strike set, flies are usually pulled toward the fisherman, not straight up, and a strike to one side alters the penetration point.
But my defense rests with this closing argument. Most fishermen have already been fishing upside-down flies, except they didn't know it. If it were a problem, there would have been a groundswell of anger about brain-stabbed fish. We care too much about our treasured resource to allow this to happen.
How It's Done
To create an upside-down fly, wrap wire around the shank, usually toward the front of the hook to accommodate a larger thorax, or individual pieces can be bound to both sides of the hook, which is preferable for wide-body nymphs. The amount of wire that can be tied along the shank is equivalent to wrapping the front third of the hook, and the result is about the same.
With light hooks, it doesn't take much added weight to flip a fly. For example, my Switch Hitter, a pattern designed to imitate both Ephemerella dorothea dorothea and Baetis, is tied on a lightweight Tiemco 102Y #19 hook. Only a half-dozen turns of .010" lead up front flips it upside down, yet it's light enough that bank feeders in skinny water don't scatter when it lands.
For larger upside-down nymphs, like Isonychias and Green Drakes, both Lloyd Gonzales and Poul Jorgensen have suggested using a swimming nymph hook, such as a Daiichi 1770, and adding weight to the rear bend to consistently flip the fly over. I'm especially fond of Gonzales's technique of binding a strand of lead wire lengthwise on the bottom of the rear hook bend, and then spiral-wrapping back over it.
Beadheads tied on scud hooks create a unique problem. They would look weird tied upside down, so for me, that's out. One solution that usually works for smaller flies is to add a strip of 1mm Razor Foam on the top. Another trick is to add two turns of stiff rooster hackle.
Some expert in fluid dynamics needs to explain why this helps, but I'm guessing it's due to added resistance, probably the same reason my bulky stoneflies don't turn over. Regardless of why, it has worked most of the time that I've tested it.
For example, two turns of #22 midge hackle keeps a #18 beadhead scud pattern from flipping. The added hackle may offend the tradition of proper fly design, but there's an additional reason to consider dry-fly hackle for subsurface patterns. Authors such as H. C. Cutcliff and Paul Schullery have claimed hen hackle is so soft that it gets plastered against the hook, especially in swift currents, whereas rooster fibers retain their shape.
Knots are another variable that affects fly posture. If fixed to the top of the hook, such as a Turle knot or the George Harvey dry-fly knot, the fly tends to angle, as if swimming to one of the riverbanks rather than heading straight downstream. Loop knots are the worst knots for keeping a fly upright. Many times, an improved clinch keeps a fly upright, while a loop knot flips the same fly over. This is especially true with relatively unstable hooks such as scud or fine dry-fly hooks. Based on these tests, I now limit loop knots to situations where an up-and-down fly movement is desired, such as with a hand-twist retrieve, or for streamer fishing.
My research has changed the way I tie nymphs. Am I catching more and bigger fish as a result? Early indications are encouraging, but I won't know for another season or two. However, in my opinion, that question is almost irrelevant. I believe I'm fishing better. For me, that's all that matters.
Bob Reynolds lives in Asheville, North Carolina. He is a volunteer guide and instructor for Casting For Recovery (castingforrecovery.org).
Hook: #18-12 Tiemco 200R.
Thread: 8/0, color specific to insect.
Tail: Hungarian partridge.
Rib: Fine silver wire.
Abdomen: Sparse dubbing, tapered, color specific to insect.
wingcase: Brown turkey quill, tied on bottom.
Thorax: Dubbing, color specific to insect.
Legs: Hungarian partridge.
Hook: #19 Tiemco 102Y.
Thread: Dark olive Danville Flymaster.
Tail: Straight fibers from the tip of a yellow mallard flank feather.
Abdomen: Mottled olive turkey rounds, wound around thread for added durability.
Back: Dark olive Bugskin, tied on bottom.
Thorax: Olive and dark brown dubbing.
Legs: Straight fibers from the tip of a yellow mallard flank feather.