High Stick Nymph Fly Fishing
July 25, 2016
In my long — and continuing — education as a fly fisherman, I've realized an equal number of "A-ha" and "D'oh!" moments. Some of these are a result of stumbling across the obvious and previously unconsidered, but for the most part, they are things that have had a disconnect within my experience suddenly making sense with a new insight.
Technical short line nymph fishing, or "High Sticking", is now a core technique with modern Trout fisherman. For myself and other anglers living in the Colorado Front Range in the 80's, the Cheesman Canyon section of the South Platte river southwest of Denver was ground zero for the development of the strategy. Flies like the Brassie, Pheasant Tail and San Juan Worm reigned supreme, with split shot and dressed poly yarn indicators becoming standard. A classic tailwater with a robust biomass and typically small insects, Cheesman requires putting anatomically correct flies in front of fish holding in stationary feeding lies below structure, while exerting maximum drift control for success.
Orvis: Moving Water
For the most part, this meant approaching the fish carefully, using as little line as possible with a high rod position, and holding the leader off the water to reduce the chance of unseen currents moving the flies in an unnatural drift that would be scrutinized and rejected. To the amazement of old school anglers, large fish were being taken at close range with patterns no bigger than a grain of rice. In general, dry fly and emerger fisherman were consigned to fishing the smoother tailouts and softer riffles during hatches where takes were more visible, and which in the South Platte was considered high art.
Currently, we now have a myriad of nymph patterns, tungsten beads, fluorocarbon tippet and even rods specifically designed to assist with control in short line nymphing presentations. For the the last twelve seasons, I've had the privilege of working as a guide in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, where an excellent (though, highly pressured) tail water was available in the early season, and a world class selection of small Freestone streams in the national park would come into shape after mid summer. These streams are typically steep, tight and bouldery, with little in the way of the classic long drifts associated with big river dry fly fishing out west. Show up with a nine foot rod and uncork a 40 foot cast at whatever target you were choosing was a recipe for ending up in the trees or wrapped under a rock. Even if you did get a shot, the fish would generally ignore your fly as it was being drug around in complex currents and eddy lines.
High Stick Pocket Water Dry Fly
Early July, in particular, was frustrating, as water temps and hatches were just falling into shape, but current levels left only a minority of available structure fishable. Scaled down nymphing rigs can produce in these situations, but that's not really what you came for in this kind of setting. The solution, as usual, was simple. Shorten up, step up to bat, and put the fly in the pocket.
Especially in higher flows, Trout need a place to hide from currents to avoid overexerting themselves relative to their food intake. Unfortunately, resting positions behind boulders can also provide clear, smooth water overhead that puts them at risk for being eaten by predators. So, while they are highly motivated to eat while expending unusual amounts of energy in full water conditions, they also instinctively know that coming to the surface will indicate their position. They have to be sure that taking the risk is worth it. So, even more than with nymph fishing, effective drag control is the key to making the sale.
Turbulent flows can work to your advantage. In a long, slow pool, a fish can discern any false casts or the slightest misstep on your part. But in rowdy water, the noise, bubbles, agitated debris and other dynamic elements cover your approach for fish that are focused on the enclosed environment behind whatever structure they are holding downstream of. They can't see or hear you. Generally, you can wade within 15 feet of fish in these conditions, and I would say that 95% of my client's fish have been taken within that distance, with rods of under 8' in length. Holding a high rod position with no more than probably three feet of fly line out the tip, and using a 7.5' leader cut down to about 6' allows you to place a heavily dressed dry fly such as a Stimulator or Hopper at the edges of the pocket with almost no mono touching the water -- and no apparent drag. This usually results in a smashing response. Two seconds of clean hang time just inside of the current interface is what you're after.
Colorado Outdoors Small Stream
For years, my approach to dry fly fishing was framed by perceptions formed fishing structure that had classic open architecture and associated fish behavior. In a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, Angling Emeritus and Outdoor Guru Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia is quoted on the subject of Tenkara fishing and it's general orientations, summing up what it took me years to apply with a rod and reel.
"Everyone's been making fly rods as if you need to cast 100 feet to catch a trout, when in reality the trout are at your feet, practically."