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High Stick Nymph Fly Fishing

Nymph Fly Fishing

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."

Echo Shadow PE $330

Pete Erickson was a member of Fly Fishing Team USA from 2002 to 2010, when he had ample to time study, mimic, adapt, and then improve the European nymphing techniques that rule competitive fishing. Erickson helped Tim Rajeff and the Echo rod design team to create a light, balanced nymphing rod with the power to lob heavy anchor flies, and a sensitive tip to stay in tune with the smaller flies and detect strikes. Shadow PE rods have a stealthy matte black finish and are available in 3- and 4-weight models. Our tester used both Shadow PE rods in high, low, and ideal water conditions and said, "The extra length of the 11'\4-weight enhances control on long-range drifts, allowing you to cover seams other anglers can't reach. It is also a long lever, which moves more line when the time comes to set the hook on a fish deep in the current." The 10'6"3-weight is a versatile tool you can nymph with, or toss a dry/dropper rig.

G.Loomis NRX Nymph $775-$785

The popularity of G.Loomis's NRX rod series stems partly from the technology that allows rod designer Steve Rajeff to create rods that are lighter–and lighter rods by definition provide more sensitivity–so it was a no-brainer that G.Loomis would eventually produce NRX nymph rods. Our tester used both of the new Nymph models (10', 3- and 4-weights) for a week of fishing on Alberta's Bow River. He said the rods are light and powerful with a moderate tip to protect light tippets, and a strong butt section to handle large fish and heavy rigs in fast water. Choose the 4-weight for larger rivers or anywhere you're likely to cast large flies or mend line at a distance. The 3-weight is a better choice for small or medium rivers like the Provo or Rock Creek where you can high-stick flies at close range, and sensitivity is at a premium. The rods are available in black matte with blue trim, and also in an all-green color scheme.

Greys Streamflex XF2 $245-$340

Howard Croston is captain of Team UK fly-fishing, and also chief rod designer for Hardy and Greys, which put him in a unique position to create competition-style nymphing rods. Streamflex XF2 is a complete lineup of 17 trout models, but the 10- and 11-foot light line weights were created specifically for Euro techniques. "The normal casting performance requirements of a high-performance fly rod are in many ways secondary to the requirements of a technical nymph fishing rod," he said of the rods he designed. "The ability to project a long compound tapered leader with a relatively light nymph–as used in French-style nymph fishing–requires a rod with a limber tip that is almost capable of loading under its own weight." This ultralight philosophy created rods that protect the finest tippets, and are super sensitive for detecting strikes. Our tester used the 11' 3-weight and called it a "roll-casting machine" that excels with drys and lighter nymphs in shallow water, but he said it's a little on the limber side for the heavier flies associated with Czech nymphing and deeper, faster water.

Sage ESN $700

ESN stands for European Style Nymphing and our tester first fished ESNs in practice sessions during the World Fly Fishing Championships on the Rienza River in northern Italy. "These are phenomenally light rods designed specifically for the kind of fishing I prefer," he said. "They are physically light, but more importantly they are light in the hand, or well balanced, which really cuts down on hand/wrist/arm fatigue.The ESNs are the fastest of all the rods I tested, but they still have very sensitive tips. I fished the 2- and 3-weight versions with 18- to 24-foot leaders, and two-fly Euro style rigs and caught brown trout, marble trout, and grayling up to 18 inches." According to rod designer Jerry Siem, "Konnetic Technology allowed us to build a very small-diameter shaft, which enables better detection of takes while still being strong enough for a vigorous hook-set, which is ideal with Czech, Polish, French, or Spanish nymphing." Konnetic Technology is Sage-speak for a mix of proprietary resin, a high-modulus aerospace-grade carbon fiber, and Sage's Advanced Modulus Positioning System (AMPS)–a manufacturing process that aligns and positions the carbon fibers for the greatest blank strength with the least amount of material. And less material means less "dead stick" and more sensitivity between you and your nymphs, or more importantly between you and the trout. The 10' 2- through 5-weights all weigh in at under 3 ounces and are the lightest nymph rods we tested.

St. Croix High Stick Drifter $430

Kelly Galloup lives on the banks of Montana's Madison River–perhaps the world's finest laboratory for high-stick nymphing techniques. Fifty miles of endless riffles leaves a lot of space where trout hide in tiny pockets along the bouldery bottom, and much of the time, tight-line presentations are the best way to get to them. Galloup says he developed the High Stick Drifter with a lightweight tip to reduce fatigue from holding the rod high during long periods of technical nymphing with or without indicators, and to provide extra sensitivity for better strike detection. St. Croix packs a lot of technology into its newest fly rod, with high-modulus SCv graphite, 3M Matrix Resin, REC Recoil snake guides, and a Fuji K Series Tangle-Free stripper guide. Our tester took the 10-foot 4-weight HSD for a bath on Utah's Lower Provo River in clear water with high flows. He said he was worried about the soft tip during his out-of-the-tube wiggle test but "on the water the High Stick Drifter came alive. Once I had a reel, line and weighted flies attached to it, the tip became an advantage for accurately casting weighted flies, and managing a long leader. I used mostly a two-fly Euro rig on an 18-foot leader, but the HSD also did a fine job with smallish drys, taking browns up to 16 inches."

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