When you are nymph fishing, there is nothing worse than the feeling of not knowing where your fly is or how it is behaving. You simply can't fish effectively if you don't have a mental image of the underwater presentation. When nymphing, you are blind — you cannot see what is going on beneath the water. You must learn to read the signs — the line, leader, and strike indicator.
According to many experts, you must develop an intuition, a "refined sixth sense" of what is happening out there beneath the river's surface. How does one develop this sense? Where does it come from? It seems to me intuition is fine for the experts, but the rest of us — the mere mortals who were not born with an underwater fisheye lens in the back of our brains — have to do something else. Happily, there is a way.
How Nymphs Dead Drift
The first step is to develop an understanding of how your nymphs behave under water. They do not drift the same as a dry fly. A different vision of a dead drift is required.
In a dry-fly definition, dead drift means that the fly's motion exactly matches the speed of the current around it — the fly follows every nuance, every little swirl and seam. Even so much as the pressure of the tippet against the fly, like a hair pushing a feather, is called "microdrag."
In contrast, a good nymph presentation does not match the speed of the current. The fly usually travels along the bottom, slower than the water around it, and there is usually a slight pull from the line, leader, and indicator.
To understand how this works, consider what would happen if you dropped a lightly weighted nymph into the water. It would wash downstream a bit, then eventually would wedge between the rocks and stop. Without a line, leader, and strike indicator attached to it, the fly would hang up and go nowhere.
Imagine the indicator as being like a balloon on a string attached to the nymph. When the nymph touches bottom and slows or stops, the indicator/balloon continues on in the current. When the tether comes tight, the indicator/balloon gently nudges the nymph.
A dead-drifted nymph actually rolls downstream with a stop-and-go movement. The fly touches bottom, starts to slow and hang up momentarily, but then is encouraged forward by an increased pressure from the line, leader, and indicator. This is repeated over and over again. It's a very different kind of dead drift. It should be called another name, such as "bottom rolling," or "bottom bouncing," to avoid confusion.
Reading the Indicator
The stop-and-go action of the nymph on bottom can be read clearly through the line, leader, and indicator. And once you're keyed to it, this telltale movement is easy to see.
The movement is created as the nymph travels more slowly, stopping and going along the bottom, while the line and indicator are traveling faster downstream, matching more closely the speed of the faster current at or near the surface. When the nymph first touches the bottom and slows, the tip of the leader will curl back, pointing upstream toward the nymph. The indicator also slows; sometimes it seems to flutter as the nymph bumps along bottom. Gradually the line passes the indicator, moving downstream below it, and a curve forms in the line. Don't let the line drift too far downstream or it will form a U-shaped belly in the line and drag the fly.
At first, the slowing of the leader tip and the indicator may be difficult to see. If the tapping of the bottom is light (as it should be), the indicator produces a more subtle motion. The key is to watch the bubbles in the current around the indicator. As soon as they start to move downstream faster than the indicator, you will know that the nymph is on bottom and slowing has occurred.
You can also detect the speed change by watching the relationship of the tip of the fly line to the indicator. When there is no bottom bouncing, the indicator and the fly line tip will travel along together. But as soon as the fly slows, thus slowing the indicator, the relative positions change: The indicator will hang back and the line will move downstream.
By now it should be obvious that the amount of pressure needed to nudge a nymph along bottom is critical. You must experiment to achieve the right balance: It's an adjustment between the weight of the nymph, the length of the leader, and your skill at managing the entire fishing system.
Experimentation should teach you how much weight to add, but be careful — there's a trap. The easiest way to start sensing the bottom is to add weight to the leader and keep adding weight until you hit bottom. When you start getting hangups and false readings, you're home.
To a degree, this approach works. Nymphing, in its simplest terms, is nothing more than bottom-bouncing. If, by adding weight, you can present the fly consistently along the bottom, you will catch fish. Too much weight, however, will result in too many bottom hangups and fewer fish.
Some fishermen, especially in the West, add large amounts of weight to their nymphs — it's almost like fishing with a spark plug for a fly. They run the super-heavy nymphs through drifts on a tight line in the hope of increasing feel. They will often get as many as five or six bottom hangups per drift, and they meet each hangup with a sharp, quick hook-set. If there are no fish, they drop the line and the nymph returns to bottom. In a crude way, this method of teasing the nymph along imitates the same stop-and-go action I achieve with a more gentle pressure from the line and leader.
Although the average angler is unlikely to be as extreme as the spark-plug fishermen, even experienced fishers use excessive weight when searching for bottom. Most nymph fishers overweight their flies and hang up and tease bottom more than necessary. This excess weight detracts from the enjoyment and pleasure of more subtle nymphing.
The two most common complaints from unhappy nymphers are: "I don't like casting weights," and "I don't like getting hung up all the time." More importantly, you don't get the best presentation with over-weighted flies. Heavy, rocklike nymphs don't give the same illusion of life that lighter, free-floating imitations do. My advice is: Lighten up a little. Use the indicator and the more subtle movements of the line and leader to tell what's happening, rather than direct contact with the bottom.
A properly weighted nymph-fishing system, handled with care, gets the fly to the bottom quickly and consistently. You can read the indicator and line easily, and the flies will rarely hang up or give false indications.
Substitute Technique for Weight
A critical key to fishing with less weight is learning to release the fly of drag at the very start of the drift. In a nymph presentation when you cast upstream without any special line management, the indicator will start to drag or nudge the fly almost immediately — long before the fly has sunk all the way to the bottom.
This pressure, from the indicator to the fly, slows the sink rate enormously. It also deadens your feel for the fly — you cannot be sure if the fly is down to bottom or not. This opens the door to the excess-weight trap. The easiest and most obvious — but wrong — solution to the problem is to add another split-shot.
The other alternative, the one that should help you become a more sensitive nympher, is to substitute line management for weight. If you can give slack to the fly just as soon as it hits the water, a lightly weighted fly will drop to the bottom immediately.
If you release drag from a lightly weighted nymph at the start of the drift, it will drop to the bottom like a brick. Once the fly is on the bottom, light tension from the leader will not draw it back to the surface. The tension will simply nudge the fly along, exactly the way you want it to swim.
The release is created by one of several methods. The most basic is a standard line mend. You can also use bounce or tuck casts to curl the fly under the leader and provide slack to the fly. My favorite technique is a stack or roll-cast mend. After I make the cast, I bring the rod tip to vertical and throw the mend like a little roll cast right toward the indicator.
The roll-cast mend hooks the indicator around and above the fly, puts slack in the leader, and places the tip of the line upstream of the indicator. The faster-moving line has more distance to travel than the slower-moving indicator and nymph, allowing the drift to run farther drag-free. [For more information about these techniques, see the author's book Slack Line Strategies for Fly Fishing, Stackpole Books, 1994. The Editor.]
Controlling the Drift
Once the fly is down and on the bottom, you must continue to control pressure on the nymph throughout the drift. The goal — to achieve maximum sensitivity from the indicator — is to minimize the pull from the line and leader. Let the nudging of the nymph occur only in the tip section of the leader — the part from the indicator to the fly.
At the surface, the indicator, freely floating and uninfluenced by the line, will look like a dead-drifted dry fly. But there is one critical difference: The indicator, and the nymph below it, are traveling slower than the current.
In a nymph drift, the line and fly don't travel as a unit. You must move the rod tip downstream, leading the faster-moving line to prevent excess line tension. You cannot follow the slower-moving indicator with the rod tip the same way you would follow a dry fly.
With each drift, the tip of the line curls back upstream. This puts a characteristic crescent shape in the line that increases as the drift progresses. If you point the rod tip upstream toward the indicator, the crescent rapidly tightens from an open C shape into a narrower U shape. Pressure builds on the line and you lose control.
But if you move the rod tip downstream, just ahead of the point where the line enters the water, the crescent will not form into a U as quickly. The line curve will stay more open. The line pressure can be controlled longer and the drift will be extended.
Also, don't make the mistake of feeling that you must continuously mend and keep the line behind the fly. Let the drift run. While nymphing, it is better to lead the fly through the drift than to follow.
For even greater control as the nymphs drift past your fishing position, raise and lower the rod at the same time you swing it downstream. This helps manage excess slack. The technique is called "high-sticking." The rod is mobile and active. The tip goes up and in as the fly drifts toward you, creating more slack line. It drops down and away as the fly drifts past and slack line is absorbed. To extend the drift even farther, shake short lengths of line out of the rod tip.
Adjusting the Indicator
A long distance between the indicator and fly is another way of putting slack in the nymphing system. The farther up the leader you place the indicator, the more free play it will allow. A lighter fly on a longer leader tip will sink as if it had been sunk by adding more weight.
There are problems with this approach. A long leader tip is less sensitive. Fish often hit the fly and travel a long way before you see a response from the indicator. You can have a hangup for several seconds before you see it. And your nymph can travel several feet left or right of the indicator without your knowing.
As you improve your skill at releasing the fly at the start of each drift, you should discover that you don't need long leader tips. The distance between your indicator and fly can be decreased, creating a tighter system. And with each reduction in the distance from indicator to fly, your system's sensitivity increases.
To gain maximum sensitivity, you should adjust the indicator depth regularly. I recommend using the new sliding polypropylene yarn indicators (Aqua Fiber Indicators from McKenzie Fly Tackle or Big Horn Indicators from Umpqua) that allow you to change indicator depths easily. I try to keep my indicator as tight as conditions will allow. You should be able to fish consistently with no more than 1 to 11/2 feet of slack.
Even with the experience I have fishing indicators, I often wonder if the indicator is reacting properly and the the fly is on bottom or if the leader is too short to allow the fly to reach bottom. When I bring it in and measure it against the water line on my waders, there's just enough extra leader to compensate for the most minor variations in the bottom.
When I have everything tuned and my indicator is rigged tight, with a fly that has no more weight than required, I find I can sense everything on the bottom. I can see hesitations in the indicator from individual rocks; I know if there is a depression or a shallow spot. A fish cannot take the nymph without causing a reaction on the indicator.
It's at this point that I have arrived. I have that sixth-sense feel of the bottom. The fishing system draws a road map for me; I have a clear vision of exactly where the nymph is and how it is performing. I'm not blind anymore.
Nymphing is no longer the drudgery of casting weights and retrieving snagged flies. It's a sensitive, subtle way of fishing — a game over which I have complete control. With my mental fisheye lens on the bottom, nymphing becomes as much fun as dry-fly fishing.
John Judy, author of Slack Line Strategies for Fly Fishing, lives in Camp Sherman, Oregon, and operates a guide service on the Deschutes, Metolius, McKenzie, and coastal rivers in Oregon.