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Nymphing Skinny Water

Success in life or with flies on the stream comes from taking a balanced approach.

Nymphing Skinny Water

(This story originally appeared in the Feb-Mar 2012 issue of Fly Fisherman.)

Success on the stream or in life comes from taking a balanced approach. In the business world, successful CEOs must possess more than one skill set. This balance allows them to overcome obstacles on a daily basis.

The same holds true for successful anglers. Productive fly fishers take a balanced approach—they possess the skills and tools to fish all water types throughout the entire year. That is, they prepare and train to catch fish in all conditions.

From Czech nymphing in whitewater to sight-fishing on glassy flats, fly fishers with a balanced attack not only succeed more often than one-trick ponies, but also have more fun.

In a perfect world, we pick and choose the water we fish, and skip the less productive locations. However, highly pressured streams don't always allow us that luxury, and we are often left with less desirable waters. For example, each year from April through the middle part of June, thousands of anglers descend upon central Pennsylvania's limestone region, seeking world-class hatches. This is not a complaint, but a simple reality where I live.

Traveling anglers plan vacations long in advance, appear on their favorite streams, and stake claims on what they foresee as the most productive water. During prime time, I often find that many of the long, deep runs and pools I intended to fish are filled with anglers, leaving me with the shallow water.

Early in my fishing days, I looked at the situation as a loss, muttering curses to myself, and sometimes heading home without wetting a line. Since then, I have learned a lot about playing good defense: Seek the shallow waters.

Prime holding water only produces for so long until excessive angling pressure degrades normal catch rates. That is, that great-looking run and pool can only produce so many hookups before trout get lockjaw or begin to move out of the most obvious holding water and into the less obvious shallow water. This provides opportunities to target less-pressured fish in skinny water.

Shallow Water Nymphing

Shallow water can be described as a fast, medium, or slow body of water less than knee deep. Shallow riffles, tailouts of pools, or skinny pocketwater are some of the more popular examples of secondary water types. Shallow water is what most anglers quickly stumble through on their way to better-looking water.

Shallow water holds much of a stream's aquatic life, and therefore a trout holding in shallow water is likely a feeding trout.

However, not all shallow water is productive. For example, a small freestone river in my area is known for its long, flat slate bottoms. Some areas have cracks or depressions where trout hold, but generally a flat slate bottom lacks shelter from the current and food, exposes the trout to predation, and is a place I may not even bother to fish.


On the other hand, in small mountain streams during the late season, I have found brook trout wedged sideways between midstream boulders to avoid swimming in open water. For me, productive shallow water may only be a few inches deep but with some form of depression, substrate, or any variable that will encourage a trout to move in.

Also, seasonal effects including water temperature will determine if trout will be found in shallows. Trout are cold-blooded creatures known for migrating to deeper waters in the winter and early spring to conserve energy. Tailwaters or streams with regulated temperatures, including spring creeks, are exceptions to this rule and can provide shallow-water nymphing year round. Shallow water that is vacant in the winter may become stacked with trout in the summer as water temperatures elevate along with the trout's metabolism, and trout move to the shallows looking for abundant food sources and more oxygenated water.

The Approach

Shallow water dictates a slower approach. Trout holding in shallow water don't possess the same feeling of security of those in more protected lies. Instead, they're on high alert, looking for any reason to bolt into deeper water, under a log, or some other shelter. This means careful wading, darker clothing, lighter-weighted nymphs, and a more careful presentation.

I look at successful shallow water the same way I look at long-term investments—it's going to take a longer time and greater discipline on your part before you begin seeing a return. It may take only a minute to get into position, but sometimes it may take five—you need to have patience.

Think like a heron. Do you see herons running up and down the river? No, they spend more time surveying and slowly moving into position before attacking.

Never step into the water without first making a cast. This has been said for years, but how many of us actually follow this advice? A spooked fish can bolt and send warning signals to others, which can quickly clear an area.

Make sure to place a cast anywhere along the bank that provides cover. A depression where a trout could sit, or a small boulder a fish can wedge itself against are both shallow-water targets.

Quality optics allow you to thoroughly survey the water before stepping in. Good sunglasses and a keen eye allow you to notice small depressions or other obstacles worthy of holding trout. I try to spend at least 30 seconds looking over an area before making my first cast, just like the carpenter's rule: measure twice and cut once. In fisherman's terms: look twice before stepping in the water.

Begin with short casts so as not to line a fish. A trout in shallow water spooks as soon as a line or leader lands over its back, so start short and then add distance. I work in 5-foot intervals, often starting at 15 to 20 feet away and gradually increasing the length of the cast.

An upstream approach keeps you downstream of the trout and out of sight. Also, this position allows you to place your first cast behind the fish, instead of starting by casting over its head.

A trout's lateral line can sense the lightest weighted nymph dropping below it, and cause an instinctive reaction to turn around and search for the fallen morsel. The trout sees the fly first, not the leader, and this is the approach I use when I'm casting to a visible fish.

A lightweight fly is a must, as the fly needs to be in the trout's vision as it turns around. A heavy fly drops too quickly and is out of the trout's vision by the time it turns around and searches for the fallen fly. Very seldom do I use tungsten beads for these conditions, as several wraps of lead wire or a brass bead is all the weight I need.

Ranges & Tools

Close Range. I describe this scenario as where you can reach a position within 30 feet of your target. There are even times you can wade to within 10 feet of a trout holding in shallow water.

For example, trout feeding on emerging insects in shallow riffles tend to let their guard down. Their focused feeding is so intense that they likely won't notice a carefully wading angler. This is similar to when you're so focused on watching television that you fail to notice your wife walking into the room.

At close range, I prefer a longer leader to make short casts, due to the delicate presentation a long leader offers over a floating fly line. A tapered leader weighs less than a floating fly line, creating less disturbance when landing, and therefore spooking fewer fish. For strike detection, I use a straight piece of colored monofilament called a "sighter." This colored section of material is built into the leader butt section to act as a strike indicator, and it functions like any leader material except that it's brightly colored and therefore far more visible, allowing you to easily recognize a change in drift.

My favorite sighter is the Jan Siman Bi-Color Strike Indicator ( in .30 and .35 mm and is a two-tone sighter consisting of fluorescent orange and fluorescent chartreuse monofilament. The two colors provide contrast along with excellent visibility in all light conditions.

Sighters are often used in tight-line tactics where you maintain a tight connection between the rod tip and your nymph (without a suspension device), leading the rig with the rod tip and holding as much of the line and leader (including the sighter) as possible off the water while looking for any hesitation in the leader.

When fishing lightweight nymphs in shallow water, I often prefer to grease the leader, turning the colored monofilament into a suspension device for lightly weighted nymphs. A greased sighter is not designed to float a heavy rig, but shallow water doesn't require a lot of weight, so most of my patterns consist of brass beadhead nymphs—slim in profile to drop quickly to the bottom, but not heavy enough to hang on the bottom.

If your sighter continues to get pulled under the surface, you need to reduce the amount of weight. Focus on the tip section of the sighter and look for any hesitation or movement and strike as soon the drift changes.

Also, grease the fly line tip all the way to the sighter. A high-floating line and leader can be lifted off the surface with less disturbance than a sunken fly line tip. A sunken tip has to be lifted through the surface film, creating a distinct ripple on the water which can spook fish. Taking just 30 seconds to grease the fly line tip, leader, and sighter will improve your stealthy presentation.

Long range. Casts of more than 30 feet are what I refer to as long range. This is where your indicator needs to change. A greased section of straight, colored mono is visible only for a short distance. To increase visibility, I change the shape of the sighter, using the same Jan Siman Bi-Color Strike Indicator.

Enter the curlicue. The curly looks like a Slinky toy on the water, and at close range, rides high off the water's surface. Simply a colored section of mono wrapped around a cylinder—in most cases a wooden dowel, screw, or any other similarly shaped object—a curlicue is a great tool for shallow-water fishing. I use a 1/4" wooden dowel to coil my curlicues in larger loops. A smaller diameter can be used, but I want the suspender to ride higher off the water so it can be spotted at distances exceeding 30 feet.

Some anglers prefer to use a much smaller-diameter curly, and that's fine, but a smaller curly is harder to see. [For details on making a curlicue or Slinky indicator, see Bret Bishop's story "French Connection" in the April/May 2010 issue. The Editor.]

The curly is a tool I use exclusively for long-range nymphing, which is why I tend to stay with larger diameters. Finally, because longer casts are needed, I shorten my leader and allow the tapered fly line to carry the rig.

Along with a sensitive strike detection tool, presenting a lightweight nymph to trout holding in shallow water requires a quiet presentation.

I have found that two elements are essential to presenting in shallow water: power application and trajectory. It takes some practice and concentration to ease up on your casts at close range. Aim at a point just above the water so the line and leader stops in midair and gently falls to the water. The last thing you want to do is send your line crashing into the water, sending smoke signals to the trout that you are after them.

Thin-Profile Nymphs

Thin-profile nymphs—especially epoxy-style patterns—occupy a large area in my boxes. These hard-body nymphs have a slim profile, little surface area, and quickly penetrate the water's surface. They are also slightly translucent, providing a more realistic look to discriminating trout feeding in shallow water.

I was first introduced to epoxy-style patterns by my friend Ian Collin James—his Brass Ass and Epoxy Czech are two of my favorite shallow-water flies. More recent favorites include Lance Egan's Rainbow Warrior and Charlie Craven's Two Bit Hooker, detailed by the master tier himself in the Feb-Mar 2011 issue of Fly Fisherman. Both these flies are dense and sink quickly, and they have the right shape and size to fool most fish in shallow water.

While slim epoxy-style nymphs are my favorite patterns, I believe fly design is only part of a successful approach, and the right presentation, along with the correct tools (i.e., leader and sighter) have the greatest impact on how well you fish shallow waters.

Private Fly Fishing Water

So remember, the next time when you drive to a popular stream and find it packed with anglers, don't get upset. Look at the situation as an opportunity to explore shallow water. My friend and mentor Joe Humphreys always says, "The key is having something new to look forward to every day."

George Daniel is the author of Dynamic Nymphing (Stackpole Books, 2012).

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