My 10-Minute Nymphette
by Eric James
For our purposes here, we’re discussing nymph fishing and rigs, and I’ll allude to particular tips for the Lower Mountain Fork. As far as nymphs and rigs, the principles are generally applicable to most tailwaters and conditions. While dry fly fishing is exciting, there is generally more feeding subsurface, and even the rises you see that appear to be on the surface are actually concentrated on emerging insects, not true surface insects. It’s also possibly the best way to get folks new to the sport and still developing casting skills catching fish.
TACKLE: In most conditions, a standard WF-F line and fly rod will do. Generally, a longer rod gives you more reach to control the drift and to control slack line and make better mends. I fish primarily with a 9’ 4 or 5 WT rod. I prefer DT-F lines for nymphs but WFF lines matched to the rod are perfectly fine.
LEADERS: Leaders are often a matter of preference. 7.5’ and 9’ standard tapered trout leaders will all work. I generally make my own leaders. First, I prefer a heavier butt section than store- bought leaders, and I prefer longer leaders. This may depend on water conditions, preference and skill. I have long arms, which allow me to manage a lot of line and net fish on a long leader, and I prefer to have to deal with leader on the water rather than fly line, which drags more severely. Your experience may vary. I make two primary leaders. I use about a shorter 9’ leader constructed of a 3-4’ butt section of 2x mono leader and transitioning through 1’ sections of colored mono for a sighter to a tippet ring and use Fluorocarbon tippet from the tippet ring throughout the rest of the rig to the point fly (the first fly tied directly to the tippet). My second leader is 12-13’ starting with 20lb Maxima mono of 3-4’, transitioning through 18” sections of colored mono sighter to a tippet ring with Fluorocarbon tippet the rest of the way to the point fly. The heavier butt section of this rig casts better than the lighter 2X butt. I principally use 5x and 6x tippet, rarely going lighter, but occasionally moving up to 4x in dirtier water, bigger fish or fish that are not leader-shy. Point flies are tied off of 5X tippets and the dropper is off of 6X. In case there is a snag, generally the dropper will break first, saving the point fly and the rest of the rig.
TIPPET RINGS: I am a strong advocate of tippet rings to save time. I have never broken off above a tippet ring, and it makes tying knots with low light or high wind much easier. With tippet rings you only have to tie clinch knots all day, not blood knots and surgeons knots. Tippet rings also float if you need to switch to a dry quickly.
PRE-TIED RIGS AND FLIES: I am also a fan of pre-tying not only my leaders but also my terminal flies. I have found combinations that I always use, so I have those tandem flies pre- tied and wound around a leader keeper. My leader keeper is a plastic leader holder common in Great Lakes walleye fishing (still made by Northland Tackle). You can use a pipe or pipe insulation.
I carry a few principle combinations (point fly-terminal fly) that are my standbys: Point flies of GR Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, Higa’s SOS, Red San Juan Worm, Near Deer and an Egg Pattern (scrambled egg): Terminal flies of: Soft Hackle (olive, yellow or orange), RS2, Midges, scuds, caddis pupae, small eggs and CDC Caddis (I love to fish CDC Caddis drowned). Likewise, you can keep some tippet with a dry (or dry and dropper) or a streamer in case the circumstance arises.
• While I may in fact fish more than 2 flies (sometimes up to 4), I tend to look at rigs in 3 ways: life cycle, searching or attracting. I use eggs and San Juan worms or flies with flash as attractors with the bite typically coming on the trailing natural or emerger. If fishing a nymph and an emerger (or a pupa and an emerger) the former flies should be the point flies, the latter flies as the droppers.
• You cannot be lazy. You must change your indicator depth, weight and you must change flies. Once fish figure that something is sharp, you must adjust.
• Learn to tie your own egg patterns. First, they’re easy, and a good way to learn to tie. Second, most commercial egg patterns are tied on heavier wire hooks for steelhead. Unless you’re likely to hook a carp or a steelhead, a lighter wire hook is plenty and more likely to straighten or break and save the rig when snagged. Select smaller eggs (no bigger than 18s) as terminal flies. Larger scrambled eggs, Glo Bugs can be used as attractor point flies. Fish tandem eggs with the weight between the eggs, not above. Eggs tumble along the bottom rather than float high in the water column.
• Know your bugs and your river.
- Midges and caddis pupae turn red in highly oxygenatedwater making them effective in spillways and tailraces but not in slicks or runs far from riffles. Caddis pupae prefer rocky substrate, so fishing those patterns through silty bottoms lowers your percentages.
- Caddis, scuds and midges are almost always present, but not mayflies. Mayflies get the style points while fishing dries but caddis, midges, scuds and mayfly nymphs are the meat and potatoes of the river, not duns.
- There are always 2 generations of March Brown nymphs in the LMF. This is why the GR Hare’s Ear and Pheasant Tail are so important and consistent. Drake and Hexagenia nymphs are rarely effective unless those insects are emerging at that very moment.
MUSINGS ON WEIGHT: My experience, particularly with new fisherman and on the LMF, is that if you are not catching fish, there are two initial diagnoses: you are not fishing deep enough or not fishing heavy enough. Often newbies will show me their rig, and the flies are perfectly fine, but they are not fishing with enough weight for the current or deep enough for the hole. IF YOU ARE NOT GETTING SNAGGED AND LOSING FLIES YOU ARE NOT FISHING DEEP ENOUGH. This means either your indicator (if using one) is too shallow or you do not have enough weight, and you are zipping flies over the fish. There is subtle difference between enough weight to get to the bottom and enough weight to get to the bottom quickly. You want the rig to be on the bottom before you hit the fish zone, not getting to the bottom as you pass through the zone. The basic formula is that an indicator should be 1-1.5 times the depth of the water to the weight, not the point fly. You must account for speed of current and the amount of slack there will be in the rig under the surface. For example, there is a riffle on the LMF above the Evening Hole that is about 8” deep but requires at least 3 #1 split shot to catch fish due to the current speed and using a suspension indicator is almost impossible due to the slack it generates. Fluorocarbon is expensive, but it will help your rigs get deeper faster.
- The easiest way I have found to get folks new to nymphing to conceptualize it is to relate it to the Carolina Rig for bass; your weight is on the bottom and the flies are suspended off the bottom by the length of tippet from the split shot to the point and terminal flies.
- If fishing under an indicator, unless a tungsten bead is involved, I generally do not equate a bead as weight but as flash. Your heaviest fly should be your point fly, in general, and a bead will cause the fly to ride lower in the water column, but they will generally not cause the rig to plunge significantly quicker.
OF INDICATORS, SIGHTERS AND SUCH: I use sighters more and more in lieu of indicators whether the rig is short and tight or long, and I will often put an indicator on a rig with a sighter rather than switch out leaders. I make my own sighters: 10lb Green Maxima, 8lb Cajun Red Mono, and 6 lb. Hi Vis Yellow Mono. I prefer a sighter because with my precut lengths, I know and can adjust by 1’ up to 4’ my depth through a run with my arm, which you cannot do with an indicator. The sighter also does not generate the slack of a suspension indicator.
- Indicators tend to be a matter of taste. I prefer white or clear thingamabobbers to match the film, however harder pegged indicators tend to be more buoyant in rougher water and stronger current.
- As you learn and progress with nymphing and your ability to detect strikes, I encourage people to fish unencumbered (no indicator) more frequently. It is more versatile.
- If fish are actively hitting or situations may allow them to strike the indicator, use a “sharp” indicator: elk hair caddis, stimulators, and foam hoppers work great. I love to fish an elk hair indicator with an RS2 or wet CDC caddis. If the elk hair or stimulator indicator is a big “soggy” and struggling to float, all the better.
CASTING: The roll cast and open loops are friendly for beginners, but the more proficient you are, the better you will cover water. If you can learn to load the rod effectively with the line and water surface tension, you can re-set drifts quicker and at long distance without having to back cast or false cast. As you advance, a double-taper line becomes an asset in this technique, as you can work the line increasingly in a spey-like fashion. An awful cast is still covering more water than a back cast or a false cast.
• Thou shalt not cast more than 45-degrees upstream. You will just get hung up more often.
• But, you must cast far enough upstream to get the weight of the rig down before it enters the primary fish-holding lies. You are better repositioning yourself than casting more severely upstream. You want the indicator over the flies— not dragging them or trailing them downstream.
DRIFTING, MENDING AND HOOK SET: A longer rod allows you to keep light as tight as possible while also keeping line off the surface and out of conflicting currents. You are always fighting against slack, both in terms of the line in the water and the bow in the line created by subsurface current or drag. More weight will also increase the slack in the subsurface line. Drifts should be worked from near to far, generally in a grid with upstream mends in order to reduce drag through the strike zones.
• My goal at all times is to have as little slack and as little fly line on the water at all times. This can be exhausting and harder on your arms than painting the ceiling.
• Every twitch or movement of an indicator or sighter should be assumed to be a bite until you can tell bites from bumps and snags. Be sure to let your drifts complete their swing to be directly downstream from you, then strip line in. The speed differential through the bottom of the swing and dangle at the end often attract bites. I often use a retrieve of winding line around my fingers, particularly with a single weighted nymph without an indicator or with a fly like a crackleback, or release the line I have stripped back downstream again. You will often catch fish that trailed your rig through the swing but did not commit.
• One of the most valuable things to learn when fishing rivers the size of the LMF or bigger is stack mending. This allows you to fish drag-free against far banks you cannot otherwise reach without trying to mend across the river’s width and areas of different or conflicting currents. But, it takes practice and requires a humongous hook set.
• Teach yourself to hook-set downstream. It’s counter-intuitive and hard but results in less misses.