Half the fun of fly fishing is watching a trout sip a dry fly off the surface of a swirling stream. The other half, of course, is actually catching fish, but trout anglers who only fish on top are missing out on some of the most productive fishing opportunities on any stream. Truth is, trout take upwards of 80 percent of their food below the surface, which means in order to catch fish on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to carry a box full of nymphs. It’s an even better idea to know how to use them.
Nymphs belong to a broad category of sub-surface flies and include patterns that match such aquatic insect larvae as caddis, stone fly and various mayfly larva. A number of flies don’t match real insects, but they catch trout just the same. These attractor nymph patterns include everything from pheasant tails, hare’s ears and prince nymphs. Whatever you use, it’s critical to use them right.
“One of the biggest mistakes beginning anglers make is they don’t get their nymph down on the bottom,” says Dick Greene, owner of Bud Lilly’s Fly Shop in West Yellowstone, Montana.
Aquatic insect larvae usually live under rocks and don’t venture out until they change into adults and swim to the surface. When they are knocked loose from their stream bottom hiding places, they tend to float with the current just above the bottom. That’s why Greene often adds a tiny split shot about eight inches above his fly. Extra weight isn’t always necessary in shallower streams, but it is vital in deeper water. He says you’ll know if you are fishing deep enough if you get hung on the bottom occasionally.
Getting it down isn’t that difficult, but presenting the fly in a natural way can be. Trout are naturally suspicious and will reject any fly if something doesn’t look right, including even the slightest unnatural movement as it drifts with the current. To avoid that drag (when fly and fly line don’t drift at the same speed) Greene says it’s important to mend your line often as the fly drifts with the current.
“It takes some practice, but do it enough and it will become second-nature,” he says.
One of the easiest ways to avoid unnatural drag is to make short casts. It isn’t necessary to cast from one side of a stream to the other. In fact, Greene will often stand in ankle-deep water and work the first current seam, even if it is just a rod length away.
“For some reason, a lot of guys feel they need to make real long casts, but that just leads to more drag on your line,” he says. “I’m often working my nymph just beyond the end of my rod tip. Trout are far less spooky when they are feeding under the surface than when they are feeding on the surface, so it’s not out of the question to catch them right at your feet.”
He typically flips his nymph at a quartering upstream angle and allows it drift down below him. If that doesn’t produce a fish, he repeats the process a few times. Greene says trout typically won’t move far to take a nymph, so it’s a good idea to work an area thoroughly before moving. They also don’t hit a drifting nymph very hard and detecting a subtle strike can be difficult. Some anglers pay close attention to the end of their fly line-if it jumps or stops drifting with the current, they set the hook. However, Greene and many other anglers rely on strike indicators, basically a bobber for fly fishing.
If you still aren’t catching fish, try changing flies. Trout are notoriously finicky and will avoid one choice fly in favor of one that imitates the exact insect they happen to be feeding on at the time. But that’s not always the case. The key to catching fish when they aren’t feeding on the surface can be as simple as tying on any nymph and using it properly.