Famous British angler and nymphing expert Oliver Kite said once that if you want to catch fish - use a net. If you want to catch fish with a rod and line - use maggots, but if you want to deceive feeding trout - then use a nymph.
The art of deceiving trout with nymphs crossed the Atlantic early in the twentieth century. North American anglers have adapted and changed these methods, primarily the English upstream method, to develop their own styles to suit local conditions. In the 1930s Edward Hewitt and Jim Leisering developed unique approaches to fish small streams for brook trout and stocked rainbow and brown trout in the north eastern US. As the large free stone rivers of the west became famous for fly fishing, high sticking, the Brooks method, and indicator nymphing evolved as the most effective methods to deceive trout in that part of the world. These methods have been so successful that some crossed back over the ocean to Europe and to other parts of the world.
To fish the mountain streams of Colorado anglers developed high stick nymphing or high sticking. Today high sticking is synonymous with American nymphing and is practiced around the world. Its name stems from the fact that the rod is held high in the air while fishing a nymph drag free, close to the bottom. Some experienced rods will try to intimidate novices with the notion of needing a sixth sense to detect fish strikes that are often subtle when fishing this method. Subsequently, it has developed a reputation of being an extremely difficult method to master. The reality is that with a little dedication, high sticking is both easy to do and very effective in deceiving fish.
High sticking evolved as a method to fish holding water at close range. It is best suited to fish fast moving riffles and runs as well as pocket water. In these types of water, the surface current moves considerably faster than water closer to the bottom. Under these circumstances it is best to fish your fly close, as you need to keep the fly-line and leader off the water. Any line on the water will cause drag that will lift the fly off the bottom, away from the fish.
High sticking involves fishing a heavily weighted nymph with short, drag free drifts close to the bottom. With the target area in front, flip the fly just upstream from the target area. With an extended arm and rod tip pointing upwards at approximately a 45-degree angle, the fly is followed as it bounces along the bottom. The goal is to allow the nymph to drift at the same rate as the water current near the bottom. During this time, make sure there is no slack in the leader, so you can keep contact with the fly to detect any strikes.
Strikes can be overt, such as the line moving unnaturally, but they are most often subtle. Anytime the leader is moving slightly sideways, slowing down or does anything that seems unnatural to you, lift the rod tip. In the beginning you will find the bottom more often than fish, but over time, the ratio of fish hookups to bottom hookups will start to improve. There is no better way to learn than to spend time on the water.
Strike indicators are usually not used when high sticking as the faster surface water will pull the indicator, causing the fly to lift off the bottom. To help detect subtle strikes, use a small piece of indicator putty close to the water, or string up a fly-line indicator such as Rio's Kahuna LT indicator.
Originally developed for fishing from drift boats in the western USA, indicator nymphing is also effective from shore. This method is versatile as it can be used in a variety of situations. It can be used to fish pools, runs, riffles, pocket water and glides, and unlike the other nymphing methods, you can present the fly a few feet away or cast and present the fly as far as 40-feet away.
A typical setup consists of a strike indicator that is set above the fly one-and-a-half to two-times the depth of the water. The distance is usually determined by a judgment call or as a result of the fly snagging consistently on the bottom. You want the fly as close to the bottom without snagging all the time. It is important to use strike indicators that can easily suspend heavy flies, especially if you are going to add split shot to get the fly down. Indicators like the Thingamabobber, and corky with tooth-pick are routinely used.
The goal is to get the fly down to the bottom so it can drift drag free and close to where the fish are holding. The gauge of drag is the speed at which the strike indicator floats downstream. Compare the strike indicator's floating speed to other small debris or foam bubbles. As long as it floats at the same pace it is assumed that the fly is drifting drag free. To help the strike indicator float drag free, you would throw in a few line mends upstream.
Although indicator nymphing can be versatile you need to pick the type of water carefully. The ability to effectively manage drag from the indicator or line lying on the water is paramount. As long as you can limit and reduce the drag by the strike indicator and line, you can use this method in most types of water.
The New Zealand nymphing rig
Sometime during the 1960's, New Zealand anglers developed a nymphing method on the Tongariro River. This method known as the New Zealand rig or Tongariro nymphing consists of two flies, one small and one large nymph tied in tandem. The small nymph, usually a size 12 or smaller fly, is called the catcher, and is tied to the bend of a larger nymph using a trilene knot. The distance between the flies is between ten and 20-inches. The big fly in this tandem nymph rig is a heavily weighted size six or eight nymph that sinks fast to the bottom and is called the bomb.
The technique of fishing itself is similar to indicator nymphing. The flies are fished with a drag free drift, close to the bottom, using an indicator. Originally the indicator was a yarn indicator, but today many anglers use hardball style indicators. Perhaps the New Zealand nymphing rig is not so much a method, but more a leader and fly setup. Also, as the New Zealand rig is defined by the use of two flies, it cannot be fished legally in BC waters.
The Leisenring lift
In The Art of Tying the Wetfly, first published in 1941, Jim Leisenring describes a presentation method unique at that time. The fly is presented with a drag free drift, and allowed to drift into a possible holding spot of a trout. As the fly reaches the likely holding spot the rod tip is lifted causing the fly to rise to the surface. This resembles a nymph swimming to the surface to hatch, and many trout find this rise irresistible.
Today the Leisenring lift is a technique that is incorporated into a number of nymphing methods. For example, Czech nymphing incorporates a lift at the end of the presentation that very much resembles a Leisenring lift.
The lift is also performed more than you think, most often accidentally. At the end of the drift, just before you pick up the line, the current starts to cause drag on the fly-line or leader which causes the fly to rise. How often do you hook fish at the end of a drift? – a lot.
The Hewitt method
Edward Hewitt believed that riffles had the highest concentration of aquatic insects. He subsequently developed a method to fish riffles with moderate current that are one to three-feet deep. The Hewitt method, as it became known during the 1930's, was widely practiced at the time.
In riffles the nymphs of some species of mayflies will swim to the surface to hatch. With extremely realistic flies Hewitt was simulating the swimming action of the nymphs to entice trout. His original approach was to present the fly by lifting and lowering the rod tip as the fly drifts down the riffle.
Over time the Hewitt method proved to be not that effective. Today very few have heard of it, let alone use the Hewitt method. Perhaps Hewitt's contributions are not so much the Hewitt nymphing method, but rather the realization that riffles are the pantries of flowing water and that fish go there on raiding parties. He also advocated the use of long leaders, and fly patterns that are tied to be suggestive of the real nymphs.
The Brooks method
The fast flowing freestone rivers of the great western mountain ranges of North America present a number of challenges. The steep gradients and geology conspire to produce streams that are nutrient poor with few insects, and trout that are spread out sparsely. The lack of a constant food supply makes fish opportunistic and willing to move further to intercept anything that resembles food. To take advantage of this, use methods that can get the fly down in the fast moving water, and methods that cover a lot of water at the same time.
Charles Brooks developed a method to effectively fish these fast flowing freestone rivers. Using large heavily weighted stonefly imitations, such as the Brooks stonefly, and either full sinking or sinktip lines, trout are forced to make a split second decision: either grab it or risk losing a good sized meal that is hard to come by.
The Brooks methods is uncomplicated and yet effective. Simply cast directly upstream to allow the fly to sink. As the fly drifts downstream, it will pass the rod tip fairly closely. The trick to this method is to keep contact with the fly and minimize slack line as it drifts, drag free downstream. Initially you may strip in some line, but as the nymph gets closer, lift the rod tip and then lower it again as the nymph drifts past you. At the end of the drift, let the fly swing upwards as this will often induce a strike. The Brooks method is not as precise and lacks the finesse of the other nymphing methods, but when used under the appropriate conditions, it is effective.
The Wet-fly swing
Stonefly nymphs are not good swimmers and when they get dislodged from rocks, they end up drifting helplessly downstream until they are either eaten or they reach the bottom again. These drifting stoneflies are like large juicy steaks floating downstream for trout. By using the traditional wet-fly swing with heavily weighted nymphs and sinktip fly-lines you are essentially imitating this process. The wet-fly swing is probably the least technical of all the nymphing methods.
The wet-fly swing method can be very effective under the right circumstances, especially in fast flowing riffles at least two-feet deep, and runs with fairly fast current of nutrient poor streams. Cast straight across the current, and make a few line mends upstream to allow the fly to sink and drift drag free downstream. Depending on the current speed, you might cast slightly upstream, or if the fly sinks too quickly, angle your cast more downstream. At the end of the drift, let the fly swing across the current until the fly is directly below you.
A typical nine-foot five weight fly rod and decent quality reel can be used for all of these North American nymphing methods. With the exception of the Brooks and wet-fly swing methods, a weight forward floating line with leaders from nine to 14-feet is all you will need. This is quite different from the European methods discussed in Part I of this series, where rods of ten-feet or longer in two to three weight have become the norm.
Regardless of the exact equipment needed and specific method, all nymphing methods share two key principles: location and presentation. Location is important as you need to locate likely holding spots of fish and present the fly at the proper location. Location will determine the presentation, which is either done with a drag free drift or the fly is presented to induce a strike. When performing a drag free drift, the fly is located close to the bottom. If you are going to induce a strike, the fly is presented higher up in the water column, in sight of as many fish as possible.
Do not limit yourself by just using one nymphing method. Although some of these methods were developed for specific applications, you can easily adapt them to your own needs. It is feasible to use a few different methods in a single day as you work your way down a river. Be flexible in your approach and pick the method best suited to the conditions to achieve the proper presentation and location.
World of Nymphing Part II:
The North American Approach
by Danie Erasmus
First published in March/April 2014