The best anglers are seen moving through various tactics with ease. They smoothly transition from fishing deep nymphs to a light dry-dropper rig. Then just a half-hour and a hundred yards more, they might be found stripping a pair of streamers against mixed pocket-water currents.
It takes practice and some planning to know when and how to transition. But making the changes and adaptations, without keen awareness and a solid plan, can throw off any angler.
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The morning had gone better than I’d expected, and for the first time in a couple hours, I lifted my head and broke the concentration that tight line nymphing demands. I stood up straight and took deep, cold breaths, sucking single-digit air through a balaclava pulled up to my sunglasses.
I turned downstream to see where I’d come from and mentally rehashed each pocket that had given up a fish or two. I gazed downstream as far as my eyes could see, deep between a canyon of spruce trees and through blowing snow, until it put a hazy white mask over the river. The trout had come quickly. I’d changed flies a few times early on, but when the fish suggested that I’d found the right combination, I stuck with the same simple pair of Walt’s Worms. Standing there thinking about the morning, I realized I hadn’t changed or lost a fly for a very long time, and I’d caught a pile of fish.
Things were good. So I waded to a familiar fallen tree, broke out a small thermos of coffee and remembered a similar winter day from five years ago, how I’d visited with Dad at the same streamside log. The hot coffee warmed me from the inside, just like it did years ago, and I sat again on the soft mossy wood, remembering the way Dad and I had struggled to make heads or tails of anything the stream had showed us that day. Today, however, was different. Fishing had been almost easy.
I guess I was satisfied with the good nymphing, and a little curious about what else was possible. So after recapping the thermos, I stood up and grabbed my leader with toasty warm fingers, tied some leader knots and attached a streamer. I waded upstream past a thin shelf of ice that broke into the river’s edge as my wake passed. Then I began targeting the same water type where I’d had success dead-drifting nymphs all morning, only now with a slow-strip streamer presentation.
I’ll do this for fifteen minutes, I thought. And if the streamer turns up nothing, I’ll go back to the Walt’s Worms.
A half-hour later I begrudgingly admitted that the wild browns weren’t having it. No matter how I altered my streamer presentation, I couldn’t move a fish. And when I tried to switch back, to pick up the trail of my earlier nymphing success, I failed. Up against a ticking clock of deadlines and real-world obligations at noon, I floundered as I changed and swapped rigs and strategies too often and too much.
I caught just one more trout before I left.
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Fishin’ Ain’t Easy
There are some strong themes running through the pages of Troutbitten. And over the nearly six-hundred stories and tips here, I’ve advocated for meeting trout on their own terms — to fish whatever they’re eating. One of the great advantages of the fly rod is how effectively we can fish flies of any size and any type, and because of that, there’s always hope for the next cast. We can match whatever food forms a trout is willing to eat, presenting flies at any depth necessary (from the glassy surface to the rocky bottom).
But transitioning from one style to the next is not easy.
So that’s why I’ve also suggested before to focus on learning just one thing at a time. It may take years to really put together a solid tight line nymphing game. And, personally, I learn best when I’m dedicated to only one objective. So try carrying only your dry flies to the water, if that’s what you want to learn. Or see what happens if you tie on streamers and nothing else, no matter the river and weather conditions.
Even when we do have a fully developed set of fly fishing skills, it’s easy to screw up the transition between styles if we aren’t purposely aware and thoughtful about what we’re doing. I know how to fish nymphs and streamers. I’m good with both. But all too often, something is lost in the switch. Sure, I can blame it on the fish. I can say that a bite window closed (and maybe it did). But I often leave the river knowing that I did something wrong — and sometimes knowing for sure that I messed up a good thing.
And you may find yourself . . . And you may ask yourself . . .
You may spend the better part of an early summer afternoon casting to rising fish that eagerly chase down mayfly emergers. When the hatching activity ends and you want to switch to nymphs, it’ll serve you well to take an extra moment to pause, to think about shortening the range of your casts. Because whether tight lining or fishing with a suspender, better nymphing happens at close range.
And when dusk settles in, when the harsh angular light softens into orange and purple glows over grey water, your trigger finger may be itching to strip streamers through the last remaining light, hoping to fool a large trout who’s just a little early on the prowl. In that moment, it pays to slow down and think about covering less water than you did with the nymphs, to target only the spots where you expect to find a cruising Whiskey.
Whatever the situation, it helps to be thoughtful about every transition, every time you alter your rig or tactics on the water. Is the change a good bet? And if so, what adjustments need be made?
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N