Get to the bottom. Keep the fly in the strike zone. Get down to the fish. Anglers have a bunch of different ways to say the same thing — put the flies near the riverbed and keep them there. When fishing under the surface for trout, my target is the bottom — most of the time. The majority of my success with nymphs happens while aiming for the lowest part of the water column. And even when trout are eating nymphs higher up, I often target those fish by adding a tag fly further up the tippet while still keeping my point fly deep. Even with streamers, I like to keep my lead fly low in the zone, bouncing and twitching along like an injured baitfish.
So getting down is the ever-present objective. It’s what good fly anglers think about. A lot. But is it as simple as adding split shot or swapping out to a heavier tungsten beaded fly? No. Not at all.
There are six ways to get the fly deeper. Understanding each one of them, and more importantly, seeing how each of them interacts with or affects the others, is a major key to gaining a complete picture of your underwater fishing system.
Here are the six elements: weight, depth adjustment, material resistance, drift length, tuck cast and current seams.
Now let’s do it . . .
This is the obvious one. When most guys want to go deeper, they reach into their vest for more lead, tungsten, etc. That’ll do the job. Add enough weight, and you’ll get to the bottom of the ocean floor, if you like.
But extra weight comes with a consequence. And keeping the rig as light as possible is arguably the best way to achieve a natural and attractive drift. Added weight borrows too much from a fly’s natural movement (usually). Real nymphs and baitfish don’t have tungsten cones lashed to their heads. They don’t weigh much at all, of course, and they have a kind of neutral buoyancy in the water. In short, a heavy fly paired with lead or tungsten doesn’t act much like the real thing.
Of course, it’s our job to fix that. So we counteract the artificial effect of weight with the other elements in our rig: the tippet, leader and rod. And with our arms and hands we’re in control of it all. We use the weight to our advantage. It’s a tool in a system.
Adding weight is obvious. And it’s critical for getting low enough to catch a lot of trout. But weight is only part of our puzzle.
Picture this: A nymph angler watches his yellow indicator glide down the surface for thirty-five feet. Starting with a cast up and across the river, the flies and indy land in alignment — in one seam. That’s good. But in those thirty-five feet, as the rig crosses the angler’s position and finishes the drift down and across, the indy never slows down. Our angler understand that the flies didn’t reach deep enough. They never got down to the riverbed. So he pulls in his line and adjusts the depth of the indy by sliding it further up the leader.
That . . . is easy depth adjustment.
The tight line nymphing angler manages depth in a similar way. By watching the sighter, she may control the angle of the line both above and below the water. And she may control the depth of the flies.
With streamers and wet flies, the concept is the same. By simply permitting more line under the surface, the flies may sink deeper. Think about that one and realize how often it applies.
Everything we put under the water takes on some drag. The currents push it all. And the bigger something is, the more it is shoved around.
We tend to think of these as slight discrepancies. Is there really that much difference between how much drag 4X tippet incurs vs 6X? Yes! There is. And when attached to a #16 nymph, that difference is significant. Thicker leader material drags more than thinner leader material, simply because there’s more for the current to push around.
Likewise, the material and shape of the fly matters. Does a Hare’s Ear sink slower than a Pheasant Tail? Yes. Does a Sucker Spawn sink slower than a Higa’s SOS? Absolutely. Furthermore, a #16 Perdigon sinks as fast as a #14 Beadhead Pheasant Tail, even though the BHPT weighs more. The material resistance of those tiny barbules on the pheasant tail is enough to slow its descent more than a fully streamlined fly like a Perdigon. Also, the lighter and more refined your rig is, the more you can feel that difference, first hand.
You can easily experience this effect while fishing streamers too. Strip a Bunny Bullet Sculpin off the bank and across the currents, and feel the resistance of the deer hair head. Now tie on a Full Pint Streamer. Even though the Pint is larger, it cuts through the water easier, with less resistance because the head profile is more tapered.
None of this has anything to do with what flies are better. The materials of a fly and how much resistance it sustains in the water are simply factors to be considered, all while understanding the other things that get a fly deeper too.
If your depth is set deep enough, all rigs get to the bottom if allowed to drift at length. It might take fifty feet or more, but in time the weight of the flies or shot will achieve something close to vertical, and they’ll eventually reach the bottom of the river if allowed to drift.
That’s why fishing a river from a boat is so different than wading. With the boat drifting at the same relative speed as the flies, those flies can continue to drop for a very, very long time without coming under the dragging effect of a downstream swing.
But the wading anger must decide how long the drift will be. Is it an upstream tight line drift that ends when the flies are across from our position? (Pick up sharply and recast.) Or is it a long drift under an indy, across a span too deep to wade, where the indicator guides the flies along a thirty-five foot course before reaching the limit of the angler’s control?
In time, all things in a river sink to the bottom. How much time do you have?
In almost every nymphing situation, the fly should enter the water first. It’s just a matter of how hard it hits.
Anglers with full command over a tuck cast have tremendous control over depth. By abruptly stopping the forward cast but keeping the rod tip up, the weighted flies or the split shot reach the end of the unfolding loop of leader and have nowhere else to go but down. Momentum continues and the flies enter the water. A deep tuck cast, performed with strong force, sends the flies to the bottom of the river much quicker than a shallow tuck cast, where the angler softens the strength and force applied at the stopping of the rod. It’s up to the angler to decide how much force is needed in the tuck.
There’s a formula for getting flies to the bottom. And in this equation of elements, the tuck cast is just as important as the weight.
What if we get the weight right? What if we get the depth set, the distance factored in, a good tuck cast and we’ve balance all of it together with the material resistance of the tippet and the flies themselves? What if we set everything up just right? What then is the X-factor?
It’s the path of the fly across current seams.
The number one thing I tell my clients while nymphing is to keep the flies in one current seam. It’s the primary principle of a dead drift. Drag is such an easy concept to see and understand with dry flies on the surface, but it’s much more difficult when we can’t see the flies in the mixed and multiple currents underneath. And yet, the best dead drifts are a result of just that — understanding the fly’s position and keeping it in one seam.
Our flies also get deeper when they are kept in just one current seam.
The attached line is really the source of the trouble. If the joined tippet is in a secondary seam, slower than the fly, it pulls that fly over toward it. The tippet and the fly fight against each other. But if the tippet and fly are in the same even flow, the fly sinks and gains depth with much less required weight.
And this is not just a nymphing concept. Good streamer anglers recognize the effect that every seam has on their fly. And by crossing multiple current seams, the streamer doesn’t sink as easily.
One of my favorite streamers tactics takes advantage of this idea. I like to cast up and across to the bank, then strip my streamer out of the soft seam and into the faster water. Maybe I strip it ten feet off the bank, across multiple seams before the streamer finds a slower stall, just five feet behind a rock. I then stop the progress of the streamer across stream and allow it to ride downstream in just one current seam for some time. Inevitably, the streamer sinks faster while not crossing currents. After a short ride in that one seam, and perhaps just as the streamer touches the bottom, I activate the streamer with a twitch and pause, then continue to strip it back to me, across the seams. It is deadly.
At the Bottom of Everything
Each one of these elements works with the others to get deeper and to get there more naturally. It’s not enough to add some weight, just like it’s not enough to switch from 3X to 4X, or to slide the indy up the line or drop the sighter. All of it matters. And everything interacts with all the other things beside it.
We must plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge
And then we’ll get down there
Way down to the very bottom of everything
And then we’ll see it, we’ll see it, we’ll see it . . .
— Conor Oberst | At the Bottom of Everything | I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Fish hard friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N