Fly Fishing Tips: #53 — Nymphing: Set On Anything Unusual

by | May 19, 2019 | 2 comments

Dry fly takes are easy. It’s all visual. The trout eats. You set the hook fast (or after a slight pause), and the fish is either on the line or he’s not. At least you know when a trout hits your dry fly. But determining takes on a nymph is one of the most difficult aspects about our underwater game. And so, theories on when to set the hook get boiled down into simplified phrases that become lodged into the phraseology and culture of fly fishing.

Set on anything.

Or, my least favorite: Nymph fishermen develop a sixth sense for when to set the hook.

There is no sixth sense. It’s a calculated guess. And certainly, that calculation becomes more refined with every drift, day to day, season after season. Experience counts. But so does thinking hard and fishing hard.

Don’t set on anything. And don’t wait for a sixth sense to kick in and grant you the superpower of sensing trout takes. Instead, pick a lane and learn it. Use the nymph as a probe to draw a mental map of a specific lane. Refine the drift. And all the while, set on anything unusual.

Let’s break it down real quick . . .

READ: Troutbitten | Fifty Tips  #45: The Dry Fly is a Scout

What is Unusual?

Tight line or indy? For this discussion, it doesn’t matter. Standing knee deep at the edge of a good run, we’re visually reading either the sighter or the indicator. On a tight line, we might also factor in some tactile feedback through the line and the rod itself.

First, look upstream and pick a lane. Choose one that’s sure to hold the trout of your dreams, and make yourself believe it.

Cast the rig mostly upstream, landing everything in one current seam. Fishing one weighted fly on a tight line makes this objective the easiest, but it can be done with multiple flies, split shot and an indy, if you’re attentive to the goal — everything in one current seam.

On a first drift through the lane, you may very well set on anything. But maybe that hesitation of the line was just the flies ticking the top of a rock. Good. Now you know.

The hook set becomes your backcast, and you tuck the flies right back into the same lane as the first drift. Perhaps the line hesitates again, in the very same spot. Should you set again? Maybe. But you might do better to let it go without a hook set. So the flies keep drifting, and you show them to more trout further down the seam. Nice.

By working the same lane four, five, six or more times, you learn about the bottom. You learn about the currents. You adjust for depth. You lead the flies a little faster over a shallow area and allow them to get deeper into a bucket.

Through each drift you learn to expect certain things from the line, from the sighter or the indy. And when anything unusual happens — anything you do not expect — that’s when you set the hook. If it’s not a trout, then enter that into your calculations for the next drift. Either adjust to avoid the rock, tree part, or stalling current swirl causing the hesitation, or simply don’t set the hook when the line pauses in that spot.

It’s a fine game, one of detail and finesse. And sometimes, I realize I’m not fishing as much as I’m out there trying to learn a small, targeted piece of water and get the perfect drift. Usually, during that learning process and refinement, trout come to the net.

It’s a good life.

Set on anything unusual.

Fish hard, friends.


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. You’re totally right about there being no mystical “sixth” sense. What there is luck (i.e., the occasional fish that you hook by chance) and attention to detail. I find that I can often lapse into mental clunkiness, waiting for my sighter to wave a flag before I strike. When that happens, the number of fish I catch goes way down. Over striking is certainly trumps under striking.

  2. Sometimes I just know but most of the time I hook them because I am paying attention.

    And then there’s the dumb luck factor. My favorite is the Dangle Hookup, caused when I am shifting positions and am too lazy to reel everything in. Something about that erratic movement triggers strikes. I’ve tried to do it on purpose and it never works.

    So if there’s a sixth sense that’s it.


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