Put the nymphs on the bottom. I heard it from everyone I talked with and everything I read, so that’s what I did. I added weight to get the nymphs down — to touch the river bottom with my flies. And on most days, the experience was something between frustrating and maddening. It was a long series of snags, hangups and breakoffs, mixed in with the occasional burst of fish catching — when I somehow got the drift just right.
Twenty years ago, this is how I learned to nymph. I thought snagging up a bunch was just part of the nymphing game. I dealt with it because I caught trout. And I learned to tie knots and put up with lost flies. But, I would argue, this is one of the main reasons many anglers don’t enjoy nymphing. We want to fish. We don’t want to re-rig tippet sections and tie on new flies all day.
Back then, my leader was different. I nymphed on a tight line, but with a more general leader. I did experiment with Joe Humphreys’ Mono Rig, but I used it only for deep water tactics and for streamers (as he describes in his book).
Finally, about fifteen years ago, I began using a Mono Rig in something close to its current formation (adding a sighter and a couple other twists to Humphreys’ design). And suddenly, I had tremendous control over the course of my flies underwater. With no fly line out of the guides, the leader sagged and dragged less. With a sighter built into the leader, it showed me contact, pointed to the flies, indicated their speed and signaled strikes. By limiting the tippet diameters under the water, the flies rode more predictably. The tippet cut through the currents more evenly, and I was in better contact.
That contact, I learned, meant I was truly in control over the course of my flies, like never before. And it took only a handful of trips before I realized I could paint the bottom of the river with my nymphs.
For years, my goal remained as it had been — to get the nymphs to the bottom and ride them over it. I hung up less because I could move my flies more accurately along the riverbed. My production easily doubled with the new Mono Rig, and for a while I was content — almost.
One foggy fall morning on my favorite limestoner changed all that. In a couple hours of fast pocket water action, I stumbled upon one of the most important lessons in nymphing: The nymphs do not need to be on the bottom. In fact, gliding through the strike zone and staying off the bottom results in far more trout to the net.
What’s the Strike Zone?
Most of the life in a river happens at the bottom of the water column. Nymphs, baitfish and crustaceans all live there, and so do trout.
The strike zone is the cushion of water near the bottom of the river that’s moving slower than the rest. Its depth is variable, depending upon the size of the obstacles on the riverbed. One section with pea-sized gravel may have a narrow strike zone of six inches, while the next piece of river with large rocks and boulders may have a strike zone of twelve or even eighteen inches.
I wrote a full article on the strike zone, with a helpful diagram from Dick Jones. Find it here.
How Deep is that Zone?
No one can stare into the water and accurately predict how deep the strike zone is. But experienced anglers may come close.
Good fishing starts with a good guess.
It’s that way about a lot of things. And from the outset — as the first backcast flexes with the weight of the nymphs ready to shoot forward — the calculations of an angler are already at work.
So how do we do it?
Judge the depth of the strike zone by observing the obstacles on the bottom.
What’s the substrate? Is it sand and tiny gravel, or is it made up of baseball-sized chunks of bedrock? Are there submerged tree parts breaking up the flow? Are there big hunks of limestone? The larger the obstacles at the bottom, the taller will be the strike zone. So make your guess.
Now judge the speed of the strike zone that you cannot see by starting with something that you can see — the top current.
The strike zone is certainly going slower than the top water, right? And do you think the bottom cushion is pretty deep in this spot, at twelve inches? Then it’s probably flowing significantly slower that the top current too.
These are the guesses, the calculations that take place, before you ever drift the rod tip forward and make your tuck cast.
I’ve written hundreds-of-thousands of words about nymphing, here on Troutbitten. And so much of it boils down to this key point: drift the nymphs through one current seam.
We see seams as they appear across the river, from left bank to right bank, these seams start upstream and flow downstream. There may be a dozen different lanes to choose on a river that spans thirty feet across. So pick a lane and drift your flies though just one seam. That’s excellent.
But it’s just as important to see into the water column, and keep the nymph in one seam — at one depth — as long as possible throughout the drift. That kind of drift is most convincing.
So, at what depth should the nymphs ride?
How about putting them in the strike zone . . .
Now Stop Guessing
How do I know I’m in the strike zone? That’s the next obvious question. And the answer is pretty simple.
When the sighter or the indicator is traveling slower than the top current, then your nymphs are in the strike zone.
Back up and read that again, because it’s the crux of this article.
Now, let’s expand on it. We’ll also consider this point while fishing with both a tight line and an indicator.
Tight Line . . .
After the tuck cast, your first job is to gain contact with the nymphs under the water. The sighter shows us contact by tightening up and straightening out. After contact, your next job isn’t to boss the flies around, but to only recover the slack that the river sends back to you. Just stay tight.
(There are really three ways to tight line: leading, tracking and guiding. And you can find a detailed breakdown of all three styles at the following link.)
If we are tight to the flies — in contact but not influencing their drift (much) — then we can accurately read the sighter. We can trust the information that it shows us. It points to the nymphs. It indicates strikes. And here’s the big one: It shows the speed of the nymphs.
When the sighter slows down, we know the nymphs have reached the strike zone. When we see the sighter going slower than the top current (and we are still in contact) then the nymphs are in that bottom cushion.
The key to good tight line nymphing is to be so in tune with your flies that you notice the exact moment when the sighter slows down. Then, gently glide the nymphs through the strike zone at that speed, maintaining the same sighter angle. If you do not lead the nymphs when they reach the top of the strike zone, they will usually continue to fall, and you will hang up on the bottom of the river.
All of this takes fantastic imagination — a good mental image of the flies, of obstructions on the bottom and of the strike zone itself. While you’re at it, you might as well imagine where the trout are too.
And with an Indy . . .
Tight line nymphing provides the angler with superior control over the nymphs. But by using a good indy, such as the Dorsey Yarn Indicator, we can read the indy for contact with the flies. We can also see when the nymphs reach the strike zone.
A lot of thought goes into good indicator nymphing. When done right, it is not a set-it-and-forget-it tactic. Our first goal is to land both the fly and the indy in one current seam — easier said than done. And the second goal is to have the nymph in contact with the indy.
Landing the flies with a little slack between nymph and indicator is not a bad thing. And good indy anglers learn to work with this slack during the cast, providing a little extra in deep water and eliminating it altogether in shallow water. Regardless, all of that setup happens in the air. And once the fly and indy hit the water, the next thing is to watch for contact.
A great indy, like the Dorsey, shows contact by righting itself. With slack between the flies and the indy, the Dorsey lays on its side a bit, cantering left or right. And when contact is made, when the slack is taken up between indy and the flies, the Dorsey stands up straight — it rights itself on the surface.
Once that contact is made, then we can trust what the indy shows us about the flies underneath. Just like the sighter, the indy shows when a trout strikes, and it shows the speed of the flies. When the indy slows down — slower than the surface current, the flies have reached the strike zone.
. . . And there ya go.
All of the indy stuff is much better performed by going tight line to the indicator, using a Mono Rig as the vehicle for delivery. But you can make it work with traditional leaders too, with line on the water and efficient mending.
A True Ride
What does a drifting nymph look like? I mean the real thing, not the fakes that we tie, with weighted beads, wire, fur and feathers.
Most nymphs are poor swimmers — too small to have much propulsion. They spend their lives clinging to rocks and crawling the bottom. They’re available to trout when they’re dislodged — when they lose their footing or decide to take a ride downstream to the next rock.
So where are the nymphs when they aren’t planted firmly on a rock? The strike zone.
Likewise, when a nymph finally does begin its emergence, where is it first available to the trout? In the strike zone.
Drifting nymphs do not tear off downstream — that’s what a dragging leader does to our flies.
Drifting nymphs do not swim upstream or hold in the current — that’s what swinging the nymph looks like.
And drifting nymphs do not touch the stones over and over, bouncing up and down, lodging behind a rock and then quickly jumping up into the flow. That’s what “getting our nymphs to the bottom” looks like.
However, touching the bottom over and over is the presentation I was trying to achieve in those early years. I thought that I wanted my flies tick-tick-ticking the riverbed. It certainly worked. (And I still use that presentation at times.) But I’ve found much better success by gliding the nymphs through the strike zone.
Yes, I occasionally touch the bottom. It’s a good reference to assure that I’m in the strike zone. And yes, I still accidentally run my nymphs into rocks and tree parts down there. I hang up and break off flies sometimes. But on the best days, my imagination of the riverbed aligns with the knowledge I gain by watching the sighter for signs of that bottom cushion. I “see” the position of the nymphs by processing all the information, and I guide them on a course through the strike zone.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day
T R O U T B I T T E N