Flies unattached to anything make for a great lesson. Drop a dry fly into the current and watch the endless dead drift. With no leader to change its course, the dry might go on, drag free, for miles downstream. But weighted flies are a little different. Drop a tungsten beaded Walt’s in the river, and it’ll find the bottom in a few feet or less, even in heavy currents — same thing with split shot. For underwater presentations, then, the leader keeps a fly on its path.
The line and leader is in charge of the flies. And regardless of the fly type, tippet or presentation, good drifts are all about what an angler does with the leader. Wherever that last section of tippet goes, so does the fly.
Therefore, placing the leader in the right water is the key to getting good drifts.
It’s not enough to land your Parachute Ant on a dime. Because the river steals it away. If any straight tippet behind the ant isn’t in exactly the same seam, the fly quickly slides off course. You might land the tippet and leader across seams if you throw a good cast with s-curves built in. And on your best day you’ll get a few feet of drift before the slack pulls out in mixed currents, tugging the dry off track.
We know this stuff. We all do. And yet, most of us think about where to land the dry fly far more than we think about where to land the leader.
Good dry fly fishing requires an in-depth reading of surface currents. See where the fly will land before you put it there — but do even more. Ask yourself where the leader will land. How much tippet can you push into the faster neighboring current with an upstream arc? These are good questions.
When our flies disappear into the water, new challenges arise. I’ve seen accomplished surface anglers lose all their fishing sense as soon as the nymph or streamer goes under.
Good fishing requires good imagination, and drifting below the surface needs it double. Things get complicated under there. The river pushes the subsurface leader in three dimensions.
First choose a target for the fly. How about riding the nymph in the strike zone near the bottom, drifting alongside a dead log? Or maybe aim for mid-column with a streamer, performing a slow-slide out of the shade of the undercut bank? Either way, the leader is in charge. Where you land the leader — and what you do with it after — dictates the course of the fly.
I was halfway through this last Sping/Summer guide season when I said this to my guests. As they worked on nymphing skills, it seemed to resonate with anglers so well that I kept finding new ways to describe it in more detail, day after day.
“You want the nymph to travel in one current seam. Good. So keep the fly in just one lane, all the way through the drift. There it is. That’s a natural look. The real trick is to keep the leader in one seam too. The fly follows the leader. With everything lined up in one seam, you can show the trout what they’re looking for.”
The leader is in charge
It’s not enough to think about the fly. It’s not enough to see the target before the cast and even hit it with precision. Just as important (more, really) is where the leader lands and what happens with the tippet during the drift.
Cast the leader, not the fly. Control the leader and its position, and the fly will follow.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N