One of the biggest misconception in nymphing is that our flies must bump along the bottom. Get it down where the trout are, they say. Bounce the nymph along the riverbed, because that’s the only way to catch trout. We’re told to feel the nymph tick, tick, tick across the rocks, and then set the hook when a trout eats. With apologies to all who have uttered these sentiments and given them ink, it’s just not true.
Effective nymphing is largely about not touching the bottom. Real nymphs aren’t down there banging their heads against rocks and bouncing up and down. No, they’re not. With neutral buoyancy and generally poor propulsion systems, dislodged nymphs are gliding through the strike zone. And mimicking that drift is our most effective goal.
Three things happen when we touch bottom, and none of them are good.
1. The nymph touches rocks covered with algae or moss, picking up one or the other or both. But trout don’t eat nymphs with a side salad. So we clean the fly or fish without noticing the added vegetables on the hook for a while, making multiple fruitless casts while trout reject our fly.
2. The nymph pauses and stutters as it touches rocks, looking altogether unnatural while dramatically speeding up and slowing down. And again, wise trout reject our fly.
3. The nymph finds a snag. If it hangs on a rock, you might get it back by tugging in the opposite direction, but you’ll spook any fish sitting nearby. If the hook is embedded into wood, you won’t retrieve it without walking over and spoiling the spot or breaking off the fly. Don’t forget that the latter also spooks fish.
There is No Sixth Sense
There’s one more thing that happens when we touch bottom. If we do it often enough, we start guessing about whether the next tick is a trout-take or the riverbed.
Bump, bump. Nope.
Bump, tick, tick. SET!
“Was that a fish?”
“I don’t know, but that felt like a fish.” (Hank Patterson)
Forget that! Forget all of it. There is no way to reliably determine if a trout ate your nymph or the fly touched a rock. None. Trout don’t grab nymphs, they just slide over or tilt up and intercept them, stopping their progress downstream (usually). So most takes are as subtle as . . . well, they’re as subtle as your nymph grazing a rock on the bottom.
No one can reliably determine a trout-eat vs contact with a rock. And any idea that there’s a sixth sense for such a thing is just hocus pocus.
In fact, touching bottom too much deadens our senses. Repeated contact with the riverbed forces the angler into a guessing game. And because fishing is fishing, we usually guess the wrong way at the wrong time.
Instead . . .
Glide nymphs through the strike zone and try not to touch the bottom. Yes, I’ve written about this at length. And it’s one of the key points to good nymphing. I focus on it every time I’m out there.
The Top Down Approach
A good cast sets up a quality dead drift for the nymph. And depending on our nymphing method (tight line vs suspension) there are either limitless or limited adjustments to be made throughout the drift.
But regardless of the nymphing method used, the angler does better to avoid the bottom, especially the first time through a specific lane. Then ride the fly deeper on consecutive drifts, after learning something about the current’s depth and speed.
I repeat, bad things happen by touching the riverbed, so avoid it. Try to keep the nymphs off the bottom.
I call this a top down approach.
By “top,” I don’t mean the water’s surface. Instead, I’m targeting the top of the strike zone. And the first time through a chosen drift lane, I try to barely ride into that cushion of slower water. In doing so, I often find exactly what I was looking for. On the first few drifts, I usually locate the zone by reading the sighter or suspender. Then I spend the next handful of drifts refining one single lane and getting as deep into the strike zone as I dare. In the best spots, I may purposely touch the bottom on my last couple drifts, just to be sure I get down to the lowest part of the strike zone while presenting my nymph to the trout.
That’s the top down approach, where the first few drifts are higher and the last few are low enough to be sure.
Here’s what it looks like in practice
It’s been a good morning. The trout are active enough to provide the rewards for hard work, and they’re discriminating enough to teach the right things.
Nobody’s home behind this large chunk of limestone, so I’ll test the seam to the left. It’s a two-foot wide channel, about twenty-four inches deep, and I can effectively drift through about ten feet of it before the shelf of rocks extending to my right ends the productive lane. The seam is deeper and greener than the water next to it, and wild trout have been eating in this type of water all morning long.
I wade three steps forward and a half step to my left, putting myself in perfect range for a cast that is twenty feet above me and ten feet over. I’m on a tight line nymphing rig, so I’ll guide the flies down one seam with my rod tip.
Because I can’t see the bottom, I really have no understanding of what the riverbed looks like. But I can make a good guess. My sight angle is decent, because the sun is behind me. And I can judge the water depth by its color alone.
On the first cast, I place a single beadhead stonefly into the lane with a shallow tuck cast. I deliberately try not to touch anything on this first ride, but I get my fly below what I think is mid-column and look for the strike zone. When the nymph is just beside the rock, the sighter slows down a bit, and I set the hook. I touch no rocks and no tree parts, so I know I found the top of the strike zone — that’s what created the hesitation in the sighter. Nice. The hook set becomes my backcast and I’m right back into the same seam.
On the second drift, I tuck cast a little steeper and lift a couple seconds before leading, creating a more vertical angle on the sighter. Both adjustments allow me to get deeper quicker. And by no surprise, my nymph finds the strike zone before approaching the side of the rock. I set on a hesitation again. Yup. That’s the strike zone. Backcast, and I’m right back into the same seam.
I spend the next few drifts deliberately guiding my flies through the strike zone. I easily find the necessary depth each time, and I do my best to influence the nymphs only enough to keep them moving along, so they neither sink to the bottom nor drag downstream unnaturally.
By the seventh or eighth drift, I have an excellent understanding of the currents and the riverbed below. I’ve used the nymphs as a probe to gather a mental image of what lies beneath. Each drift gets better, until one of them is just right. The adjustments I’ve made — the tuck cast, the leading angle, the speed, the depth — all allow for the perfect presentation, and a trout eats the fly. Set the hook. Fish on. Net. Release. Thank you, river. Cast again.
And never once did I touch the bottom.
The action remains this way all day long. The trout are picky, but it’s a fair game. And when I get a drift close enough to perfect, they eat the fly.
I work upstream, alternating between tight line and suspender presentations. I read the indy for the strike zone, just the same as I read the sighter. And at every new lane, I start with a top down approach, avoiding the river bottom as much as possible, and riding a little deeper with each cast until I find the strike zone.
The top down approach works. Fishing this way allows me to get into a rhythm. I’m rarely interrupted by snagging the bottom, cleaning flies, breaking off or tying knots. I’m fishing. And I’m refining — not guessing or hoping.
And I’m catching trout with a top down approach.
Fish hard, friends.
**NOTE** Because everything works sometimes, and because fishing is fishing, a good bottom bounce is also a great way to do things out there. But doing this with some forethought and intention pays big dividends. When I decide to touch bottom and slow the drift, I strongly prefer to do it with a drop shot rig or even split shot paired with unweighted flies. Here’s more on all of that . . .
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Enjoy the day.
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