You probably make a lot of assumptions. Me too. And though we all understand the folly of assuming things, life isn’t long enough to track down and test every piece of knowledge for ourselves. So we collect information, we discard it, or we add it to our reservoir of accepted facts. As anglers, this trouble gets worse. Since you don’t get enough time on the water, you can’t test every line, leader, rod or fly against all the others. So in the fly fishing world, misconceptions and misunderstandings grow quickly. And here’s one that might blow your mind . . .
You don’t need a jig hook to invert the nymph. In fact almost all nymphs invert, especially when weighted with a bead or lead. Furthermore, nymphs built on a jig hook probably aren’t inverting the way you imagine. And how you attach the knot is much more important than the hook itself.
This is what most of us think a jig hook looks like under the water.
That’s what I thought too. But about ten years ago, right when the popularity of jig hooks for nymphs took off, I did some simple tests to understand hook orientation below the surface. I’ve since repeated the test two times in the last decade. So I’ve learned a lot about what really makes a hook invert, how it suspends under tension and how it falls through the water column.
I’ll share all of that below. And I’ll offer this disclaimer: I’ve tested many hooks, beads and flies — but certainly not all of them. I’m absolutely open to the possibility that my conclusions may not apply to every hook and weight scenario out there. But I promise you, after dunking hundreds of hooks into a fish bowl, I’m no longer surprised. The results are predictable.
About the Testing
Seeing is believing. So I’ve documented every claim and conclusion below, showing you, through pictures, what I’ve discovered.
For the sake of continuity, every hook is a #14. I assure you, I ran the tests from #8 to #18 in each style, and the results are the same. Behind bead head flies, I added lead wraps of .015” to about mid-shank and covered that with a simple thread body. I’ve learned that whatever materials of dubbing or legs are added to the fly don’t matter much. The orientation is largely determined by the hook, the weight and the attachment angle of the tippet.
My gear list is as follows: 6X fluorocarbon tippet, a glass fish bowl, some mediocre lighting and a Bells Two Hearted Ale (. . .or three).
They All Invert
I ran this test a decade ago, and here’s what stunned me: All of the weighted flies in my box already invert. Meaning, the flies ride hook point up and not hook point down.
We most often see flies pictured in a vise, a catalog or a video with the hook point down and the shank horizontal, so that’s naturally how we assume they drift in the water. They don’t.
Every fly with a bead head inverts, brass or tungsten. And every fly with built in lead-wraps on the shank inverts also. They all lay back instead of lean forward.
The unweighted flies are different. The orientation of an unweighted fly (like the last picture, above) is strongly influenced by the attachment angle of the tippet.
Let’s address that next . . .
The first time I did this test, I missed how critical the angle of tippet to the fly really is. And I’ve since come to understand that it’s the biggest factor.
I’m talking about the way the line comes off the fly. What is its angle in relation to the shank? Standing in the river, as we knot the tippet to the fly, we control this angle. Great. So if you like, you can very well make your jig nymph ride with the shank nearly horizontal (as in the first picture of the jig hook, or the 2XL standard hook two pictures up).
But how long does the attachment remain at that angle? The first time you touch bottom and tug a bit, the line angle changes to a more natural one — pulling directly away from the bend. Likewise, I believe the very act of casting creates the same look. I’ve been aware of this for many years, and I’ve often noted that the angle of the line coming off the fly always ends up the same, once the fly is fished for a while.
In short, you have very little control over the attachment angle. You may start with the tippet coming off at a right angle to the shank, forcing a more horizontal angle to the fly, but sooner than later the knot slips into its average position and the hook orients as it will.
Again, realize that the tippet attachment angle cannot be controlled for very long. The knot will slide into its average position soon enough.
Also realize that every one of these hooks invert. All of them. Not just the jig hooks.
Suspending vs Drifting vs Dropping
The pics above show what a suspended nymph looks like. So, on the river, this is how flies appear on a tight line.
But good nymphing is really about slipping in and out of contact. That’s where the magic happens. And there are moments throughout a good drift where the fly is either gliding or dropping, uninfluenced by the attached tippet.
So, what do all these flies look like under the water? Does a jig hook make any difference?
In short, no. All the flies featured above perform the same way. If allowed to drop, the head tilts down more, and the nymph flattens out. Or, the hook may tilt and drop with the head down and hook bend up (if the head is heavy enough).
Lastly, when allowed to rest on the bottom, all of the hooks pictured above settle with the hook inverted. There is virtually no difference in how a jig fly drops versus a standard fly. Ditto how it rests on the bottom.
Mixed Currents and Things
Does any of this really matter, considering where most of us fish nymphs? In roiling, mixed currents our nymphs likely get turned around and flipped a good bit — especially smaller and lighter ones. But I suspect that most of the time, in a tight line system especially, all of these nymphs ride inverted, as that is their default position. They may be flipped and turned sideways, but gravity pulls them back into their natural position. And the less the currents are mixed, the more stable the nymph rides. That only makes sense.
But does it matter?
First, I don’t think trout care one bit if our nymphs ride upside down or right side up. Second, I never found that jig hooks hang up less than my standard hooks — and that’s why I did this test in the first place. While nymphing, I’m trying to avoid touching the riverbed. And it turns out that when I do tick the bottom with my flies, all of them are inverted anyway, regardless of whether they’re on a jig hook or not.
Also, the recently popular “inverting” tungsten beads don’t change anything. They simply force a little more weight to the top of the head. So on the drop, the nymph’s head may angle down a bit more than with a standard bead. But remember, the fly is already inverted with a regular bead. So the “inverting” beads are simply not necessary.
Here’s a series featuring some of my favorite nymphs, suspended in the fishbowl. In each picture, the attachment angle is set to average or default — meaning, this is how the nymph really rides after a few casts and drifts.
Streamers are Different
Here’s one more thing: Streamers on a jig hook really are different. When the weight of the jig head is enough (around 1/32 of an ounce), a near horizontal suspension angle becomes closer to the norm. Attachment angle still matters, but the head usually balances out the streamer on the hang. Adding to that, the rest of the materials on a streamer tend to be more neutrally buoyant or even float a bit, so an angle close to horizontal becomes standard on a jig streamer.
Me and You
None of this may matter to you one bit. And again, I don’t think the trout care much either. But I meet a lot of anglers who are convinced that by using jig hooks, their nymphs are fishing differently. As I’ve shown above, I believe they are not.
I use jig hooks for a couple of my favorite patterns. On my Bread-n-Butter nymph, for example, I tied it first on a jig hook, because at the time, they were the only hooks readily available with a black finish and an extra long, sharp point in a strong wire. So I still tie the Bread-n-Butter on a jig hook because I have a stockpile of hooks. But now that tactical hooks are more readily available in other styles, I prefer the non-jig versions, as the gap is more open. (The hook eye blocks part of the gap on a jig hook.)
Lastly, If you don’t believe my conclusions, I encourage you to borrow the glass home of your kid’s goldfish for a few hours, and have a go at it yourself. Keep an open mind, and document what you discover. In the end, everything learned makes you a better angler.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N