When Drifting Low Isn’t Low Enough

by | Feb 10, 2021 | 11 comments

Always, the river gives us something to fight against. Muddy water, strong winds or high sun — there are endless elements to overcome. Low water, hot weather or cold conditions — they all change the game with unique obstacles. Rarely are conditions perfect. And if they are, the sweetheart days bring out the fair-weather anglers, so the next obstacle is angler pressure.

Multiple factors can combine to make what’s already a difficult proposition even harder. Trout fishing is tough more often than it’s easy. But it can also be stellar if you learn the habits of trout and lock into a rhythm, day after day. Sometimes, skillfully working on precise dead drifts with a handful of flies produces predictable results, especially with nymphs.

Nymphing is the go to tactics for many die hard anglers, because it works — the underwater bugs are a huge part of a trout’s diet. And nymphing is a great way to get things happening. Even if much of the day will be spent fishing dry flies or streamers, picking off a few trout with some good nymphing action helps to build confidence about what the river holds and what is possible out there.

So we’re taught to get the nymphs down — to get low and give the groceries to the trout. My own preference is to target the strike zone — that cushion of slower water near the riverbed that’s about 6-12 inches inches tall. And by gliding through that strike zone, I can show the trout what they’re looking for, right where they’re looking for it. All without touching the riverbed on most drifts. This is my default approach.

READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom, Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone

But sometimes, gliding through the strike zone just isn’t low enough. Sometimes, the conditions of the river force me into an adaptive strategy — bouncing, bumping and crawling the bottom.

Austin in the flow

Sure, I’d rather keep my nymphs clean. And I’d rather get long drifts that glide all the way through. Because bad things happen when we touch the riverbed over and over. We hang up, spook fish, stall the drift, and we’re forced to guess whether the next bump is a rock or a trout.

“Was that a fish? I don’t know, but that felt like a fish.” — Hank Patterson.

In my early years, bumping the bottom was the only way I knew to fish nymphs. I had listened to the experts. And they all said that you’ve got to get low. You have to feel the bottom with the flies or split shot. Get down or die. So add weight, slow down the drift, and be willing to hang up or break off once in a while.

When I finally learned the concept of a river’s strike zone, all of that changed. I discovered how to read my sighter to indicate the speed of the flies and know when they were near the bottom without being on it. That opened up a whole new world. I touched less, hung up rarely, lost fewer flies and caught more trout. I trusted the strike zone concept so much that I thought it was the only way to drift. Then eventually, the river put enough obstacles in my way to force me into another realization.

Sometimes, the strike zone just isn’t low enough.

Bumping the Bottom

Deliberately touching the riverbed throughout the drift is a different goal than gliding through the strike zone. Hugging the bottom is its own skill.

This winter, our water has been lower, clearer and colder than usual. And often, it has taken a dogged determination for touching the bottom to produce results. I’ve gone hours perfecting gorgeous glides through the strike zone, before it finally dawned on me that I just wasn’t low enough. So I’d slow the drift. I’d lead with more care, allowing the flies to drop and touch the rocks, to find the contours, often with a bit more weight. And once I’d committed to ticking and touching, to bumping and hanging up more often, the fish would follow, eating the same flies that had been rejected just minutes before.

Bumping the bottom is a strategy that I keep in mind for all times of the year. And on many days, it turns the trick.

The actual riverbed is its own level to fish the flies. I often fall into the habit of thinking only of the strike zone. But over and again, I’m forced to remember what I once knew with assurance, that getting the flies down — all the way down — might be the only thing that’ll catch a trout.

What the Trout See

Just a couple more things here . . .

Real nymphs aren’t down there banging their heads into rocks over and over. So riding through the strike zone should look more natural. But real nymphs in the drift bump into rocks a bit too, and they may grab a foothold for a second before getting washed away again. So maybe bouncing the bottom doesn’t look so unnatural.

Trout often hit my tag fly (hanging above) while I bounce the bottom fly below. Each tick of the point fly causes a slight stutter of the tag nymph — a minor gesture — a mini stall.

Picture it. That stutter probably looks tantalizing to a trout that’s in the right mood. And it’s the kind of trigger that can’t be duplicated any other way.

READ: Troutbitten | Tags and Trailers

Overweight?

In an article titled, Over or Under — Your Best Bet on Weight, I highlighted the possibilities and variations that open up by overweighting a rig. With a little more weight, we gain control over the course of the fly. We can deliberately slow the nymphs in a way that underweighting cannot.

By overweighting a bit, we can lead the flies downstream, attempting to bump, bounce and crawl the bottom, or we can purposefully glide through the strike zone.

READ: Troutbitten | Split Shot vs Weighted Flies

In another Troutbitten short series titled, Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding, I defined the differences in the way our flies can drift downstream. It’s really up to us what method we use.

But if we choose the strategy of tracking the nymph’s progress, we don’t have the precise control necessary for riding the bottom.  Because bumping and crawling is more deliberate, the flies must be actively led or guided downstream instead of simply tracking their progress. It’s something to think about.

Austin

On the River

The next time your beautiful dead drifts are ignored in the strike zone, consider getting dirtier. Sure, you’ll stick some rocks and tree parts down there. You’ll lose more flies and waste more time retrieving snags. But you may quickly find more trout in the net too. Live on the bottom for a while, and see what happens.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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11 Comments

  1. Dom, yet another great artical, I agree we all started out bouncing the bottom,even that method has been refined. My question to you is how would you achieve that ,with a bounce rig, weight on the bottom or placed at other locations or does that vary with flies, water type and or conditions ,thanks again for teaching me. Pete

    Reply
    • Hi Pete,

      That’s a good question with a hundred answers. I deliberately omitted any discussion on how to get lower, because I like to keep topics like this contained specific as much as possible. And because I’ve covered weight and rigging discussions in many other articles. Some of them are linked above (anywhere you see orange text, not just in the READ links.)

      But to answer more directly, my own preference varies. If I’m using shot, I’ll probably just add more shot to get down. I like my shot 5 inches from the point fly. I also use drop shotting, BUT then you’re flies are not actually on the bottom, and that’s not quite the point of this article. However, drop shotting is a great way to slow down a drift. Lastly, if I’m using weighted flies, I may just swap out to a heavier fly. Or I might add supplemental shot to a weighted fly (five inches up), if I already like the fly size and proportions and don’t want to change that.

      Make sense?

      Dom

      Reply
      • Makes perfect sense thanks very much.Pete

        Reply
  2. Great article Dom, importance of sometimes bumping the bottom for me was learned the hard way. I was drifting, bumping the bottom, in front of a nice rock when my bottom fly hung up. My tag fly was an egg pattern which was of course floating around. As I was trying to free my snagged fly and trout came up to take my egg fly. Unfortunately the use of slack to free my snagged fly gave the trout opportunity to head shake off the egg fly. I’ll keep at it though. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Dom,

    Thanks for reminding us that even though it is convenient and effective to drift our nymphs in the strike, sometimes that doesn’t get the job done.

    The Polish woven nymph pictured above reminds me of the George Harvey woven stonefly, but the Polish woven is simpler to tie, and that is a good thing.

    I know that you know that the Polish woven will ride “upside down”. Many years ago I told Dan Shields at Flyfisher’s Paradise that the Montana nymphs that he recommended worked really well, but they drifted upside down. He said, “I know, so do our woven bodied stoneflies.” (Even though Joe Humphries wrote how to weight nymphs to ride right side up 🙂 ). We think that aquatic insects are always right side up, but obviously for some reason the trout are attracted to our upside down flies.

    The Polish woven also reminds me of big caddis larvae that have backs that are darker than their bellies. I think I better get some embroidery floss and tie some!

    Reply
    • Really interesting idea here. makes me wonder if the selectivity of surface feeding trout can be influenced by the position of the naturals in relation to the drift. If they eat upside down nymphs may they don’t care which way a dun is facing. But . . .

      Reply
  4. Really insightful analysis, and particularly relevant in a world where climate change is creating conditions that are more and more challenging. Here in Colorado we have been dealing with drought conditions and lower flows year over year, and your analysis will inspire more courage – risking hang-ups in exchange for a better shot at hooking a trout.
    All the best.
    P.S. Also glad to see you offering those fishpond nets. They are the industry standard!

    Reply
  5. It’s amazing how often getting deeper produces a better take, even on the first drift after using lighter weight or shorter tippet. The session can be going fine, with plenty of smaller or middle-sized fish being brought in, but when you extend to the bottom you get a larger one that had smugly been ignoring everything.

    On the other hand, I’ve been going to a place now that’s just too deep (20ft? more?). It’s the only thing open near me, and it’s not the most enjoyable fishing, hardly worth a 2 hour drive and 90 minute hike. Especially when they’re just not coming up. In terms of the configuration of my rig, it approaches the absurd, and I still can’t get down there. But these experiences will probably make those 9 foot holes I’ve avoided elsewhere look a lot more approachable. Funny, just yesterday I was there, thinking, “Gosh, they don’t have to do this in Pennsylvania…” 🙂

    Like Tim, I love those woven nymphs. They just look cool, and are fun to tie.

    Reply
    • JP, yes the Polish woven nymphs are very fun to tie, and…they work! I tied some for the first time last week, and caught 10 trout, including some wild browns, on them the next day. I used a 1/8″ bead and .020 lead on a size 10 scud hook. I still needed some split shot. Then I found Dom’s bead to hook chart, and saw that he uses a bigger 5/32″ (4mm) bead on a size 10 hook. Back to the vise for more tying fun!

      Reply
  6. 99% of what I do is nymph fishing,and always trying to reach perfection,hard or impossible that may be. And one anomaly that I’ve consistently noticed is how any minute variation of fly drift often triggers a strike. A lift,sideways pull,pause,can trigger a strike. Great article,thank heaven for cheap flys!!

    Reply

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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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