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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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