Around here, we entered the winter with our rivers under sustained drought conditions that began in mid July. Somewhere before Christmas, we were granted a deep pile of snow that melted slowly and pushed the rivers to normal flows for a week or better, and the result was the best fishing I’ve had in recent memory. But when the waters dropped back to base flows, the fishing returned to the new standard — tough. Combine the extra-low water with the colder overnight temps of February, and fishing this winter has been as difficult as I can remember.
Regardless of the season, low flows shrink the usable parts of a river for trout, and they compress the fishable parts too. The low flows can be excellent for fishing dry flies. But once the reasonable expectation to catch trout regularly on dries is gone for the season, nymphs become the staple. However, good nymphing water is at a premium when the water levels are extra low. The trout are often in the same lies, with less water covering their backs, but these trout are ultra spooky, light sensitive and intolerant of our mistakes. So the tactics to catch them must change.
That’s alright. Last fall, I resigned myself to these changes by adapting my preferred nymphing methods. Then I pulled out a couple of old tricks and worked on some new ones.
Soft, glassy glides require stealth at all times, and with low flows even the riffles demand more caution. So as much as I prefer to nymph at close range (between 15-25 feet), it pays to extend that range sometimes. And when I’m spooking fish at average distances, I often turn to an old-school tactic, with some variations on the theme of classic upstream nymphing.
The Upstream Classic
Somewhere in a fly fishing magazine from the early-nineties, I first read of a nymphing tactic that wasn’t too far of a stretch from how I fished dry flies. Accordingly, my first nymphing technique was Frank Sawyer’s upstream nymphing method, learned from the article. And this is how I caught my first few fish on underwater bugs.
Did Sawyer actually come up with the approach or simply popularized it? I’ll leave that for others to debate. Because, like every other tactic that I throw on a fishing rod, I don’t think many of us care. Does it catch fish? Yup. And it’s a damn good method for many river situations.
What I’ll refer to here as classic upstream nymphing is performed with a fly line and leader at some distance upstream, with one or two nymphs. Contrary to the now-popular tight line nymphing techniques, the classic upstream nymphing method deliberately lays line on the water. If dutiful care is taken to keep all of that line in one current seam, the nymph stands a good chance at a drag free drift. As the river feeds the rig back downstream, slack is recovered by a combination of lifting the rod, and line-hand work. Strikes are detected by watching the fly line or any visible portion of the leader. And when anything unusual happens . . . set the hook!
Frank Sawyer’s method is excellent for long distance fishing in flat water, pools, glides and . . . low water conditions. It’s also a wonderful tool for sight fishing.
Tight Line or Floating Line?
Like so many similar anglers, I’m enamored by the contact and control provided by tight line rigs. Euro nymphing and Mono Rig tactics have taken over modern nymphing because they are deadly effective and put the angler in control of every part of the delivery and drift.
Most of us refer to being tight to the flies as having nothing on the water’s surface. There is also no indicator or dry fly in between us or the flies, so the connection is . . . well . . . tight (but not too tight).
So pure tight line nymphing is performed with no line on the water. But classic upstream nymphing does the opposite.
When we fish far enough away with a tight line, eventually the weight and sag of the leader is too much, and the nymph drags downstream, unnaturally. Thinner tight line leaders are a solution that can add an extra five or ten feet of range to a tight line system, depending on fly weight. But beyond about thirty feet (and that’s far) every tight line system is subject to drag — no matter how it’s designed.
Re-enter, the classic upstream nymph, which can be a great choice, regardless of the distance of the cast. But by using a standard fly line to push the leader and flies to a target, the usable range is extended — and it’s comfortable. We don’t spook the trout we’re trying to catch in skinny or clear water, because we’re far enough back, and if we’re cautious about where the line lands, the presentation is subtle enough to fool the most wary of fish.
Yes, I prefer to keep line off the water — to be tight to the flies. But when the river sets the terms, adaptation is needed.
And when I must lay line on the water, I do everything possible to keep all of that line in one seam.
With classic upstream nymphing, the power of a fly line makes easy work of turning over the line, leader and fly with a full tuck cast. That’s good, because this tuck upon entry is an absolute necessity.
Good dry fly anglers understand that the fly must land with s-curves. A line landing under contact drags almost immediately, and the dry fly skates off downstream. Likewise for the nymphing angler, the tuck cast feeds a bit of controlled slack to the nymph, allowing it to fall, slightly out of contact for a length of time. All of these variables are determined by the depth of the tuck, the weight of the fly and the speed of the current.
Without a tuck cast, the nymph lands in contact with the line that must lay on the water. So unless you’re fishing the softest section of the river, conflicting currents pull the fly downstream too much and too quickly. I think you know what happens next — drag.
Once slack from the tuck cast is gone, the nymph gains contact with the line and leader on the surface. Attentive anglers notice this subtle change but don’t set on it. The leader straightens a bit under contact with even a #18 beadhead, and if that fly is lucky enough to be in the strike zone, the rig slows a bit too.
At this time, you can choose to continue drifting the fly while aiming still for a drag free drift. Or at some point, you can employ what Sawyer called an induced take.
With the whole system under tension from your rod tip to fly, lift the rod or strip line. Either way, the movement should be subtle. Aim to move the fly just inches, not feet. The resulting upward movement of the fly in the water column may be just the right trigger for the casually observing (lazy) trout. On a good day, I’m told the induced take works almost every time. But I probably don’t use it enough, and I’ve rarely found this kind of repetitive success.
The induced take also needs the right water type to succeed. And here again, I just don’t fish it that much. I love the sound and feel of water and waves washing around me. We have a lot of that water here, so I gravitate to it. And it takes a special day for me to surrender to the challenging patience required for such slow moving success. But when I commit to the soft water with the right tactics, the results are often surprising.
Euro Nymphing and Mono Rig Adaptations
The classic upstream nymph is where nymphing started for me and for so many other anglers. It’s still a wonderful way to solve problems out there. And it’s also a relaxing, rewarding way to fish.
More often, I have the Mono Rig in my hands. I’m euro nymphing and tight lining the riffles, runs and pockets less than twenty-five feet away. When I must go further or use lighter flies, I often pull out the principles from Sawyer’s classic upstream nymphing system and match them to the rig in my hands. It’s called floating the sighter.
The tactic of floating the sighter is just as varied and detailed as everything else in fly fishing — as you’d expect. But here, I refer to the method of laying line on the water, on purpose, with a tight line rig. It could be part of the sighter or all of it. And it could also include part of the butt section behind the sighter.
The sighter gives a visual reference for where the tippet enters the water. And it improves strike detection while using the classic upstream nymphing variation.
If the sighter is thick enough, and if it is greased, it can support light flies of up to about 15 centigrams. (That’s a #16 bead head nymph in my box). Eventually, even a lighter fly will sink the sighter. But remember the tuck cast. Remember that it’s better to land the nymph with a touch of slack, so it drifts more naturally, so it sinks more readily. If you perform the fly entry correctly, a floating sighter does not need to support any weight at first. Instead, it serves as a placeholder — a visual reference that points in the direction of the tippet and the sinking fly. And when the slack is gone, the sighter straightens on the water’s surface — contact is gained.
What happens next? With the sighter in contact, a light nymph can be suspended by the sighter. Or, we can choose to lift the sighter and tight-line the nymph (with line off the water) the rest of the way. Because now, five or ten feet into the drift, the fly is close enough that any line sag on a tight line is negligible.
This tactic is so common in my own angling that I’ve built my preferred Mono Rig formula around it. When taking my short line nymphing game to distance, I like the power of a butt section that can cast like a fly line, having enough mass to perform excellent tuck casts, placing the tippet and leader at preferred angles. Then, at distance, I may allow the sighter to float, employing the classic upstream style that I first learned so many years ago.
While I was tying flies the other night, Howard Croston’s YouTube channel ran on my big screen. And his video covering upstream nymphing caught my attention.
Howard is a well-known and respected angler from England, and I like his style. He also designed my current favorite fly rod for Hardy, so when he lends advice, I listen.
Howard’s upstream nymphing leader is basically a thick sighter coming off the fly line, with two feet of colored .015” mono, followed by a long section of level tippet to the nymph.
It’s a good idea. Howard takes the sighter concept and attaches it to the fly line with no unnecessary leader pieces or tapers in between. I’ve fished this a few times now, and it might replace my own classic upstream nymphing rig, which was simply the butt section of a Harvey dry leader followed by a sighter and tippet. Howard’s formula puts me closer to a thicker sighter. I like it.
Classic upstream nymphing feels a lot like fishing dry flies. The challenge of making precision casts is there; it can be employed at extra distance if necessary, and it’s most often performed with tight loops and light flies than don’t change the cast.
When classic upstream nymphing works, it feels like a little bit of magic. Then again, almost every take from a trout feels that way.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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