Success in fly fishing really comes down to one or two things. It’s a few key principles repeated over and over, across styles, across water types and across continents. The same stuff catches trout everywhere. And one of those things . . . is contact.
A few days ago, at the end of a good, hard morning of fishing, I loaded my Australian Shepherd pup, River, into the 4Runner and banged the snow off my boots. Rains were coming. Higher temps were already here, and I’d seen a few Blue Winged Olives in the air that morning — Spring was definitely pushing through. I deeply love winter, and I knew I’d miss the long cold season, so I soaked it all in and took my time on what I knew was my last morning of real winter fishing.
With my waders rolled up and fly rod stowed away, I flicked through my podcast app and found something that caught my eye — Jonas Price and Matt Kowalchuck talking about one of our best rivers.
Jonas owns The Feathered Hook in Coburn, PA. He and his crew are some of my favorite people in the industry, so I eased into the long drive home to enjoy a good listen. Jonas, in particular, has a style all his own. He’s opinionated, humorous and confident — the kind of guy you can lose all sense of time while talking with. And Matt is a great guide who loves the river and knows his tactics. A little over half way through, Jonas and Matt got to talking about what the host called their nymphing system. But the guys wanted to make clear that it wasn’t just a drop shot rig. And it wasn’t a euro nymphing rig either. It wasn’t only done with an indicator, and it wasn’t always upstream. It wasn’t any one of these things.
I connect with that approach. In a fly fishing world that seems dead set on pigeonholing and specializing the fun out of everything, Jonas and Matt made the point that they do a little of it all. Then Jonas brought up something that had me nodding in the driver’s seat again.
Nymphing success comes down to contact, Jonas said. And no matter what adaptations are made to the rig at hand, the game is about being in touch with the fly. In their river especially, contact continues by touching the bottom with something — whether that be a fly or a split shot. Matt made the point that without contact, none of this works. Contact is the tangible component between success and failure.
I thought about all of it as I pulled into the gas station. Contact is the key to all underwater presentations. In nymphing, no matter the method, every successful style I’ve come across has it. Be it an indy style or tight line, without contact in the system you’re just hoping that something might happen, without any real notion of where your fly is. It’s guessing. And that’s not really fishing.
River woke up and stuck his head out the window as I pumped gas. He nosed the damp air, now fifty-five degrees on a cloudy afternoon, it was warm enough to melt a lot of snow and make the air so thick that it felt sticky.
Streamers need contact too. I remember guiding a client who was intent on fishing streamers all day. The conditions were poor for such an approach, and he knew it even before I warned him. After we talked about the prospects, I admired his determination to learn all that he could about streamer fishing, while setting out under the assumption that he might not catch a trout all day long.
We covered a lot of water in eight hours. We followed through with the plan, regardless of the high sun and low water. And we had enough movement from multiple good fish along the shade lines that I think we could have landed a half-dozen trout or so. But my friend had a horrible time with contact. His streamer cast was uncontrolled, landing inaccurately and with extra slack that he spent the first three seconds picking up — trying to gain contact with the fly after it hit the water.
We worked on it. And toward the end of the day, the one trout we caught followed a great cast that landed a Bunny Bullet streamer right where it should’ve been. More importantly, my friend had contact even before the first strip. And as the fly fell through the water column, a mid-teens wild brown clobbered the sculpin. Fun times.
When I climbed back behind the steering wheel and turned the key, the podcast booted up again, so I listened to stories about Jonas’ favorite fish and Matt’s favorite flies. But my mind wondered as the truck rounded the bends. And I kept coming back to contact.
The dry fly game is more about adding slack in the right places. And my own tuck cast approach to nymphing works with just a touch of slack as the fly enters — sometimes more, sometimes less. I also talk to my guests about being in touch with the flies through the drift, but then backing off that contact so the flies can just do their thing and dance with the currents a bit. Don’t pull them around the dance floor with too much authority, I say. Don’t be bossy. Lead, yes. But do it with grace.
The tires hummed against the blacktop and spat water behind us, blasting through slushy puddles at a mile a minute.
It all starts with contact.
A lot is made of euro nymphing these days. I write about it. I fish it. And I talk about tight line nymphing and my approach with the Mono Rig, which kind of blends everything together — just as Matt and Jonas talked about.
And like what the guys said — it all comes down to contact. That’s what works.
It’s not euro nymphing specifically that catches fish. Matt said the same thing that I would . . . It’s about being versatile on the water. Throw an indy on the rig because you can’t wade into perfect position. Or add supplemental split shot to a rig with weighted flies — whatever it takes to stay in contact.
Hell, do the Joe Humphreys thing and use a fly line with a regular leader, and be obsessive about contact. Just keep adding split shot until you gain control over the system. “Sometimes I’ve put so many split shot on the line that it looked like a Rosary.” This is a famous Humphreys quote that he has repeated often. And do you think he caught fish that way? Damn right. Because he had contact. Do you think guys today catch more trout than Hump did and still does? Not likely.
By the time I turned up our road, the podcast was ending. It was a good bookend to a thoughtful trip home. Some of what we learn happens most in these moments off the water, in reflective times. While ruminating on questions, we process and learn from our days, our seasons and our decades on the rivers.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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