Most of the die-hard locals in this region are nymph-first fishermen. We fish all year, but the opportunities for good dry fly fishing are a small percentage of our time on the water. So, we learn nymphs and catch fish. Because a nymphing approach produces, everywhere I’ve ever chased trout.
Seventeen years ago I bought a longer fly rod, and my production unexpectedly went down. I went from an eight-and-a-half foot five weight to a nine-and-a-half foot four weight. I caught fewer trout, and it took some time to understand why. Maybe it was an accuracy issue, I thought. But no, the fly was going where it should after just a few hours of adjustment with the new tool in my hands.
Back then, as it is now, I was on my rivers nearly every day, so I had time to question, think objectively and look for answers. And after a couple of weeks, I realized the truth — I’d wanted the longer rod for more distance, but that extra distance was hurting me more than helping. So I corrected my mistake. I continued using the longer rod, but I brought my baseline casting distance back to what it had been, and I used the longer rod to reach the occasional far-off target only.
Another example: About five years ago, I moved to a fly rod that was another half-foot longer — a ten-foot four weight — and it’s the main rod I still fish with today. The extra six-inches gained me a couple more feet of sagless reach on a tight line rig, and just like a decade earlier, I tried to use that reach immediately. I saw my production go down again. A few months later, I realized that I’d pushed my baseline distance beyond what was most effective. So I reeled myself back in, refined my approach and caught more trout.
One more example: I received an eleven-foot two weight a while back, and I was excited to try a rod that is really nothing like what I fish, day to day. I love experimenting with new gear and tactics, so I strung up the longer rod and fished it for two weeks straight. You know the story: I caught fewer trout until I regained the self-discipline to fish closer. The eleven-footer had given me at least three feet of extra sagless reach on a tight line presentation, but by then, I knew that extra distance does not equate to better fishing. In fact, the opposite is true.
It’s Always Like That
None of this should be a surprise. We are more accurate and successful with most everything at close range. The throw from second base to first is easier than a throw from third. Bow hunters won’t take a shot beyond thirty or forty yards because it’s too risky. And standing at the free throw line results in a higher percentage shot than a three-pointer.
And yet, the temptation in all of fishing is to cast further. Indeed, a big trend in the tight line and euro nymphing game right now is to go longer with the rods and thinner with the leaders, all in an effort to gain more distance. But in most cases, that distance is unnecessary. And in many cases, that distance decreases our effectiveness.
Fishing further out can make anglers lazy, complacent or careless. Instead of hitting precise targets, getting close becomes good enough. Longer drifts allow for longer drop times and opportunities to correct what might have gone wrong in the cast. Being further away from the trout results in less caution for spooking them. So we stop hunting and stalking our trout as deliberately. Longer distance also means we see less of the riverbed, and that too is a disadvantage. Longer casts force the angler into starting the drift with shallower angles on the sighter. More line equals less sensitivity and less strike detection. Hook setting also suffers at distance. The list of disadvantages runs deep.
Tight line nymphing is a short range game. Somewhere between fifteen and thirty feet away — that’s the effective casting distance. Anything closer, and we are likely spooking fish, even in the fastest water. Anything further and we begin to lose what makes the system effective in the first place (what I call the tight line advantage.)
Find Your Comfort Distance
So what is that perfect distance? What should your baseline be?
I suggest it should be somewhere between fifteen and thirty feet, but your height, your rod and even your average river setup makes your baseline distance conditional and personal.
For my preferred angle of approach, I choose to cast two rod lengths upstream and one rod length over. That’s what my friend, Josh, calls the Golden Ratio for tight line nymphing. For me, it’s twenty feet up and ten feet across. And when I start wondering why the fishing seems slow, I first check my distance. Have I started creeping the cast too far beyond that perfect baseline? If so, I reel in a couple turns. I wade closer, staying behind the trout and being cautious with my approach. I might also skip water where being within that golden ratio seems too close, and I’ll walk up to the next piece of pocket water or the next riffle, because these food factories are where trout go to eat nymphs most often anyway.
After decades on the water, I’ve gone through noticeable slumps. Like everyone, I have periods of time when I’m fishing poorly, and I know it. Blaming the fish for a bad day is the easy route, and maybe that’s fair for one or two days, or for a shift here and there. But if my lack of production slips for weeks or for months, I know I’m doing something wrong. Time after time, fishing closer is what fixes things.
Fishing, it seems, is one of those activities where our mind wanders and we forget about all else. We’re thankful for that. Most of us fish to relax, but at the same time we wish to improve our craft. Often, I return to my first decent fly rod — that eight-and-a-half foot five weight — to force myself to re-focus, to get closer and regain a true tight line advantage.
Regardless of the fishing style, whether its tight line nymphing, streamers or dry flies, fishing as close as possible is a guiding principle leading to success.
There are currently over nine-hundred-and-fifty articles on Troutbitten, and at least five of them deal directly with fishing closer. (These are linked throughout the article above). The text of many more stories, tactics, podcasts and videos at Troutbitten deliver this message over and over.
It always comes back to this. Get closer. Fish better.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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