In an eight hour fishing trip, how many minutes does your nymph spend in the strike zone? What percentage of your time on the water keeps the dry fly in a pure dead drift? And how long is your streamer in great water, looking like something that a trout might want to eat?
What’s the tally on your effective fishing minutes?
Add it up, and be honest about the statistics. What percentage of your day is spent with a fly doing what it really takes to catch a trout?
I’d argue that even on our best day, the percentage is very small. But stream selection and fly style are big factors too. Let’s talk about it . . .
Theories and Mysteries
Our fishing is not a cold calculation. It’s not about numbers in the net but about solving the puzzles to fool trout. One fish is luck. But with two or three, you might be onto something. Then, if you catch a few more with the same presentation in similar water, enjoy the reward of knowing you did something right. That experience gets memory-banked and becomes another data point when you’re working on the next fishing puzzle.
We want to solve that daily mystery, so it’s critical to fairly judge the effectiveness of each drift — each presentation of the fly. Because if your dry fly skates across the surface, out of a rising trout’s feeding lane, then you can’t judge the pattern against what he’s taking. Not until we have the right look or get to the correct depth can we fairly use those presentations against our working theory for what the trout want at any given moment.
The best anglers I know have a great nymphing game, because it gives them a chance to catch trout anywhere, any day, any conditions.
Trout might eat a nymph from the top to the bottom of the water column, but the frequent advice to get those nymphs to the riverbed is sound.
Let’s say we’re standing thigh-deep in a favorite river. It’s mid-morning, and our target level for the nymph is the strike zone — that cushion of water, just off the riverbed, that’s traveling slower than the rest of the current. Maybe the strike zone is ten inches tall in this piece of water, so it’s a pretty narrow layer that we want to drift our nymph through. We’ve caught a half-dozen trout, and every one of them has eaten when the nymph was in the strike zone. No takes came on the drop.
READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone
Let’s watch the next cast enter . . .
There. Nice tuck cast. The nymphs falls, as we gain contact on the sighter. A few seconds in, and we see the slowdown on the sighter, signaling that our nymph is in the strike zone. Good. Now keep it coming, and start the clock. One second, two, three . . . only now is our nymph fishing effectively. The wading, the casting, the drop time all set up these few moments in the strike zone.
It’s drifting. The fly ticks a rock, the sighter jumps and we set the hook. How many seconds was the nymph in the zone? Let’s count it as four.
The next cast enters and we get the same efficient drop until . . . there’s the slowdown again. Start the clock, because the nymph has reached the strike zone. Keep it coming past the rock that we ticked on the last drift. Lead a bit. Slip contact, and at the back end of the drift we finish the drift and recast. That was as clean as it could be. The nymph was in the strike zone and coming down one lane for six seconds. And in any kind of moving water on a tight line approach, that’s a pretty long strike zone ride.
Start thinking about effective seconds, with the nymph truly at the correct depth, while also holding one seam. Add up those moments, and you’ll see why nymphing can be so difficult. The setup between the good moments eats up a lot of fishing time. And there’s not much we can do about it.
On my best days I might get the nymph in the strike zone for about five to ten minutes every hour. And on my worst days, it’s far less than that.
A good fly caster can greatly improve the effective-minutes ratio on a dry fly. It takes body positioning and discipline. It requires commitment to wading and restraint on casting distance. But with the right approach, we can get the true dead drift time on a dry fly to around thirty or forty percent — maybe.
In an hour of dialed-in dry fly fishing, a good angler might have twenty minutes of dead drift time. I think that’s about the maximum. And that is extremely efficient.
Of course, the water type, the wind and the fish all have something to say about that. We can have effective fishing minutes on top by limiting the false cast, by delivering great slack and s-curves on the water, and by picking up cleanly when the fly starts to drag.
Steamers and Wets
It’s hard to say what is most effective with a streamer, but that’s part of the charm. Day to day, trout respond to fast strips or slow, Head Flips or stalls. So adding up the effective seconds isn’t as cut and dry as seeing the strike zone slowdown or watching a dead drifted dry fly.
In truth, this is why we might choose streamers — to cover more water more effectively and maximize the time that our fly is doing something a trout might eat.
I don’t know how to calculate those effective minutes on streamers or wets. But the concept still holds value. You know when you like the drift. And you know when you don’t. So when fishing streamers, move to the next place to get a look that you really love. Hit that and move on. Because with streamers or wets, we can easily slip into the bad habit of doing the same thing over and over. With little action, we stop hunting and fall back to hoping. The joy of streamer fishing is in testing all the various animations to the fly that might work.
When you do find that a Speed Lead turns them on, for example, then aim for that on every cast for a while. And there you can fairly judge and try for a high percentage of effective minutes.
This past winter, I started thinking about these effective moments when I was nymphing. I needed to hit the strike zone, or nothing happened. And when I really focused on maximizing that zone time, I could double or even triple it. Usually, more trout found my net.
I’ve been talking about this with my guided guests, too. Many anglers are surprised by how difficult these wild brown trout are. I tell them that we need perfect drifts, and we probably need fifty of them to find and catch a hungry fish. But I’ve also started thinking through these effective minutes with them. It helps. Because, by the time lunch rolls around, we might have only a few minutes of truly effective fishing time.
The concept can be overwhelming. But it should also be inspiring, because we know there’s room for improvement.
By having in mind exactly what we’re striving for and fairly judging how often we achieve it, we understand that our skills control whether the rod bends with a fish or it does not.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
This presumes you are simply prospecting the water and not actively focused on targeting specific fish via some form of sighting. Your % might be very low whereas other tactics might see 100% effective engagement and possibility time.
I don’t think that matters, honestly. Whether I have rising trout in front of me or I’m prospecting likely water, I will still be aware of how effectively I’m fishing. I’m not counting fish here. I’m counting and focusing on how well I’m fishing. That’s the point, really.
And respectfully, 100% effective time is impossible. I think you’re missing the point a bit — even the best dry fly fishing still must waste a fair amount of time (probably half) with all the other things necessary to get the fly dead drifting. I mentioned this above. There’s knot tying, false casting, wading, drying the fly, etc. No one will ever reach 100% effective time.
Wouldn’t strike zone distance over distance of cast be a more accurate measure of efficiency? If you cast 10′ and are in the strike zone for 6′ would get that drift 60% accurate however with the same cast you were only in the strike zone for 3′ you would be at 30%. I think of it this way as I can get lazy and cast farther but not really increase the effective drift in the zone. This helps me focus on precise drifts as much as accurate casts. If that makes sense.
Hi Emmett. Absolutely, we are on the same page. I don’t believe I mentioned casting distance as any measure of efficiency in the article above. I talked about strike zone rides as a good metric for nymphs, just as you are saying. In fact, longer casts often make nymphing far more inefficient, especially on a tight line, because the nymphs must drop for a longer distance — the sighter and tippet are forced into a shallower angle at long distances, until the nymphs finally drift closer to the angler, allowing for a steeper angle and deeper flies.
To clarify, I see efficiency (flies outside of the water) as the knots, flies, wading, leader swaps etc. that effect time on the water. However if you are not in the strike zone you are not fishing effectively regardless of how efficient you are. It may take several casts with adjustments (flies, weights, leaders etc.) to get the fly in the strike zone. Those adjustments are about efficiency. I look at efficiency (flies in the water) as the length of time the fly is in the strike zone as a distance and not an amount of time as a metric per cast vs over several hours on the water. This narrower scope of focus, for me, helps me be more accurate with casts (two dimensions) and accurate with drifts in the strike zone (three dimensions) as a distance 0f that cast.
A 5′ dead drift in the strike zone could be 1-4 seconds depending on the speed and depth of the water. Say a solid tuck cast of 10′, the flies enter the water first and drop for 3′ (distance), plus another foot to establish contact. Then you have 5′ “painting the bottom” as you say and the last foot goes into the back cast. So for a 5′ drift in the zone with a 10′ cast you would be 50% accurate (three dimensions) with your drift and 50% more efficient compared to a cast of 20′ to get the same 5′ drift. (5/10= .5 vs 5/20=.25).
If that makes sense?
Yes. Good stuff.