Nymphing is the most complex tactic in fly fishing. A dead drift is the most common goal, but there are three distinct ways to achieve it: bottom bouncing, strike zone rides and tracking the flies. Each of these tactics simulates something that a trout sees every day. And each can fairly be described as a dead drift. But often, just one of these presentations is the most agreeable approach to the trout. And all of them can look like a natural dead drift.
Thinking back to the few primary resources that I consulted about nymphing when I first learned, along with the hundreds more secondary resources since, I realize that very few, if any, of these resources ever brought this distinction to light. Instead, most anglers just said their way was best. They’d spent half their life dedicated to one way of drifting nymphs and were fully bought into their own method. Or maybe they’d moved with the industry trends and followed along with the next new thing. All of this is fair. Because fishing — especially nymphing — is something you can do for decades and still have more questions than answers. So the easy route might be to latch onto something and stick with it, believe in it and push all of your doubts aside.
My life has gone in a way that I’ve had more days along a trout river than most anglers could ever hope for. I’ve also fished primarily for wild brown trout in a region that is so bug rich and temperature stable that it’s a bit of a mystery why a fish would ever eat my fake flies in the first place.
But having been granted those hours and opportunities to learn, I’ve taken them. And when an angler finds himself with enough trout in the net, he starts to wonder how else he might catch a fish. Nymphing presents variables. So we should learn the variations.
**NOTE** Just a quick reminder that every text you see in orange like this, across Troutbitten links to a relevant resource. An in-depth article like this one is only possible because it stands upon the work that precedes it. I’ve been writing about nymphing since 2014, and many of the concepts and ideas in this piece are fleshed out in other articles that set up this one. Here are a few articles that are very relevant:
READ: Troutbitten | Who Knows Better Than You?
READ: Troutbitten | Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding the Flies
READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing — Not All That Tight
READ: Troutbitten | Three Nymphing Questions to Solve Any Problem
READ: Troutbitten | When Drifting Low Isn’t Low Enough
READ: Troutbitten | The Water Column and the All-Important Strike Zone
Again, I submit three ways to dead drift a nymph.
One: Getting all the way to the riverbed, touching it with weights or the flies themselves. Many anglers call this bottom bouncing.
Two: Gliding nymphs through the strike zone for as long as possible — the strike zone being a small cushion of water just above the riverbed and maybe just 6-12 inches tall. Let’s call this method strike zone rides.
Three: Casting generally lighter nymphs or weights upstream and letting the river push the flies back downstream. When the river makes more of the decisions than the angler, I call this tracking the flies.
All of these are dead drifts. All of these methods of nymphing can be done with a tight line or with an indicator, although a tight line setup provides more control. And all of these methods can dramatically outpace the other two at any given time. All three are legitimate representations of what a trout sees.
Here’s more . . .
Nymphs spend most of their lives crawling on or attached to river rocks and the submerged tree parts below. These nymphs let go or become dislodged for a variety of reasons: fast currents, bad footing or behavioral drift, to name a few. Once free from the bottom, nymphs try to get back down, unless they are emerging to the surface to hatch. Many nymphs surely touch and go a few times before finding the next solid footing. It’s easy to imagine a mayfly nymph or a cress bug bouncing from rock to rock before touching and finally clinging to a good one. I believe this is partly why the bottom bouncing approach succeeds — because it looks natural. And it can be a good dead drift.
Bottom bouncing also slows the flies. Contact with the riverbed creates a friction that puts the brakes on a bit. It’s a speed slower than the strike zone, although the attached nymphs do spend their time in the strike zone.
A good bottom ride doesn’t stick much. It just taps and ticks along, barely grazing the tops of the rocks. You can tap a dozen times in one drift or just a couple, but the flies or the weight should not scrape and drag the bottom. The nymphs just tumble along, very low and available to every trout holding at the riverbed.
Touching without sticking is its own bit of magic and luck combined. But there’s some skill mixed in too. So, learn to keep the nymphs coming along, and good things will follow.
Rig specifics and fly selection matter here. And the truth is, when I truly want to bounce the bottom, these days I most often choose a drop shot rig. But there are plenty of good ways to achieve similar results with weighted flies only.
Strike Zone Rides
Every one of the aforementioned main resources from which I learned the art of nymphing taught the bottom bouncing approach. All of them.
“Get your nymph on the bottom or you won’t catch a fish.”
“If you ain’t stickin’, you ain’t fishin’.’”
And so I believed this was the only way. It took many years of fishing and one major revelation to realize that I’d been using the bottom as a crutch.
Somewhere in a Joe Brooks book, I think it was, I read about the strike zone. Brooks didn’t use that term. He called it a current of water that was like a separate stream at the bottom of the river. That stream, he said, is where the trout spend most of their time, and so do the bugs and the baitfish. His text didn’t describe gliding through this zone as the goal, but it got me thinking. Why touch the bottom at all then? Why not attempt to drift my nymph in that stream at the bottom of the riverbed? No matter how thin it is, why not make that the goal? Don’t be above the strike zone and don’t be below it (touching the bottom). Just glide the nymph through the strike zone.
That became my mission for the next ten years or so, and like many other anglers before me, I thought I had the one true answer — the magic bullet for nymphing.
Strike zone rides became a lot more doable once I added a sighter to the Mono Rig I was already using. And that colored line changed everything. Because with good contact to the nymphs, I could trust the sighter to show me the speed of the flies. And after the cast, once the sighter slowed, I knew the nymphs were in the strike zone, and it was time to lead. Otherwise they just kept dropping, an dthey ended up touching bottom in a few more inches anyway — right back to bottom bouncing!
Nymphs of all types — caddis, mayflies stoneflies, midges and crustaceans probably glide through the strike zone more than they bang their heads against the next rock. When they do let go for behavioral drift, when they lose a foothold, they probably glide through that bottom current naturally — in the strike zone.
These days, when I want to glide my nymphs through the strike zone, I choose flies or weights (and a casting style) that will get the nymphs down quickly but will not be too hard to keep off the bottom. I don’t want to waste half my drift on a long drop time if the strike zone is my target.
Strike zone rides are my favorite for one main reason — they’re the most effective. Good strike zone time usually amounts to trout in the net, but it’s the hardest of the three ways to learn and perform consistently. That cushion of water is narrow. It’s hard to read the sighter to perfection. And it’s even harder to learn the exact amount to lead the flies to keep them in the zone without touching the bottom or pulling the nymphs too fast. These variables change with every piece of water.
Tracking the Flies
Contact is king. That’s the way I thought about tight line nymphing at first. And for the most part, the adage still holds true. I’d rather lean on the side of more contact than less, for most situations. Because one of the primary advantages that makes tight line principles so effective in the first place is good strike detection. And with less contact, strike detection suffers exponentially.
But as the years passed and I kept nymphing and watching the results, I noticed that some trout would eat on the drop, even more than the drift.
Think about this. Two things happen when your nymph hits the water. It drops to a depth, and then it should (ideally) drift at that depth. When I’m bottom bouncing, I don’t want to waste time with the drop. I’d rather get the nymph to the bottom quickly. Same thing with a strike zone ride. But when I noticed that trout were eating on the drop, it only made sense to extend that drop time. Therefore I started going lighter with my rigs.
Less weight results in a slower drop. So the fly spends more time in the mid-column. And the more we back off the weight, the more the river can dictate the course of the flies rather than the angler. That’s what I call tracking the flies.
This seems like a great idea, and for certain, tracking is the key to success some days. (It works most consistently when bugs are active.) So less weight results in less direct control from the angler and more control from the river — more from the currents. Tracking the flies means there’s less contact. And at first, all of that sounds like it might make for a better dead drift. But it is not better. It’s just another way that flies can look like a natural drift to the trout.
Tracking the flies is the easiest of these three methods to get right. Since the river makes more decisions, we simply try to keep the rig light enough that we have little to no influence over the flies. The drop time is long. The leading is minimal, and we recover the slack that is given to us. We aren’t in charge of the fly’s progress, as with bottom bouncing and with strike zone rides, so we make fewer decisions. Lead speed? Depth? Most of that is up to the river, when we’re tracking. Furthermore, strike detection is simplified. If we are looking for a long drop time, if we are trying not to touch the riverbed, then it’s fair to set on anything unusual from the sighter. That’s another advantage of tracking — another example of how tracking simplifies the process.
There’s one thing to keep in mind, though. No matter how light the fly, how skinny the tippet and how thin the leader, our gear always affects the fly. It will always track toward our rod tip while tight lining and toward the indy or dry fly in a suspension rig. Remember, if the lightest nymph in our box was not attached to a tippet and we dropped it in the water, untethered, it would reach the bottom in a couple of seconds, at most.
While tracking the flies, this is a key point to understand. And I often think about leading the tippet into the right place so that it can be in the best angle not to influence the nymphs themselves any more than necessary.
One, Two, Three
There is no best way to dead drift a nymph, and all three methods are valid and useful. Because, when we think of getting a good drift — a dead drift — on our nymphs, we should also consider the target zone. Is it the bottom, the strike zone or somewhere in the middle? Do we want to have more influence over the flies or less? Each of these methods looks a lot like something trout see daily. This is the big difference between nymphing and fishing dry flies. Do you want to get a dead drift on a dry? Give it some slack so it can match the surface current speed. With a dry fly, there’s one way. But with the complexity of currents in three dimensions underneath the water, the nymphing angler has more decisions to make, more techniques to consider and a bigger puzzle to solve.
Let the trout and their rivers be your guide. Learn which method gains the most response from trout in different scenarios. Test things out. Work on your deficiencies and satisfy your curiosities by fishing all three of these methods. Then you can answer more questions on the river.
Fish hard, friends.
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