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First published April 19th 2004 - More than 10 years ago
Ways to get a fly to fish deep in the water
When you fish a nymph it is a good idea to go deep - really deep. A good rule is that if you do not loose a fly to the bottom from time to time, you are not deep enough. Here are a few reasons why that is important and a bunch of hints on how to get down there.
When warm weather hits the fishing water - either during a normal fishing day or in the warmest part of the season - the trout seem to stop feeding and disappear. Of course it is not so. The fish just find their way down into the cooler waters of the stream and following the diminished surface activity just start feeding on stuff that is in the water rather than on the water.
No matter what, most fish stay close to the bottom and - according to my knowledge - most fish even feed primarily on subsurface food items such as nymphs and emergers as well as scuds and other aquatic animals.
Sure dry fly fishing is fun, and sure it is exciting to watch a fish rise to you fly. But watching your fly pass over seemingly empty water time after time with no strikes is not my idea of a good time. When that happens, I switch to a nymph. And preferably a heavy one.
Insects living in water spend a much larger amount of their life in the water - preferably on the bottom - than on the surface. Most flies that hatch, actually sit on the water for literally seconds after having spent at least a year in the water - mostly on the bottom, but sometimes also in the water column. Other life forms spend all their life down deep.
Nymphs and other insects are torn loose from plants and gravel either by accident or purpose, and drift downstream in a more or less controlled manner. Most of them will sink or seek towards the bottom to find safety. Our nymphs should also be drifting downstream in a free floating manner, maybe seeking towards the bottom, maybe just tumbling and maybe sometimes rising towards the surface mimicking the beginning of an emerge and a hatch.
The different ways have different final results, which we can quickly describe as:
Think of the gold beaded nymph that was revived a couple of decades ago. A heavy brass bead added weight to an otherwise very standard and very anonymous nymph. The beadhead nymph is vastly successful and had been for decades - if not centuries - in parts of Europe, and has become equally popular in the US.
Think of a fly like the Dog Nobbler, the odd British stillwater pattern that can bring up fish from the bottom of almost any trout lake. Not to mention the good old Woolly Bugger…
Think of the Czech nymphs that we started seeing some 15-20 years ago. These extremely dense, very heavy and very simple nymphs that showed many anglers a whole new world: fishing very deep within a short distance.
Think of recent flies such as the Copper John. Small, intricate, complex pattern with epoxy and copper wire.
What is the common trait of all these successful flies?
Weight! Simple as that. All their other qualities not forgotten, they are plain heavy.
Ways with weight
Under the bead
Alternatives to lead
I use the term lead throughout this article, but as already mentioned it should actually be read as "something heavy".
Lead is known to be a severe environmental poison, and apart from that prohibited on many waters.
Using substitutes can be both necessary and desirable.
Most substitutes made for the purpose are produced from tungsten. This material is considerably heavier than lead, but unfortunately also considerably more expensive. Other metals can be and is used, such as copper known from wire and tubes, and brass known from beads. Cast metal of different kinds is used for dumbbell eyes, which are also sometimes manufactured from brass. Of these only tungsten is heavier than lead, and it is definitely the best substitute where lead is usually applied.
The severity of lead pollution is clearly indicated by its place in this list from Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It is number two on the list, well ahead of DDT, cyanide and other toxins and only surpassed by arsenic.
So consider lead a serious environmental hazard and use alternatives whenever possible.
Fishing the weighted fly
The fairly light and stiff modern rods used for trout fishing are not built to cast these heavy flies, and care must be taken not to overload them. They probably won't break, but their performance will be poor and casting will be tiring.
Do not try to push speed and distance when casting a heavy fly on a light rod, but deliver the fly with a lingering stroke and an open arc in order not to drive the rod too far. Keep false casting and double hauling to a minimum, and remember that you are fishing deep, so you can often go closer to your target. Unless the water is gin clear, the fish will not see you - and even in clear water, fish dwelling in shallow have a very small field of view.
Fellow angler Claus Bech Petersen picked up another method in New Zealand, where the Kiwis demonstrated a somewhat more extreme version of this cast referred to as the Tongariro haul, where heavy nymphs are pulled out of the water a fair bit downstream, using the friction of the line in the current to load the rod, which then catapults the nymph upstream for a new drift.
The rig from hell
As efficient as it might be in the water, it is a menace to keep under control when in the air. It has a tendency to go its own ways: large and light components in one direction, heavy ones in the other - preferably turning around themselves and tangling up miserably.
As above, the solution is to be calm. Large open loops, slow, short casts and keeping the rig as much on and under the water as possible is a very good solution to all potential problems. And it keeps the flies where the fish are: in the water.
When fishing in running water the mend is a really good method to get a fly to drift freely. Mending the line is simply moving the belly of the line upstream, thus preventing the current from dragging it downstream faster than the tip and the fly. A line belly moving downstream will pull the tip and leader, making the fly move in a different direction of faster downstream than the surrounding water. In dry fly fishing this is known as drag. Drag can also take place when fishing a nymph, except that there are no stripes in the surface to reveal it. But the fish will notice, and avoid eating stuff that moves unnaturally. Mending upstream can resolve this.
Simply lift the line off the water, leaving the fly where it is, and move your rod tip upstream as soon as you see the belly of the line "overtaking" the tip.
The mend can be repeated several times during a drift, dramatically prolonging the effcient fishing time for the fly.
Split shot are easy to work with and can be added and removed from the line with some care and a set of pliers without leaving marks. But if you regularly need to add and remove weight - or just want to avoid using tools for the job - you might consider sink putty. This is a soft, sticky, heavy substance that you fold around the leader and press to attach. It is not quite as heavy as the metal split shot, but easier to work with and a good alternative if your split shots are lead.
The distance from the fly to the split shot or putty depends on the depth, weight of the added mass and the way you want to fish. Up to 50 centimetres or about 1˝ foot will usually do fine. Less is no problem.
As an alternative to the passive split shot, I warmly recommend using a heavy fly in stead of pure weight. This has some advantages: first of all no lead and secondly the "split shot" fishes! There is no rule saying that the weight must be in the terminal end of the rig. It might as well be the top fly that is the heaviest of a team.
In a similar way you can use a large dry fly as a strike indicator if you want to increase chances of hookup here. Steve Schweitzer's brilliant indicator might be very visible, but is does not catch fish - which reminds me that I actually saw a desciption of a brightly colored strike indicator tied on a hook in an British magazine recently.
Another way of getting your fly to fish deeper is using a line that sinks. This is endorsed by many fishers who think that the fly should be unweighted and able to move freely, while the line should be the medium of moving the fly to its location - either in a cast or after, when the fly has hit the water.
The line can be an all sinking line or just a sink tip as well as it can vary in density and thus have different sinking rates.
An intermediate line will bring your fly under the surface and slowly towards the bottom while a line with a fast sinkning tip can have almost the same effect as shot on the leader.
Some specially designed nymphing lines have sinking tips and/or brightly colored bands on the floating part to aide visibility and strike detection.