We drifted on the river in and out of shadows below the cliffs. It was a cold morning. I knew it would be hot later. It had been the same thing the day before. I looked ahead for where the sun might cut through the tall rocks and waited for the warmth while I cast. We had put in my brother’s drift boat an hour earlier. The shadows were starting to come less than the sun.
“Are you getting hits, Jas?” My brother fished from the bow.
I picked up my line and timed my next cast with his.
“No, mostly I’m on the bottom I think.”
I was nymphing a homemade black pats stone fly with a red copper john dropper. With split shot my flies were sinking fast in the fast water. The strike indicator drifted with us. I kept my casts close. Six feet out from the boat. The slack was easy to manage this way.
Every third or fourth casts ended in a hook set without a fish. It had been this way from the start. I had already lost two flies to the river. The flies were bouncing along the bottom and hanging up on rocks and debris. Perfect. Another unnatural motion of the orange football floating above my line and I set again. Slight movements signaled my reaction to raise the rod on a fish I imagined was there. Every time.
“Was that a fish?” He asked again.
“Yeah man. Pretty sure.” I waited to cast. “Hook sets are free, brother.”
Around a bend in the river the cliffs opened up and I could see where the sun would reach us far ahead. I cast again. A nudge on the indicator — the same methodical hook set to nothing. Except —
I don’t remember the first time I heard “hook sets are free.” It is a highly used and even more useful piece of advice. I have caught numerous trout that I thought were the bottom. The more I think I know the difference between a fish and the bottom, the more surprised I am when I raise my rod tip mechanically and find a fish is pulling back. I challenge even the most experienced fisherman to get it right every time.
Getting a fly down to where the fish are feeding is important. We can use heavier flies, bead heads, lead flies with a dropper, and split shot to take our flies to the fish’s mouth.
The tradeoff is that the more you flirt with the bottom, the more you may hang up. It is a balance that you must be willing to search for.
Hang up too often and your losing flies all day. Never risk the bottom of the river, and you may never get to the fish.
When you are nymphing for trout on the river bottom and you see the strike indicator move like it could be a fish, trust yourself. You have put in the work to get the fly to where the fish are. Every twerk, tweak, bob, or jink of that indicator could be the bottom or it could the monster trout of your dreams. Whatever you do friends; always, always remember — Hook sets are free. Wadeoutthere.