I laughed when he asked.
“Seriously man. Should I be nymphing?”
There was a frustrated chuckle in his voice. I think he knew the answer, but it is a fair question.
My friend lives in Boise and had been fly fishing for a few months before he asked me about nymphing. Like many of us starting out, he loved fly fishing, enjoyed being on the river, and was dedicated to getting better, but having a bit of a hard time catching fish.
Always happy to talk fly fishing, I began to explain why I believe nymphing is a part of fly fishing. A big part.
Dry or Die.
The absence of nymphs in the fly box is not something only beginner fly fishers endure because they may not know any different. There are some very experienced, and very skilled, fly fishers that do not nymph. “Dry or Die” is a term I have heard thrown around by a few folks that only fish dries.
Dry fly fishing is sometimes argued to be the “pure” form of fly fishing. Implying it is the better method. In Norman Maclean’s classic fly fishing novel, A River Runs Through It, the author describes his father’s take on the subject of dry fly fishing:
“He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”
The book was turned into a Hollywood movie directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt. For better or worse, the film introduced fly fishing to the world. In many ways it captured the beauty of fly fishing and the connection it can foster in our relationships with ourselves and the ones we love.
There is no nymphing in A River Runs Through It.
I suspect old Rob wanted to highlight the beautiful and special method of catching trout with dry flies. Watching a fish rise to take your fly is unique and exhilarating. One step closer to the underwater world that is home to the trout we chase. It makes for good cinematography and visual story telling.
Fishing dries may seem more natural to the beginner than jumping into nymphing. The glamour of fly fishing is often portrayed with a rising fish. If that is what draws one to the sport, they may simply not know there are other types of fly fishing.
The other, perhaps less obvious reason is that fishing dries may seem easier starting out. Or at least simpler. When I first started fly fishing, dry flies were all I knew. This did not last long, but I started with dries for simplicity’s sake. Dry fly fishing required less “stuff” and less knowledge in my eyes. Tie some tippet to the leader and an elk hair caddis or parachute adams to the tippet and you were busy casting. The catching part came later. Fishing dries was easier for me than tying on nymphs, with droppers and split shot and strike indicators. A world I did not understand back then.
Same Old Story.
There is historic precedent for the theory of dry fly fishing’s superiority. From the beginning of fly fishing there have been those who considered dry fly fishing the only pure method of catching trout on the fly. Debates about the merits of dry vs wet fly fishing go back the 1880s and 1890s. A proponent of nymphing, George Edward MacKenzie Skues, wrote in defiance of the hard core dry fly fishers of the time in his 1910 book, Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream:
“Mr. F. M. Halford, with every desire to be absolutely fair, has, I think, in Chapter II. Of Dry-Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, done more than any other man to discredit the wet fly on chalk streams, by the implications, first, that the principle of the dry-fly method –viz., the casting of the fly to a feeding fish in positions—is not applicable to the wet-fly method, and, secondly, that on the stillest days, with the hottest sun and the clearest water, the wet fly is utterly hopeless. On both these points I respectfully join issue with him.” (The History of Fly-Fishing in Fifty Flies; by Ian Whitelaw, p 91)
If this extract tells us nothing else, it explains that for as long as there have been those dedicated to dry fly fishing, there have been those who tied and fished nymphs with equal passion.
Three Reasons to Nymph.
Dry fly fishing is amazing, but it does not carry a monopoly on good times on the river. Here are three reasons to fish nymphs as well as dries.
- Nymphing is Fun. Any time you are able to pull a trout from the water should be an excuse to get excited. They are beautiful creatures, regardless how they come to hand. Nymphing keeps things interesting because when the fish are not rising you can still have action. And the action is where the fun is. When the hatch is on and fish begin to rise, you can always switch back. If being on the river is part of the fun for you, then nymphing can prolong the enjoyment, as you will spend time wading and catching fish regardless of what hatch is or is not going off.
- Nymphing is Challenging. Strict dry fly fishing can be difficult to master. It is part of what makes it enjoyable for some. But there are challenges with nymphing as well. Problem solving is a big part of what I love about fly fishing, and nymphing provides plenty of problems to solve. Fly selection. Depth. Where to fish. Strike indicator type and location. Fly set up. Use of weight. And all the same challenges of presentation and drift. In nymphing you battle the currents above and below the surface.
- Nymphing Will Catch Fish. Plain and simple, it works. Trout spend most of their time eating underwater. A tout will rise to eat a fly on the surface from time to time without a hatch, but normally the dry fly action occurs coincident with some part of an insect hatch. While part of the allure of a pure dry fly fishing strategy is the challenge of getting that fish to rise regardless, if you want to catch more fish, solid nymphing puts the fly in the fish’s face.
You Do You.
Dry fly fishing. Nymphing. Dare I say spin fishing? If we are searching for trout, does how we get there really matter? The argument can be made that a San Juan worm is not “true” fly fishing. Or an attractor fly does not replicate an actual insect and is therefore not “real” fly fishing. All opinions.
I am less concerned with the perception of legitimacy in the methods in which I fly fish and more focused on the experience. In my mind, fly fishing is special, but not elite.
All of it can get us on the river and connected with nature. Alone with ourselves and our thoughts. There is no textbook way to create those special memories. If you enjoy something, and you respect the river and the resources, that is enough.
I laughed when my friend asked me about nymphing, but the more I considered it, the more I understood his question’s relevance. Catching trout on the dry is a wonderful part of fly fishing, but not the only path to fulfillment on the the river. What makes our experiences special is really what is inside of us. Our own stories. Should you be nymphing? It’s up to you. Wadeoutthere.