When I started fly fishing it was fairly obvious the flies in the box we found in the old lodge below the ranch were meant to float. That was enough at first. Next came nymphs.
“What are these little guys?”
“Nymphs I think.”
“Lets tie some on.”
And so we did, but only for a while. We never had much luck with nymphing so we stuck with dries in the evenings after work and the river behind the ranch produced enough trout that there was never much motivation to explore it further.
Fishing an indicator was a breakthrough that brought with it some use for nymphs. It was much later before I began to understand the importance of getting your fly down while nymphing. And the final step was figuring out just how far down it needed to be and why.
Getting your flies down is a requirement if you want to catch trout while nymphing. It’s just the way it is. I cringe when I think of all the hours I’ve spent with flies in the water and very little chance of catching trout because I didn’t understand this concept. This article is an attempt to spare you some of those wasted hours, and perhaps introduce some new techniques.
When I sat down and started to catalog all the ways I try to pursue this goal while nymphing, the list surprised me as it grew. By the end I had a dozen. Here we go…
Why Fish the Bottom?
Before we start checking off the list, let’s be clear about the whys. You could say trout are lazy. I’ve categorized them that way in the past, but I’ve come to prefer the term efficient. Trout don’t want to burn energy to gather calories. More specifically, they want to burn the least calories for the most food. Because of this fact, you won’t find trout swimming out in the fast water all day. The energy required for trout to swim in swifter currents does not make for an efficient method for eating. So what is?
The water at the bottom of the river is slower than the water higher in the water column. Why?
The water along the river bottom is traveling into debris and structure that breaks up its flow and slows down the current. Rocks, branches, logs, and even other fish are all contributing to this disruption of flow along the bottom. Trout like this. That slower layer of water along the bottom can be smaller or larger depending on the size of the structure along the bottom. It also allows trout to stay in one place and use their fins as airfoils to rise up and down, and side to side, eating opportunistically, with minimal effort. Simple. Beautiful… Efficient.
It is also where the bugs are. Think about hatches. The hatch is the final act in an aquatic insect’s life. Most of their time is spent living and eating on the bottom of the river in and around rocks and branches and debris. The same things that make up that cushion of slow water where trout spend so much of their time.
This area along the river bottom where the current is slower and the food is abundant is also known as the strike zone. And that, my friends, is right where we want our nymphs to be. Let’s talk about how.
Is my fly getting down to the fish? How do I know? I try to ask myself these questions every time I’m nymphing. When I answer them I have to consider each scenario on the river individually, and then apply the techniques I believe might best work.
Twelve techniques are hard to remember, but I can always seem to remember things in sets of three. I’ve grouped the twelve techniques into three groups that I think offer broader solutions to the problem of getting your nymph down that you can then dive deeper into.
Add Weight. Reduce Drag. Adjust Presentation.
The obvious answer to get the fly down is to add more weight. We can do this in several different ways and there are times when one might work better than others. The nymphing game is much more nuanced than simply adding weight, and we’ll get into all that because it’s important to have options, but for now let’s look at the basic methods of adding weight.
1. Weighted Flies.
Heavier flies sink faster. No secrets there. What makes them heavier? It could be flies tied with heavier materials like the wire wrapping of a Copper John, or it could be by utilizing lead wraps underneath the body of almost any fly.
Being in control of your flies weight is another benefit of tying your own flies. Make sure to size your lead wire appropriately if you want to avoid having extra fat flies.
Beadheads, especially tungsten beadheads, are another highly effective way to add weight to your fly. They also streamline most flies as the round weight at the front of the fly torpedos through the water as the heaviest part of the fly.
I remember a time when I almonst always fished beadheads while nymphing. It seemed I always caught more fish with a beadhead. For a while I attributed it to the shiny gold or silver beadhead attracting the trout’s attention, but I’ve come to believe it had much more to do with the weight and design of the fly.
3. Split Shot.
Many of the folks I fish with these days seem to avoid split shot for the somewhat easier solution of a weighted fly. I’ve come to gather from this personal experience that split shot has fallen out of favor in some fly fishing circles.
I won’t argue that split shot is a less elegant solution. It can be bulky, sometimes difficult to remove if you don’t have the right kind, and it can make casting more challenging. But that still doesn’t convince me that it’s not a great tool for the job.
I continue to love split shot, for several reasons. First, it’s quick to add without having to change flies. Second, It allows the flies to float around naturally as they drift downstream. Last, if you are using it to drop shot, there’s less of a chance of getting snagged on the bottom, and if you do you’ll typically lose your split shot and save your flies.
This is something that took me a long time to figure out but it is probably the thing that has most helped me get my flies down. With less resistance on our fly, less things pulling at it as it travels through the water column, it sinks better. And everything that is in the water (and in the air) has drag. So what can we do to minimize it?
Fluorocarbon tippet and leaders sink. Monofilament, the other option, can be useful when fishing dries, but while nymphing, fluorocarbon is my preferred tippet. Not only because it sinks, but also because it is thinner. Even though it seems like a small amount, the thinner fluorocarbon has less drag, because there is less surface area traveling in the current.
5. Thinner tippet
Whether you are nymphing with fluorocarbon or not, you can always take a step down in size if you are looking to reduce drag in the line that travels through the water. This needs to be balanced with the desire to be able to fight and land fish with light tippet however. I have been fishing thicker tippet recently for this reason and typically lean on other methods of getting my nymph down if possible.
Thinner tippet (as well as weight and design of the nymph) is a consideration for fishing the hopper dropper set up as well. Because the water at the top of the river where the dry fly is drifting is faster than the water below where the dropper is traveling, the dry fly tends to pull the nymph downstream, lifting it higher up in the water column and away from the strike zone. We can solve this with thinner tippet and heavier, more streamlined flies.
The folks over at Red’s Fly Shop on the Yakima River did a terrific job explaining this. Check out this great video showing this concept in more detail:
6. Streamline your fly.
Some flies are draggier than others. If you want to get your nymph down efficiently, try tying on a less draggy fly. Flies with narrow bodys, fewer materials, or with a coating of clear finish or epoxy are smooth flies. Smooth sinks faster.
A great example of a streamlined fly is the perdigon. Perdigons get down really fast because of a combination of weighted heads and very minimalistic design.
Presentation is the category of getting your flies down that sometimes gets overlooked. I know I did for years. It is also the method of getting your nymph down to the bottom that can make the difference when adding weight and reducing drag is not cutting it. Presentation is a way to leverage the increases in weight we have added and multiply the decreases in drag we have attempted.
7. Keep Your Line Off the Water
The less line on the water, the less line a fly is required to pull below the surface in order for it to reach bottom. If you can achieve minimal or no line laying on the water, your flies can sink faster.
Aside from casting shorter distances, high sticking is an excellent way to keep fly line off the water. This is huge folks. It is amazing how much drag can result from even well mended line on the water. This is a major benefit of tightlining or Euro nymphing systems that usually have a single, thin line cutting through the water. Even the drag of an indicator is replaced with a sighter.
You don’t need to be fishing one of these systems to take advantage of the high sticking technique, although tightlining is a fun and effective way to fish.
*A Note on Wind. Even a small breeze can have an influence on the line between your rod tip and the water. Wind affects your presentation and ability to achieve a natural dead drift. If you are nymphing in windy conditions, consider keeping your rod down so less wind is able to catch your line and pull it like a sail. Talk about drag…
8. Keep Your Line in the Seam
The currents of the river are many and nuanced and where they go, so goes your line. If there was an exception to this in my experience it is where two currents come together to form a seam. Here the water merges into one flow with one direction. But that unity is only in that single seam. Anything around or beyond that seam has a different speed and flow. If your line is crossing seams it’s being pulled in two different directions. This pulls at your line and your fly, creating drag and keeping your fly from naturally falling to the bottom.
Listen in on this conversation I had with Domenick Swentosky from TROUTBITTEN on Ep. 33 of the Wadeoutthere Podcast. We talk about presentation, the importance of the strike zone, and seams.
9. Tuck Cast
Simple solutions work, and the tuck cast is one of them. If you could manage to get your flies to enter the water first, before your line is on the water, you would go immediately into those flies sinking and diving straight for the bottom. Enter the tuck cast.
The tuck cast is just a normal cast with a slight rod lift at the end before the line lays out on the water. This pulls the line up in the air and forces the flies to enter first as the fly line angles back up towards where you raised the rod. It’s not extremely difficult to perform and there are tons of videos on YouTube demonstrating how to execute it properly. Here’s an excellent one from our friends over at Orvis:
10. Adjust Your Indicator
Remember that your indicator is a dynamic tool when nymphing.
I prefer my line to be about one and a half times the depth of the water from my indicator to the weight, whether that be the weighted fly or the split shot.
For example, if I am fishing a river that is two feet deep, then I want about three feet from my flies to my indicator. I’d rather be over than under on my estimate to ensure my fly has the opportunity to reach bottom.
Now, think about how much that depth can change when you fish a river. Odds are you’ll fish many different water depths throughout the day. Your rig needs to change with that river depth.
If you suddenly move into four feet of water and don’t move the indicator your flies will be suspended up higher than before and further from the bottom.
New water depth and speed almost always requires an adjustment to the rig or the presentation in order to get your nymphs down to the fish.
Finally, although not as important for reaching the bottom with your flies, don’t forget to move the indicator down as well when the water shallows up. This ensures you don’t have too much slack in the line for hooksets.
11. Understanding Water Depth and Speed
Before you consider how to get your nymph down to the bottom, take a minute and analyze what bottom you are targeting.
It’s not enough just to get your nymph down to the strike zone vertically. It has to get down to the bottom in the correct place laterally along the river bottom as well. The trout are not going to sit everywhere along the bottom. I think most of us understand this. This is what makes reading water and being able to identify where fish are more likely to be so important.
Sight fishing can take some of the guessing out of this process, but understanding water depth and speed is still important even when we see the fish. We need our flies to fall upstream of the fish so that it is traveling along the bottom by the time it reaches the trout. It is possible that the fish will take the fly on the drop or on the rise at the end of the drift, but the main part of the drift we want to be presented to the trout along the bottom.
It’s not only about how fast you can get your fly to sink, but how fast you can get it to sink in faster water.
Your fly might sink quickly in one section, but need more weight or less drag in another. It also means you may need to cast further upstream to allow time for the fly to get down. I find visualizing my fly sinking in the water as it travels downstream extremely helpful.
Here are a couple articles about how to judge water depth and speed effectively.
12. Prove It.
Hope is not a plan. The only way to know for sure if you are reaching the bottom is to prove it. How do we accomplish this? Put more weight on than is required…at first. If you’re not sure if your nymph is getting down, throw on a heavier fly or some split shot. When you feel your fly touching bottom or begin to snag or pull up debris from the bottom, you know for sure you are there. Now make another adjustment so you are not dragging bottom all day.
You don’t have to prove it every time. Over time you will get better over time at knowing if your fly is getting down. I certainly have. But if I’m unsure, I like the technique of taking it to the extreme to see just how much I need and then pulling back some weight.
I’m most comfortable touching bottom every so often just to know I’m not missing the strike zone, but the ultimate goal is for the flies to be traveling just above the physical bottom. It’s a bit of a tradeoff.
Another way you can sometimes tell if you’re in the strike zone is to watch the speed of your indicator or line as it travels downstream. When the weighted part of your rig reaches the strike zone, you’ll see that line speed slow down. There’s another tip I picked up from Domenick over at TROUTBITTEN.
Finally, another solid way to know your nymph is getting to the strike zone is if you start catching a passel of trout.
Combinations and Balance.
So what’s the answer? Well, it’s certainly almost never all twelve at once. Like many things in fly fishing the real answer is, it depends.
It does not do you much good to get your fly down on size seven fluorocarbon tippet with a super heavy beadhead prince nymph, if you’re doomed to break you off every decent sized brown you get tangled up with. We need to look at all the options available and decide what’s best.
The places and conditions you’ll fish on the river are endless. That’s part of what makes this all so cool. But one thing remains fairly constant. If trout are feeding along the bottom of the river (and they often are) and you’re not getting your fly to them, odds are you’re not catching many fish. ADD WEIGHT. DECREASE DRAG. ADJUST PRESENTATION. Get your nymph down to the fish and Wadeoutthere friends.
What’s your go to method for getting the fly down? Share in the comments below.