by Gary Borger
Nymphing has been called the most difficult form of fly fishing. There is a mystique about it, an aura of almost magical quality, a mistaken notion that the nymph fisher is somehow more sophisticated, more in tune with the fish and its food organisms than mere mortals. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Nymph fishing is just another form of fly fishing and no more nor no less difficult to learn or practice than any other form of fly fishing.
The tackle used to fish nymphs is not any different than the tackle used to fish other fly style. True, some rods are better for certain nymphing tactics, but those same rods would also be better for some dry fly tactics or streamer tactics, too. True, there are a few minor variations in leader design and ancillary equipment items (such as indicators), but minor variations also exist in the fishing of other fly forms and require little in the way of learning. To become a good nymph fisher, all the angler has to do is learn a few new tactics. These tactics are not hard to learn nor hard to practice.
Big browns, like most big trout, collect most of their food under the surface.
Photo: GARY BORGER
Nymph fishing really begins with a firm understanding of the fish's food organisms. Not necessarily their scientific names and the terminology that describes even their most intimate parts, but a knowledge of how the food organisms behave, what waters they occupy, and when and how fish eat them. For example, fishing a scud imitation along the bottom 12 feet down is not usually productive in most waters because the majority of scuds live in water less than 6 feet deep. On the other hand, fishing a scud with action in 3 feet of water will often bring more strikes than fishing the same fly dead drift because scuds are highly mobile creatures. It's information like this that can mean the difference between an OK day and a sterling one.
Fly tying (or fly selection for the non-tier) is so intimately linked to an understanding of the food organisms that the two areas should be learned as one. It is impossible to design highly effective flies unless the tier knows how the food organism behaves and how the fly will be fished. For example, a fly to be dead-drifted just under the film and representing a molting insect will be designed with different materials than a fly designed to swim during an active retrieve.
The thorough nymph fisher should also be highly conversant with current flow. Not the simple two-dimensional flow that would affect the drift of a dry fly, but three-dimensional flow that affects both the vertical and horizontal position of the nymph in the water column. Of all the areas of misunderstanding in nymph fishing, this is certainly the most problematic. It's an area with which the ardent nymphing student should become completely familiar.
Selecting the correct angling tactic (casting, line handling, drift method, and so forth) is also an area that causes difficulty for many anglers. However, once the fly fisher is familiar with the other aspects of nymphing, tactic selection almost seems to fall into place.
One way to rapidly acquire nymphing skills is not to look for the tactics and tackle that make it different, but rather to look for the similarities between nymphing and other forms of fly fishing. For example, anglers like to fish the dry fly because the fish's take is so easily seen; there's definitely a deep-seated thrill in seeing the snout of a ten-pound brown poke out and delicately sip a tiny dry from the film! Well, fishing a nymph just under the surface is precisely the same as fishing a dry fly, except the nymphal imitation is not visible and so the fly fisher must rely on other clues to "see" the fish's take.
Takes just under the film are sometimes confused with surface feeding.
Photo: GARY BORGER
Nymphing just under the film uses precisely the same tackle and tactics as dry fly fishing. The same rod, the same floating line, the same Harvey-style leader (thin butt section, long tippet). The casting and line handling tactics are the same ones that offer the surface dead drift so ardently sought by the dry fly angler. The nymph is after all "on the surface," it's just on the under side of the surface not on the top side like a dry fly.
When fishing downstream, the nymphing caster would employ the Parachute Mend to provide controllable slack that is fed into the currents to run the fly downstream without drag. Fishing across, the caster could choose a Reach Mend, a Curve Mend, a Curve Cast, a Hump Mend, or various on-the-water mends to defeat drag. Fishing up, or up and across, the angler would choose a Reach Mend, a Puddle Cast, or a Pile Cast to eliminate the onus of drag. Dry fly tactics one and all.
So, you see, the tackle and casting and line handling tactics are no different. Nothing new to learn there. It's the seeing of the take that is different. Thus, by learning one small variable (how to see the take), the fly fisher can immediately acquire the film-nymphing skills.
To see the take in smooth-flowing water, use the Greased Leader Tactic. Coat the leader with a paste-type fly floatant to within six inches of the fly. The leader will ride on top and hold the fly just under the film. Additionally, it will serve as the strike indicator. When the leader draws or pulls under sharply, set the hook. In fast water use a yarn, foam, or line-segment indicator or hang the nymph under a hard-to-sink dry such as a Goddard Caddis, Bivisible, etc.
Like all types of fly fishing, nymphing requires a good dose of common sense, careful observation, and a little attention to detail. Beyond that, the nymph fisher is the same as any other fly fisher, except that under the right conditions, the nymph fisher will be much more successful. And since much success in fly fishing is far more fun than little or no success, and since relaxation and enjoyment are the end goals of our sport, it stands to reason that all fly fishers should know and polish the skills of nymph fishing.