I am a dry fly angler. When I look at a piece of water to read I always read the dry fly drifts and lanes first. Dry fly fishing is the epitome of fly fishing. And trout, by far, take dry flies better than any other species I’ve chased. This is of course one trout bum and guides’ humble opinion.
I have been called snooty for my particular interest in dry fly fishing and rarely ever nymphing these days. I’ll swing and strip a streamer, but nymphing, as I’ve gotten older and further along in my trout angling, has little appeal to me. Yes I know it’s effective, and to this day I can still mend that rig right in front of a troots face hole and get them to eat it. But the challenge of nymphing has past for me when I personally fish. Guiding is a whole other story, and we nymph, and we catch nice fish doing it.
The challenge of nymphing when I first started out was reading the water for it and gauging the depth and where fish should be holding in it. After years of angling, and years of snorkeling…breaking down nymphing has little challenge for me, once you dial it all down…the fish are there…and they eat. It’s science.
Fish hold in water relative to its water temp and flow. When the water is sub 50 degrees, trout don’t need to eat very much…since their metabolism is directly related to water temp. Cold blooded…like a reptile. When metabolism levels are low, fish aren’t expelling much energy, or burning calories, so they don’t need to eat much…it’s like trout are sleepy. And in reality they are hibernating when water temps are really low. Since it’s cold and they don’t have to eat…they hold in the slow water. Once you find the slow water…it’s just a matter of adjusting the indicator so that the drift puts the flies in front of the sleepy troots. If the water is warm enough, typically above 45, a fish will eat a few things. That slow water can be all over. Could be a big pool, a large drop off that creates an undercurrent that is slower along the bottom of the river. Behind big fallen logs, behind boulders, along canyon walls and inside of corners. Nymphing when water temps are sub 50 boils down to finding that slow water speed wherever it may be in the water column. Setting your rig at a depth, then running the drift lanes to see if fish are there. Changing depths until your plugging the bottom. If you don’t get any trout love and you’ve also tried a few different rigs…then you read that water wrong. I do it all the time. I always fish the faster water too early because I’m anxious for clients to get big takes on nymph rigs in that faster stuff. It’s way more fun when the indicator goes down 3 feet or sideways 6 feet. Or the fish hits so hard and runs that’s it’s screaming line. That happened to me today while nymphing actually. Damn near made my heart jump out of my mouth I got hit with so much adrenaline. Ross even asked if I was okay. That shit is fun and I was making sure I was reading water right today while nymphing a few choice areas.
The water temp is over 50 and hovering up into the 54 degree range in the upper. That’s means fish are moving. Warmer water temps mean higher metabolism, which means fish need to eat more. Awww, we are getting somewhere with this nymphing thing. When I realized that fish would hold in some of the fastest water in the river when the water temps are within the 54-60 degree range nymphing really opened up for me.
The sweet spot is 54-58. At 62 fish can be sluggish after being played hard so good releases in fast moving water are recommended. Above 65 degrees I do not fish or guide. Period. Fish can be over stressed and their mortality rate 12 hours post release can be upwards of 60%. When water temps start breaking 62 I only fish in the early morning. Fishing is a amazing, fish are good to play, and your off river before the heat. Give the trout the whole day to just chill, then go play with them early the next day.
When trout metabolism is high, in the 54-58 water temp range. Fishing is super juicy anglers. Super juicy. We are getting some days where the water temp gets up to 54 at it’s like a switch gets turned on. Numbers of fish start breaking a dozen and shit gets silly. Nymphing during this juiciest of times is all about where the fish are moving too and from. They don’t sit still down there anglers. They move…a lot. Mostly because they are after three things…food, cover, and oxygen. Trout will hang out in areas that have 2 of those 3 things throughout the day, but when things start to cool down they look for an place that gives them all three if possible. Once an angler starts to find that rhythm of how trout move about by fishing and reading the water, and trying the various depths and lanes and fly rigs, you end up garnishing a firm understanding in how to break down the nymphing game. It’s why I am always checking the surface temp throughout the day. Because three feet down it’s a little cooler. So when it’s 54 like it is now…trout are moving down there, and they are eating.
Start your mornings by looking for those holding areas. Trout houses, hidey holes, structure, big slow troughs, inside of curves deep, areas where they are least vulnerable, have access to some food if they want a late night snack, and areas where the water temp is low so they can chill. Trout are basically moving too and from these areas throughout the day. They also move up and down the river, sometimes several miles, sometimes, 10’s of miles, and we even know of some adventurous bull trout from Wenatchee that travel 150 miles a year. They visit relatives in the Naches.
So fish are moving. Sometimes just because they can. Birds fly because they can fly…trout do the same…but to swim. You can see them do it when you snorkel. It’s pretty sweet. Nymphing while the trout are moving trickles down to taking water temps and when you see 54-58 start looking for faster water areas with heavier flow, that also bring food and have good cover, meaning the trout can be hanging in faster deep water. Where the trout has the advantage against predators…remember they are designed to be in there and they use the water to survive. These areas can also be rapids, big fast boulder gardens, bottom of riffles holding tight to the riverbed, outside edges of curves, fast water edges with woody debris, overhangs, undercuts, logs or other structure. Can also be deep drop offs, ledges, shelves, and deeper areas that have fast water. Fast water has food and oxygen in it. Fast water grabs particles, bugs, debris, and moves it about and fish look in those slip streams for food when holding in fast water. It’s why when your nymphing at 8 ft in the upper through the fast diamond chop…you get big glorious nymph takes.
It’s also why I mend aggressively. Getting the fly rig down to the prime depth under the indicator with no slack in the line so there is no lag between eat, indicator down, and hook set. This takes big mends that move the indicator and rig up in the current to give the weighted flies enough time to drop into the water column you are trying to fish. Mending is all about keeping the drift and depth going as long as possible to keep the flies in the prime feeding line that you are looking for. If they have drag in them it doesn’t work. If they lift though the water column unnaturally it doesn’t work. Mending is key. It’s why we harp on it so much as guides.
Trout also have it pretty rough, crazy flow changes from runoff and irrigation, a plethora of predators from raptors to otters, to pitchers. So they are trying to survive, and moving around and constantly changing and looking for better places to hold and rest and feed and chill are what trout lives are all about. So when it’s time to spawn they can pass on their genetics and do the whole circle of life thing.
As things cool down in the evening…trout start looking for that slower, deeper, cooler water to rest and hold in until water temps start warming back up the following day. It’s why things can turn off in the evening if it gets cold…trout don’t need to eat as much because the water temp dips back down so they just hang out and chill. When the switch turn off so to speak.
So a quick recap: look for these areas that are faster moving as the water temp rises towards 62. Fishing them by running the various drift lanes of the water. Example, a 20 foot wide, deep run, below a riffle. I’d put a drift lane every 3 feet, 6-15ft drifts, at 6ft with a double nymph rig and split shot. Run that rig through across the area you are reading. If you pick up fish you read it right. If you don’t get fish…adjust your depth. I nymph at 12ft sometimes and I’ll nymph at 1 1/2ft in a riffle too. I’ve nymphed with sink tips too. Not too much anymore, I just use a regular old indicator rig. Sometimes a bobber style, other times a yarny. I add tippet if I need to go deeper off a standard 9ft or 12ft leader. Flies should match the nymph versions of what hatches throughout the day. Nymphing prior to the hatch, then switching to dries when you have active feeder. Then back to nymph and wet flies when things cool down.
Boom. How I learned to nymph in a nut shell. Various books and mentors helped me along the way. But a lot was just self discovery through trial and error…otherwise known as fishing. Once I realized that nymphing was basically just a matter of deduction through repetitious casting and adjusting…I was like….cool I get it…but now I’m bored. It’s never boring for clients…but when I go fish…ya it’s boring. I’ll do it… and I’ll catch fish. But it’s not really my thang. Doesn’t strike my fancy so to speak.
Hopefully that helps some of you fellow anglers out when you are trying to break down the nymphing game. It’s kinda all over the place but that’s kinda how this trout brain works. It’s a little scrambled from all the fish I miss I think. Like today…fish pulling line so fast my reel screamed and the fish was 60 feet out before I knew what the hell was happening. Damn near had a stroke with all that adrenaline when I felt that powerful fish kick my ass all over the river. Ugh, sad face…’tis the woes of the guide who is a little out of practice on his nymph game. Plus I’m weak sauce when playing fish…a habit I am seemingly always trying to break.
Fishing is really f’ing rad right now. River is on the drop from the salmon pulse. Water temps are good, weather is good, windy but what’s new. And fish are eating. Rising lots of fish the past 10 days after 1 pm. And today fish were eating PMDs like they were fat little peachy colored cupcakes. Come chase some trout…’tis good.