My mentor Joe Humphreys will often ask anglers, “what is the difference between a great nymph angler and an okay one?” Then he’ll quickly answer his own question with the following answer, “one split shot”. What he means by this statement is, getting your nymphs to the strike zone is key to nymphing success. Good pattern selection is helpful but it doesn’t matter how good your pattern is if you aren’t presenting it at the fish’s feeding level. I was reminded of this lesson a few days ago while fishing a mountain stream near Yellowstone National Park with several friends. In this case, all it took was switching from a 7/64” brass bead head to a 7/64” tungsten bead to begin catching fish.
Although known for being easy to fish, small mountain streams will offer situations when trout are not willing to move higher in the water column to eat. Trout are not overly intelligent, but their sharp survival instincts have allowed them to live for millions of years. As it relates to their feeding habits, there are times during the day or during a specific season when trout will actively move laterally to feed on emerging nymphs. These are the few days of the year when it doesn’t seem to matter how shallow or deep your presentation is-trout are going to move to eat it. However, the angler needs to fine tune their weighted rig for the other 95% percent of the time, when trout are feeding horizontally-not vertically. I’m not talking about the exact precision a carpenter uses to make fine English furniture, but we need to be in the ballgame when it comes to presenting nymphs.
This brings me back to fishing with two friends on a mountain stream near Yellowstone National Park. A typical high gradient mountain stream, this body of water has deep pockets and averages two feet in length, which meant the drift were short. Several near freezing nights made for challenging morning fishing. With basically no dry fly action in the morning, we needed to nymph in order to catch fish so we went with a dry dropper rig with the hopes of switching to dry flies once the trout began to show interest in our suspender dry fly. I was optimistic that my presentation didn’t need to be rolling near stream bottom so I attached a #14 brass bead head (7/64” to be exact) nymph and dropped it 20 inches off a #12 bulked up X Caddis. By “bulked up” I mean tying in a liberal amount of deer hair to make the dry fly more buoyant and capable to suspending heavier nymphs.
This exact rig worked great the day before in a very similar scenario along a neighboring body of water, which contained similar water. The only difference was a small hatch of drakes and olives had fish eating higher in the water column and on the surface. My nymphs didn’t need to riding deep since trout were looking up for food and the brass bead head nymph had just enough weight to get into the strike zone. With no signs of hatching insects and after going 15 minutes without a strike, I switched to the exact same nymph pattern but this one had a 7/64” slotted tungsten bead. NOTE: I now exclusively use slotted tungsten beads rather than the traditionally drilled beads. This way I can easily distinguish the tungsten beads from the brass beads by locating the slotted section on the bead. After the first cast with the tungsten nymph, the dry fly suspender drifted significantly slower in the pocket and I immediately began catching fish…just like with a simple weight adjustment. Then I switched back to the brass bead head to see if the additional weight was the factor. And again, I went fishless in the next five minutes with the brass bead, then began catching fish the moment I switched back to a tungsten nymph.
It’s not hard science but it was enough proof for me that a small difference in weight can make a difference while nymphing. While fishing a small mountain stream, I feel pattern choice isn’t all that important. What was important was that my rig was riding deeper in the column, which made it easier for lethargic fish to eat. And this is why I’ll often tie one size nymph (e.g. #14 pheasant tail) but I’ll that same size pattern with vary sizes of brass and tungsten beads. Although you can use split shot to add weight, I try to avoid adding split shot to dry dropper rigs as I find myself getting tangles when casting (not lobbing) the rig to a target.
When your nymphing rig isn’t producing-make a weight change. Such a weight adjustment will only take a minute to make but can add hours of enjoyment to your fishing. This is just another example of why I enjoy fly fishing-it’s an activity that requires troubleshooting. If you want to go from being an “okay” nympher to being a “great” one, maybe the only thing that’s stopping you is a slotted tungsten bead.