Remembering What I Forgot: Using a Haul for Nymphing Success

It seems when you’re in your teens you can recall just about anything. You haven’t lived long enough to fill your memory bank. You can remember what movie you watched with your girlfriend last weekend or what your mom made for dinner three nights ago. Then your mental hard drive begins filling up by you 30’s and soon your forget your wedding anniversary, can’t remember if you fed the dog, and then you forget the year your son was born when filing out doctor’s form. You get the point. Your memory bank can hold only so many moments/lessons and soon some of your earlier (often more important) memories are no longer in the storage drive between your ears. I’m now seeing this with my limited fishing knowledge.

Zach St. Amand controls his drift after a perfect nymph cast utilizing a haul.

Zach St. Amand controls his drift after a perfect nymph cast utilizing a haul.

I was recently reminded of this important nymphing tip I let slip away while fishing with a friend, Zach St. Amand on the Farmington River a week ago. The original lesson occurred over 20 years ago while fishing with my mentor, Joe Humphreys. Joe was showing me the importance of punching the nymphs into a pocket by using a short but powerful casting stroke and haul.  I can remember watching Joe perform his famous short casting stroke as he shot his nymphs into a run. The nymphs entered the water as if he was shooting them out of a high powered air rifle. This resulted in his nymphs quickly gaining bottom and a tight connection from the start of presentation. 

 

One of the biggest issues I’ve encounter nymphing fast water is getting the flies to anchor quickly. Obviously adding weight is one course of action to achieve quicker depth with immediate control. However, Joe always reminded me another option was to equal the force of the cast relative to the force of the water you fish. In other words, use less force in slow water but hammer home the nymphs when dealing with faster water.  This is where the haul comes into play.

 

A Farmington River rainbow taking by Joe-one of Zach’s students I met while fishing the river. Joe was also using the nymphing haul as a result of spending time wit Zach.

A Farmington River rainbow taking by Joe-one of Zach’s students I met while fishing the river. Joe was also using the nymphing haul as a result of spending time wit Zach.

A short but powerful haul in combination with a standard nymph cast can help you achieve depth and control with less weight. The advantage of a light rig is once the nymphs achieve depth, the rig is light enough to drift the flies naturally. Too often we rely on using more weight to counter faster water, which I feel results in having to drag your patterns during the presentation to avoid hanging up. The lesson of increasing the force of the cast was a lesson I used for years, but sometime with the last 5 years I had gotten away from using the haul. Then Zach St. Amand invited me to show me around and help me better understand the Farmington River before doing a video shoot with Orvis Fly Fishing. He not only only provided me with the info to help make for a good video shoot, but he also reminded me of the importance of using the haul to sink your nymphs. 

 Zach and another good friend of mine, Antoine Bissieux are the two busiest guides on the River, and they are both excellent nymph fishers.  Watching Zach use a violent but smooth haul on his cast to gain immediate depth of the Farmington’s pools reminded me of my lessons with Joe in my earlier days. I observed Zach pick up several good fish with his impressive nymphing cast, and left me yearning to begin using the haul again.  Thanks Joe for the original lesson and thanks to Zach for the reminder!

Don't Be a Jane Kangaroo Nymph Fisher

Torrey Collins will exhaust all nymphing possibility before moving to another location. His patience on the water and willingness to change his tactical approach is one reason he’s so successful.

Torrey Collins will exhaust all nymphing possibility before moving to another location. His patience on the water and willingness to change his tactical approach is one reason he’s so successful.

While watching Horton Hears a Who with my kid, I was reminded of the difference in tactical approach between a nympher blindly fishing a run versus a dry fly angler targeting a rising fish.  The latter situation the angler can see a target but the former is simply anticipating a fish is there. I feel this difference of actually seeing a trout rising versus hoping a fish is near may determine how much effort an angler puts in their presentation. 

 There’s a great quote from the movie that mirrors my attitude when blindly nymphing a run. The quote is from Jane Kangaroo exchanging words with Horton, who thinks he hears a who but Jane can’t see or hear what Horton is speaking of. The quote goes something like “If you can't see, hear or feel something, it doesn't exist.”  This made me think about the difference in tempo in which some anglers blindly nymph a run versus targeting a rising fish with dry fly. 

 There’s some sort of focus button that turns on when an angler sees a rising trout, especially one that consistently rises. When an angler fails to fool a consistent riser, they’ll switch patterns or tactics due to constant refusals. They know the fish is there but understand they need to change tactics as the result of the trout refusing their offering. I know I’ve spent over an hour targeting a specific rising trout but will move within five minutes if I fail to nymph up a fish in a good run.

 But there are few nymph anglers who exhaust the same effort (i.e. staying in one play exhausting all presentation possibilities) when nymphing a run. So often I hear myself or clients saying while unsuccessfully catching a fish in a good looking run, “HUH, I can’t believe there’s not a fish there.” Meaning, we assume we’re doing everything correct so we need to move to another location to find a fish. We need to change the wording we tell ourselves.

 This is why I’ve been changing my nymphing psychology over the years. I can’t assume I’m doing everything correct when failing to catch a fish in a spot I know holds fish. Instead, I need to assume there’s a fish feeding on the bottom (just as the same fish would be fishing on the surface) and need to make a change. I can add weight, decrease weight, change the angle I cast my nymph, change patterns, or maybe change my position. Approach high probability areas the same as you would if you see a steady surface feeder-assume you’re getting a subsurface refusal and begin to change tactics as you would to a rising fish. Again, this applies to spots you know hold fish all day and year round. 

 And maybe one’s nymphing success would increase if the sub surface angler developed the same patience of a typical dry fly angler targeting a riser? Just remember not to loose confidence in a high probability area when blindly fishing a spot. You know there’s a feeding fish there, so assume something is wrong with your current approach and make the change. In short, don’t be a Jane Kangaroo. 

 

Good Fishing!

 

Changing casting angles pays off for Torrey Collins.

Changing casting angles pays off for Torrey Collins.

Staying Streamer Neutral

The concept of neutral buoyancy is something we all learned in high school. However, it wasn’t until I began streamer fishing in my late teens that I found a practical use for this concept. In short, neutral buoyancy means that an object in water will neither float to the surface or sink to the bottom; instead, it will suspend. So why would this be important to the streamer angler? For me, the idea of neutral buoyancy has allowed me to develop a better streamer approach for the waters I fish in central Pennsylvania–home of limestone rivers and spring creeks.

My approach to streamer fishing has changed over the years, from a fast-moving “strip like hell” approach to a drift-and-twitch presentation that I feel does a better job imitating a wounded baitfish. When observing a wounded minnow in the water, you may notice the fish drifting with the current along with the occasionally twitching or kicking. The injured minnow will also drop toward stream bottom in a slow, downward gliding motion and not like a rock. While heavily weighted streamers have their place–and I fish these patterns frequently in pocket water–I rely heavily on neutral streamers when I’m fishing upstream.

One of my first lessons in this approach came from watching my father-in-law fish a live minnow without any weight on the leader in slower moving pools. I observed how the minnow would slowly sink without falling completely to stream bottom. It would kick and swim, staying somewhere in the middle of the water column. Of course, the minnows he was fishing had an air bladder, which allows the fish to increase or decrease its buoyancy. When the minnow died and was no longer able to maintain air in the bladder, it would sink to bottom, and this is the moment a new minnow was placed back on the leader. My father in law felt he had more success while the minnow was drifting a foot or so off stream bottom, giving an occasional kick or twitch.

I ashamed to say that, while I remembered the conversation, it wasn’t until a number of years later that I applied that lesson to the fly rod. Some fly fishers get struck in a rut of fishing only one pattern type, and I suspect that’s what happened to me with heavily weighted streamers. I caught fish, but there were situations (e.g. cold snaps or off color water) where I wasn’t as successful as my fishing partners. Although there were several reasons for my lack of success, after numerous tests, I came reached the conclusion I was fishing streamers that were too heavy. The streams I fish are not deep, and the only way I could keep my dumbbell- and tungsten-weighted streamers off bottom was to maintain constant tension by using a quicker retrieve. As it turned out, this made me fish my flies too fast, whereas some of my fly-fishing friends and father-in-law were often fishing with half the retrieval speed. Of course, a faster retrieve will in some conditions, but when the water is cold or when visibility is low, a slower retrieve works better. When I slowed things down, my success rate immediate went up.

What I’m looking for in a streamer is a pattern that isn’t 100% neutral. Meaning, the pattern has just enough weight where it will slowly sink. I cast the streamer upstream, and then pull it downward into the water column where it will drift at that approximate level during the presentation. I’ll strip in the excess line as the drift comes towards me, with an occasional downward twitch of the rod tip to create a slight kicking action within the fly. My goal is to maintain a slow drift, just slightly little faster than the current.

Good Fishing

This trout was fooled with a neutrally buoyont Drunken Disorderly.

This trout was fooled with a neutrally buoyont Drunken Disorderly.