The author with The Fish. Nymphing has come to be one of the author’s favorite ways to fly fish and The Fish helped to solidify that. This picture was taken on the bank of Pere Marquette River in May 2014.
By Nick Green
There are certain things in the outdoor world that I am mediocre at — while most others I am just plain poor at. Nymphing for trout is one of my mediocrities.
Throwing nymphs for trout doesn’t involve the picturesque casting Brad Pitt displays in A River Runs Through It. In fact, casting nymphs is quite the opposite — there isn’t much finesse involved when you are roll casting an indicator and two weighted nymphs across a river.
I was still pretty green, forgive the pun, when I ventured into the world of nymphing. Despite reading a multitude of John Gierach books, Hatch magazines and Jim Bedford articles, I couldn’t find much on the sport. Those who did write about it had an uncanny way of leaving the reader knowing that there was more to it than what they were telling.
We know that trout spend all of their lives underwater. Presumably, they spend most of their time eating underwater as well. In Michigan, the Big Five hatches last from mid-April through the beginning of July, depending on what stream you call home.
Jeff Harnish displays a beautifully-colored brown trout he caught his first day nymphing. Harnish ended his first day with three browns and a lost Skamania.
What do trout eat the rest of the year? Minnows? Of course. Nymphs? You bet. Throwing streamers for big browns is still something I am learning — to me, it is just about as thankless as steelhead fishing in February. I still prefer to tie on size-14 nymphs if I’m not dry-fly fishing.
The Fish — May 25, 2014
I had just lit a cigarette, and the late-spring sun was starting to get hot. My fishing buddy Blake was leading the way through a nice run on the Pere Marquette that we could usually count on for a trout.
I was busy watching Blake’s indicator at the bottom of the run when I felt the tug. I hadn’t seen my indicator go under, I just felt the weight of something at the end. I could see my indicator underwater as it darted towards a pretty substantial log that paralleled the run.
Immediately, I put pressure on the fish. It didn’t feel that big — knowing what I knew then. Now, I have fought these fish, I know what they do, I know how they react. He went right to the bottom of the river and sat, as most big browns do.
Blake yelled upstream asking if I needed the net. I waved him off. I thought I had hooked into another one of the 12- to 14-inch browns that bless the Pere Marquette. About 30 seconds into the fight, I caught a glimpse of what would be known as The Fish to me for the next few years.
It was decided, despite my stubborn ways, that Blake would net The Fish. It hardly fit into his net — the tail and cape hung out over the ends. It was 24 inches long, or 22, as Blake saw it. We never did put a tape on The Fish, but my friend’s 25-plus years of fly fishing experience probably helped him guess its size better than I could.
Nonetheless, I was excited about nymphing.
I lit another cigarette, a celebratory one, as I rubbed it in that Blake had just fished through that run in front of me. Three casts later, I hooked another fish. It ended up being another brown about 18 inches long.
We both closed that day having caught fish. None were as nice as the first two fish, but they were still respectable. Since then, I have learned a thing or two about nymphing, and although I haven’t caught a brown as big as The Fish again on a nymph, I have caught a plethora of upper-teens and 20-inch browns on nymphs during the middle of the day.
Nymphing can be done several different ways — with an indicator, such as a Thingamabobber or grasshopper pattern, Czech-style or even tight-lining holes with spinning gear.
I prefer to use an indicator. Early in the year, when it is too cold for mayfly hatches or they are just getting started, I usually use a Thingamabobber. They are the fly fishing version of a bobber. When I use this method, I usually tie two nymphs on — the second being tied on at the bend of the first’s hook.
July through September, I like to use grasshopper patterns for my indicator. This tends to be the most relaxing kind of fly fishing for me — I have usually caught a nice trout or two during the hatches, I am rested after countless fishless nights staying up until 1 a.m. waiting for mayflies to hatch and the bikini hatch provides some OK scenery.
We usually get on the river about mid-morning and fish out the section we had planned for the day. An angler could probably get there at daybreak or just before dark but most die-hard fly guys have had enough of that in May and June.
The author displays a brown caught on the Pere Marquette.
Focusing on runs or holes that have held fish for an angler before is a good way to start nymphing. If a river is new to an angler, look for current breaks (seams), foam and deep holes with some sort of structure nearby — these will likely hold fish.
Roll casting is a necessity when nymphing. Remember the Brad Pitt reference? I have yet to see someone perform casts like that and not wind up with a rat’s nest at the end of their line. In fact, roll casting is by far the most useful cast for a fly angler in Michigan — it keeps everything in front of you and out of the bushes. I use the cast in every kind of fly fishing I do — chucking streamers, mousing and dry-fly fishing.
I prefer to cast directly across the river, perform a mend that gets my indicator above my nymph and then walk the dog with my line to get as long of a drift as possible. Walking the dog is when you wiggle the tip of your rod up and down to let excess line out without affecting your drift or presentation.
I tie my own nymphs. I don’t do it for fun, either — I do it because I can’t buy the kind of nymphs I want. I am not sure pattern matters as much as size. Of course, there are tried-and-true patterns like the Pheasant Tail, Hare’s Ear and Prince nymphs, though.
More importantly, and the reason I tie all of my own nymphs, is how much weight is tied into each fly. In order to effectively nymph, the fly has to get down to fish that are sitting on or near the bottom. Sure, a fish will move a little, but it has to see your nymph first.
When I tie my nymphs, I use at least two wraps of whatever diameter lead matches the hook size I am tying it on and put a tungsten head on them. This will ensure that my nymph will get to the bottom.
Because of the weight I include in my nymphs, I tend to get snagged up. This is just part of the trade-off. When I fish new rivers, I might keep my leader a little shorter. When I am fishing rivers I know, I try to keep my leader length 1.5 times the depth I am fishing. The benefit of using a Thingamabobber is that changing the depth of your fly is easy.
Fish it out
Aside from learning how to roll cast, not fishing out the drift is one of the biggest mistakes people learning to nymph commit.
Oftentimes, even with weighted nymphs, a fly won’t get to the bottom until it is at your 10 o’clock. Keep the fly in the water until it is almost directly downstream from you if possible. Most trout will hit it when you are more than three-quarters of the way through your drift. I have even hooked quite a few trout directly below me when I am pulling my nymph out of the water for another cast.
I am not sure if I will ever catch a brown like The Fish during the day on a nymph again, but I am hopeful. Lots of anglers scoff at throwing nymphs during the day for trout. They say that big trout can’t be caught doing it. I beg to differ — The Fish reminds me.