Even though the quintessential fly-fishing image involves casting dry flies to rising fish, we spend considerably more time presenting flies underwater to fish we can’t see, and beginning fly fishers learn pretty early in their experience that trout feed on or near the bottom most of the time. This raises an important question: How do you ensure that your flies are getting down to where the fish are? The speed of the current, the depth of the water, and the drag of your fly line and tippet all conspire to keep flies away from the trout’s feeding zone. Here are a few ways—ranging from simple to complex—that you can ensure that your presentations are reaching their targets.
- Use weighted nymphs and streamers. The traditional way to weight a nymph was to add a few wraps of lead wire as an underbody (there are now lead substitutes available), but some modern anglers thing that this method deadens the action of the fly in the water. I would argue that this depends on the water. In heavy riffles, the extra weight can keep a fly from being thrown around too much and help keep it in the strike zone.
- Use beadhead patterns. A steel or tungsten bead will also help a fly get down in the water column, plus it serves as an attractor and can impart a jigging motion to a retrieved fly. Tungsten is heavier and will help a fly sink faster. (Some fly fishermen consider beadhead nymphs to be a form of cheating, but their widespread acceptance and use argues otherwise.)
- Add split shot or weighted putty to the leader. For those who want the fly to drift as naturally as possible, weight on the leader is the best option. There are many different methods for adding weight—where to put it on the leader, how much to use, etc.—but the main thing to remember is that you don’t want to use so much weight that you can’t detect a strike. Start with a little weight, and then add a little at a time until you feel you’re getting the fly where you want it to be.
- Use lighter/thinner leader and tippet. Fluorocarbon sinks better than monofilament, but a thinner tippet can really increase sink rate, for the obvious reason that there is less drag. Instead of simply adding more weight, going from 4X to 5X or 6X might be your answer.
- Cast upstream of your target. You want your fly to be near the bottom when it enters the trout’s strike zone, so cast upstream of there to give the fly time to sink. The faster the current and the deeper the water, the farther upstream you’ll need to cast. This is where a high-sticking approach really shines. You can cast upstream, raise your rod tip to pick up slack as the fly drifts toward you (sinking all the time) and then feed the slack back into the drift as the fly continues downstream.
- Fish close. The more line you have on the water, the more drag there may be on your fly, keeping it from sinking as fast as it could. Many nymphing fanatics fish with virtually no fly-line on the water.
- Lengthen your leader. The longer your leader, the less fly line you’ll need on the water. (See above.)
- Skip the strike indicator. A buoyant strike indicator may make it easier to see when a fish takes your fly, but it can also prevent the fly from getting to the fish in the first place. Many anglers argue that, with a sensitive rod tip and a close presentation, you can sense a strike better with no indicator.
- Use a sinking-tip line. This is an advanced technique usually used with large stonefly nymphs in riffled water or with streamers. The key to presenting a nymph with a sinking-tip line is maintaining a semi-tight line, so you can feel a strike. However, you must give the fly time to sink before you tighten up. Cast upstream, and allow the fly and line to sink. Hold your rod tip out over the water, pointing at the fly. When the fly comes tight, follow it with your rod tip until it hangs directly below you. To detect strikes and set the hook, keep the rod tip pointed at the line and follow the drift of the fly with the rod. Cover the water in front of you, adding a foot or two to each cast, and then move downstream.
Learning when and where to employ all these tactics is a book-length project, but through trial and error you can discover which work best for your fishing. One thing to keep in mind is that if you’re not occasionally snagging on the bottom, you’re probably not fishing deep enough, so it’s time to change your rigging or your presentation.