Stream fly fishers learn pretty quickly that “wood is good,” as it provides fish with protection from predators, a hiding place from which they can ambush food, and oftentimes a deep hole during times of low water. But “large woody debris” (LWD) also presents some problems: how can you get a fly in front of the fish, and how can you get a trout or smallmouth out of there once you’ve hooked it?
The biggest key to fishing downed timber is to approach it from upstream. Casting down and across to a log offers you much more control of your drift, your line, and your pickup at the end of the presentation. If you fish to wood often enough, you’re gonna lose some flies to underwater snags, but this will occur much more often if you try casting from downstream because it’s much harder to stay tight to your flies. And when you’re not able to immediately move your flies out of the danger zone, the current will have its way with you.
Casting dry flies to LWD is the easiest way to go, since you can see exactly where your fly is and therefore keep it out of the snags. Start from well upstream of the wood, casting down and across to the water 10 feet above it. A big piece of wood will create a current “pillow” like a big rock does, and fish may be holding there.
Because you may be casting across the main current, you’ll probably have to mend upstream to get your fly to drift naturally. It’s vital that you don’t let your line get below your fly, as that might cause the current to pull the fly into the snags. You’ll also need to be careful not to introduce too much slack into the drift because you need to be able to get your fly off the water ASAP if it drifts into danger.
Try to get the fly to drift right alongside the snag, which is usually easier than it sounds because the current will do the job for you. If it seems like the current is going to take your fly somewhere you don’t want it to go, don’t be afraid to steer your fly with the line. This may ruin your dead drift, but sometimes a little waking action on a fly will actually trigger a strike, especially from bass.
Work your way along the wood, and then cover the seam that forms at the downstream end. Fish will often sit in the slack water inside the seam, picking off food items that float by.
Drifting nymphs along a downed tree involves a certain amount of faith, and if there are lots of submerged branches, you may end up losing a few flies. Start by casting upstream of the wood so that your flies have time to sink before they get to the LWD. Make your drift a little farther from the wood than you would with the dry because underwater currents will push your nymph downstream. Don’t feel as though you need to get the nymphs under the wood. Fish will often come out a few feet to eat before darting back to safety.
One thing that’s worth leaving safety for is a big morsel, such as a baitfish, so streamers can pull a big brownie out from under a log or tree. Fish the streamer as you did the nymph, dead-drifting it along the outer edge of the wood. Patterns with a lot of in-the-water action, such as those with marabou or rubber legs, still look lifelike when they are drifting. You can also give the fly short “pulses” as it drifts.
Once you get a strike from a fish, your first order of business is keeping it from running back into the snag. Since you are upstream of the fish, you can exert strong side pressure to bring the fish out into the main river. Flop your rod to the downstream side and give steady pressure. Once the fish is out of danger, start to walk downstream, to get away from further problems. (This will also avoid spooking any other fish that might be in the wood.)
It helps to use the strongest tippet that you think you can get away with, which will allow you to really put the screws to the fish if necessary. If the fish does manage to get back into the snag, the game is not necessarily over, as the video above shows.