Pro Tips: Lighten Up to Catch More Trout

Written by: George Daniel, Livin On The Fly

The brass-beaded spinner patterns were the key to catching trout feeding high in the water column.
Photo by George Daniel

I have a confession to make: I write these articles to self-medicate. I share all the mistakes and troubles I have on the water to provide countless examples of what I hope is our collective suffering.  One recent experience highlighted the harsh reality that my nymph boxes lacked nymphs of differing weights. What is one to do when trout are feeding higher in the water column, and one has only tungsten-beaded nymphs? Like I said before–suffer.

Contrary to popular belief, you can fish nymphs too deep, and today, with the European nymphing phenomenon, I see few anglers using brass or non-beaded patterns. (I’m looking squarely at myself here.) I now realize that there are times when I need to lighten up.

Last May on Pennsylvania’s famed Spring Creek, sulfur spinners were on the water, and trout were feeding on partially sunken spinners several inches below the surface.  A traditional spinner pattern (fished in the surface film) is usually a good approach when spinners are on the water, but often the natural spinners (after mating) float through riffles, where the choppy currents pull them below the surface. These partially sunken insects create an easy meal for trout.

On this night, the trout were positioned to feed two to three inches below the water. They were locked into this higher level to feed on the sunken spinners, so they were not about to move downward to eat a pattern near the bottom. I needed to present my nymph where the fish were. I could have simply taken a traditional spinner pattern, placed a tiny #8 split shot near the hook eye, and I would have presented the spinner at the correct level. But I had forgotten to bring my dry box that night. All I had was my tungsten bead nymphs, and every pattern was too heavy to fish just below the surface film. I did manage to catch a few fish, but I know I would have had greater success with lighter patterns (brass bead or non-bead), fished higher in the water column. And the results for the next four nights of spinner falls proved me right. Lighter nymphs meant a lot more fish.

Sergeant Hulka was right.

This concept of lighter weight nymphs applies to all season scenarios. As my friend John Stoyanoff once told me, “George, you cannot tell trout where to find your flies!” When fish feed high in the column, you have to meet them where they are. This is especially true on insect-dense streams like Spring Creek, where food is plentiful and trout don’t need to move from the buffet line to pick a scrap off the floor. They know if they stay in the buffet line (i.e. at the depth where the current transports the food), food will come to them.

When trout feed high in the column, lighten up your nymph rig and good things will happen. Now I always carry several brass and non-beaded patterns, something I didn’t do that night last May. The next night? Different story.

Above is a simple sunken-spinner pattern I’ve used for several seasons. It’s a cross between a Higa’s SOS nymph and the late George Harvey’s Krystal Flash Spinner. You can tie this pattern with a brass bead or without a bead, and allow just the weight of the heavy wire and thin thread body to sink the fly. 

Sunken Sulphur Spinner
Hook: TMC 2457 or any heavy wire hook
Bead: Copper (brass weight), 3/32-inch.
Thread/Body : Rusty brown, 8/0 or 70-denier.
Tail: Wood duck fibers.
Rib: Copper wire, small.
Wing: Pearl Flashabou.
Coating: Loon Flow UV Resin.
Note: Put a small dab of colored nail polish on the brass beadhead nymphs, to distinguish them from tungsten.

My favorite rig is to attach this lightweight sunken spinner 12 to 16 inches below a high-vis Sulfur dry fly.  If you want to take your fly fishing to a higher level-sometimes you need to fish higher in the column!

George Daniel operates Livin On The Fly, a guide service in State College, Pennsylvania. He is also the author of 
Strip-Set: Fly-Fishing Techniques, Tactics, & Patterns for Streamers, as well as Dynamic Nymphing

4 thoughts on “Pro Tips: Lighten Up to Catch More Trout”

  1. This is a great article George. I tend to tie nymphs that are too heavy and lack weight diversity in my boxes at time. I am inspired to hit the bench and get some flies spun up that have a little more variety!

  2. Have you ever tried a couple wraps of lead on the hook shank rather the brass bead head?

  3. Simple solution for sunken spinners – a good old fashion wet fly or soft hackle fished quartering downstream. Its worked forever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *