Winter Nymphing: Keeping it Low and Slow

When friends come in the shop and start inquiring about Winter Fly Fishing one of the first pieces of advise I give is to: “keep it low and slow.”  We see so many anglers who become frustrated at nymphing and not catching as much as the guy standing downstream. First question you will get from us is, how many flies did you lose on the bottom? The vast majority say with confidence “I didn’t lose any flies, but I tried all my flies.” This conversation plays out multiple times a day in fly shops… Well, at least it does in ours.

First off, telling someone to go out and lose flies so we can sell them more flies is not the objective.  Getting your flies down to the bottom (where the Trout are) is the key. Two very simple solutions will often correct the problem. First, are you using enough weight? This is where a good selection of sizes of split shot comes in handy. Subsequently, adding weight or a heavier beadhead nymph as a point fly can work, as well. Second, apply the rule of X 2 for the distance between your point fly and your indicator. Simply put, if you’re fishing in 2 feet of water you want the distance to be a minimum of 4 feet from your fly to your indicator.

When fishing dry flies, it’s much easier to see what is actually happening to your fly. Drag, skating, sinking, as well as seeing the strike, are much more evident to us.  Once the flies are below the surface we have the feeling of not knowing exactly what’s happening down there.

Staring at an indicator or sighter line is our only connection to our flies. It’s true that anglers will miss approximately 60-70% of the sub surface strikes. It’s also true that trout do 80-90% of their feeding at or near the bottom of the river or stream.

Understanding what your rig is doing underwater is as an intense study of your presentation as it is on the surface.  First off, there are more ways then one to sink a fly/flies. Ask three anglers what rig(s) they use for nymphing and you’ll probably get 3 different answers. Those anglers have one thing in common, confidence in that rig they fish.

Many of us tend to use a brighter colored lead/anchor fly with, say- a Pheasant tail or other dull colored pattern behind so we can see the speed and depth of our rig. Knowing where fish are likely feeding and where we need to put our flies to get them on the bottom, before they get to the fish. For the purpose of this article we are going to concentrate on winter feeding zones and the nymph rigs we use.

In winter, trout will tend to lie in much slower, deeper water. They require less energy and oxygen in the colder water.  This presents it’s own challenge, in that fish will have much more time to examine your flies and make the decision to eat. In slow moving water, you’ll often need to cast farther upstream with less weight to present your flies at the right depth without consistently hooking the bottom of the river. Using too much weight (split-shot) in this situation may spook trout as they are often skittish in these conditions, and discriminate against unnatural nymph presentations. The key is knowing how much weight to use, and what form of weight to use. Large, unnatural-colored split-shot and large, brightly-colored plastic or foam indicators tend to send skittish winter trout into their favorite hiding spot.

Using split-shot on the leader/tippet above your point(top) fly can actually make detecting strikes much more difficult due to the small amount of slack it can create in your line. Using a heavier fly instead of split-shot can create a tight-line making strike detection much easier.

The evolution of European Nymphing in the United States has changed the way most of us approach sub-surface fishing. In 2016, the Vail Valley was host to the World Fly Fishing Championships. The first time in 30 years the US hosted the event. There was a five-plus year build up to the event. In those 5 years, we as local anglers were exposed to a whole new world of nymph fishing!

The use of sighter tippets instead of strike indicators and the heavier Czech/Jig fly patterns all made a huge influence on our way of fishing here. Put it this way: A hole on the Eagle River that I have fished for 20+ years, generally would produce 10 fish in my net by traditional nymphing; and I was very happy with myself. But, as I watched a Euro/Competition angler work the same piece of water, he could produce two to three times more fish caught! Seeing how these anglers rigged was a very enlightening experience.

Image result for european nymphing rig

Using the same diameter tippet between your sighter or indicator allows the flies to get down faster. This creates a tighter line when your anchor fly reaches the bottom, thus making strike detection easier. Dropper flies are tied above the anchor fly using a tag-end from a triple surgeons knot, allowing you to fish different water columns. Jig/tactical flies are generally used as your anchor fly. This is due to the weight of the slotted tungsten bead that they use, as well as, a hook point that “rides” upwards; contributing to less snags as the anchor fly bounces down the bottom of the river.

Using the heaviest fly at the end of the rig has become more popular since it helps create that tight line we are looking for. This is commonly referred to as a Drop-shot rig. A drop-shot rig is simply a nymph rig where the heaviest weight is at the terminal end of the line instead of above or between your flies. Many anglers say that this rig allows them to be “connected to the bottom,” because this is generally where the trout are; especially in the winter.

Many anglers unfamiliar with this style of fishing are often intimidated by this new technique and rigging style. One way to get started on your path to catching more fish is beginning with a hybrid version to become more confident.  Forget the tactical sighter line and try using your indicator, but use a drop shot rig below it. This can be done with a tapered leader, and your usual style of nymphing. The key is to focus on that anchor fly “tapping” the bottom on its way downstream. You should see this tapping happening by way of your indicator. But, be sure to adjust the depth of this rig so you are not consistently hooking bottom. You will need to find a happy medium of tapping and drifting. I have been using this system for years on the Green and San Juan rivers and it’s highly effective.

Prior to the World Championships, we were fortunate to have a former UK team member and 2016 event organizer, Jason Liverst on our shop staff for a couple of years. Here is a video we did with Jason on the method and techniques behind his madness.

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