Three days on a given stretch of river often proves long enough—long enough to get what you came for, or long enough to see you probably won’t. Twenty-five years ago I was capable of waiting out phases of the moon on the off chance fishing would improve. And sometimes I still go through a dry spell with steelhead where I threaten, far from home, to “stay until I get one.” Yet a string of good days can start you packing, as well. You probably won’t go so far as to think there’s more to life than catching fish. But you at least might figure it’s time to move on and try to catch something new.
Still, the logic to a three-day trip—especially a visit to favorite water—is simple enough: Keep your fly in the water. You hear of guys who will fish only during hatches, over feeding fish, when the sun’s off the water, when the sun’s on the water, alone, with friends, when they feel like fishing, or other spuriously arbitrary imperatives. You even hear of guys who stop fishing so they can relax. I can go there myself—although rarely until I get my fill, a quantity of sport that seems dependent as much on time as it is on effort and results alike.
Which is not to suggest, even remotely, that the mere act of going fishing for three days is an end itself. Let’s not mince words; I always want to stick some good fish. No doubt there lies a rich vein of enlightenment to be mined through acts of omission, frustration, and denial. But I feel it safe to contend that no one picks up a fly rod for long solely as an implement of self-degradation—or even simply to cast a pretty line. I can go fishing, get skunked, and still feel good about myself and my remedial citizenship. Yet eventually even our exemplary behaviors fail to temper the evidence posed by a waving, unfettered line.
Three days on a good piece of water, anyway, usually does feel about right—right, that is, if you employ a range of tactics broad enough to ensure your share of success. Given a robust trout fishery—say on the Deschutes, for example—the challenge is the opportunity to find fish all day. Great rivers make great anglers because they demand a complete game. I’ve never once claimed to be a hotshot—but if you keep at it long enough, you can’t help but fashion a repertoire of tactics for fooling your fair share of trout.
#1 Dry Fly Feeding Fish: Upstream
The fish was feeding beneath the dead limbs of a shrub hanging over the edge of a deep, narrow side channel of the river. The holding water was a dark eddy no bigger than the seat of a stool, and you could see the fish touch the surface of the water to sip in whatever invisible fare drifted into the safety of the shadows, the movement of the trout leaving those elegant bulges as if muscles flexing beneath oiled skin that pull at the heartstrings of anglers everywhere.
With a leader long and fine enough, I believe, you can get more than one shot at a fish like this. I’m not afraid to miscast to the river side of a tight spot in order to get an accurate feel for what, eventually, will need to be a cast that lands right on the money. I don’t ever expect to pull off this kind of thing. But now and then we do. The take is inevitably as shocking as it is satisfying. That was me. Tight to the fish, I immediately began lunging upstream, trying to gain control as the big trout bore off up the channel, under a dead snag bisecting the current, taking to air as I attempted to feed my rod under the snag while line continued to empty off the reel.
How old is that story? But does the antiquity of the tale, no matter how recent one experiences it again, make it any less memorable? What impresses me more and more about this kind of fishing is how often you encounter it if only you slow down and look. Large trout often take up the prime feeding stations; because of their size, you can easily spot them—or at least the disturbance they create in the surface of the water as they feed. This is exquisite sport. No one has to remind any angler who has done it even once that a successful cast to a single feeding fish, a cast the fish accepts and eats with the same deliberate assuredness with which it has been previously feeding, is, as Tom McGuane once wrote, “the absolute champagne of the sport.” What many anglers fail to recognize or remember, however, is that single feeding fish are frequently available and require only patience, stealth, and resolve to find and fool them. The purity of the encounter seems a distillation of everything the sport has to offer. You see the fish; you devise and execute a cast. The fish takes—or doesn’t. Wasn’t that why we got into this from the start?
#2 Dry Fly Feeding Fish: Downstream
It was kind of a lucky shot. I admit it.
Swinging through camp to pick up lunch, I spotted the doctor and his wife on the prime water a half-mile upstream. These two catch more trout than any couple I know; after watching them through binoculars, I hustled down to the river and intercepted them working their way through the tail of the run. The doctor directed me to a stretch of quiet water, lined with reeds, with good trout moving just beyond a blanket of weeds.
The doctor fooled one fish and then set about guiding me into another. I couldn’t get it quite right. A fidgety wind, the tall reeds at our back, treacherous wading through the bottomless muck, all conspired against my attempts to put the fly where it needed to be. Finally, the doctor gave up on me, heading to his car for lunch with his wife.
The solution, of course, was the right cast. Presentation, I believe, offers many more answers than the so-called Right Fly. I worked my way upstream of the fish, and I placed a cast so that the line itself landed directly on the surface weeds, the leader puddling in the open water just over the edge, the fly drifting unencumbered with the quiet current. Mind you, this didn’t happen the first time. But when it did, the fish I had been fussing with for close to an hour rose straight up under the fly and inhaled it, its attitude reminiscent of a breaching gray whale.
This is the other half of the single feeding fish equation: There it is, a good trout plucking something from the surface, yet in such a position that you may well spook it if either line or leader pass over the trout’s window of observation. The imperative, of course, is the execution of one of about half-dozen different slack line casts. Learn them. Practice them. Open your loop. Bounce, shake, shimmy or goose your rod. Sweep your arm left, right; stop high, stop low. Somehow you’ve got to get that fly to drift without a tug from your leader. One heartbeat longer is often enough. There’s a fish watching, waiting. Most of them will say yes if you don’t do something that tells them no.
#3 Dry Fly Searching
The remains of a dead cottonwood lay parallel to the bank, its fan of weathered roots forming a dark depression in the shallows at the edge of the river. Twice I saw evidence of a fish feeding in the ribbon of current tracing the deeper water. But both times I put the fish down, failing to place the fly in the appropriate spot to gain a natural drift, mostly because of another tree, this one alive and well, with branches that seemed strategically positioned to interfere with every angle of my backcast.
Some spots are like that. The third time I approached the dead tree, wading toward it from deeper water, I had no intention of trying for the trout up near the roots, whether I saw one feeding there or not. I had given those fish my best shot. Or maybe not. But while contemplating the setup, this time from a new angle, it occurred to me that I might at least try a cast toward the good water at the downstream end of the tree, where the remaining branches created their own mix of structure, shadow, cover, and currents.
In other words, a likely looking spot: How often do we approach these lies with the care they deserve? This one required a longer cast, which I managed partly because of the room afforded by the broad river at my back. There was also this funny thing I hoped the leader would do so the fly sort of curled around the top of the tree. I think the breeze helped me out. And then, right when I was thinking That’s a good little drift, a big dark fish eased into view, tilted up and ate my fly.
Sometimes it happens. Usually it doesn’t. But the angler willing to slow down, move quietly, search for likely lies and attempt to cover them with accurately placed casts will be rewarded with surprising success. The biggest challenge I find to this type of fishing is maintaining both the faith and concentration it takes to keep making one’s best casts without the obvious urgings of a sighted, feeding fish. Often, I make these casts while moving upstream, using a consistent and comfortable length of line that allows me the greatest control of my fly. Too often, I’m afraid, anglers simply ignore these shots, plunging ahead toward obvious holding water without considering a timely cast that could very well provide excitement of the most satisfying kind.
#4 Wet Fly Swing
A shelf of boulders reached into the river, ending at an abrupt ledge from which, knee deep in current, you could run a nymph through dark, promising water. But first thing that morning I’d found nothing, adding lead to my leader until I hung up and lost flies at a depth more appropriate for crab pots than genuine fly fishing.
Late in the morning I returned to the spill of boulders. But rather than wade to the edge, nymphs at ready, I followed the bank, pushed through a stand of brush, and stepped into the river at the precise point where the smooth surface broke into roiled and riffly water, here and there laced with ribbony seams, narrow slots, and pinched, sharply defined currents.
I love this kind of water. What surprised me was that I hadn’t actually seen it, not until now, so intent had I been earlier to pitch a nymph from the farthest edge. Now I tied on a light-wire Partridge and Green, and I quartered it downstream on a straight line, starting it on a swing through those twisted currents and provocative lies.
The take, when it came, spoke instantly of a big trout that had moved into one of the tight, funneled slots, a pragmatic, one-fish lie. And when the fish, hooked, panicked and blew out of there, it seemed fueled by the weight of the river and a current throttled to high.
So much has been made for the efficacy of the wet fly swing by soft-hackle aficionados like Sylvester Nemes and Dave Hughes that I’m surprised how infrequently I see other anglers employing this timeless and elegant technique. This is, I confess, my favorite way to explore broken, seamy, or riffled water. The mix of currents means your fly swims at different speeds, sometimes swinging, sometimes adrift on a slack line. Practiced wet fly advocates fiddle with the angle of their casts, the timing of mends, the choice of dressing and hooks, all of which affect the depth and speed of the swing, the manner in which the fly is presented through the likeliest holding water.
This is subtle to a point practically beyond words. The wet fly swing invites the shrewd manipulations of rod, line, and fly that mark the presentationist’s game. He feels his way through a run, recognizing through rod and line—and a kind of muscle memory—those unmistakable lies that can hold trout, a tactile familiarity that grows more pronounced each time a trout grabs the swinging fly.
Then there was the nymphing.
Because nymphing has captured so much attention in recent decades, ever since the great Charles Brooks argued that here was the best way to hook “larger” trout, I hesitate to offer more than passing remarks. Which is not to imply I didn’t do my fair share of nymph fishing during the three days in question. In fact, during any serious stretch of trout fishing, I will often exclaim, “When in doubt, get the lead out!”
My basic nymphing setup is made up of two flies, the top or “dropper” fly tied to one of the tag ends of the tippet blood knot. When necessary, I squeeze splitshot halfway down the tippet, between the dropper fly and the point or bottom fly. That’s it. Of course, the amount of weight affixed to the tippet between the two flies is the significant variable in the system, mostly depending on the technique I’m using: shallow upstream nymphing, short-line nymphing, or deep nymphing.
I should also add, right here, that I rarely use a strike indicator. I understand the efficacy of the tool. But in an ongoing attempt to simplify matters streamside, I generally refrain from use of an indicator, relying instead on the visual clues afforded by a floating line. Too often, from what I see, a strike indicator, once affixed to a leader, remains there—often throughout the course of an entire session or even day. Rigged in this manner, the angler limits himself to specific tactics—the antithesis of what I would argue is the single most important attribute for finding fish throughout the day: a readiness to employ the full range of tactics available to the versatile trout angler.
#5 Nymphing Shallow Upstream
The broken, seamy water that I like so much to cover with a swinging fly is also where I often begin shallow upstream nymphing. After fishing downstream, I move my soft hackle up to the dropper position, tie on a nymph at the point and, if the water is swift enough, pinch on a single BB-sized splitshot. Then I turn around and fish back through the water I just covered, probing slots and channels with upstream casts that fall much as they would if I were fishing a dry fly with only ten or twenty feet of fly line outside of my rod tip.
This is precise yet methodical fishing. You are covering likely water, maintaining control of both line and flies so that you are quick to respond to either fish or the touch of the bottom. Most of the fly line is rarely on the water; currents diminish line control, while moving leader and flies in ways that negate the possibility of a natural, lifelike drift. Less line on the water also allows the junction between fly line and the butt of your leader to serve as a strike indicator. The sudden, upstream stab of the nail knot should be met with a swift but soft-handed lift of the rod.
Generally, when upstream nymphing, you pick up and cast again before the fly drifts back to where you are standing, just as you would while fishing a dry fly. Yet on a cast off to one side, you may allow the fly to drift past and downstream, a drift that segues into much the same path used in short-line nymphing.
#6 Nymphing Short-line
Sometimes I refer to this technique as “vertical” nymphing: a cast made upstream but only slightly across the current allows the fly and weighted leader to cut vertically through the water column. Again, most of the fly line is lifted off the water; the goal is to come into contact with the fly without actually doing anything to inhibit its sink and natural drift. As the fly approaches the angler, he raises the rod tip higher, finally throwing an upstream mend in the line so that now the fly begins to lead the line downstream.
Think of the fly and leader as a pendulum dangling from the rod tip. You are fishing an all but taut line, connected to the fly without tugging on it. You should immediately feel the touch of either the bottom or a fish. The very best short-line nymphers seem capable of tightening up on fish in a manner that goes beyond quick reactions; what appears to be an almost intuitive response, however, is actually an nearly instantaneous sorting out of various clues that experience has taught is, quite simply, a fish intercepting the drift of the hidden fly.
#7 Nymphing Deep
Unlike short-line or vertical nymphing, deep-nymphing begins with a cast not only upstream but also across the current. Because depth is so difficult to obtain while line and leader drag horizontally with the current, deep nymphing requires serious weight—either built into the flies one chooses, or affixed to the leader. Or both. Repeated mends that create slack in the line allow flies and weight to gain depth, but as soon as one leaves the near vertical axis of short-line nymphing, current of any strength pulls at leader and line with forces difficult to overcome.
Are the rewards worth endangering, if only theoretically, both angler and rod? Of course. Whatever works. And the take to a deep-sunk fly just as it begins to swing across current, followed by the line shearing through water and, often, a trout taking to air a remarkable distance from where the line disappears, is heady stuff indeed. Less subtle than most other tactics, deep nymphing still offers a flavor of sport that a well-rounded angler accepts—given the alternative—with appropriate relish.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2012 by Barclay Creek Press and Scott Sadil.