The following strategy was formulated for nymph fishing small to moderate sized tailwaters and freestone streams, fishing at distances up to about 35 feet. Depth ranges from 1 to 8 feet. Current is low-moderate to strong. Short runs and pockets of slow water are occasionally encountered, but large areas of sustained slow currents or stillwater are absent. Large trout above 20 inches are hooked often enough, but the smaller guys still have to be fun. Trout can spook easily at times. Weather varies with frequent rain and wind, but strong winds are rare. Complex currents, overhanging brush, undercut banks, and some tight casting quarters necessitate the use of aerial mends for the best presentation to the best lies. Castability is important in this particular scenario.
ROD: ~13′ fixed line.
A long rod improves contact. Use the longest rod you can manage effectively in a given set of conditions. That long rod also has to be lightweight. Ideally, it will have a responsive tip to maximize feel and a good parabolic bend profile for precision casting. It also needs enough backbone for those larger trout.
Fixed line rods, such as those designed for tenkara fly fishing, competitive keiryu bait fishing, etc. meet these criteria. With fixed line rods, the line is connected directly to the blank, eliminating potential points of contact sink (guides, reel, reel seat, etc) between the angler and the fly. The delicate tip of these rods offers excellent sensitivity. That delicate tip is protected during the fight by the rod bend. The fight is translated to the robust lower sections of the blank such that the tip experiences a linear pull only (no bend). The result is a rod that is ultra-sensitive, does an excellent job of protecting tippet, and can still fight big fish.
So, this particular strategy relies on a fixed line rod to maximize the five tactics.
For me, the ideal fixed line rod length for the conditions described is around 13 feet. Not only does this length provide excellent contact, it also arms you with more carbon to do the job (in casting and fighting fish with fixed line rods, the rod does all the work). Longer rods are available. However, under the constraints of our present technology, rods beyond about 14 feet tend to feel tip heavy, compromising our lightweight tactic.
Riverworks fixed line tactical nymphing rods where specifically designed with this strategy in mind. They are long (12 feet or more), lightweight, have a low profile blank, a delicate and responsive tip, and good casting characteristics with light to medium weight nymphs. They sport a unique solid core carbon fiber handle that gives unparalleled contact for presentation and strike detection. The handle is thick, more like a tennis racket than a golf club, to avoid fatigue during a long session of fishing. This helps ensure time on the water remains dense.
LINE: fluorocarbon stealth line, 5-6x fluorocarbon tippet.
Lightweight, low profile tactics are maximized by using the smallest diameter level line you can cast. Fluorocarbon has greater density than nylon, and will help ensure the line retains adequate weight for good casting characteristics. Fluorocarbon also tends to be stronger than nylon, allowing you to use a smaller diameter line for the same breaking strength compared to nylon, furthering that low profile tactic.
In tight conditions, consider reaching for a high visibility line color. To avoid snags, you will want to know exactly where your line travels through the air during the cast and through the drift.
If you aren’t pressed into maintaining visual contact with the entire rig, then maximize stealth by using a low visibility line paired with a sighter. Line color can be eliminated all together with a transparent line. But transparent lines still refract light. Under the right conditions, they can shine brightly in the sun or cast shadows across the water. Stealth dyed lines, invisible to both the fish and the angler, were created to combat this. A stealth dyed line is particularly useful for those spooky fish.
Not all fluorocarbon is created equal. Technology has advanced to the point where the properties of fluorocarbon lines (strength, stiffness, suppleness, abrasion resistance, stretch, etc.) can be modified substantially. Sunline Reaction FC is a fluorocarbon line that acts more like nylon. It retains the density, abrasion resistance, and overall strength of fluorocarbon. Yet it has the suppleness and stretch of nylon. Suppleness ensures maximum contact and stretch helps absorb the force of those big fish. It pairs superbly with a nylon sighter (more on that later). It also comes in a Stealth Grey color. At present, I use 8-10lb test (0.010” diameter) for my casting line.
The density, strength, and abrasion resistance of fluorocarbon are also advantageous in tippet. Maximize lightweight, low profile tactics by picking the smallest diameter tippet that has adequate strength to hold the size fish you are targeting. In this strategy, I feel comfortable landing 20—30” trout on 5x fluorocarbon tippet. When fish are spooky, I will often go down to 6x. Orvis Maxima is one example of a good fluorocarbon tippet. It has a 4.1lb breaking strength at 0.006” diameter, and comes in larger spools than most.
Fluorocarbon does take longer to break down in the environment compared to nylon (it also lasts longer on the shelf and doesn’t lose strength when exposed to UV light). Nylon lasts a really long time, too. Just not quite as long as fluorocarbon. This shouldn’t matter if you’re careful to never leave anything on the water, on the shore, or in the trees. Bring your spent casting line and tippet home and recycle it.
FLY: A combo of beaded and weightless nymph patterns, hook size 10-18, tungsten beads 2-2.8mm.
This strategy emphasizes fly behavior over visual likeness. I always take clues from the river environment on what the trout are eating. But it is more important to ensure a pattern behaves like the real thing in the water than whether or not it is the spitting image of an underwater insect while sitting static in the vise.
Lightweight flies are easier to cast, especially when you want to use aerial mends to play with currents for the perfect presentation. Once at target depth, lightweight flies act naturally (presuming they are paired with a balanced, lighweight, low profile rig that won’t expose the flies to undue drag) . Low profile flies make it easier to get the fly to that target depth.
Choose lightweight, low profile patterns where weight, bulky materials, and low profile materials are placed on the fly in a counterbalanced manner. This improves sink rate and can animate life in the fly. Jig head hooks are frequently employed in both single and double fly configurations. With a beadhead or other weight tied near the eye of a jig, the fly will ride hook up, avoiding snags on the bottom and increasing secure hook sets in the upper jaw of the fish. The effect can be amplified by adding a lightweight bulky material to the opposite end of the hook, such as a Marabou or Antron tail. The parachute effect of such a bulky material can assist in animating the fly in microcurrents as well.
Tungsten is preferred for its density (same weight at a lower profile) and the fact that its nontoxic. Lead is also dense, but history has clearly demonstrated the environmental harm we cause when we use lead in hunting and fishing. Harming the environment hurts the sport. So I make it a rule to avoid lead.
If a two fly system is employed, consider pairing a beadhead fly with a weightless one. This pushes your lightweight tactic. With time, you will identify a few situations where tying the heavier fly above and the lighter one on bottom works well. But generally, I recommend tying the lighter fly above and the heavier fly on bottom. In this configuration, the heavier fly acts as an anchor, maximizes contact through the rig, and can even animate the lightweight fly (especially if the lightweight fly is weightless) as it bounces along the bottom.
You could double down on this strategy by using two weightless flies paired with external weight. For example, place two weightless nymphs on short tags above an anchor weight. There are certain advantages to this system. It can be very easy to adjust (pinching on and off tungsten putty might be the easiest). With no hook at the anchor, bottom snags are relatively rare. However, I tend to catch myself adding more overall weight than I otherwise would. I also spend more time adjusting the rig and less time with my fly in the water. Finally, it requires me to carry more stuff. For these reasons, I tend to avoid using external weight.
RIGGING: Tight-line nymph rig, in-line sighter, 1-2 fly system, total rig up to 2x rod length.
In order to maximize stealth and contact, fish these waters with a tight-line nymphing rig. With a 12-13 foot rod, start with a casting line 15-18 feet long, or a couple feet longer than the rod. Attach line to the lillian at the rod tip with a simple Arbor slip knot, the same knot many of us use to attach backing to a reel. Length can be adjusted to the water as outlined below.
With maximum stealth in your casting line, you will need to add a sighter to the rig. A small diameter sighter maintains low profile tactics. Nylon sighters can be dyed opaque, making them easier to see in smaller diameters. This is harder to do with fluorocarbon. Nylon is also supple. It reacts easily to strikes and other forces, maximizing contact. Finally, nylon has stretch, providing additional shock absorbency when fighting big fish.
Sighter material is available in multiple colors. Be sure to have one red/orange, one yellow/green, and one white material. These colors are commonly found in traffic lights, road signs, instrument clusters, etc. for a reason. They are highly visible colors to the human eye across a broad spectrum of conditions.
Generally, red/orange maximizes visual contact. Yellow/green maintains visual contact through many conditions but is a bit stealthier. White sighters are the stealthiest but sacrifice visual contact in certain conditions (high glare, foamy water, etc.). Start by choosing the smallest diameter, stealthiest color combination you think you can see. Adjust colors until visual contact is reliable. If color adjustment fails to give good visual contact, then increase diameter – sacrifice a little low profile tactic in favor of critical visual contact.
Regardless of the combo, always tie in the stealthiest color closest to the water surface. For example, on a sunny day I might start with 0.08” opaque white nylon sighter. If I encounter a lot of foamy water and have trouble tracking the drift, I might add some green above the white to preserve visual contact without sacrificing too much stealth. In low light or when fishing foamy, broken water I might go straight to a red and green combo, with the red tied above and the green closest to the water. The fish can’t see through a foamy, broken water surface as clearly, so I hope to get away with a little less stealth in favor of maximizing visual contact.
I tend to use Tenkara Bum’s Tactical Sighter. It comes in a variety of sizes and includes repeating sections of three colors ordered from most visible/least stealthy down to least visible/most stealthy. This makes it easy to pick the combo that works best for the conditions of the day. The sighter also includes small black sections separating each color, further enhancing our ability to recognize movement in the sighter.
I usually add about 15 inches (or one forearm length) of sighter material for this strategy. The shorter the sighter, the stealthier the rig. This is the shortest length I can reliably track during various presentations across various conditions at my current skill level.
In this strategy, we will avoid use of loop-to-loop connections in the rig. What they add in convenience just doesn’t make up for their bulky profile on the water. Tippet rings also make it convenient to change sighter combos until you know what works for you in different conditions. To maintain a low profile, use the smallest tippet ring possible (down to 1mm) and use a low profile knot, such as a Davy knot, to tie it on. Once you have a good idea of sighter preferences, maximize the low profile tactic even further by omitting tippet rings altogether. Tie the sighter to the end of the casting line with a barrel knot (only three turns are needed to hold well), water knot, or other low profile knot.
Maintain a lower profile by avoiding use of loop-to-loop connections and tippet rings when attaching tippet to the sighter as well. Tie a figure 8 stop knot or equivalent at the end of the sighter. Tippet is attached to the sighter above the stop knot using a Davy knot or other low profile choice.
Add around 4 feet of 5-6x fluorocarbon tippet. 4 feet of tippet gets me to the bottom of 6ft deep holes if I maintain a steep entry angle and bury some of the sighter. Use less for shallow waters such as fast moving freestone mountain streams, down to as little as 16”.
Think low profile everywhere in the rig. For single fly rigs, choose a low profile knot like the Davy to tie on your fly as well. The same goes for double fly rigs. For adding droppers or tag lines, I prefer a single-turn surgeons knot (sort of like a figure 8 follow through but the lines start at different ends of the 8). These knots are low profile, reliable, easy to tie, and utilize very little material.
Learn to use steep entry angles through the water column when possible. Steep entry angles reduce the contact-muffling noise created by current dragging on the line. Steep entry angles also allow you to reach the same depth with a shorter rig. All of this maximizes contact.
For larger waters or when maximum stealth is necessary, use the entire cut length of your rig. This maximizes reach and allows you to present the fly from far off. For smaller waters and whenever less stealth is necessary, reduce the length of the casting line to as short as 11 feet, or one foot shorter than the rod length. A long rod is useful for control of the presentation and the fish. Sacrifice line length in favor of rod length.
In all situations, use the shortest rig that will reliably get you to your target. The less material between you and the fly, the easier it is to maintain contact. That goes for the whole rig as well as the individual parts – casting line, tippet, even the tags in a double fly rig. Keeping tippet short ensures the movement of a fly on the take is translated through the visible portions of the rig where the take can be detected. Short tags will also substantially reduce tangles while casting multi-fly rigs.
The success of this strategy (along with most) is dependent on knowledge of three topics. First, ichthyology, or the study of fish. Second, hydraulics, or the study of water movement over land. Third, entomology, or the study of insects. The first two determine most aspects of presentation. Details are outside the scope of this text. The most powerful way to engrain them is observation and experience on the water.
When it comes to entomology, shoot for behavioral imitation in the dynamic water environment over how the fly looks sitting static on the vise. In fly tying, try to take advantage of trout behavior and predation to come up with effective patterns.
Use casting skills, especially aerial mends, to manipulate the line and the fly in relation to currents and get the presentation just right. Once you understand currents, this will allow you to present nymphs in all directions – upstream, cross stream, and downstream. This will also allow you to sink flies faster and use lighter flies to get to the same target depth.
Shoot for the steepest entry angles for your rig you can get away with given the conditions at hand. If more depth is needed, bury a little sighter. If working at the limit of your reach, where more of your rig is buried and your flies start to drag across currents easily, switch to suspension tactics on the fly by floating that nylon sighter for a drift or two.
To ensure time on the water is dense, practice at home. Hone casting skills with lawn sessions, landing a hookless fly in the open window of a car, between each rung of a playground rail, into a dog bowl shoved under a tree, etc. Train physical fitness and mental strength, too. Not enough anglers take advantages of the benefits such training could add to their fishing.