RAMBLINGS OF A CATSKILL FLY FISHER

Deep-water nymph fishing

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 5/17/22

According to my fly-fishing diary, the last time I went to West Yellowstone, MT, was during the late summer of 2002. At that time, with the exception of late-morning trico hatches, most of the mayfly and caddis activity was over, and the eagerly awaited blue-winged olive hatches had not begun.

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RAMBLINGS OF A CATSKILL FLY FISHER

Deep-water nymph fishing

Posted

According to my fly-fishing diary, the last time I went to West Yellowstone, MT, was during the late summer of 2002. At that time, with the exception of late-morning trico hatches, most of the mayfly and caddis activity was over, and the eagerly awaited blue-winged olive hatches had not begun. Unfortunately, just about the time that tricos would begin to drop, right around 11 a.m., the Montana wind would begin, chasing the tiny flies to the nearby trees and ending any possibility of dry-fly fishing. 

Although we tried Henry’s Fork and the Yellowstone River in the park, most of our angling was done along different sections of the Madison River, just outside of West Yellowstone. 

Each morning we would go forth in the hope of finding some surface activity. Perhaps a few late-season caddises or an early-season emergence of little olives; but that was not to be.

So while my angling companions—and there were several—continued to float their dry flies with the hope of finding the odd rising trout, I decided to go deep. 

It took but one trip to the Madison to realize that looking for hatching flies and rising trout would be a frustrating and fruitless endeavor. And being a fisherman first, a trout fisherman second and a fly fisherman third, I did what any predator would do: figured out a way to catch a few fish. While I love dry-fly fishing, I found it difficult to rationalize traveling 2,500 miles from the Catskills to the storied rivers of southwest Montana, only to go fishless. 

Years ago, lads of my generation began to fish for trout, using worms as bait. By using that method, we learned to read water, or in other words, find out where trout lived. We fished with worms, using a split shot about a foot or so up the leader, in order to get the bait down to where the trout fed. That method was very productive, especially in the spring when rivers were high and cold; the trout lethargic. 

Unlike some of my friends, I was exposed to fly tying and fly fishing by some very knowledgeable, kind men, so as I matured, I decided to give up worms. I learned about and used flies, mostly nymphs, especially early in the season. 

One of the problems I encountered right off was how to get my nymphs down to where the trout feed. That’s when I got the idea of fishing my nymphs the same way I fished worms, by adding a split shot 1, either about a foot above the fly or at the end of the leader, below the fly. In that way, I was able to get my nymphs to the depth required to attract feeding trout. Even though I lost any number of nymphs to the river-bottom stones, this method of deep-water nymph fishing was almost as effective as using worms. 

This is how I fished the Madison. Two prince nymphs, two pheasant tail nymphs or one of each, attached to my tippet; one size-12; one size-10, about 18 inches apart with a split shot in between. The tapered leader was no longer than nine feet. 

When using this method of fishing, it is important to carefully select the type of water to be fished. Experience has taught me to fish the heads of deep pools, with moderate current. There is no actual fly casting involved. Using the leader and about eight-to-10 feet of fly line, the flies are just “chucked” upstream, far enough so that by the time they get to the part of the pool where you expect a strike, the nymphs will be at or near the bottom. Follow the flies as they travel downstream, raising the rod tip so the line is tight and you remain in contact with the flies. If the leader stops or you feel a tug, set the hook. 

Many of you who read this column have used a large dry fly or strike indicator to fish your flies beneath the surface. 

That method is used by guides, as their clients fish from drift boats. It is very productive when the trout are up in the water column or near the surface. In comparison, indicators do not work very well when the water is deep and trout are near the bottom. 

That’s why when the flies are not hatching and the trout rising, I turn to deep-water nymph fishing. It is the one method that works when all others fail if I want to ensure results. Anglers need to keep in mind that learning this method is not easy, and understand that bait fishermen have an advantage when switching to flies. The methods are very similar. Anglers also have to keep in mind, that fishing nymphs in this manner is done by feel, not by sight. It takes patience and time to learn.

More often than not, it will be the bottom or a snag that will engage your nymphs, not a trout. Nevertheless, once anglers learn this technique, it will pay off when other methods fail, or when the rivers are high and cold. That’s why I caught trout during my last trip to Montana and the Madison River, when my companions did not.

*Anglers are reminded that lead split shot is banned in New York State.   

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