Active Nymphing – Rethinking the Dead Drift

I could write thousands of tortured words on how to nymph fish. There are countless methods and variables. And they can be determined by anything from water conditions to the type of nymph you’re trying to imitate. Needless to say, it’s a little more than we can chew in a newsletter article. But consider this an introduction to what I like to call active nymphing.

I differentiate it with the word “active” because mostly, we are taught to fish our nymph(s) on a dead drift. In other words, we try to get our nymph to drift at the same speed as the current. This is usually with strike indicator, with no motion or “action” at all. In many situations, this is a highly effective method for catching trout and one that definitely shouldn’t be abandoned. But there are some situations when putting a little movement in the fly, “little” being the key word, may produce a few more fish.

If you’ve spent much time fishing nymphs, this has probably happened to you at some point. You dead-drift your nymph(s) under a strike indicator multiple times through a great run with no results. When you quit paying attention to do something else (probably change flies), the line and nymph(s) straightens downstream, dragging in the current, and a fish hits it.

Nymphs will sometimes deliberately “drift” to other parts of the stream in a sort of migration. Other times, nymphs may unintentionally become dislodged from a rock and find themselves drifting down the stream. In either case, they are most often not particularly good swimmers, and are basically at the mercy of the current. Your dead-drift nymphing technique replicates common scenarios like this. However, some nymphs, like the Isonychias mentioned in the other article in this newsletter, ARE good swimmers. They don’t drift helplessly with the current. Caddis especially tend to be good swimmers.

Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail Fly Pattern
Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail

And at certain times, such as when it’s time to hatch, even poor swimming nymphs will uses gases to “propel” themselves through the water column to reach the surface. These nymphs are often referred to as emergers. During these times, that upward, emerging motion of the nymph is often what triggers the fish to strike.   So, that fish you caught “by accident” when you let your line get tight and drag behind you may not have been such a fluke. When your drift ended and the line straightened, your nymph “swung” from the stream bottom to the surface, likely resembling an emerging nymph. The trick now, is to replicate that how and when you want to, rather than by accident when you’re not paying attention.

The best way to start with this technique is to find a good stretch of pocket water. Or a nice riffle with some deeper seams and cuts will do. With faster current, you’ll be able to get closer to the fish and employ a high-sticking method. Use a longer rod, probably 8-9’, and use a leader approximately the same length as the rod. Tie on a generic, all-purpose soft-hackle pattern, like a soft-hackle Pheasant Tail or Hares Ear, and put a small split shot about 8” above it. Forget the strike indicator.

In a smaller pocket, keep just a couple of feet of fly line out past the rod tip, and make a short cast up and across to the top of the pocket. You should be slightly more than a rod length away from your target, preferably with a faster current between you and the target (this will help to conceal you from the fish). Keep your rod tip up and out by extending your arm, and try to maintain an approximately 90-degree angle between the line and rod. By keeping your rod tip up, you can keep most of the leader off the water. If you want the nymph to go a little deeper, drop your rod a little lower. It depends on the depth of the water.

Move the rod with the drift at the pace of the current to maintain the 90-degree angle, and allow the drift to continue in front of and slightly below you. You may get a strike during this portion of the drift. If so, you’ll probably feel it since you have most of the slack out of your line, but keep a close eye on your leader. It will tighten if a fish strikes and be another cue for you to set the hook. When you reach the end of the drift (bottom of the pocket), quit moving the rod with the drift. This will force the fly to swing from the bottom to the surface. If the fish hits during this portion of the drift, you will likely feel a very hard tug.

The same method can be used when fishing a bigger pocket or a longer seam in a riffle. You may just be using slightly more line and have a little longer drift. You may also choose to try one more technique on these longer drifts. Start by doing everything as described above.  When the fly and line are passing in front of you, give your wrist 3 or 4 intermittent, slight upward twitches.   This will allow the fly to “jump” or “pulse” in the current. Keep in mind that you want those wrist twitches to be very slight. Quickly and aggressively “pulling” the fly from the bottom to top will not look natural.

Girdle Bug Fly Pattern
Girdle Bug

I suggested using a soft-hackle fly for this technique, mainly because the design of the fly lends itself well to the motion-based presentation. But I fish a variety of nymphs in this fashion. Definitely give it a try with your favorite caddis nymphs and emergers. And try it next time that water is a little high and stained from rain.  Use a dark Wooly Bugger or a dark, rubber-legged nymph like a Girdle Bug. What you find may surprise you!

More visible leaders with colored butt and mid sections can make this method of fishing  much easier.  They help a little with strike detection but mostly, they help you see and track the leader and better gauge the depth of the fly.  I make leaders specifically for these short-line techniques and they are available for purchase here.

Flies: Yallarhammer

Yallarhammer Fly Pattern
Yallarhammer

No fly holds near the lore among East Tennessee fly anglers as the Yallarhammer. It has long been known that the native brook trout that reside in Southern Appalachian mountain streams have a weakness for brightly colored flies, particularly if that bright color happens to be yellow. But before endless varieties of fly tying materials were so easily available from local fly shops, mail order catalogs, and the Internet, early fly tyers had to use feathers from local birds that they could shoot themselves.

A woodpecker known as a yellow hammer because of its bright yellow feathers and hammering beak was quite abundant in the area and provided a perfect source for fly tying materials. Over the years, numerous variations of the Yallarhammer (taken from the local pronunciation) trout fly emerged. The photo above most closely resembles the original. Locals fish it as a ‘wet’ fly, most often drifting and swinging it through pockets, riffles, and plunges.

The Yallarhammer also has strong ties to the state of Alabama. It is their state bird and is most often associated with a confederate regiment based in Alabama that wore Yallarhammer feathers in their hats. Tennessee Volunteer fans may even be familiar with a Crimson Tide cheer that uses the term: “Rammer, Jammer, Yallarhammer…”

As a trout fly, the Yallarhammer was so popular that locals nearly shot the poor bird to extinction. It is currently a protected bird and the possession of its feathers will likely land you a citation before landing you a trout! But the Yallarhammer fly still lives on. Many modern fly tyers now substitute dyed dove and quail feathers for the original flicker feathers.

Pattern:

Hook: #10 TMC 5262 (or equivalent)
Thread: Brown 6/0
Tail: Golden Pheasant
Body: Yellow Floss
Feather: Primary dove wing feather, dyed yellow

Flies: Red Fox Squirrel Nymph

Red Fox Squirrel Nymph Fly Pattern
Red Fox Squirrel Nymph

Even with all the newfangled fly patterns and fly tying materials available today, I usually find myself sticking more with the old staples, or at least pretty similar variations. And I stick with them for one main reason: They work! Created by fly tying guru, Dave Whitlock in the 1960’s, this fly definitely falls under the “old staple” category.

As disappointing as this may be to some, the fly was not named for Redd Foxx of Sanford and Son. You big dummy! Rather, it got its name for the simple reason that it is tied mostly from the fur and hair of a red fox squirrel. We consider this an impressionistic fly. That means it’s designed to look alive or “buggy” more than imitating a specific food source. We also lump these sorts of flies in the categories of attractors or generals. Or Orvis likes to call them prospecting flies.

So really, it’s a pretty good fly to fish anytime in the Smokies. I think it is at it’s best in the early spring. I attribute that to the abundance of Quill Gordon nymphs in the water at that time. This impressionistic fly imitates that nymph as well as any other I’ve fished. I’ve had a lot of success with the traditional, light red version of this fly, but tie them in a few other colors as well. Different colors might better imitate other food sources in the water, but may also better imitate the color of Quill Gordon nymphs found in a specific river, or even a specific stretch of river.

Quill Gordon Nymph
Quill Gordon Nymph

It’s hard to say just how selective these trout can get and how important it is to match the color of the nymph, but I’ve personally found Quill Gordon nymphs in Little River that range from a light reddish color, to tan, to grey, to dark reddish brown, to olive. You can see that the Quill Gordon nymph in the picture has more of a dark reddish brown color. Though it’s probably more of a confidence thing, it seems that some years a certain color just works better than another.  I like to fish double nymph rigs with two different colored nymphs until I zero in on their preference.

In any case, these Quill Gordon nymphs are pretty robust, and the beefy body on the Red Fox Squirrel Nymph seems to suggest that better than, say, the slender profile of a Pheasant Tail Nymph. And the picked-out fur body and soft hackle provide a lot of subtle, life-like movement.

Hare's Ear Nymph Fly Pattern
Hare’s Ear Nymph

A close cousin to the RFSN, is the Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph. This is another one of those staple flies that is really simple to tie and you can be find it in most any fly shop.   I will sometimes fish these in a tan or olive color as an alternative to the RFSN or even in tandem in a two nymph rig.

In all cases, I’m usually fishing these flies in fairly large sizes – typically in the #14 – #10 range. As the season progresses, I’m more likely to fish them in smaller sizes and lighter colors. You can purchase or tie them in beadhead or non beadhead versions. The non beadhead will typically have lead wire wrapped around the hook under the materials. I personally like the look and profile of the beadless version better. But that’s just one man’s opinion. Try them both and tell me what you think!

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Below is Dave Whitlock’s original recipe for the nymph.  I fish the beadhead version most, and I tend to substitute commercial dubbing for the mixes he describes below.

DAVE WHITLOCK’S RED FOX SQUIRREL-HAIR NYMPH

HOOK:Tiemco 5262
THREAD:Black or orange 70 Wapsi Ultra Thread
HOOK WEIGHTING:lead wire, diameter of hook wire, 8 to 12 wraps
ABDOMEN:Belly fur from red fox squirrel skin mixed 50/50 with sienna or fox tan Antron dubbing OR Dave Whitlock SLF Dubbing – #1 (blended to my specs). Abdomen should be 1/2 to 2/3 of the overall body length
THORAX:Back fur from red fox squirrel skin mixed 50/50 with charcoal Antron dubbing OR Dave Whitlock SLF Dubbing – #2
RIB:Oval gold tinsel or orange-pearlescent Flashabou
TAIL:Small tuft of back fur from red fox squirrel skin
LEGS:(On sizes 10 and larger) Metz dark ginger back-hackle or back-hackle of Partridge, one turn

Flies: Quill Gordon Hatch

March is the month when trout fishing in the Smokies officially kicks off. Days are getting a little longer, temperatures are getting a little warmer and water temperatures are on the rise. It’s also the month when we begin to see our first good hatches of the year.

Aquatic insects from Early Black Stones to Blue Wing Olives to a variety of midges will hatch all winter, but trout rarely pay much attention to them as water temperatures are typically too cold for active feeding (read Understanding Water Temeratures for more info). But in March, that begins to change. And if you pay attention to water temperature, you just might catch one of the best hatches of the year.

Quill Gordon Fly Pattern
Traditional Quill Gordon

Quill Gordons are fairly large mayflies, between a #14-10 hook size, that begin to hatch when the water temperature reaches 50-degrees for a significant part of the day, for a few days in a row. In unusually warm years, they’ve hatched as early as mid February. In particularly cool years, they may not hatch until April. But most years on the lower elevation streams in the Smokies, this occurs about the third week of March.

In any case, it’s a tricky hatch to catch and really just a tricky month to fish if you don’t live here where you can pick your days. Weather can change in the blink of an eye in March and one major cold front or one big, river blowing rain can make all the difference in your success. I’ve had some of my absolute best days in March and I’ve had some of my worst.

So, why even fool with it? Why not just wait until April when things are more stable? Because some of those “best days” were really, really good! The Quill Gordon hatch is not just worthwhile because of the number of bugs or the size of the bugs. It tends to happen at the exact same time wild mountain trout begin actively feeding. Many of these trout, including the large browns, have had very little to eat in the last 2-3 months and they tend to be a little less cautious. And when a size #12 Quill Gordon comes drifting down the lane, well, it’s pretty hard to resist!

Brown trout exceeding 20” don’t get caught very often in the Smokies, period. Even fewer are caught on dry flies. I’ve been fortunate to catch a fair number of large browns on dry flies in the Smokies, and probably 99% of them have come during the Quill Gordon hatch. Though it’s certainly a gamble, THAT is why it’s worth coming in March!

Quill Gordon Nymph
Quill Gordon nymph

The good thing about the hatch is once it starts, it usually doesn’t stop. So, if the hatch gets started on say, 3/21, they’ll keep hatching every day even if you get a significant cold front on 3/25. While such a cold front may not impact the hatch, it still might impact the way the trout feed. They may be more reluctant to come to the surface. What many people forget, is that for all the bug activity on the surface during a hatch, there is just as much, if not more, activity under the surface with nymphs preparing to hatch. Drifting a greyish olive nymph below the surface can also be very productive during this hatch, especially in colder water

Most years the hatch lasts 2-3 weeks. It’s usually at its best during the warmest part of the day. In March, that’s typically about 11am to 4pm so rearranging your lunch plans is not a bad idea.

The best place to be during the hatch is in a larger pool near the head and middle of the run. Contrary to most scenarios in the Smokies, these large pools may require longer casts and more mending. The fish may be more aggressive but they still won’t tolerate a bad drift!

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Early Season Wet Fly

Early Season Wet Fly

In the Smokies, we typically see some of our best hatches of the year in spring. So, it’s no wonder that once March rolls around, most Smoky Mountain fly fishermen have dry flies on the brain. Count me in that group. I love fishing dry flies, especially to steady feeders during a hatch. But just because there’s a hatch, doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a lot of success with dry flies.

There are always an abundance of nymphs and emergers available to trout in any hatch. Trout can often feed on them more easily and without exposing themselves to potential predators. And there are certain situations that may make them even more reluctant to feed on the surface, such as marginal water temperatures. We see that a lot around here in the winter. Bugs are hatching, sometimes heavily, but you don’t see a single rise. Another scenario that many don’t consider is a dry, sunny day.

During a hatch, many aquatic insects linger on the surface while their wings dry before they can fly away. This makes them easy pickings for a waiting trout. Damp, overcast conditions are great days for dry fly fishing for this reason. The bugs are on the surface longer and the trout are looking for them there. But on dry, sunny days, they are able to get off the water almost immediately, making them a tough target for a trout. In those situations, trout often key in on the nymphs and emergers.

This certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fish dry flies on sunny days or when the water temperature is less than perfect. But when things aren’t going your way during a hatch, you may want to consider changing your tactics. For me, that often means fishing a wet fly. The Early Season Wet Fly is a great one for, you guessed it, early in the season.

Most of the aquatic insects that hatch around here in the early season, until around mid April, are dark in color. So this fly, with its darker body and wing, does a great job mimicking the majority of bugs that a trout might see. Past April, I might fish a similar fly in a lighter tan or yellow color.

I honestly don’t know where this pattern originated. I’m sure there are many traditional wet fly patterns that are very similar. But I believe this particular version originated in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Regardless, I learned about it from the same source that I’ve learned most things about fishing in the Smokies: Walter Babb.

I fish it a number of different ways. On days when I’m expecting a hatch in the afternoon, I might fish it in the morning in tandem with a dark nymph – maybe a Pheasant Tail or olive Hare’s Ear. In this situation, I’m usually fishing it with a dead drift. At the very beginning of a hatch, or throughout a hatch with little surface activity, I might fish two of these flies and allow them to swing in the current. And even during a hatch when fish are actively feeding on the surface, I often fish this fly as a dropper off the back of my dry fly.

In any case, it’s a go-to fly for me in the month of March and a good one to have in your stash. I doubt that it’s available anywhere commercially but if you’re a fly tyer, I’ve included the recipe below. Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Early Season Wet Fly

Hook: TMC 3769 (or equivalent) #14 – 12
Thread: Tan or brown 8/0
Tail: Dun hen hackle fibers
Rib: Copper wire
Body: Mix of grey and tan hare’s ear dubbing
Hackle: Dun hen
Wing: Mallard flank feather dyed grey