Legendary saxophone player, Charlie Parker said, “Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.”
I think the same advice extends to fly fishing.
Good nymphing is both an art and a science. When an angler first dives into the nymphing game, the technical challenges (the science) may dominate. All the options for rigs and modifications may be confusing for a while. It might take years, but eventually we get comfortable enough that all the adjustments become second nature. At that point, I think art can take over once again.
Nymph fishing is far too complex a subject to tackle here in total. Instead, I’d like to present some food for thought, something that sets the table for making sense of the science and clears the way for art.
There’s a trio of intertwined elements determining where your nymphs are located in the water and when they will get there.
They are depth, angle and drop.
For years I struggled to understand what adjustments I should make while nymphing. I was stumped by a basic question: “Should I lengthen the distance between the suspender and nymphs, or should I add weight?” The question was simple, but the answer was never easy. Finally I realized the question can’t really be answered without also considering current speed. And most importantly, I had to understand how all three elements interact with each other to get the answer.
The components of depth, angle and drop apply to both tight line nymphing and indicator (suspension) methods. But I think it’s easier to understand them in a suspender rig first. I’ll present that here.
Let’s consider the elements one by one. We’ll presume that we want our nymphs on the bottom. Let’s also assume that the cast lands with the nymph upstream of the suspender, and there’s no slack in between. (I covered this basic presentation in the article One Great Nymphing Trick.)
The distance between suspender and weighted fly (or split shot) sets the depth. It’s important to understand, however, that sliding the suspender up or down only sets the maximum depth the nymph can achieve. The two other elements also affect how deep the fly goes, especially this next one …
In a moving river, the speed of the current creates the angle between suspender and nymph. In very slow water the nymph can quickly reach an angle approaching 90 degrees (directly below the suspender). But in fast water, the nymph trails behind the suspender at a shallower angle.
Drop is how quickly the nymph sinks. It’s the sink rate. But drop isn’t just weight. It’s also a function of how buoyant, bulky or streamlined a nymph is. The thickness of the attached tippet also affects the drop rate. So does the angle; in fast water more weight is required for the nymphs to drop at the same speed as in slow water.
Each element influences the other. They are interactive and woven together.
So here’s the question again: “Should I lengthen the distance between the suspender and nymphs, or should I add weight?” The answer requires some thought about depth, angle and drop. It’s far better to try things out than just think about them, so slide the suspender up the line. Add some weight. Observe the results. How has the angle changed? Is the nymph close enough to the bottom now?
Understand that if you drop a nymph in the water, with no line attached, it will find the river bottom very quickly in even the swiftest water. But when the nymph is tied to a line and pulled along by a suspender, the drop (or the sink rate) is changed. Heavy weight is less potent in faster water. It takes more weight to get down in fast water than slow water. Shallow angles created by fast water require greater depth (or distance) between suspender and flies, so try sliding the suspender up the line.
Many “Nymphing 101” articles recommend setting the distance between suspender and nymph at two times the depth of the water. That’s a decent starting point, but getting an effective drift isn’t usually that easy. Maybe you aren’t ticking the bottom at that depth. You can keep fishing the rig as it is and wait for a bit of luck to come your way, or you can consider the elements of depth, angle and drop, then adjust the rig.
Here’s one more thing to consider: You have direct control over the two elements of depth and drop (you set the depth, and you choose the weight). But you have only indirect control over the angle, which is primarily determined by the current speed (though you can influence the angle with the other two elements).
Experiment to learn
The three variables of depth, angle and drop are interactive. It’s a blend. A push and pull. Give and take. The interplay between these elements remind me of the photographer’s triangle, where the elements of shutter speed, aperture and ISO work together to set the right exposure and capture the image as the photographer wants it.
It’s a complex game. And it’s a fun game! Every current seam and pocket offers a different challenge.
Again, there’s a lot to think about here. I could go on and detail many scenarios, trying to explain when, why and how to choose which element to adjust. But the truth is, it’s better to do it yourself. Try it on the water — day after day — and you’ll become familiar with the elements of depth, angle and drop. Eventually, you’ll get past the science and into the art.
Back to Charlie Parker with waders on: Learn to read the water and master the casting strokes. Then forget about all that bullshit and just fish.
Now go catch ‘em.
Enjoy the day.
Article written by: Domenick Swentosky
Dominick Swentosky is a writer, musician and fisherman living in central Pennsylvania. He writes the blog Troutbitten.com