Nymph or Dry – A small stream decision.

Before the first cast comes the decision: which type of fly, nymph or dry? Logically, you could choose either, or both (and yes, I know there are also streamers, but it is a rare choice, so let’s not complicate things). This decision is often driven by the angler’s preference, predilection, fanaticism, or the latest magazine infomercial. I have tried to put my prejudices aside to give you an approach that will give you a choice that may improve your chance of success.

I consider the following questions:

  1. Are the trout rising?
  2. What food sources are available and abundant?
  3. Where is the trout likely to be holding?

Are the trout rising?

This is why it pays to stop and watch the water before you fish. If you can observe a trout rising, it gives away its location and a likely way to fool it.

When a fish is rising , it means the trout is looking up for a meal, and often means the trout is sitting mid water or higher. In this situation it is important that you fly be above the trout’s holding level, a dry, a lightly weighted nymph on a greased leader or a dry with a nymph on the dropper ( up to 60 cm) are all options.

A heavy nymph on a long leader is likely to drop below the level of this trout and therefore drift by unnoticed and untouched.

What food sources are available and abundant?

According to many reliable sources, most of a trout’s diet consists of sub-aquatic insects. Some say it is as high as 70%. In New Zealand rivers, this is often much higher. A nymph will generally take a trout all year round but may not be the best choice on a given day.

Certainly, the insects we imitate with dry flies are not abundant year-round, and typically early season and very late season there are very few species that are in sufficient abundance to suggest imitating them is the best option to fool a trout.

In the warmer months, November through to March, here in Victoria, terrestrial insects are abundant, as are hatches of sub aquatic insects. A single dry fly is great first choice at this time of year; however, you can also choose a lightly weighted nymph or a nymph dry dropper. Recent rain will lift the water levels, and releasing more nymphs, so as the water drops to a fishable level, the trout can be focussed on nymphs and reluctant to rise.

Very early season Sept/October and late season May/June, the cooler weather and higher flows means very terrestrial few insects about and little or no surface feeding. While catching a trout on a dry fly is not impossible it is highly improbable, and the weighted nymph will be your best choice.

Where is the trout likely to be holding?

Trout hold position , facing up stream, where the force of the current is low. This enables them to minimise their energy expenditure while watching for passing food.

Fast water

In sections of the stream where the water is flowing quickly, trout are likely to be found in the lee of a boulder or mid-stream obstruction, hard up against the bank or right on the bottom. All these positions will have protection from the main current.

Slow pools and runs

In the slower pools and runs the trout may hold position to feed or patrol a beat searching for food.

Deep Water

In deep (over 1 metre) fast flowing sections, the trout will often be on the bottom, and will be hard to tempt with a dry fly. It takes a lot of energy to swim up to the top, then back down again, so it needs to be worth it for the trout. A big hopper will sometimes pull a large trout up from the deep. However, a better option is to fish a weighted nymph under an indicator on a long dropper that drifts just above the riverbed.

where the bubble line flows hard against the bank, or a log, the trout will be holding and feeding there, and a fly drifted within a few inches of the bank will be pounced on. Trying to fish a weighted nymph, or a dry dropper hard up against the bank is supremely difficult, and usually end up either drifting too far from the bank , or snagged up. If it is a smooth rock wall it is possible to hit the wall with nymph and indicator and let it slide straight down. A successful technique I discovered by accident on a pool on the Crooked River. A better option is a single dry fly (if the time of year is right), as an accurate cast within six inches of the bank is easier to achieve.

Midstream boulders can be targeted by drifting or swinging a heavy nymph drifted close by. Another option is to land a dry fly in the dead point above or below the boulder with a slack line presentation, so it pauses a few precious seconds to entice a take.

In the deep slow pools, the trout could be anywhere: deep on the bottom, or up on the surface feeding. If the water is over a metre deep, unless the trout are visibly feeding, a nymph is most likely to be productive, however in the warmer months a dry fly drifted in the bubble line is a better first choice, and if unsuccessful, you can always try a deep nymph subsequently.

Mid Depth Water

Any water between fifty centimetres and a metre deep is good holding water that allows a trout to feed easily anywhere from the bottom to the surface, however in the quicker water, the trout will need some protection from the current. At the right time of year, the trout will rise from the bottom to take the dry. A good first choice for any time of the season, is a dry dropper combination. Early and late season the weighted nymph should be first choice, and in the warmer months a dry fly is often best.

Shallow Fast Water

Trout, especially rainbow trout, like to feed in fast shallow broken water: there is food, oxygen and cover. In warmer weather this is a good area to target with the dry, or a nymph on a short dropper under an indicator/dry fly. Within this water the trout are often able to hold in hollows and depressions, or between small boulders. the quieter pockets are worth targeting in the same manner.

Often overlooked, slow shallow water can hold some surprising fish, especially if there is nearby cover or bolt hole. Given a nymph is likely to get snagged on the bottom, your best choice here is a dry fly. An alternate option is an unweighted nymph on a greased leader.

Summary

Depending on the time of year, and water speed and depth, sometimes there is a superior choice, however often not so important, and your choice may boil down to your personal preference. I have included a table and a legend below to give you a guide. Note upper case means the choice should be a primary one, lower case , means it is a secondary option you might also consider.

MonthDeep > 1mMid (0.5 to 1m)Shallow (<0.5m)
SepNWNW,dnNU
OctNWNW,dn,d,nuNU,d
NovNW,D,DNNW,DN,D,NUNU,D
DecNW,D,dnDN,D,NUnu,D
JanNW,D,dnDN,D,NUnu,D
FebNW,D,dnDN,D,NUnu,D
MarNW,D,dnDN,D,NUnu,D
AprNW,dNW,DN,D,NUNU,D
MayNWNW,dn,d,nuNU,d
JunNWNW,dnNU
Fly Choice by Month and Water Depth

Weighted NymphNW,nw
Unweighted NymphNU,nu
Dry Nymph ComboDN,dn
DryD,d
Fly Type Legend

At one stage, I used to fish almost predominantly the nymph. In warmer months a dry with a nymph dropper, and only fish the dry, when the trout stopped taking the nymph. These days my first preference is to fish the dry, where the time of year and water allows it. Where there is good holding water and the nymph is a better choice, I will swap over. I prefer to fish a single fly for simplicity, trusting in my choice. To that end I carry two reels, one rigged with a line and leader for dry, and the other with a line and leader for nymphing. I find it easier to swap reels over than meddle with leaders, especially if I need to swap back and forth as I progress along the stream.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Late Season North Island Fishing

When a fly fisher hears the word Tongariro, they think of the river made world famous by Zane Grey in his book Angler’s Eldorado, and the wonderful winter spawning runs of large rainbow trout. In June, July and August every year, when the cold heavy rain falls, it swells the tiny tributaries, that flow into the main river down to the river mouth, where the chrome bodied torpedos, ripe with milt and eggs await arrival of water that carries the irresistible scent each trout’s birthplace. With each wave of rain, pods of these magnificent sort fish head to their home tributary to spawn the next generation.

However, the spawning runs are not contained just to the winter months, but continue into Spring, with a constant trickle of late runner right up to late October.  With early spring, the nymphs are starting to move, bringing mayfly hatches of an evening.  This makes for more varied and interesting fishing than just upstream nymphing with glo-bugs and heavy nymphs.  So when my kiwi mate Perry, suggested I come over in late September, I jumped at the chance.

A few days later he picked me up from Rotorua airport and after easy drive , we arrived late morning at to Turangi, on the shores of Lake Taupo.  Crossing the highway bridge, I glanced downstream, and as always there was a picket fence of anglers trying their luck.  Since there had been no rain for at least a week, and with none on the horizon, the river was low and clear.   I glanced above the bridge, and an angler was hooked up to a leaping silver fish.

Wanting to avoid the crowds, we headed up river to check out some of the pools at the top end of the relatively short stretch of the Tongariro that is open to winter fishing.  Every few hundred metres, we passed yellow signs pointing to the river, each bearing the name of the famous pools on this iconic river:  Birches, Hatchery, Major Jones, Stag and Blue.   We had decided to explore and fish a variety of pools to see if we could locate a trout or two.

Typically, without rain, the Tongariro can be a hard mistress.  It is not uncommon to be faced with a blank session or two.  We came away fishless from our first foray so we headed back down stream.   When we crossed the bridge, there were no anglers on the true right bank so we decided to try our luck.  Perry was into his first fish before long, landing a 1.5kg rainbow, I missed a chance before hooking a decent fish briefly; the hook pulling after some angry head shakes.  An hour or so later with no further action we moved upstream to rest the pool. Perry hooked his second rainbow on the tail end of his first drift, but I was still fishless.  After a further hour or so, we decided to drop back down below the bridge, where I finally opened my account.

By this time, the light was starting to dim , and we were treated to a brief hatch.  The trout appeared to be taking something on and in the surface, but we could not tell what. They were moving around a lot,  but with only one dry fly between us, an ugly looking Caddis emerger, we were only able to get one missed take on the swing.

Up early the next morning we decided to head to the middle reaches to try to pick up a fish or two at first light.  This time I was first up and managed my first within a few casts.  We worked the pool for an hour or so to no avail, so headed further downstream.  A good decision as we both hooked some good fish in this pool.  After a quiet spell, the passing of some white water rafters seemed to stir the fish up, and we had a short spell where we caught a few more.

Heading back to town we grabbed some lunch and then headed to the lower reaches.  By this time it was Friday afternoon and the weekend anglers were arriving, so it was now difficult to find vacant water let alone unfished water.  Unsurprisingly we weren’t successful and headed back to the Bridge pool for the last few hours of fishing. The Bridge pool was crowded, yet the odd angler had success, and before the light started to fade numbers thinned out.  Armed with some dry flies, I hoped to catch one or two , if we were lucky enough to get a hatch. Finally I saw a couple of large Mayflies come off the water.  I persisted with a small Adams emerger, and a small nymph, but could not raise any interest.  I finally changed to a large Royal Wulff , which was good enough to fool a fesity fish of about 1.5kg before the hatch died.

The next morning we were up early again and headed to the middle reaches for some peaceful fishing, and we managed to land half a dozen fish between us.  Before we left for an early lunch, we were rewarded with a rare treat. A pair of blue ducks , normally shy creatures that avoid humans, were so engrossed in chasing of an over amorous male, they circled us a number of times, coming closer than a rod length, and even flying under the arch of my bent rod, whilst I was trying to play a fish.

In the afternoon we shifted to a broad expanse of river, and had glorious fishing in the early spring sunshine.

We lost count of the number of prime conditioned rainbows we caught between us, most in the 1.5 to 2 Kg range, all caught on natural nymphs.  It was a great finish to a short but superb adventure.  I am pretty sure come next spring I’ll be heading across the ditch again.

Six flies: all you need for small streams.

Six flies is all you need for small stream fishing. However, there must be a million of flies you could choose from, and most fly fishers have vests bursting with boxes and boxes of them. However, ask any angler which flies they use regularly, they will probably name six flies or less. Those six will differ between anglers, due to personal preference, and local insect life, but it will be no more than six. They’ll also tell you that sometimes (<2%) , they need something special: hence the extra boxes.

This post is aimed at answering a question posed to me by one of the attendees at a recent introductory course. They wanted to know more about fly selection.  How many flies did they need ? Which ones ? When to use them?

How many flies?

Six flies is all you need for small stream fishing. However, there must be a million of flies you could choose from, and most fly fishers have vests bursting with boxes and boxes of them. However, ask any angler which flies they use regularly, they will probably name six flies or less. Those six will differ between anglers, due to personal preference, and local insect life, but it will be no more than six. They’ll also tell you that sometimes (<2%) , they need something special: hence the extra boxes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Which six?

The six you need will vary depending on which water you fish and the food that is available there.  The six I selected are ideal for our small streams in Victoria Australia, and they cover the majority of common insects found in trout streams.  They are not the only possible selection, just my current favourites; I could easily swap each one for another fly, and still cover most situations.

Size and Colour

Trout in small streams trout are ambush predators, they sit in a slow current where they can watch what drifts towards them on the current.  If something takes their fancy, they will swing out and suck it in as it goes past.  Trout brains aren’t too complicated, they make a food/not food decision, which they base on the size, colour and behaviour of the passing morsel.  If the trout brain says food, it will take the fly, and we have a good chance of hooking it.

Now all we need to know now is what are the trout eating, when are they eating it, and which fly matches size and colour. (How to make the fly behave correctly is a big topic that deserves its own post.)

What do trout eat?

In small streams, trout are opportunistic feeders and mostly eat insects that live in, or fall on, the water. Some float, some sink, some swim.  The following insects form the major part of a trout’s diet in and around the streams of Victoria.

  • Mayflies – adults and larvae (Emphemeroptera),
  • Caddis flies – adults and Larvae (Trichoptera),
  • Beetles (Coleoptera)
  • Termites (Isoptera Termitoidae)
  • Grasshoppers (Orthoptera)

Mayflies and Caddis are available all year round, especially the larvae (often called nymphs) that live under rocks in the stream bed.  Some estimates suggest that these nymphs form 70-80% of a trout’s diet.  At certain times of the year, the larvae undergo a mass metamorphosis, leaving the water to become flying adults to mate and continue the cycle of life.  During this mass metamorphosis (often called a hatch), the trout become keyed into these insects and will eat them to the exclusion of all others.

Grasshoppers  live in grasslands and paddocks and in the summer months, are in abundance. It is not uncommon for the trout to sit under overhanging grassy banks  waiting for the plop of a hapless fallen hopper to signal meal time.

Termites usually appear on mass on thundery evenings, with swarms of them flying low overhead.  You will see many trout devouring these nutritious morsels, if you wait by a slow pool on a humid evening.

Beetles inhabit the forests and pastures surrounding our streams, and appear in numbers in Summer, especially in December.  Many fall accidentally in the stream, to be come a meal for a waiting trout.

When?

The table below outlines which months the various insects are on the menu for our finny friends.

Month Insects (sub-surface) Insects (surface)
September N c, m
October N b, C, M, t
November b, N b, C, M, T
December B, n B, C, h, M, T
January B, n B, C, H, M, T
February b, n b, C, H, M, t
March  N b, C, h, M
April N b, c, M
May  N c, m
June  N

Letter legend (lower case = insect available, upper case = insect abundant) 

Letter Insect Class
n, N Nymphs (caddis and mayfly)
b, B Beetles
c, C Caddis moths(adult)
h, H Hoppers (grass)
m, M Mayfly (adults)
t, T Termites

The following table lists some common flies that match these insects, some of which appear in the slideshow images:

Insect Flies (Wet) Flies (Dry)
Beetle Brown nymph, Wet beetle, Black and Peacock Humpy, Royal Wulff, Stimulator, Foam Beetle
Caddis Hare and Copper, Stick Caddis, Brown nymph Deer/Elk Hair Caddis, Stimulator, Yellow Sally.
Hopper N/A Foam Hopper, Dave’s Hopper, Knobby Hopper, Stimulator, Madame X.
Mayfly Brown nymph, Black Nymph, Olive Nymph, Copper John, Soft hackle flies (var), Wee Wet flies (var) Shaving Brush, Grey Wulff, Adams, Orange Spinner, Black Spinner, Klinkhamer, Parachute Emerger, Monkey Bum, March Brown.
Termite Brown Nymph, Black Nymph Black Ant, Termite, Parachute Spinner (black, brown, grey),

Conclusion:

Mostly you need to match size and colour. Most things trout eat are small and brown or small and black.

The six flies I recommend for our local streams are :

  • a brown nymph,
  • a bead head brown nymph,
  • a Royal Wulff,
  • a Stimulator,
  • a parachute black spinner, and
  • a small deer hair caddis.

With these flies I can be confident I’ll be able to fool any feeding trout on my favourite small streams. As for the other 999,995 flies we all need, you can work that out on your own!

Feel free to leave your six favourite flies in the comments section.

Opening Day 2017

Opening day: some people avoid it, some embrace it. I have been in both camps.  When I first started fly fishing some twenty-five years ago, I couldn’t wait for the rivers to be open to get out fishing again.  Some ten years later, I assiduously avoided opening, waiting a few weeks, for other anglers’ leave passes to be used up in the frenzy of the first weekends.  By which time the angler numbers diminished and I could fish in peace and solitude.

This year I was invited, by a good friend and accomplished guide Scott McPherson’s to spend opening day with a few fellow guides at his place (Indulgence Fly Fishing) in Eskdale. As a bonus we would meet up at the RISE fly fishing festival in Albury on the Friday evening.  I met Scott and Rob at the pub, and it was pumping, the fly fishers were bursting with the joy at the expectation of hitting the rivers the next day.  It was easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm.

The next morning we gathered in Scottie’s kitchen to discuss the day’s plans, whilst he cooked up a bacon and egg sandwich to get the day started. Delicious.

After breakfast, Dave and I headed to one of the local streams, where, in spite of it being opening day,  we only had to venture a short way before we found a section to ourselves.  On checking the conditions in the river,  we found the sub-aquatic insect life a little sparse; just some tiny black nymphs under the upturned rocks.  The day was cold, and the water even colder (-4.5C), so not surprising.

Despite this after some diligent work, Dave soon had his first of the season in the net. A typical nicely marked small-stream wild brown trout.

… and a rainbow trout.

If you ventured out, I hope you had as much fun as we did. If not I hope you get out their soon.  Feel free to contact us if we can help.

Twig & Stream Fly Fishing