It was warm for a winter day, somewhere close to fifty degrees. The day before was bitter cold, where any exposed skin is hit with a twinge of pain as soon as you step outside. I was hoping the increase in temperature may create more bug and fish activity on the river, in addition to more pleasant conditions for fishing. But higher air temperatures in winter also bring more anglers to the river. Fortunately, I decided to explore a new reach of the river today that is difficult to access and less fished.
Driving to the stream, winter fly fishing strategies were at the top of my mind. It was very unlikely that I would have an opportunity to catch fish on dry flies as midge hatches that induce lots of rising fish are rare in the Gunpowder River and tributaries. Midges are the primary insect that are actively hatching in the tailwater system during the winter. Streamers have connected me to some nice fish in winter, but typically I catch far fewer fish. Admittedly, my streamer skills need work. Most often I nymph, using two smaller flies that imitate the immature, underwater life stage of aquatic insects that occupy most of a trout’s diet.
The section of the river I planned to explore was a combination of riffle-run-pool morphology and pocket water morphology with a large percentage of deeper water. Low and slow is a common recommended water type for winter fishing. Areas with higher food sources and deeper pools allow trout to conserve energy with the larger volumes of water in pools keeping temperatures more consistent and slightly buffered from the fluctuations of freezing air temperatures.
I followed a narrow trail surrounded by brambles and tight bunches of blackberries along the river mapped out my approach to casting and fishing good looking water on my way back upstream through the river. A slight break in the vegetation provided a nice entrance down to the water from the streambank trail. I rigged the line with a weighted egg as the point fly and a turbo midge as the tag. Before I had even casted, I left too much slack line at my feet and the line became tangled. Frustration flashed through my mind, and I had to take a few deep breaths to keep the doubting voice from adding fuel to the sparks of irritation I was feeling. With lots of overhanging bank vegetation I was going to need to be mindful and focused with each cast to keep my flies in the water and not in the trees.
Through a combination of tightline and indicator nymphing I cover the first two run/pool transition areas well. I saw no movement of fish that I either spooked or failed to convince to take my fly. In the third area the run was deeper and longer, with less velocity and a side eddy pool. I made a nice cast along the edge of a stronger seam in the flow, with large boulders in the channel substrate.
The clear water allowed me to watch the brightly colored egg fly flutter just above the stream bed, occasionally bouncing off large cobble and boulders. The fly was within a few feet of my feet when it passed a large boulder. I told myself to be patient and intently stared at the edge of the boulder. With a flash of gold and brown, a good-sized brown trout struck the midge nymph and I set the hook. The fish bolted upstream and launched itself into the air. The deeper water added weight to the strength of the fish putting a deep bend into the rod. Using side pressure, I was able to pull the fish into shallower water and guide him into the net. I quickly unhooked the fish and released it back to its home under the boulder.
While fishing nymphs, I often can’t see when the trout takes the fly. Either the sighter or bobber pauses or moves to indicate a strike, or I feel a pull on the line and set the hook. Catching the fish today gave me the added benefit of seeing the exciting take typically reserved for dry-fly or surface streamer fishing. I brought another fish to net a little further upstream and had a rewarding time on the river.
To learn more about the history of fly fishing and to improve my skills, I have been reading several books about nymphing and fly-tying nymph and flymph flies. I finished Fly Fishing – The Way of a Trout with a Fly by G. E. M. Skues. Originally published in 1921, Skues presents his tremendous observations in entomology, fish ecology and behavior, fly construction, and fish techniques. He is credited with inventing fly fishing with a nymph and presents many high-level scientific hypotheses about trout vision and ecology. Items modern fishing experts present as cutting edge were described in detail by Skues in his 1921 book. His writing is easy to follow, filled with humor and humility, and clearly brilliant.
I am roughly halfway through Nymphs and the Trout by Frank Sawyer as the next book on nymphing I am reading. Frank’s book is another tremendous resource and highlights the skills that helped him to invent such foundational flies such as the Pheasant Tail nymph and the Killer Bug. Sawyer states, “nymphing is a combination of the best points in both dry-fly and wet-fly fishing but adding more difficulty and asking for far more concentration on the part of the fisherman.” Watching the trout strike my nymph as I watched the drift of my rig today brought this sentiment back into my mind. Getting a good drift required me to put myself into a solid casting position, to select a good depth and weight combination of my flies under the indicator, to cast the flies and indicator into the same seam, and then maintain control of the line to prevent any drag.
Some dry-fly purists dismiss nymph fishing as chucking weight and bobbers without the need for skill or artistry. I love dry-fly fishing, but I can see the intricacy and skill in nymphing. Later today, I listened to the Troutbitten Podcast. The topic this week was Nymphing in the Winter, fitting perfectly with my experience today and my readings of the past few weeks. On the podcast, Dominick and Austin discuss the skills required for nymphing and describe how visualizing the drift of the nymph helps to keep flies in the zone and catch more fish. Dominick jokes, “under the water is where the mystery begins.” This sentiment connects with Sawyer’s thoughts on the difficulty and concentration of nymph fishing.
With a floating dry-fly you watch, in real time, how your fly sits and moves on the water, if it drags, and when a fish takes your fly. When a nymph drifts under the water, the angler must combine observation, knowledge, and even imagination to track the fly and detect any takes from fish. As I learn more about fly fishing, I gain appreciation for all I don’t know about fly fishing. I am amazed by people who pioneered techniques, developed flies, and published observations that were against common thought at the time. The writings from Skues and Sawyer help to open my mind and to appreciate the history, diversity and exploration of the sport. Dominick and Austin’s conversation showed me how anglers continue to learn and grow, building upon all the experiences of those who put forth the effort to explore and pass on their knowledge.
Nymphing isn’t just chucking a bobber or sweeping a line across your body. It takes accurate casts, line control, drift tracking, and anticipation of the unseen path of the underwater fly. Over 100 years after Skues groundbreaking book, there is so much to learn and explore. It is definitely a method I enjoy, and it presents me challenges every time I go to the river.