VISUAL NYMPHING: Follow the Dotted Line to More and Larger Trout
Nymphing has always been a productive way to catch trout but unfortunately it is too often chuck-and-chance-it fishing. Nothing can match the excitement of watching a trout take a dry fly off the surface, but what if there was a way to make nymphing more exciting and productive? Visual nymphing is a technique that can be used in many conditions regardless of the time of year and weather conditions. With this technique you can experience much of the excitement of fishing with drys but the visual spectacle is just below the surface. This isn’t just eye candy—it also dramatically improves your catch rate. Because you don’t cast blindly, visual nymphing also helps you catch larger trout.
The key to visual nymphing is what I call the dotted line technique. This technique helps you present the fly naturally in the fish’s feeding lane while focusing on the fish rather than the strike indicator as a reference point. The dotted line technique can be used in all kinds of scenarios and with a variety of fishing rigs including nymph rigs with or without strike indicators as well as with streamers and drys.
Getting a Visual
The ideal sight-fishing situation is when you see the entire fish and can see all of its actions and movements in detail. Unfortunately this is not always possible. Many people look for the obvious outline of a trout and fail to find fish; probably because they look for the shape of the whole fish. Because trout are camouflaged, you can often spot the shadow of the trout on the river bottom before you find the trout itself, so look for shadows and dark spots on areas of light-colored river bottom. Also watch for the white flash from the mouth of a feeding trout, or a trout tail flickering over the cobbles on the bottom.
When you spot one of these signs, try to pick out the silhouette of the entire fish and watch for movements to help you determine if what you are seeing in the water is actually a trout or something else such as structure in the river. Trout move from side to side and up and down in the water column as they feed. If what you are watching is stationary, it isn’t a feeding trout. Don’t worry if it turns out to be a rock, weed, stick, or something else in the water. I often stop to study what looks like a fish and discover it is something else. The times it turns out to be a large trout always make the false alarms worthwhile.
Finding a viewing lane is one of the most important aspects of spotting trout. A viewing lane is different from a vantage point. A vantage point gives you a bird’s-eye view of only one section of river, and you likely can’t cast from a vantage point. A viewing lane is a direction of approach and observation that allows you to scan long lengths of river as you move.
Polarized sunglasses reduce glare but finding a good viewing lane allows you to see into the water with even less interference. When standing on the riverbank, the viewing lane might be four to eight feet wide and stretch out five feet in front of you in minimal lighting conditions or all the way to the other side of the river under the best conditions. Position yourself on whatever side of the river gives you the largest and clearest lane. The best position is determined by cloud cover, the direction of the sun, cliffs or trees that shade the river, and sometimes by the wind or the current. Chop on the water sometimes obscures your vision worse from one direction than another.
Use your viewing lane to scan for trout while you walk upstream along the riverbank. This allows you to approach fish from behind to prevent spooking them. If your viewing lane is downstream of you because of terrain and light conditions, keep a low profile and walk slowly while you thoroughly scan the water. By staying low and out of the trout’s viewing window, you will get the chance to cast to a confidently feeding fish.
If you locate a fish downstream of you, remember the spot and reposition yourself across-stream or slightly downstream of the fish before you cast. This also keeps you from spooking the fish. If you must move, try to keep the fish in view. If you lose sight of the fish while switching your position, it can be difficult to locate it again. The fish may move while you get into position and you will have to adjust accordingly.
Dotted Line Technique
Once you find a trout, observe the flow of water as it approaches the trout’s holding spot. Now imagine a dotted line running from the trout’s head to an area two to five feet upstream. This is the target area where you will cast your fly. The fly should land on the far side of the target area and sink so it follows the dotted line into the trout’s feeding zone. The dotted line may not be a straight path as the flow of food to the trout follows the whims of the current.
The distance between the trout and the target area depends on the depth of the trout and the speed of the current. In shallow water the distance between the trout and the target is as short as two to three feet because it takes less time for the fly to sink to the level of the trout. In deep or fast water the dotted line will be longer—as long as four or five feet—because the fly must have more time before it sinks.
After you create the dotted line in your mind and have a target, position yourself straight across or across and slightly downstream from the trout. Pull out enough line to reach the trout and make a few practice casts behind the fish to judge how far you need to cast without lining the trout. Be careful not to cast too far past your target area. This will put the fly on the far side of your dotted line and cause the leader or tippet to brush against the trout, possibly alarming it. A short cast will drift the fly past the trout’s feeding zone, but you can always allow the fly to drift downstream and cast slightly farther the next time.
When you cast the fly to the target area, it’s important for your leader to turn over in a straight line with the fly or flies at the terminal end. When you mend this straight line, it moves your fly line and leader upstream and allows your fly to drift in the current naturally. It also ensures the first thing that is visible to the fish is the fly and not any part of the leader, tippet, or split-shot. The last thing you want is the split-shot tumbling down the dotted line and into the trout’s feeding zone before the fly. By keeping your presentation straight and mending, the fish sees your fly first.
After you cast and mend upstream, focus your attention on the trout, fly line, and strike indicator—if you are using one. Your main focus should be on the trout. Sometimes a fish aggressively takes your fly and at other times, particularly when the fly is small and exactly on target, the trout may give only subtle signs it has taken the fly. It may just be a flash of white as it opens its mouth or a slight up-and-down movement.
If the fish does not take the fly, continue the drift at least one or two feet past the fish before you pick up and try again. This reduces the chances of foul hooking or spooking the fish.
The position of your rod after you cast and mend is an important part of getting the right drift. In most situations you will either keep your rod at a low horizontal position or at a high vertical position.
The low horizontal rod position is most effective in shallow water or in water that has uniform current speed between you and the trout. Fish in shallow water are more likely to be spooked from movements, shadow, or light reflections from above. By keeping your rod low you are less likely to spook them, so if there are no conflicting currents to create line drag, it makes sense to keep your rod low. When a fish hits with the rod in the low position you will have more distance to raise your rod and have quicker, more secure hook sets.
A high, nearly vertical rod position is best in deep water or when a fish is holding in water with varying current speeds. Fish in deeper water are less likely to be spooked by a high rod, and this position allows you to keep most—if not all—of your line off the water to defeat drag and at the same time maintain contact with your fly. When you use the high rod position, cast your fly upstream to the target area. When you deliver the fly, your rod may be low, but as the fly drifts downstream toward the trout you raise the rod tip to remove slack and keep your line off the water. Gradually drop the rod tip as the fly drifts downstream past the trout. Throughout the drift, only the leader and strike indicator should touch the water. This allows the thin-diameter leader and tippet to sink quickly without drag from the fly line. This gets your flies deep and helps you monitor their depth as they drift.
This high rod position is most effective when you are fishing spots with varied current speeds such as behind rocks, along seams, and below gravel bars and riffles. With a high rod the fly line won’t be in slow water while your fly drifts quickly downstream. Instead, your leader and indicator are in a single current speed throughout the drift to prevent drag. When you are fishing with your rod high and vertical, there is little slack in the line, which makes it easier to detect strikes. Sweep your rod downstream to set the hook into the corner of the fish’s mouth.
Whether your rod tip is high or low, you should always keep the rod directed toward your fly or your indicator. If your rod is pointed upstream or downstream of the fly, you create an unnecessary bow of line that makes it more difficult to set the hook and get a good drift.
Visual nymphing has given me countless hours of enjoyment at those times when trout are not rising to drys and accounts for most of my largest fish. Watching trout as they feed on subsurface foods not only increases your chances of hooking more and larger trout but also gives you a wealth of knowledge and understanding you can apply to other aspects of your fishing.
Reprinted with permission from Fly Fisherman