Nymph and Indicator Fishing

The end of Fly Fishing as we know it?

A bit of a rant by Rick Harding

I am very fortunate in many ways. One is the fact that I get to go bird hunting with Jim McLennan. The wing shooting can be great fun and the dog work is often outstanding but what does this have to do with nymph fishing? In recent years the conversations Jim and I share during drive to and from our favorite bird covers have become the best part of the day. Truth be known, Jim ends up doing a lot more listening than talking but during one of our trips I may have yawned or sipped some coffee or whatever and Jim was able to get a word or two in. He talked about how in the good ol' days people learned how to fish with dry flies or streamers because fishing with nymphs was a bit of a mystery, after all how did you know when a fish ate your fly? In order to catch fish with dry flies or streamers anglers had to learn how to actually cast a fly line.

During the mid 1980's when Russ Webb and I were guiding fulltime on the Bow River in Alberta, we had the opportunity to fish with several well known fly anglers. What a great education. We learned so much from guiding and just watching some of these people. Gary Borger, while he was shooting footage for his Bow River video, spent several days with us each year for three seasons. One of the many things Gary showed us was the use of strike indicators with nymphs.

It was a revelation! Suddenly catching trout on nymphs was very easy. We began to teach our clients how to catch fish using indicators. Some thought we were magicians. Between dry fly sessions, we fished nymphs frequently and continued to catch all kinds of trout on any water we fished.

After two or three years however, the novelty had gone. I believe that because we had extensive experience fishing with dry flies and streamers we realized that nymphing with strike indicators and lots of lead was just 'catching fish' and we were missing out on many of the things that we loved about fly fishing. Incidentally, over time several of us learn how to fish nymphs by feel and our use of indicators was greatly reduced.

Since strike indicators have become popular there has been a shift in the order in which people learn the sport. Many new fly fishers now learn how to catch fish on nymphs first because with strike indicators, it is easy and does not require any casting skill. Fishing with dry flies or streamers has become the unknown part of the sport.

Newcomers to our sport, who do not gain experience with dry flies and only fish nymphs, never learn to cast properly and will seldom progress beyond this point.

The two main reasons are the lack of casting ability and the fact that they really don't know what they are missing.

There have been many things written about fishing and the stages of development that anglers go through.

  • At first you just want to catch something, anything, as long as it is a fish.
  • Then most of us moved on to the next level where you want to catch lots of fish and counting fish became the measure of a good day's angling.
  • The next stage is the big fish stage. Much like a trophy hunter, size really does matter. The tape measure or weigh scale is now the way we measure success.
  • Some anglers go to another stage where catching the fish on their terms takes on a higher position on the priority list. While they still enjoy catching big fish and lots of fish, the method becomes more important.

Often the fondest memories are of fish you've tried to catch but could not. Finding a nice fish feeding in a spot where just presenting the fly properly challenges the anglers at this stage. Just getting the fly there and watching the fish eat it is where the sense of accomplishment comes from.

Anglers that have made it this far have also usually developed a keen appreciation for many of the intangibles of the sport. Just 'being there' takes on a much higher meaning. They use the time spent angling to reconnect with themselves, their friends and the natural world, and to escape the fast paced, high stress, wireless communication infested world too many of us live in.

Fly fishing can be such a sensual pursuit. Listening to the brook babble and hearing the sound of the wind rustling the leaves on the cottonwood trees can be very relaxing. Sunrises and Sunsets. Watching a natural insect hatch on the surface of a stream only to float a short distance and be sipped by a trout. Watching a stream borne insect, having avoided a hungry fish, take flight only to be intercepted in mid air by a Cedar Waxwing who returns to its perch to eat the insect and look for the next flying ambush opportunity. Watching a fish eat you fly, be it a dry fly sipped from the surface, a streamer chased and devoured, or a nymph pattern cast to a fish spotted feeding subsurface in shallow water. One of the true wonders in fly angling is to watch an accomplished caster as he or she false casts to work out more line or dry a fly and then present the offering to the fish. There is beauty in the rhythm and flow as the lines rolls out in mid-air on the back and forward casts and good casters make it look effortless.

Russ Webb and I made an early season trip to the Crowsnest River in southern Alberta. The spring runoff was beginning to slow down and water levels and clarity were improving but it was still definitely early season. We decided to fish one of the lower sections of the river that day and after one of those 'on your toes with water within an inch or two of the top of your chest waders' crossings we began to fish our way upstream. We tried fishing dry flies but soon realized that other tactics were in order. Fishing small black streamers has, for many years, been one of our favorite approaches when the water is a little high and slightly off color.

The fish were holding in the slower water below the rocky deflectors that were placed in the river as a habitat improvement measure. The water level was just high enough to allow the current to spill gently over the rocks so the trout had protection from the heavy current and sufficient flow to bring them a supply of food.

We fished the little streamers upstream and hooked several fish during the course of the afternoon. As we worked our way upriver, three or four pairs of angles came and went from the other bank. They all had their rods set up with big orange indicators and who knows what nymph and lead combination on the end of their leaders. They all waded out through the slack water and fished the main current seam that came off the tip of the rock piles on their side of the river. They all had a similar result. No trout. Having watched Russ and I land a couple of fish, an angler in the last pair asked us what we were using. "Small black streamers" we said, to which he replied "Oh, I don't have any streamers." To this day, I still wonder if he had anything in his vest other than nymphs.

In the areas I fish, there is a very large percentage of a couple of generations of "fly" anglers who cannot cast a fly line! All they ever do is lob a bunch of lead out there 10 or 15 feet or so and watch that big red bobber float along. One of the reasons they cannot cast beyond 15 feet is that they are using equipment that was not designed to do what they are doing.

The fly fishing industry has spent much time and money on research and development of fly rods and fly lines. Rods specifically designed for certain species or conditions. Small creek rods, big game rods and everything in between have been developed. Fly lines with tapers designed to turn over leaders of varying lengths and flies from tiny to large and wind resistant are readily available. All of this tackle improvement so that a 'fly angler' can CAST the chosen rod, line, leader and fly combination for the species of choice and under the conditions of the day.

"When using single handed rods, I believe that if you can't false cast it, it is not fly fishing!"

A skilled caster can cast weighted flies. I often used small weighted streamers cast with a 4 or 5 weight rod as an early season searching technique on some of my favorite small streams. My angling friends and I have also been known to cast even more weight on sink tip lines and six to eight weight outfits while fishing big streamers on the Bow River as the spring runoff tapers down. We do keep the false casting to a minimum but we routinely make 30 to 40 foot casts to the bank as we float the river.

When using single handed rods, I believe that if you can't false cast it, it is not fly fishing! If the indicators are so large and the total weight of the nymph and split shot is so heavy that you can't false cast, you should probably be use a spinning outfit. Drift rigs as they are known by the salmon anglers and steelheaders are amazingly effective and designed to cast and fish large floatation devices and heavier weights. They also allow water to be fished that is some distance away from where the angler is standing.

Do strike indicators have a place in fly fishing? There a some who would argue that they do not. The province of British Columbia Canada has fly fishing only regulations that make it illegal to use strike indicators and weight external to the fly. There are also many purists out there who believe fishing with weighted flies, extra lead and indicators is not fly fishing.

I believe that "fly" fishing with a strike indicator does have place in our sport and that any well rounded fly angler has the skill to fish a nymph as well as a dry fly and a streamer. Nymph and indicator set ups that can be false cast and presented with some degree of accuracy are, in my opinion, very much a part of the sport of fly angling. I much prefer to catch trout on dry flies and for years have said that I would much rather catch nothing on a dry fly than catch nothing on a nymph. However, when dry flies are not working, from time to time, I will tie on a streamer or a nymph and go catch some fish.

The problem I see with the future of the sport of fly fishing is that there are too many anglers who have never developed beyond the "catch lots of fish with a nymph and strike indicator stage". They have never learned how to properly cast a fly line and my concern is that I wonder who is going to be around to teach future generations the skills of casting.

Having had many discussions on this whole topic with many different guides and anglers, there is one standard answer I hear repeatedly – "Well it sure does catch a lot of fish." Nymphing is very effective and some days the only way to catch fish. Using nymphs exclusively however, can prevent anglers from learning many of the things that make fly fishing such a wonderful pastime.

I feel very strongly about this topic and was not sure I wanted to contribute to the problem as I see it. I decided to do a video segment on nymphing with a strike indicator so that a few anglers could become a little more rounded in the sport and I will continue to encourage all other fly anglers to learn how to properly cast a fly line, learn how to catch a variety of species using several techniques and move up a level or two in their appreciation of fly fishing.

I have some very strong feelings about strike and indicator fishing. I feel it has the potential to be the downfall of the sport of fly fishing as it has traditionally been known.

Keep in touch. If the day comes that the only reason to go fishing is to "catch a bunch of fish" and none of the other parts of the game come into play, I'll be giving my equipment away and you will want to be near the front of the line.

By the way, don't you dare accuse me of being an 'Old School', too set in his ways, not willing to change, grumpy ol' bugger. The later may apply but none of the others do. If they did I would still be casting a dry fly tied to a gut leader attached to a silk line on a cane rod and only upstream while wearing a pair of heavy, hot, and often leaky pair of rubber chest waders.

I embrace the history and traditions of the sport but at the same time I appreciate the technical improvements in equipment and the new techniques that have come along over the last four decades. If a new 'thing' comes along and I decide it is of true value and not just a fad, I will try it. If I think it makes me a better angler, I will continue to use it. One of the truly great things about fly fishing is that you can continue to learn new things about fish species and their environment, artificial flies, equipment and presentation techniques for as long as you wish.