Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury, MN, Always Looking to Learn from the River

Long ago when I started my adventure with this hobby (my wife calls it an obsession. I have no idea why – or at least nothing I am willing to admit to), I read several books on fly fishing. That eventually led to various subscriptions to magazines dedicated to the topic. I am well versed in the need to get a natural, drag-free drift when nymphing and using a dry fly. But, I have to say my experience is adding up to say – that’s not always true.

I feel pretty confident in saying that “speed nymphing” has upped the number of large trout I catch. Last year I caught 11 browns between 15”-18” over the course of 25 outings. So far this year, I have 22 browns between 15”-19” in 13 outings. That’s double the fish in nearly half the outings! Most of these have come from “speed nymphing” with the remainder using the “bobber fly fishing” method (described in a previous blog).

The following isolated observations were made over several seasons. The final observations that connected the dots were made this year. This has led me to break from tradition and start strip retrieving a dry fly with a nymph dropper. Heresy you say! I say “Indeed!” Read on and find out why it might be worth your while to try this.

Observation 1: I have a stretch on one of my favorite rivers. I refer to it as my “home stretch.” I know it so well that I notice when a rock moves after run-off. There is one hole I love to hate. Every year there’s at least one big fish in the hole. Every year I dutifully dead drift dries and nymphs through the hole carefully covering every square inch. Every year as I go to pick up my flies for the next cast that stinking fish explodes on the flies as they zip across the water and, you guessed it, misses. I hate when that happens.

Observation 2: Last year I was using a #18 tan caddis as a lead fly with a small unweighted girdle bug as a dropper. I made what appeared to be a good cast only to discover there was a snag immediately downstream of the landing point. To avoid snagging I gave the line a quick jerk to pull the flies out of the drift line. The jerk was hard enough to pull the caddis under. Assuming there was no chance of getting a fish, I started to pick the flies up to recast when a 13” brown nailed the speeding immersed caddis. “How fun I thought.” A short time later a similar sequence occurred but I missed the fish. Knowing that two points form a line and three points confirm a line, I elected to start doing it on purpose. To my amazement, I turned numerous fish and caught a handful. The fish were between 12-16”. Not too bad – but an odd way to catch fish.

I was gifted a book on caddis this year and learned that some caddis actually swim to the bottom to lay their eggs. Trout often key on them. After doing some detective work looking under rocks, I was able to establish that some of the caddis on the river were the egg-laying divers. So I felt like this mystery was solved.

Observation 3: I was dead drifting a dry/nymph dropper rig and doing quite well on the nymph. As usual, about the time you start treating the dry as a strike indicator, a nice fish takes the dry fly. I got lucky on this one and set the hook on a decent brown in the 12-13” range. The fish lunged upstream and to my surprise, a 17” brown nailed the nymph and pulled the dry out of the first fish. The nymph was halfway down the throat of the brown when I went to unhook him. It seemed weird, but as the old saying goes, “Never look a gift trout in the mouth (unless of course you are unhooking them)!”

Observation 4: About three weeks ago, I took a good friend with me to a series of holes requiring a 25-minute hike upstream. As it turned out, the bigger fish were not very active and we were getting the young-of-the-year fish. We arrived at the best run in that section so I directed my friend to the run and started killing time while I waited for him. There is a large hole immediately below the run. Occasionally I can pick off a large trout on the far side, as there is a sharp, well-defined edge they tend to sit on. It’s a long cast with lots of swirling current so it’s a challenge to get a good drift. On one of the casts, I misread the current line and the dry went under almost immediately. So, I started doing short strips with a rod twitch. About half way across the hole, a trout well over 20” surged forward and nailed the nymph. I set the hook and the line went limp. I thought I had pulled the hook out of the trout’s mouth (something I am all too good at). When I made the next cast, I noticed there was no plop indicating the nymph hit the water. I pulled the line in and found the nymph was gone. The fish had broken off the 5x dropper tippet. I really hate when that happens! I turned three more large trout by stripping and twitching. All of them made a swing-and-a-miss slash at the nymph – a #16 tungsten head gray Hare’s Ear.

Observation 5: About two weeks ago, I confirmed this was the real deal. This time I had a parachute dry on with a dropper to a #16 bead head black Copper John. I was walking upstream to get to a series of holes and had to go through a stretch that is fairly shallow but is punctuated periodically with small holes and large flat rocks. It serves as the brookie nursery. I usually catch 4-8” brookies when I fish it. Hence, I was lazily pitching the flies upstream and dead drifting them as I walked. I stumbled when I stepped on one of the large rocks and flushed a 14-16” brown sitting tight to the rock. Then I cast too close to shore and jerked the flies to avoid snagging the rocks near shore. Another decent brown swatted at the dry, but missed.

Based on that, I started casting and doing twitch retrieves on purpose. For the next 30-40 minutes, it was non-stop action. Most of the fish that went for the dry missed. The big winner was the nymph! I caught a 13” brown, a 12” and 3 11” brookies in that stretch. In addition, I saw several larger fish that did a swing-and-a-miss slash at one or the other fly.

I arrived at the hole and returned to dead drifting. That stuck a 13” and 15” brown – not too bad, but I know there’s fish between 17-20” in the hole. On one drift, either the nymph ticked the bottom or a fish missed the fly and pulled the dry under. I did a quick wrist snap to set the hook in case it was a fish – nothing there. Since the dry was under, I decided to strip retrieve for fun. About three strips later, a 17” brown inhaled the nymph right in front of me. Once again, the fly was half way down the fish’s mouth.

I have to admit, I have the most patient, understanding, and loving wife on earth. The next day it was rainy and overcast. As gingerly as I could I pointed out that this was “big fish” weather. She grinned and said, “Get out of here – go get them.” Who was I to argue? I left immediately and returned to the same slow stretch and began twitch retrieving the parachute dry/nymph dropper set up. The day before I pulled a 12” brookie from the front face of a logjam that sat under an overhanging tree. I got lucky, and placed the first cast about 6 inches short of the log pile, and quickly gave a sharp twitch with the rod tip to avoid the underwater logs. Too late, the fly stuck solidly in a snag. Or so I thought. Every now and then, you get a break. This was my night. I started twitching my rod tip hoping to flick the fly off the snag when it took off upstream. It was a strong run and the fish took 15-20 feet of line with the drag set on medium. That was perfect as he took up all the slack and was on the reel. I quickly lowered the drag and realized the fish had turned and was running back to the log pile. Reeling as fast as I could, I managed to keep up with the run and turned the fish a couple feet short of the logs. Whew, dodged a bullet there. Several minutes later, I netted a beautiful 17” brown. Once again, the nymph was half way down the fish’s mouth.

All of this has convinced me that some of the time, twitch retrieving dry flies, and nymphs can be surprisingly effective. My strategy is to dead drift an area first. Then I cast straight across the stream and strip retrieve. Each successive cast is made 3-4 feet upstream of the last cast until I cover the area that was just dead drifted. Once an area is covered with both methods, I move upstream and repeat the same process in new water.

Fly Selection: Amazingly most of the fish caught using this technique are taking a #14-#18 bead head nymphs. It seems like smaller is better. Early in the season, I was using #18s and doing well. But found that I often see the fish’s head turn on the attempted hook set. I think the hook is nicking the fish’s mouth but not sticking. I prefer to use #16 nymphs as it gives me more hook gape for the hook set – it feel like I am getting more productivity on the hookset. I am not sure, but it appears that style and color may not be important. I have caught fish on 6-8 different nymph patterns. However, if you are not catching fish where you know they should be, try changing the color or style of nymph and recast the area. That produced a strong 17” brown last week. I have used the following nymph patterns successfully: Pheasant Tails, gray or black Hare’s Ears, red or black Copper Johns, Princes, black and silver Lightning Bugs, and a palmered maribou nymph I developed a couple of years ago. If you have a local favorite, give it a try – I bet it will work.

The dry fly may produce fish so it is worthwhile to use something that matches what is emerging currently. I try to use flies with a hi-vis post for parachutes or wings for standard dries. The hi-vis wing material helps me track where the flies are so I can guide the set-up as close to rocks, logs, edges, and other current breaks where the fish hold. I would estimate that 20-30% of the fish are caught on the dry fly and at least 2-3 times as many fish swat at the dry but miss. I think that may be a territorial protection response as when the fish do get the dry it is almost always well inside the mouth.

Check your dropper often. I use 5x tippet with the small nymphs so they drop faster and drift more naturally. Your dropper length should be long enough to tick the bottom on nearly every cast. This leads to many “light” snags. I call them “light” snags as a couple of rod tip jostles will usually free the nymph. Over time, the first 3-4 inches of the dropper gets frayed. When you see that, cut off that portion of the frayed dropper plus a couple more inches and retie the nymph. Eventually, the dropper will get too short to be productive. You can use a Surgeon’s or Blood Knot to add more dropper. If I have plenty of spooled tippet, I prefer to put on a new dropper. There’s no sense in creating an opportunity for failure with another knot. In addition, even a well-trimmed knot tends to pick up debris.

Tippet sizes: As a rule I try to use one tippet size smaller on the dropper; when I snag the bottom or a tree, I only lose the dropper. In this blog, the nymphs are small (#16-18) with either standard brass bead heads or tungsten for deeper holes. All of these work fine with a 5x tippet dropper. I try to use a parachute lead fly that matches the size (#12-#18) of what is hatching currently. All these work well with a 4x leader tippet. If you are interested in more details, I provided a chart in a previous blog, “Bobber Fly Fishing”, for matching fly and tippet sizes.

This is a fun way to fish and better yet, it can be hugely successful. Try it and let me know how it works for you.

Note from J. Stockard: Joe will report on a recent experience with Speed Nymphing later this week!

4 Comments

  1. I’ve noticed the same thing when pulling a fly under to avoid a snag. I was drifting a Usual on a fast run in a limestone creek, pulled the line and stuck the rod tip under as the fly raced under the branches. I could see the wing flapping in current and a small rainbow came out from underneath the snag but I missed the strike, or the fish missed. I remembered Fran Betters explaining in his book how to pull the Usual under to imitate a hatching nymph at that very instant. On my “home stretch” of my favorite creek (a small version of the W.Branch Ausable but in central NY) I was fishing a #12 grouse & orange. As the drift straightened out behind me I would let the current load the rod to make another upstream cast. On my 4th or so cast the line didn’t move and the rod arched and the reel screamed. That brown made 5 or 6 runs before my wife came to my screams of help. She waded in and attempted to net it as soon as I was able to bring the fish upstream to her. But it made a surge as the net came up and broke off. It had to be 18″ to 20″ long. A trophy lost but a treasured memory none the less. Both instances of moving the fly as you’ve explained. The secret I think is acting on our observations to become better at what ever we do. So thankyou for confirming my own observations.

    1. Thanks for your comment Joe. I feel your pain on that big fish. Just this year I had a fish of similar size right in front of me. I reached around my back to get my net. In that split second the fish found the only nearby rock and was rubbing the fly out of its mouth as I turned to see the fish swim away. The silver lining is, now we know where these fish live and we can try again another day! Thanks for sharing your experience as well.

  2. Joe,

    Great blog. I know you are on to something.

    Years ago I used a variance of your technique. I was confronted with a narrow stream with heavy brush and overhanging trees. There was no way to make a cast (or at least for me to make a cast). I first tried drifting a dry downstream without luck. Switched to a nymph but it kept hanging up on the bottom a few feet away, so I did the dry dropper thing. No luck (could not get a drag free drift), but at the end of one drift as I started to strip back I caught a small rainbow. Tried it again and caught another and another and another. Mostly on the dropper, but occasionally on the drenched “dry”.

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