|Drifting the Seam|
After covering such topics as The Setup and The Cast, it’s now time to move on to presentation. Since I prefer to nymph fish from shore, and I find it to be really effective, most of this will be covered from the perspective of wade fishing.
But first let’s talk about the type of water that we need to be looking at. Essentially, where should we be presenting these patterns?
Holding water certainly fluctuates throughout the year, but that said, certain characteristics hold true. Fish like some amount of current to stay alive – to keep their gills functioning, but how much current will often depend on the temperature of the water. During winter, early spring and late fall fish will likely be holding in slow, potty water – often it is that water that doesn’t have much surface description. Cooler temps slow their metabolism and their desire to move aggressively around feeding lanes. When cold, they will enjoy the slow glass, lazy chop or deep holes where they don’t need to expend much energy. If a certain hatch is happening (like midges, or blue wing olives) they will move into shallower water or an eddy line to feed, but they will still likely avoid fast current.
As temperatures heat up, so do fish metabolisms and their need for feed. Fish will start to collect in faster current seams and structures that provide a nice break in the flow, yet being well- oxygenated water. They become ardent hunters beneath the surface of the river and scour the current lines for active aquatic nymphs that may be nearing their hatch, or that have been dislodged from their holds along the riverbed. Not only will positioning depend on temperature, and specific bug hatches, but it may also depend on the time of day. During low- angled light of morning and evening, fish may be hanging out very close to shore. As the sun rises and shines down from a higher angle in the sky, fish will often slide out deeper and/or look for broken surface water for cover.
I am a big fan of fishing defined areas in the river and covering them completely and methodically. During warm weather months trout holds become ever apparent. What catches my eye? Always, my eye stops where there is a stark difference in current – a convergence of two altering currents – where fast meets slow. Wedged between these two currents is what is called the Seam Line. It is a meeting point and a usual hangout for trout. Seam Lines can be wide, or they can be exceptionally thin and anglers should expect to find fish somewhere along this transition zone. Other areas of note where currents converge, lie around structure in the river. Boulders, logs or even an old discarded car can create a break from the main flow where trout can find comfort. Downstream of the structure - whether it is an eddy or a soft patch of glassy water, fish will live. Also, upstream of structure, like in front of a boulder, is a natural hold. Although it is more subtle to detect, there is usually a soft pillow of water on the upstream side where fish will rest and/or feed. Often times, you may hear the term, “slot”. These are soft stretches of water, sometimes very thin, that are surrounded by faster flow. They are often created between sets of boulders or gouges in the riverbed floor. Look for these areas. You can detect them by the surface speed of the water, but also, look for subtle changes in the color of the water. A deeper shade of green signifies more depth. And with depth, comes slower current, and with slower current comes comfortable holds. Slots can be very skinny, so when fishing these areas, cover the water in small increments so as to drift your bugs close to any fish that has “tucked” in.
Another classic home for trout is the shelf drop. These are areas where the river bottom drops abruptly from relatively shallow cobble, into deeper water. They are easy to see, because the current will drastically put on the brakes into a soft up-welling and the light color of a shallow gravel bar will immediately darken. These are very comfortable lies for fish and great place to pick off food that tumbles off the bar. They most often occur at bends in the river, where the water wants to change direction.
Working upstream is the way to go, so after eyeing the water, look for the lowest possible hold and step into the river there. When just getting started, observe the water just off shore as you’ll want to fish that first, before stepping though it.
The reason we want to work upstream is so that we are able to get our flies down and maintain a longer presentation. River currents tend to go from slow to fast as you move from the river’s edge towards midstream. Therefore, if we lay our line at a quartering angle upstream we are better able to eliminate excessive line drag.
In order to maintain a dead-drift presentation we need to pay constant attention to the line that exists between our rod tip and our flies. This is KEY. River currents are dynamic and tricky. The particular current that your flies are in is always going to be different from the currents that your fly line crosses. If we were to blindly cast our line and then forget about it, it would not take long for our flies to start to swing unnaturally. If our fly line is downstream of our flies and it starts to move faster than our flies, then our patterns will start to drag across the current. If our line is upstream of our flies and it is moving slower than our flies, then our patterns will drag unnaturally. So we need to do everything in our power to adjust that line between our flies and rod tip during the drift.
How do we adjust this line? Enter the MEND. If you’ve ever been fishing with a trout guide, you hear these words all day long. In short, a mend an adjustment to or a repositioning of the line between your rod tip and your flies. If your line is downstream of your flies and moving faster, then an upstream mend is in order. Conversely, if your line is upstream of your flies and moving slower, a downstream mend is needed. Upstream Mend: Roll the fly line and excess leader upstream of your flies (Your flies will be the first in line to travel down the river). Downstream Mend: Roll the fly line and excess leader downstream of your flies (Your flies will be last to travel downriver). When to do which depends on the current. Typically, if the water closer to you is faster than the current where you are fishing, you need an upstream mend. If the water closer to you is moving slower than the outside current where your flies are, then you’re thinking downstream mend. Starting to see the picture? As soon as you notice the line drag and pull unnaturally on the leader and flies, it’s time to adjust (actually you need to act before drag even happens). Your flies are tethered to you. We want them to look unteathered. We have to manage the actual tether in order to stay natural looking. So mending well takes a bit of time, but it is basically performed by softly lifting your rod-tip up and then flicking it either upstream or down. We want to lift the line from the water and then move it. But, be careful not to move the actual flies. Solid nymph anglers are able to maneuver the fly line without altering the drift. It takes a quick, yet gentle touch and can only be perfected by time on the water.
Aside from your basic mend adjustments, there is also what’s called a “slack” mend. This refers to the act of adding additional line to a given drift. Normally, a slack mend is used to extend a drift or keep your patterns moving naturally for a longer period of time. The motion is the same as the basic line mend adjustment, but during this motion additional line that is held in hand is allowed to slide out through the rod tip. Basically, the tension created from the existing line on the water will pull additional line free.
There are so many different current scenarios so it will be difficult to cover them all. But let’s take a stab at a few.
The Typical Riffle
Here we are usually afforded a gradual increase in current speed from inside water to midstream water. Water near the top of the riffle will be moving very fast with its speed slowly dissipating as it moves down the run. Start low, where the water is moving at about a walking pace. What you’ll notice as you look up toward the head of the riffle is that the seam line (the convergence of fast and slow current) becomes slimmer the further up you go. Remember, we want to concentrate our efforts on the SEAM. Not the ripping water and not the dead water – just everything in between. So after getting onto a castable distance, roll your line upstream at a 45 degree angle (where 90 is straight across from you). During the initial part of your drift, you shouldn’t have to do any mending. You will likely notice that the your leader is drifting naturally because at this angle, your line, that is in the slower water, has a headstart on the rest. Here, we want to slowly pull the line slack in through the rod tip as the drift works its way towards us. If we have too much slack on the water, we will not get a quick enough hook set if our indicator should indicate fish. Now, once our indicator starts to drift past the rest of our flyline downstream, we need to mend. A simple downstream mend will work to extend our drift for a short distance. If we roll our line downstream at a 45, we again give that line that is in the slower water a head start. This can happen frequently on a drift like this, where we keep adjusting our line downstream before our patterns. However, we will eventually get to the point where we’ll need to dump a bunch of slack into the drift to keep it going. This can be a little more difficult, but it can pay big dividends… To do this, we want to dump a large portion of our line into the same current line as our flies. Start by doing a big upstream line mend. Then, immediately lift and roll cast the line as well as additional line (backup line in your hand) – roll cast it out so that it lands in a big heap next to your indicator. Now your line is able to travel freely along the same path it was traveling. Again, be careful not to rearrange your actual flies on the adjustment! If your flies run out of line, you can dump more by performing slack mends out into the current. But, you must lay this line out into the same current that your flies are travelling or they will drag! This often means reaching out with your rod to eliminate the dead water on the inside.
The broader the seam, the more you need to cover it. Work your presentations out a couple of feet at a time. After you have covered the seam before you, take a few steps up and repeat. Keep working up the seam line until you reach the very head of the riffle. Here the seam may only be an inch or two wide! But often, on warm days, you will find fish tucked into these comfortable, well-oxygenated, food lanes.
Rock Seam or Slot
This can be tricky. Most of the time the water between you and the fish is moving faster than where the fish is hanging out; which means that once your fly line hits the water, it’s going to start to drag your flies right out of the zone you want to fish. We’ll need to get real good at the upstream mend quick for this scenario. So you quarter your line upstream on the cast and immediately mend your line upstream above your indicator. As long as your fly line is not bowing down, or leading your flies, your patterns should sink and start to drift naturally. As soon as you notice your fly line start to pull in the faster current it’s time to mend once again. Continue to mend often and aggressively without pulling against the flies. Now you are no doubt limited to this excess mending if you are far away from the fish zone. However, if you are more than a couple rod lengths away from the water you are fishing, there is a better strategy. When you lift your rod up towards your drift, but high in the air, you eliminate all those pesky currents that want to grip your fly line. One could call this high-sticking, because this is exactly what you’re doing. When your fly line is up in the air, away from the stream flow, it is at your beck and call. In this case, watch your leader and the pace of the river where your flies are drifting. With your rod tip high in the air, move your rod tip, and resultantly, your fly line along at a pace barley slower than the rate of the current (slower because underwater currents are slower than those on top). You are still looking at the indicator for any sign of fish, but you remain far more connected to the flies. Aside from the primo line control that you are allowed when eliminating all the other currents from the equation, it is far easier to set the hook quickly when the fish take a bite. I should say however, that this only works when you are physically close to the water you are searching. I love to high stick when I am close, but usually this only occurs when I am fishing slots that have broken surface currents. You don’t want to try this when you are fishing glassy water for fear of scaring all your fish away! When fish are hanging out in deep slots beneath a broken surface, play around with your weight. I you aren’t hanging up on bottom, or hooking fish for that matter, add another split shot to drop it down even deeper. Often times, getting down just a hair more means getting it down into that slot where the fish eyes are.
You can fish these from either a downstream position or from a cross or upstream angle. From the downstream angle, you only need to obey the laws of physics and continue to either mend your line downstream or dump slack atop the leader to extend a drift. When working from across or slightly above the shelf drop, start with a short cast but have many line coils in hand to feed into the drift. Here we want an upstream mend motion but with added slack stacked above the line. Depending on the amount of weight you are fishing, you want to land your pattern close to the actual drop and then feed line by either drawing your rod tip up and down or wiggling it from side to side to pull additional line out the rod. Both ways work, as you’re simply using motion and line tension to pull out additional line. Start with the water that is closest to you and work out into the river from there. Unlike your typical riffle seam, soft water will exist across a wide swath of shelf drop.
Swinging Soft Hackles
When we are fishing wet patterns, most of the time we are mimicking dead-drifted nymph patterns that are pawns to the surrounding current. However, there are certain types of bugs, that when they hatch rise up or actually swim somewhat aggressively to the surface to hatch. Referred to as emergers, these patterns can be dead-drifted or swung (under tension) across the current. One of the nice things about working upstream through a stretch of water is giving yourself the option to turn around and work the water back down with swung flies. By swung flies, I mean we’re taking the dead-drift and throwing it out the window. One way to tell if fish are eating emerger patterns is the aggressiveness of the rise. Since these flies are swimming or rising to the surface rather determined- like, fish will often break the surface of the water with equal gumption. Splashy rises – and if you’re really in tune, rises that do not leave bubbles on the surface means that they are feeding on emergers in the water column just below. Look at the water, see what’s hatching and tie on the emerger version of that fly. Look to see where that fish is feeding. Ok, now that you’ve got the zip code, remove your strike indictor, tie on your pattern and cast it at a 90 degree angle across the current line. Give a big upstream mend and dump a little slack on top of the drift so that it dead drifts and sinks for a spell. Then just before your fly reaches the feeding lane, start to slowly raise your rod tip up which will bring your bug under tension and make it climb up towards the surface. Play around with weight. If your fly doesn’t have a bead head, you’ll likely need add a split shot or two about 14 inches above the dly. Continue to work down the river, trying to bring your flies under tension right where the fast part of the seam begins. Sometimes, fish will key onto these emerger patterns and little else. And, unlike the dead drifted fly, the swung fly can provide a vicious initial yank that can be felt all the way to your toenails!
Hopefully this may be of some help. Remember, it’s what you do with your fly line between yourself and your flies that matters most. Think about how something moves in the current and try to mimic this movement. Understanding the importance of line control is paramount to making you a successful angler.
Well next on the list is flies and maybe a few other strategies cover.