We’ve all heard or read something along the lines of “If you are not losing flies, you are not fishing heavy enough”, it’s a common saying fly fishermen have had drilled in our heads. It makes sense, trout spend a lot of time near the bottom of the river. However, when it comes to Euro Nymphing, more times than not, that mind set isn’t going to be your most effective strategy if you want to maximize fish caught and minimize frustration.
Euro Nymphing has become extremely popular in the past few years and for good reason. I began euro nymphing without a strike indicator more than 8 years ago, before most fly shops carried sighter matierial, pre built leaders, euro specific rods, Instructional DVD’s or Tungsten weighted flies tied on jig hooks. It’s never been easier to get into Euro nymphing and shorten the learning curve but there are things that you just won’t learn or master without a lot of time spent fishing, tinkering, adjusting and failing. I’ve made every mistake in my evolution to becoming an elite nympher, and after thousands of learning sessions on the water have realized that a high percentage of my most unproductive days tend be the same days I am hooking bottom frequently and losing lots of flies.
Most beginning euro nymphers often start out by fishing very heavily weighted flies because they are easier to cast on a long thin leader and also provide a very positive feel for the beginner. You know and feel when your flies hit bottom, and since the heavy flies create a tight line and sighter, you feel most, if not all strikes. For the beginner who has suddenly found a new tactic that is quite effective and provides a very positive feedback from fish and rock alike, heavy flies become the natural way to Euro nymph. As the ability to cast accurately, fish at greater distance, present flies upstream, and master different water types improves, fishing heavy flies generally stays constant with many if not most anglers.
Why can fishing flies that are too heavy decrease success? Well, how many times do you end up hooking bottom in a shallow riffle or cast into a soft inside seam or behind a rock in pocket water and have that heavy fly immediately hang up? In those scenario’s you are left with a choice, go get the flies if possible, and spook all the fish in that area, or break off so you don’t spook the fish. Unless I am fishing in a competition I’ll almost always try to retrieve my flies because I have both time and money invested in tying them. Neither option is good when it comes to catching fish and having fun doing it.
On top of that, If that heavy fly is always sinking or dragging across the rocks, it does not look as natural as a lighter weighted nymph that is drifting just off the bottom with the current in the way the naturals do. A more natural presentation will always result in more fish in the net.
Lastly fish frequently suspend, especially when the water warms and hatches are in full swing. If your flies are drifting below some or most of the fish then you are missing out.
Pictured above: Heavy pocket water that at first glance screams heavy nymphs, but the reality is that the pockets where fish were holding are slowed so much by boulders that heavy nymphs result in constant hang ups. I fished most of this section with two flies that had 2.8-3.0 mm tungsten beads and where it the gradient flattened out below fished a single nymph with the most success. This river in Maine was full of wild brookies and salmon.
For all of these reason’s I’ve reversed my progression of weights from lighter to heavier. To start, if I think I can get a fish to eat a dry I’ll fish a dry dropper with between a 2.0mm bead to 3.0mm bead depending on the size of the dry fly, water depth and velocity. If fish are not eating the dry or I have fished the upper water column in a deeper pool or run with the dry dropper I’ll then clip off the dry and either fish a single nymph with a light enough bead that I am not hooking bottom, or two nymphs. When fishing one nymph I’ll usually go up to a 3.3mm bead and if I feel I am still not getting down deep enough I’ll usually then add a second fly tied off of a tag that is between 2.0mm and 3.0mm. If needed at that point I’ll open my heavy weight fly box and fish heavy 3.8mm+ tungsten beaded flies.
Spring run off is when I am most likely to be fishing my heavy weight box. When I just need to get the flies through a lot of water that is moving fast then it is necessary to over weight the nymph or your flies will be past you before they ever get in the strike zone. I know of quite a few places that have fish holding depressions and when the water is high and pushing you’d never know they are there, but, they hold fish year round. In those cases heavy flies are a must. A few other scenario’s where I’ll use heavy flies are deep pools, cold water or strong wind. This year in VT the fall has been very very dry and on the big rivers fish have concentrated into some of the very deep pools. There have been a few times when I have dredged the bottoms of these with heavy flies and had success but honestly more times than not I’ve done better casting dries over the deep water. Cold water temps will also cause me to get the heavy flies out. When the fishes metabolism is slowed and they are not suspending and moving much for a fly then it can be necessary to get the fly down quickly and on the bottom. The last scenario I use overly heavy flies is when there is a strong wind. Wind makes Euro nymphing difficult and with light flies you may not have enough weight to keep the flies drifting naturally thanks to your leader being blown around above the surface. Heavier flies will help to anchor the the drift along with fishing your rod tip lower to the water.
How do I determine if my flies are weighted properly?
There are a handful of clues that will tip you off to whether you are fishing the correct weight flies. Obviously too heavy and you are hooking bottom and bouncing flies along the river bottom frequently. Determining if you are too light or just right is more of a nuanced art form that becomes almost instinctual. Variables change on almost every cast whether that be water depth, current speed, river bottom structure, current direction, wind speed, casting angle, entry angle of your flies, distance of your flies from your rod tip, rod angle, or line management. These change on virtually every cast so there are no hard fast rules. They key is reading your sighter, the water and the fish.
My goal usually is for my flies not to drag but to drift. This is a vital concept. The sighter usually is fairly vertical maybe a 60-75 degree angle and has a bit of a bend in it that I am focusing on to detect any tightening or twitching. Since flies are less heavy you will see some takes before you feel them, but with a sensitive rod, and thin properly set up leader I do still feel many of them. The majority of the time it is indiscernible whether I see the eat or feel the eat first, they seem to happen at the same time.
If my flies are too light I have a hard time keeping my sighter between a 60 degree and vertical angle. It will tend to flatten out because the flies are not dropping through the water column quickly enough or at all. When euro nymphing you control the distance of your sighter to the water and ultimately how deep your flies fish. If I try and am not able to ever touch bottom I may be too light.
I also let the fish tell me if I am deep enough. Should I be fishing a piece of water and I believe I have made good drifts through a specific current seam and not touched bottom or a fish then that usually tells me I need to try a heavier fly because my current flies are not getting deep enough only after I have fished the entire water column will I change patterns.
Because of all the variables that affect each and every drift, fishing properly weighted flies is an advanced skill that will come from time on the water. If you are willing to push out of your comfort zone and devote the time to learn how to fish lighter weight nymphs I know you’ll be rewarded with more fish and fewer flies lost to the bottom. Lighten up and have fun out there.