We have heard it a thousand times, trout eat 90% of their food sub surface. Many anglers, including myself, have had this saying bolstered by our on the water experiences so many times that nymphing has become the go to method to catch trout in a river. What happens though, when the trout, or only a few trout are looking for that perfectly dead drifted nymph that we strive so hard to present?
The fact is, there are more times than we may realize, when nymphing is not the way to experience our most successful day on the water. While the majority of the trout do probably eat 90% of their food below the surface, the saying does not tell the whole story. Species composition, the nature of individual rivers, the time of year, and what food source the fish are targeting are all variables that will determine what the most successful method of fly fishing will be on a particular day. It is our task as anglers to figure out the daily puzzle and depending on our goals, use the tactics that will produce the best experience. To me, this is what makes fly fishing so interesting. Being a versatile and dynamic angler will usually out perform a one trick pony. Like the river we stand in, no two days are the same. Let's dig into some of the variables that will push the odds of catching fish on a dry fly, streamer, or wet fly greater than if only nymph fishing.
My wife is a good fly angler, after years of learning, she also understands that what she loves most about fly fishing is watching a trout eat a dry fly. Naturally then, her go to method is dry fly fishing. It's almost humbling how many times the two of us have fished a river together and her success fishing a dry fly, regardless of whether there are fish rising (most of the time not), has reminded me nymphing isn't the only way. One day in particular stands out while fishing in Northern NH. The two of us worked up through a stretch of water, my wife on the left side fishing dries, and myself on the right nymphing. While I was catching stocked rainbows and browns, I was thrilled to see her happily catching small wild landlocked salmon and brook trout almost as fast. When the session was over I caught zero salmon and maybe one brook trout, while she caught few if any rainbows or browns. When we head west on our semi annual summer trip to Jackson hole, those Snake River Cutthroat trout almost never eat a nymph, preferring dry flies, while dropping a nymph subsurface will produce endless whitefish. I can't tell you how many times I've envisioned the amazing success I'll have using dry dropper tactics from the drift boat to double my catch rate on those cutties, only to eventually cut the nymph off and fish a single dry.
There are a handful of rivers I have visited where the fish just love to munch on dry flies, one of which is right here in VT. Fishing this particular river during much of spring through fall can be maddening because if the fish are not responding to dries, they are very difficult if not impossible to fool on nymphs or streamers. When they are eating, your catch rate will be around 10-1 dry flies over nymphs regardless of whether the fish are actively eating bugs off of the surface or you are just prospecting likely lies. Likewise, I have fished rivers in which the fish on an average day or more willing to eat a streamer. The two VT rivers I primarily float with clients are great examples. I find that one river will fairly consistently produce fish on streamers while the other will only produce a fish or two on an inconsistent basis, few enough to say that it's not a common occurrence.
Time of Year
While most rivers have a predictable hatch, trout do not respond the same to each hatch. In the spring on most of my rivers in Northern and Central VT, dry fly fishing will be inconsistent during the daytime despite many species of Mayfly, caddis and stoneflies hatching, but nymphing can be quite easy. Come fall when the Isonychia and baetis mayflies hatch, fish are much more willing to eat off of the surface despite many fewer insects actually on the water. This time of year often will result in days when dry flies easily will out produce nymphs. Additionally, trout inhabiting separate rivers will not always respond to a particular hatch the same even in interconnected waterways .
Simply because trout are eating subsurface, does not mean that they are willing to eat our dead drifted nymph. This is because their food, in this case aquatic insects, are not always dead drifting through the current. Countless times swinging my flies has proved the trigger that trout were looking for. I believe that anglers who focus too much on a dead drift and are ready to start the next cast instead of finishing the drift miss out on lots of fish catching opportunities. This especially applies to Euro nymphing where conventional advice is to "set to begin your next cast". On my last trip to Oregon we stopped on the way back to the airport and fished for a couple of hours on a beautiful Central Oregon river. I don't even recall the name of the river, but I'll never forget every single fish I caught was on the swing in water below me that I had already waded through. For me during spring, summer, and fall catching 25-50% of my fish on the swing is not rare. The food sources trout eat are not always insects either. Crayfish, minnows, leeches and even other trout are on the menu. Taking the time to try a small streamer in varying colors and retrieves can reveal that trout are keying into something other than insects. I like to dead drift a streamer, jig it around rocks and structure, pull it downstream faster than the current and swing it through the current below me. Varying your presentations will mimic different species of prey. Finding a presentation that works is a rewarding and fun way to fish. Sometimes a clear pattern will be revealed while other times each individual fish seems to be fooled by varying the presentation.
Alternatively, even on the river you know best, you can be in for a surprise. A few years ago guide Andy Masenas and I were fishing one of our favorite stretches of river where subsurface presentations are nearly always the best option. After splitting up, I had only caught a few fish on nymphs and one on a streamer. When I met up with Andy his dry dropper rig was crushing fish on the attractor dry despite no insect activity and seeing no rises. Tying on a dry fly salvaged my day on the water.
Next time you head to the river be prepared to vary your tactics. Step out of your comfort zone and remind yourself that nymphing is not always the method that will bring you the most success. If changing leaders or re rigging is not something you are willing to take the time to do on the water, bring two rods. Bringing two rods rigged up and ready to the river with you will give you quick options if your expected or preferred method is not working. Becoming a dynamic and versatile angler that is proficient at many aspects of fly fishing will pay dividends when plan A inevitably does not work out.