Dead Drifts and Bottom Bounces
Even the best pattern will prove ineffective if it’s not in sync with your tackle and presentation technique given the type of water you are fishing.
It can be difficult to detect strikes when drifting stonefly nymphs on the bottom, because you cannot see the fly or striking fish, so that’s where some type of strike indicator comes in handy. A floating indicator is fine; just be sure to set it high enough on the leader so your fly can still reach the bottom. In swift water where stoneflies are found, it’s harder for the fly to sink because it has less time in which to do it. In those situations, distance the indicator on the leader to be above the fly by at least twice the water depth. For instance, if the run you’re fishing is three feet deep, set your indicator at least six feet above the fly. The extra length will ensure the pattern can still hit bottom.
The best way to match the stonefly nymphs on your local stream is to go out and see them for yourself. But before you find a riffle with plenty of rocks and start turning them over, here are a few things that will make it easier to catch and observe these magnificent bugs.
• Bring a small net; the type used to remove fish from aquariums. Hold the net downstream of the rock you’re picking up to catch any swept-away nymphs.
• Use a pocketknife to pick stonefly nymphs off the rocks. They cling tightly to rough surfaces, and you’ll likely damage the nymphs if you try to pick them off with your fingers. Instead, slide the knife blade under and lift them.
• Put a few nymphs in several small, clear jars for later observation. If you bring only one jar, you’re bound to break it.
• Suck nymphs from puddles of water or small, clear jars with a slender turkey baster or medicine dropper.
• Finally, use a camera to take photos of any interesting insects you catch. You can archive your images for later reference, and it’s more satisfying than killing nymphs in clear jars.
Simply attaching an indicator to your leader is easy. However, it also allows your fly to drift far from the indicator, making it difficult to tell exactly where you are fishing. Try using a rightangle rig when you wish to target specific lies. This consists of an O-ring-style indicator (like a yarn indicator) tied directly to the leader. The fly is then attached to the O-ring with a length of tippet. By adjusting the length of tippet, it’s possible to suspend your fly just off the bottom, directly beneath the indicator. This rig allows for precision drifting, but it also requires a lengthy setup.
Simple Brooks Stonefly
HOOK: Streamer hook, sizes 8 to 12.
WEIGHT: Several wraps of lead wire.
THREAD: Black. TAIL: Black hackle fibers.
RIB: Copper wire wrapped over abdomen.
BODY: Black yarn.
HACKLE: Soft black hackle wrapped over thorax.
NOTE: This is a simplified version of the original pattern that’s perfect for drifting through fast pocket water. Substitute material colors to match your local stonefly nymphs.
The egg-and-stonefly rig is another type of indicator rig that is popular among winter steelheaders on Great Lakes tributaries. To make one, start by tying a Glo Bug or similar egg pattern to your leader. Then tie a second length of tippet to the same Glo Bug hook eye and attach a weighted stonefly nymph to the other end. In this case, it’s not necessary for the indicator to float; it simply helps you to detect strikes on the deep-drifting nymph while also serving as a second fly.
Indicator rigs are ideal for dead-drifting and bottom bouncing. Since stoneflies do not swim or rise, there is no need to imitate them with swimming retrieves or lifting techniques. Instead, your goal should be a deep, drag-free drift.
To perform a dead drift with an indicator rig, cast across current or slightly upstream and mend the line so the nymph can sink. Follow the drifting indicator with your rod tip, mending and feeding line so the fly drifts freely. If the indicator stops, dips, or changes direction, set the hook. Remember, you’ll need enough space between the fly and indicator to allow your fly to sink and bounce along the bottom. A rocky bottom is prime stonefly habitat, and trout know it. You should be fishing deep enough that you feel the fly making contact with the bottom. If you aren’t occasionally hung up and losing flies, you’re not fishing deep enough.
Stoneflies Out West
Eastern techniques as described above will work anywhere, provided your nymphs can reach the bottom. Accomplishing that can be a problem in the West, where swift runs and pocket water drag flies off the bottom. Heavily weighted nymphs, stout leaders, and high-stick techniques are better for pulling trout out of deep, Rocky Mountain pocket water.
You can high-stick moderately fast pocket water with a rig similar to the one used for indicator nymphing. Use a floating fly line, a heavily weighted stonefly nymph, and a tapered leader that is at least twice the depth of the water you’re fishing. Make short casts above the pocket and raise your rod high to keep as much fly line off the water as possible. This will reduce drag and allow your nymph to reach the bottom. You’ll have to detect strikes by feel, so be sure to keep your slack line to a minimum and set the hook at the slightest hang-up.
Yellowstone angler Charles Brooks devised his Brooks Method to catch trout in the swift, rocky rivers of the West and outlined the method in his 1976 book, Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout. To rig up for the Brooks Method, start with a sinking fly line or add enough weight to the leader to sink the line as well. Then tie on a stout four- to six-foot leader (for example, a level piece of 10- to 15-pound fluorocarbon) and a large, heavy nymph. The heavy fly and short leader allow the fly to sink quickly, and simultaneously raising the rod prevents the swift current from dragging line and causing the fly to rise off the bottom.
Whereas a high-stick technique aims to keep all the fly line off the water, making it easier to fish at close range, the Brooks Method takes into account the additional weight of a sinking fly line or extra weight on the leader, so it’s possible to fish beyond the reach of your fly rod.
Increasing your knowledge of the insects that trout prey upon is a critical but often overlooked component of the sport. I recommend learning about the habits of stonefly nymphs in the waters you fish. Once you have an understanding of how stonefly nymphs behave, you’ll be able to present your flies in a more realistic manner and become a better angler.
Nathan Perkinson lives in northeastern Indiana with his wife and two sons. He spends most of his time fly fishing for trout and warmwater species in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.