I like to think that each and every one of us have concrete moments in fishing that change the way we look at the sport. Those, “Ah-ha,” type moments where your brain is rewired forever. One of these moments is burned into my memory, as it was a defining and special time in how I view catching fish. Now let me rewind…
Years ago, long before I considered myself even an intermediate fly fisherman, I was fishing from shore along the Bow River with my best friend. I had floated this section of river many times, and was well aware that hungry fish laid within the pools ahead. However, during those floats I would spin cast, rather than fly fish. I was still at that stage in fly fishing where I was making that jump from a gear grabber to full time fly fisher. Fly fishing, was, and still can be difficult. My younger self enjoyed catching fish, and spin casting was an easier way to tame the trout along the banks of the Bow. On this day, I added another understanding to my repertoire of fly fishing tactics.
I had recently begun my journey into nymphing. Tossing the typical San Juans, Hares Ears, Pheasant Tail, and the like should have turned over a fish or two. Especially in this section of the Bow, where some might beasts swayed within the gentle current. I must have drifted my flies through the pool dozens of times. Each time I stared relentlessly at the indicator in hopes that the reflective orange would bounce below the surface. Yet, each drift came up empty handed. At this time, my buddy was still new to fly fishing and was taking his sweet time getting geared up. When he was finally ready to toss some flies, he headed down to the river next to me and asked me what to put on. I had him put the exact same fly set up as me, but noting that he had a new and longer leader on, I had a thought creep into my head. Maybe the fish were deeper, maybe my flies weren’t getting to where they needed to be. “Put on a split shot,” I instructed him. As you may know, when you’re not the greatest caster putting on extra weight means more difficult casting. This meant I didn’t put extra weight onto my flies. Furthermore, this was long before tungsten beads had become a thing and my flies had no extra weight other than a brass bead.
I watched as my bud awkwardly casted upstream into the pool. After a few tagged shrubs behind him, and a few awful curses, he finally had his flies land in the correct area for a good float through the pool. We both watched patiently, until, suddenly, the indicator bobbed down. His line tightened up and his reel began to race. It was in that moment that I thought about all the missed fish over the years. How silly was it to not think of something so simple, so easy, so slap you in the face perfect before. Get the flies deeper. All in all, he pulled out 10 fish from that hole I had spent a good twenty minutes fishing prior, with the exact flies.
It was like a magic light bulb had gone off in my head, blinding me. I emerged on the other side of the flash a new man, a new fisherman. From that moment on I started fishing deeper and getting my flies down quicker. How many times would my nymphs just barely scratched the surface of the water, when finally coming to the end of their drift? That trip onward meant more fish to the net. I noticed my catch rate doubled overnight. Furthermore, I took note in my drift speeds. If I was truly going to get the flies deeper, it meant they needed more time to sink along with the extra weight I had tied on. I began to slow down my presentation and really allow the flies to drift naturally along the bottom of the river bed.
Now, you might say that fish are often looking up and you want the flies closer to the surface. Yes, this is true, but only when they are actively feeding on the surface. I’ve found fish would rather not have to work for a meal when they can have food drift close to where they are resting. This is especially true for more predatory trout like lakers or bulls. I can tell you, prior to this realization I rarely caught bulls and had never seen a laker in person. However, I began to catch bulls at a phenomenal rate, which created a soft spot in my soul for these wonderful fish.
A good rule of thumb to follow for using split shot is to place the weight about 10 cm above your final fly. If you’d like to get extra fancy, tie off a piece of tippet about 10 cm in length and tie that to the hook shank of your final fly. At the end of the piece of tippet, tie a small knot and crimp down your split shot above the knot. This will allow the split shot to bounce along the bottom and get stuck, rather than your fly. If it does get stuck, you will break off the split shot and save your flies from being lost.
For fly depth, I usually place my indicator at about 1 and a half times the depth of the water you’re fishing, depending on the speed of the river current. If the current speed is slower, shorten up that indicator length up. Furthermore, it is a good idea to use a lead alternative such as tin or tungsten for your split shot(NON-TOXIC Split-Shot). Lead has been shown to be an environmental toxin and harmful to the aquatic habitat. Although alternatives are more expensive than lead split shot, they are designed to be reused and therefore can be cheaper in the long run. Moreover, I have found lead alternatives to say on the line better, not sliding down toward the flies and causing a headache.
A final thought. Using weight to get your flies down is going to take time to get used to. You will get tangled, lose flies to the trees, and break off on the bottom so much! Yet, the amount of fish you will catch long outweighs the cons of losing flies. Heck, we buy or make flies to catch fish! Not to be admired inside our boxes. So I say, get out and get those flies deeper. Especially during times when fish are feeding less and are prone to be along the bottom of the river bed.