My earliest trout fishing experiences were in the South Island of New Zealand and confined primarily to dry-fly fishing with some wet-fly-fishing thrown-in, mostly in genteel waters.
The culture shock I experienced the first time I tried to fish the Tongariro River, on the Central Plateau of the North Island, NZ, in Winter was immense.
There was just so much water. Deep and wide - and moving at a great rate of knots. I tried nymphing with a complete lack of success.
Everything was happening too fast.
This coupled with the fact that I was experiencing great trouble trying to cast heavy nymphs led to very frustrating days. Added to my problems was the fact that in South Island style I did not use indicators - and it soon became obvious that what I thought were heavy nymphs were not heavy enough.
My futile attempts to catch fish and the frustration that grew out of it, led me to try another method, so I turned to wet lining - using a fast-sinking shooting head to toss wet-flies and streamers slightly up, and across, stream, then let the fly swing.
This was much easier to manage and soon I started to catch fish - especially when I learned how to tell if my fly was on or very near the bottom.
John Milner, then owner of the Anglers Paradise Motel in Turangi (on the banks of the Tongariro), became my wet-lining mentor. In the early days I would return tired and fishless to be greeted by the question - no, not 'how many fish' - but "how many flies did you lose?"
John explained that to be successful at catching fish in the region during the trout runs in winter the fly had to be on the bottom for the maximum time.
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If the fly was near the bottom, then it stood to reason that it would catch on the rocks, sticks, and snags waiting there for this very purpose. At first it seemed to me that John's interest in the number of flies I lost was mere greed - he sold me most of the flies I used. (Still it did re-ingnite my passion for fly-tying, which still remains)
I soon learnt that if the fly was spending the right amount of time near the bottom, I should expect to lose at least 5 and often many more flies in a day - but be rewarded for this loss with the capture of more fish. As soon as I learnt how to lose more flies I began to catch fish.
Getting the fly down needed some quick action.
I would cast across the river and slightly upstream of where I stood. As soon as the line landed on the water, it was time to throw as big an upstream mend as possible, followed by a kind of roll-casting of backing line out towards the fly line.
This introduced slack into the system allowing time for the deep end of the shooting-head to sink, pulling the fly down with it.
Then it was a matter of waiting for the fly to swing across the current back to my side of the river. Often the line would come up tight, and most often the fly would be snagged, but often enough the 'snag' would bolt away pulling line behind it.
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Gaining some experience on the water by wet lining, and learning something of the ways of that water, reinforced by actually starting to catch fish on a regular basis, lead me to try nymphing again.
I fooled about trying to cast heavy nymphs with a fuzz-ball of an indicator, but largely wasted my fishing time.
I became an expert at hooking up to the back of my fishing vest, my hat, the back of my waders, undergrowth on the bank behind me, and generally failing to send the nymphs even remotely in the direction of, and to the distance required, to reach where the fish might be holding. Frustration time again.
So I stopped wasting time, sought some advice, and practiced on dry land with split shot for weight. Slowly, but surely, I got better.
Now able to cast the nymphs somewhere near the right direction and getting close to the right distance, the next learning curve reared up in front of me. It was all very well to get the nymphs far enough ahead of the probable lie, but getting them down to the bottom in front of the fish became my next problem.
So I learned the necessity of throwing the first upstream mend above the nymph as soon as humanely possible - that being always about five seconds faster than my actual skill levels. But I soon learned that getting as much slack line upstream of the fly ("mending") as soon as possible was critical.
It did not matter if I put too much slack above the fly early in the drift of the fly-line - it is far easier to remove slack from on top of fast flowing water, than to put slack in.
Especially when it takes very little movement of the fly line to pull the nymph up off the bottom. Once the nymph comes up from the bottom it is very hard, mostly impossible, in fast moving or deep water, to get it back down again.
As my skills grew I began to recognise a good drift by the regular small bobs made by the indicator as the fly made contact with the bottom.
That spurred me to learn how to maximise the time the nymph spent close to the bottom, and of course reinforce the lesson that getting in that first early mend was critical to the drift of the fly that would follow.
Just like the early days wet-lining I learned to judge my success at getting the fly to the bottom by the number of nymphs I lost in a days fishing. As the number of lost flies went up so did the number of trout I began to catch.
Again in those early heavy-nymphing days I would strike at any and all twitches of the indicator, heaving back on the rod in a full radial arc, while pulling down hard on the line. This guaranteed a good solid hook-set in the jaws of each and every rock, stick and snag the poor nymph was passing.
I soon learned that in this fierce water, striking like that was pretty-much a waste of time and flies. And once, a very good way of putting too much bend in a rod - way too much. I re-learned just how far shards of graphite can fly when a rod is placed under too much stress - expensive, explosive lesson.
There was another lesson in there about the general silliness of striking with full bluster.
If you swing the rod back in an arc with the rod tip ending up way behind your head, and you have pulled down on the line to a full arm stretch, just what the heck are you going to do next?
The fish is bolting through the water, slack is getting in the system and you are standing there with your arms pointing in opposite directions looking for all the world like a John Travolta imitation from Saturday Night fever, (for those who can remember that far back).
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You have to either drop the rod-tip, or let the line go slack, to start playing the fish. But dropping the rod-tip, or letting the line go slack, are pretty much guaranteed to lose a fish.
So I learned to strike by pulling the rod-tip parallel to the surface of the water and away from the direction the line was moving from the rod-tip, not in the direction of the fish! Saturday Night Fever problem fixed.
I also learned that the amount of time my nymphs spent in likely lies (where trout lie in rivers, not the lies anglers tell when they cannot find lies) was a strong determining factor in my success rate.
Spending time tying on new leaders and nymphs was wasting that time.
So I tried to pick the difference between a trout stalling the indicator in the water from the assorted inanimate creatures that slowed the nymph's progress.
In fact it seems to me that in big fast water most fish are already hooked by the time that fact is transferred through the leader pulling the indicator down. If the fish is not hooked then it is too late anyway, and you may as well let the fly drift on down as you ready for the next cast.
Successfully fishing the Central Plateau region of the North Island, NZ, in Winter for spawn-running fish is reliant on the angler's ability to get a fly or nymph as close to the bottom as possible, for as long as possible.
In most streams and rivers more than 80% of a trout's diet is provided by nymphs on or near the bottom. So to maximise catch rates that is where your fly needs to be.
Two things, the regular loss of flies or nymphs, and the hooking of more fish, provide proof that you are achieving this aim. You cannot have one without the other.
So when you hook up on a snag-fish yet again, be happy, at least you know your fly is in the right place, and a trout is that much closer to biting.
Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)
My first trout fishing book Fishing Smarter for Trout is now up on this site and
free to read. Includes regular updates and new stuff.
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