A while back I was asked about putting some thoughts together on the matter of upstream nymphing. It's a method close to my heart and although I'm no expert I can certainly put forth some observations and tactics based upon my own experience. What follows might lack proper structure and be long-winded and rambling, but it will explain how I approach spate river trout and grayling fishing when all is quiet at the surface.
And that's the thing to remember you see - it is purely my approach. It's more than likely as good as identical to many other anglers up and down the land, but then again such are the subtleties and nuances of nymph fishing that it may well be quite a bit different too. I'm largely self-taught and haven't had the benefit of fishing with other 'nymphists', so it may well be that other experienced anglers read this and roll their eyes in disdain. Whatever; this is how the whole thing works for me. I sometimes get the impression from talking to fellow anglers that they view the whole thing as some kind of 'black art' which requires supernatural skill and sixth sense to deploy. Hopefully what follows will help to demonstrate that nothing could be further from the truth.
One of the best - and simplest - bits of advice I ever read was by Cumbrian expert Geoff Johnston, and it went along the lines of "use the method that the fish want, and not the method you want". Very true; and whilst some will always be content to sweep wet flies around, or fish the dry fly regardless of whether fish are rising or not, the angler who aims to become proficient all round will be aware of the importance of Geoff's words.
One of the great attractions of river fishing is the challenge it presents in reading signals, be them from the currents of the river itself, the fish, invertebrates, feeding birds etc, and then selecting appropriately from what to the novice can seem like a bewildering array of possible techniques. I would suggest that upstream nymphing should form an important part of the competent river angler's armoury. In fact I would go so far as to argue that it should be the number one default searching method in the absence of visibly rising fish.
Drawing from my own experiences, I remember how during my first season as a river fisher, I struggled terribly through the early season, acutely aware of the different techniques I could try out, but lacking any real conviction as to what should be used when. If there were a few surface feeders on the go, I would manage ok, but on other occasions I was just at a loss on where to start. Looking back, I can see that by far the greatest driver behind my gradual improvement was experience gained only after the first two or three seasons: knowledge of the moods of the river, where the fish could be caught and when, greater understanding of entomology, and the fact finding exercise of putting my flies into almost every nook and cranny.
But there was one pivotal moment, and that was the day I was taught how to upstream nymph. Frustrated and unable to analyse my largely fruitless sessions with any clarity, I turned to a local guide who quickly diagnosed my need for a 'sheet anchor' searching technique. I learned more on that day than I had in the preceding six months on my own (proof for anyone out there considering the same option, that it is money well spent), and I came away with a lot of questions answered, and a new found confidence that when required I could catch a few fish from an apparently lifeless river. Ever since I have turned to the classic upstream nymph method time and again as a start point when I arrive at a quiet river. Sometimes I end up nymphing all day as the river ostensibly sleeps. Often it becomes apparent that a change has occurred and the time has come to switch to spiders or dry flies. Always though, the quiet pleasing rhythm of it allows me to become absorbed by my surroundings, tuned in to the environment, observing and reading the signs of the river; and all the time learning about the currents and contours of my chosen stretch.
For all its benefits, this isn't necessarily the method to bring big fish. The dry fly will do that, taking the critical variable of location right out of the equation. Mike Weaver was about right when he said that more big trout will fall to dry fly than any other method (although he probably didn't factor in streamers when making that assertion). Big fish - say 2lb plus on most spate rivers - will come to nymph, but one is obviously not targeting them individually, just the likely water and features, so the method isn't as selective as the dry fly can be if you use the latter to actively hunt down larger specimens. The vast majority of my nymph caught fish fall into the middling size class.......but that said, when the tip of the line darts forward or slides away, you just don't know what is responsible until you lift the rod and tighten.
This is a searching technique, pure and simple. It allows the angler to cover a lot of water very quickly, and catch an awful lot of fish that would otherwise be unavailable, turning an apparent dead loss of a situation into a successful outing. Why more anglers don't learn to fish the upstream nymph, I'll never know. To turn one's back on such is to miss the greatest opportunity to learn about the behaviour of fish and flowing water that an angler can have.
Part 2 will deal with the flies themselves - the nymph patterns I rely on.