Retrieving a nymph may sound like heresy to the common fly angler (perhaps because we have the term “dead-drift” beat into our brains). However, fishing nymphs by retrieving them has proved to be very effective for me and could help you as well. Personally, I learned this technique by observing the trout’s behavior towards my fly in clear water. When the fly just went slowly drifting by his noggin, most times the fish wouldn’t even look at the thing except just to get out of its way. A little bit of movement and the trout’s interest would be pricked. And we all know you won’t land a fish if he doesn’t care about your fly. So here is how I retrieve nymphs and what types of water I look for to use this tactic.
Providing the fly with this counter current movement seems to make it look very lifelike and delicious to those picky trout. One of the bigger reasons, I am sure, that retrieving the nymph is effective is because it makes the fly stand out more. When every other angler that fishes the same stream uses the same dead drift approach in the same exact places the trout get wise.
In fact, when on the pressured waters I often fish, this tactic has helped me to bring fish to the net. Keep in mind, this is just another trick in the bag. I am positive retrieving a nymph will not work in every situation, considering nothing will always work. Except maybe dynamite...
Retrieve with Varying Patterns, and Stay Slower Than Slow
To begin, when I say “retrieve” I don’t mean stripping a foot of line each half-second. Pull a fraction of an inch per strip. Right when you think you are going slow enough, slow down a little more, and then you are probably about right.
I don’t like to twirl the line around my hands, which others do, because 1) I still do that too fast 2) I tend to make weird knots doing that. Instead, I hold the fly line in my right hand and pull out about a half inch with my left hand every second or two. Play around with the retrieval speed and the amount you pull because nothing is ever set in stone with fish.
Use an Indicator
These things work. If you really want to be a forgo the indicator, you can. In fact, the first trout I landed on the flies years ago was on a bead head nymph that I was hardly retrieving, but I saw the rainbow take the fly - great memory - I can still see him in my head emerge from the depth take the fly and try to swim back down to the pool!
However, most times I use a piece of floatant treated polypropylene yarn or a New Zealand Strike Indicator. These place down lightly on the water, so they don’t spook the trout in the area and are sensitive enough to detect even the smallest of strikes. Light strikes happen ALOT when fishing this way.
Use what works. I don't use traditional soft hackle wet flies when I am doing this. Not to say they don’t work - I’ve used them and had some success, but I just started with what I already had in my box, and that is what I built my confidence around.
For example, this winter all I used for this technique was a Zebra Midge and a nymph I created that I call the Baby Bean (essentially an olive glass head, green bodied fly). Use appropriate sized flies, which for me is a size 18-20s. Seriously, that’s all I used. I switched once or twice to no avail with this method, and went right back to the Zebra Midge and the Baby Bean.
The key I have found with pattern selection in this technique is using a weighted pattern as the bottom fly and an unweighted - or lightly weighted - fly above it off of a tag. Reason being is, it helps detect strikes faster and provides a more efficient sink rate on the flies.
WHERE TO USE THIS TACTIC:
Slow Water/Deep Pools
When I know trout are holding in deeper water and I have seen a little bit of insect activity, I will try casting at a 40 degree, downstream angle (like swinging a fly). Then when the line has gone through it’s swing I start retrieving the nymph very slowly. I have picked up a few fish on the swing, but the vast majority have occurred on the retrieve. Anywhere there is dead water on a river give this a go and pay attention!
The constant flow of spring creeks provide suitable water for retrieving nymphs in some spots. On the spring creeks in VA (where I most often fish) this is one of my favorite tactics. When I look back through my fishing journal most of the fish I have landed on nymphs in spring creeks was by slowly retrieving the fly back to me. As if to resemble a struggle, swimming, emerging bug.
One helpful thing about spring creeks is you don’t have to cast very far for the retrieve to be effective! I simply cast out about 20-30 feet of line with a small indicator and give the line some slack to go as far down as I want the nymphs to go. When I am pleased, I work my retrieve. You can cover a lot of water, and when insects are coming off the water this tactic is deadly.
Last summer I retrieved the fly up to about 5 foot away from my boot just so I could watch the fly moving underwater, and out of nowhere a football shaped 18” rainbow came up to inspect the twitching fly. I made another little retrieve and instantly the bow devoured the sz. 12 caddis nymph. Great memory and a great lesson learned - retrieve as close as physically possible, every time.
Lakes are one of the most undervalued fly destinations in the states. Probably because most of us don’t really know what to do with them, how to find fish in them, or how to fish them. So I can try to answer one of those questions for you - try the slow steady retrieve with two (or three) nymphs. If you frequently fly fish in lakes you probably already know how successful this method is. However, many have never tried fly fishing in lakes for trout so use this little piece of advice for your future adventures!
We often overcomplicate trout. Of course, there are lots of variables here - but, if the insect looks like it is living and the trout notices it and is hungry, sometimes, he will eat it. Using a retrieve on any pattern in slow water could replicate an emerging insect or anything alive, and because it is going in the opposite direction from all the lifeless things (sticks, algae, other guys’ flies, etc.) it gets noticed. And sometimes that extra movement is just what is needed to put a picky eater in the net.
Give it a try, it might help you as much as it helped me!