Freestone River Nymph Fishing
By Kim Tribe, Orvis Endorsed Guide
I'm a migrant
My home waters are in Wales where I do most of my teaching and guiding for trout and grayling. The season is long and varied on the freestone rivers of Wales whose moods are determined by rainfall. At the end of the season, it is becoming a habit for me to travel to New Zealand for a complete contrast in scenery and fishing opportunities. My travels are great fun and a great learning experience too.
Maximise your chances
I like to tell the people whom I guide and teach to fly fish at the outset that probably 80% of trout and grayling food is subsurface. When guiding even experienced river fishermen and women this statement is usually met with some surprise.
Like any fly fisherman, I love to target rising fish with a dry fly when the opportunity presents itself on my home rivers of Wales, or during my annual trips to New Zealand, but typically this technique will only account for a small amount of time in a long day on a freestone river over the course of a year. It's really in nymph fishing where I have found the most consistency in catching fish, and this has become my life-long passion and most gratifying of challenges. In comparing the two, dry fly and nymph, the subsurface fishing on a river provides you with none of the visual clues that accompany fishing the dry. You can't tell what food the fish are feeding on and there are no clues from the fish as to how to present the fly or even where their feed zone might be.
This has led me to develop the core aspects of my guiding and teaching technique - 'watercraft' and 'line control'. I always spend a good deal of time showing clients how to read the water and choose effective tactics accordingly. After 30 years of fishing, this is something I now do intuitively, and I usually carry a variety of rod and line outfits in order to quickly respond to different situations on the river and give my clients the best chance.
On a day with a client we may carry two or three different rod outfits to cover several eventualities. This will usually include a T3 9ft 4-weight Mid Flex, which is light but retains enough backbone to set a heavy nymph in deep fast water and balances well with a Battenkill Large Arbour III. The last thing you want when nymphing, when your arm is fully extended away from your body, is a rod that is either tip or butt heavy. When fishing at close range with heavy nymphs I am looking to load the rod with very little line outside the tip. I typically over-line the rod, using a WF6 floater on the 4-weight rod, as this helps when lobbing heavy nymphs. Certainly don't try and cast them at short range unless you want to spend the day undoing tangles - a simple lobbing technique is the only way to go.
The T3 4-weight rod is very versatile - what I would describe as a great tool for medium-sized river fishing. The Mid Flex action allows you to work at close to medium range without having to work hard on the false casting and I have found it very useful for a variety of techniques from dries, wets, dry-and-dropper (New Zealand style) nymphing techniques, and heavy nymphs.
One of the other rods I will usually have set up is an 8ft 6inch 5-weight Frequent Flyer travel rod, for a dry-and-dropper. It is surprising how accurate this rod is and how it manages to turn over even very large dries.
I spent 10 weeks earlier this year on my tenth annual trip to fish New Zealand's South Island, where both the Frequent Flyer 9ft 6inch 5-weight and the 9ft 6-weight served me well. When you're up in the high country of New Zealand and the North Westerly wind picks up over the divide, by mid morning the wind speed can average 30km an hour and you need a rod with some power to turn over big dries. To my delight, the Frequent Flyer 9ft 6-weight has just the backbone to do this, and managed to subdue some large trout in the process. What I found in both the 5- and 6-weight Frequent Flyers, matched up with a Batterkill Mid Arbour reels, were tough, rugged, no nonsense bits of kit that would do the job. That's what you want when you are miles from anywhere. I found it very useful to be able to strap the Frequent Flyer's case to a waist pack, particularly when hiking in.
It's good idea to have two identical Frequent Flyers (for the price of one more expensive rod), so if you fall and break a section you have the ability to swap sections - very handy with seven sections to choose from. New Zealand is a long way to go and you have spent a lot of money getting there…
On a day with a client in Wales we may carry three or four rods:
• One set up for some heavy weight nymphing.
• Another rigged for NZ dropper style fishing - a lighter nymph on the point and something like a Klinkhammer on the dropper.
• A Western2 10ft 4-weight for high-stick light weight nymph or spiders up-stream.
• If we have a fourth rod it would be something smaller, like an 8ft 3-weight which may get used with a dry fly if there is a rise.
With this variety of rods we can fish a much greater range of waters in any stretch of river and really get the most out of the opportunities here in Wales. My regular rivers are the Wye and Usk, and combined with other freestone rivers within an hour's drive I have more than 100 miles of wild brown trout and grayling fishing. And let's not forget the opportunity for salmon and sewin (sea trout) on those same waters, depending upon time of year and conditions.
When heavy nymph fishing, you can get surprisingly close to your quarry. If it's grayling you are targeting then getting into a good pod of fish can lead to a nice series of catches within a few feet of where you are standing. Fly choice depends on depth and speed of water. I may carefully lift a rock or two to see what kind of nymphs are around, and then the main things to get right are profile, size and weight. Profile and size of the fly, of course, are key to tempting the fish and weight is used to get the nymphs down to where they are needed. Presentation is a factor of what I call the "Power-to-Weight" ratio - the power of the current matched to the weight of your nymph. Too light and you're not getting down to the fishes' feeding zone; too heavy and your fly is not fishing properly and just dragging along the bottom. Getting the right balance for the perfect drift does not come easily and requires plenty of practice.
Detecting a bite is achieved by watching the tip of the line which is tracking the current, but off the water and in front of the leader… Any slight upstream movement of the line could be a take, and a quick strike necessary.
On a river like the Usk, around Brecon, I would quite probably encourage clients to change rig/method from one side to the other of the same short stretch of water, depending on the currents. A nearer, slower feeding lane may demand the New Zealand method with a small light nymph like a flashback PTN hanging below a buoyant Klinkhammer. The nymph can have the effect of bringing a fish up to the dry fly. I encourage clients to work across this feed lane at intervals of twelve inches or so. Having fished this first feeding lane, we may then swap rigs for a longer rod with a couple of nymphs, wade further out into the river and fish further across into the main current. And by this means we really get the most out of the water.
My part of the UK is comparatively sparsely fished, and I regard myself as fortunate to be fishing only for wild quarry. I have caught wild brown trout up to four pounds on the Usk and in 2005 lost a Wye fish that I estimated to be around five pounds. Several of my clients have caught grayling over 3lbs. Of course, size isn't everything, and the beautiful surroundings on their own are often reward enough.
Kim Tribe, Orvis Endorsed Guide
Guiding: Rivers of South Wales for grayling and trout; nymph fishing techniques a speciality.
T3 FRESHWATER 904-4 MID FLEX ROD £389.00
CLEARWATER 905-4 MID FLEX ROD ROD £129.00
WESTERN2 104-3 MID FLEX ROD ROD £149.00
FREQUENT FLYER 865-7 MID FLEX ROD £159.00
BATTENKILL LARGE ARBOR III REEL BLACK £149.00
BATTENKILL MID ARBOR III REEL TITNM £99.00
ROCKY MT TURBINE LRG ARBOR III REEL £55.00
WF TROUT WONDERLINE GEN 3 YELLOW WF 4 £49.50
WF TROUT WONDERLINE GEN 3 YELLOW WF 5 £49.50
WF TROUT WONDERLINE GEN 3 YELLOW WF 6 £49.50
96GG CLEARWATER ENDURA SF WADER MEN TAN £125.00
INFINITY GRAVEL GUARDS BLACK £12.50
CLEARWATER WADING SHOE FELT OLIVE £49.00
SAFE PASSAGE DS WAIST/CHEST PK FOREST 1 SZE ALL £89.00
All the gear recommended by Kim Tribe above and more is now available at the Orvis online store.
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