The Dawn of the Nymph

A dry-fly devotee peers beneath the surface

By Tristan Scott

I spent most of my fly fishing life as a devoted dry fly specialist. No, devoted isn’t a strong enough word. I fished one type of fly: dries. If you told me we’d have to go subsurface, be it nymphs or streamers, I just wasn’t interested.

There were a number of factors that contributed to my fly fishing tunnel vision. For starters, back in the halcyon days of my youth the tackle wasn’t all that great. I love the look and feel of an old split cane fly rod as much as the next guy, and I even enjoy fishing with one from time to time, but those rods couldn’t really handle modern techniques, at least not with any efficiency. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to high stick a double nymph rig loaded with a couple of split shot and a strike indicator on a split cane rod, but I suspect if you had the results wouldn’t have been pretty.

You could do it, and maybe even catch a few fish, but slinging that hardware with a wispy cane rod would be the definition of inefficient.

I suppose it’s possible to build a cane rod with the backbone necessary for such a task, but it would have to be unreasonably heavy. You need a light, well-balanced rod if you’re going to be holding that rod at your ear all day, pointing it at your drifting strike indicator.

There are a whole slew of new nymphing rods out there. I have one that I do fish with quite a bit. These rods are usually 10 footers. Split cane, fiberglass and the old graphite rods were all a bit too heavy to build into longer lengths. It’s been the development of super stiff, super light fibers that have allowed rod designers to push lengths out past 9 feet.

There have been other worthy developments that have allowed guys like me to move beyond dries. It may seem remarkable today, but I can remember the time when you could scan the entire fly section of a well-stocked shop and not find a single bead head nymph. There’s some debate, but the gold bead head nymph we know and love today seems to have been developed in the 1970s, but wasn’t popularized until sometimes in the mid-1980s.

The unweighted nymphs we used before that caught fish, but they required considerably more split shot to fish deep. That made casting more awkward, especially with the medium action rods that were the norm back then.

I still own one of the original fast-action fly rods that was introduced in the 1980s: a Fenwick Ironfeather. That Ironfeather was a remarkable rod for its time. I was working at a now-defunct fishing magazine in California when it came out, and can remember visiting the offices of a Fenwick rep in Orange County to get our hands on the new rods. As we casted prototypes in the parking lot we were stunned at the line speed we could generate — kind of like the reaction we had when the Sage One was introduced a few years back and we discovered false casting into your backing was no big whoop.

But compared to even an introductory level modern fly rod, that Ironfeather is heavy, stiff, and feels a bit like a broom handle when you cast.

Advances in reels have also been dramatic. One of the old canards about fly fishing — at least fly fishing for trout — is that the reel is just a place to store your line when you’re not fishing. The rest of the time the line laid piled at your feet, and your drag was only as precise as the pressure your trigger finger could generate.

New reels are light to balance with modern rods and make nymphing rigs nimble enough to high stick all day.

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