The Match Before the Hatch

The Match Before the Hatch

Strategies for taking the guesswork out of fishing nymphs and emergers

  • By: John Larison
We're all familiar with the "match the hatch" program: Use a fly that matches what's hatching. It's never easy, but it is relatively straightforward. What do you do, though, when there aren't any bugs hatching? Do you put down your rod and wait for the next hatch to come off, or do you tie on a nymph and keep fishing? Many anglers are mystified, and perhaps a little intimidated, by nymphing and resort to it only to pass the time between hatches. However, there is a "hatch" going on even when there are no bugs rising off the water; it's the nymph hatch, and this article is about how to match it.Matching the nymph hatch adds another variable to those encountered in a dryfly situation. Not only must you figure out what the fish are eating, match it with the right fly and get a proper presentation and drift, but you also must determine at what depth to fish it. Guides trust three different nymphing strategies to cover all stages of a hatch, and knowing which strategy to choose--and how to employ it--is an important step to taking trout when things "slow" down. Suspension Common wisdom during pre-hatch hours is to fish a nymph below an indicator. But just chucking any old nymphing set-up doesn't guarantee success. In order to consistently get down to where the trout are, most guides use a standard suspension set-up--a weighted nymph below a buoyant indicator. Properly rigged, the suspension set-up will keep your fly about six inches off the river bottom--the critical zone for catching fish. Suspension nymphing requires an upstream tuck cast--one that drops the flies on the water before the indicator. As the indicator drifts downstream, strip in the slack line, and as it drifts pasts, feed out the line you stripped in to extend the presentation. If you're anything like me, your natural tendency is to find an ideal section of water and stay there until the sun sets. But suspension nymphing is most successful when you cover lots of water by breaking the riffle into one-foot slots and putting a cast or two into each and then moving on. In this manner, you'll be able to cover an entire riffle, showing your goods to the maximum number of fish. Emergers Insects hatching and taking flight signal that a major change has occurred underwater. Bugs are moving into an emergent stage in which pupae or nymphs leave the bottom and rise through the water column toward the surface. Trout key in on these susceptible insects and all but neglect those bugs still drifting along the bottom. Most of us think of emerger fishing as taking place inches below the surface, but every emerger travels the entire water column, and usually trout are more willing to take one near the bottom than near the top. To get the fly positioned in the middle of the water column, many guides employ a nymphing system that utilizes a lightly weighted fly and a small indicator. They place the indicator as far up the leader as the water is deep. To get to mid-level, the upstream tuck cast will work as will an upstream slack-line cast. Strip in the slack as the indicator dead-drifts downstream. Soft hackle patterns are a good choice for this set up. The hackles imitate the budding wings of the adult and better represent the emerger rising through the water column. Some trout will be keying in on the adults during the emerger stage of the hatch, so using a large adult dry in place of an indicator will maximize your chances of hooking up. Connect the emerger pattern to the bend of the dry's hook with an 18-24 inch section of 5X or 6X tippet. Fish the set-up in the same manner you would the suspension rig, with quartering casts upstream and controling for a dead-drift. Line-of-Sight As more emergers morph into adults, the trout begin to see an easier meal than the rising emergers--crippled emergers. For every bug that makes it into the air as a healthy adult, another one becomes trapped between the emerger and adult stages, and the trout love this. Why would a trout want to chase down an athletic emerger or adult when it could calmly sip an immobilized version? Guides match the crippled emerger stage by employing "line-of-sight" nymphing. Although standard practice on lakes, this method is often neglected on rivers. By applying flotant along the leader to about 12 inches above the fly, the leader is made to sit high on the surface and it acts as an indicator. The nymph, meanwhile, sinks down just under the surface and the leader goes taut when the trout strikes. Many anglers will fish the cripple behind a dry fly. However, two flies in the film connected by monofilament create micro-drag on one another and turn off the biggest fish--a one fly set-up will fool more fish. As always, correct fly selection is key to success in line-of-sight nymphing. Flies that sink will frequently be passed by. So avoid tying cripples on heavy hooks. Trout often hover centimeters below cripples, examining them with pensive eyes. To fool them, you'll need supple materials. Hen hackles and supple hairs play the part of legs and wings as well as help to slow the sink rate. You want your fly to punch through the surface film, so don't leave it dry. Applying saliva before the first cast will help keep your fly where it needs to be. Most anglers quit fishing the cripple phase of a hatch too soon. As a hatch progresses, trout frequently move to collection points in the river. Search for swirls in eddies, pools and the slow sides of seams. By staying on your toes, line-of-sight nymphing can keep you in fish long after the hatch has passed. Nymphing isn't as easy as just chucking a heavy fly with an indicator. To be consistently successful, you've got to match your nymph presentation to the stage of the hatch. By trusting these three techniques--and employing them at the right times--you'll be able to reliably catch trout even in a "no-hatch" situation. Fly Selection Most of us are inclined during non-hatch situations to use the standard searching patterns that have produced for us in the past. But sometimes--especially in the moments before a hatch--the standard Copper John or Hare's Ear won't move a fish. To find trout in these situations, anglers need to do some dirty work. Obviously the most effective way to determine what's drifting along the bottom is to put a seine in a riffle, but when you don't have a seine handy, apply your knowledge of the coming hatch. If PMD's are expected, go with a small Pheasant Tail. If you're expecting some green caddis, try a Zug Bug. Whatever fly you choose, be sure to suspend it roughly six inches off the bottom during non-hatch situations. A tandem fly set-up is a good way to double your chances of hooking up and figuring out what the fish are eating. Many guides use a heavy point fly to help get the flies deep. On most cobble-bottom streams, the best point fly is a weighted stonefly nymph; trout can't resist such a chunky nugget. Likewise, on most mud-bottom streams, a weighted leech is a good choice. The smaller fly, or dropper, can be attached to the leader above the point fly with a blood knot. Instead of clipping off both tag ends, just leave one tag end four to five inches long and tie the dropper off of it. Split-Shots vs.Weighted Flies Split-shots are the most commonly used way to get flies to sink fast and deep. They're convenient and effective--but besides being illegal on some waters, split-shots have two drawbacks: Sensitivity: A split-shot positioned above the fly acts as a shock absorber between the subtle take of the trout and the response of the indicator. Sometimes a fish strikes hard enough that no split-shot, even one the size of a shot-put, could mask the strike. But other times, especially on the slower-moving water typical of spring creeks, the strike is subtle enough that even a small split-shot can obscure the take. Tangles: A split-shot on the leader will sink ahead of the flies and cause the leader to hinge. Hinging can turn a perfectly good leader into a bird's nest faster than you can say "fish on." By weighting the fly instead of the leader, you'll end up feeling more strikes. Plus, you'll spend less time untangling your leader. Go-to nymphs: While every river demands unique patterns, a few standards seem to catch fish everywhere. These five are most effective when their size and color are adjusted to match local variations. Kaufmann's Stonefly: Try tying this go-to pattern with barbell eyes under the thorax to keep the hook riding up and snag-free. Cased Caddis: An excellent pre-hatch pattern for those tough suspension-nymphing situations. Copper John: A hundred years from now this mayfly imitation will still be on most nymphers' top-five list. LaFontaine Sparkle Pupa: A caddis pattern that both catches the light and creates a rigid sillioutte in the meniscus. Pheasant Tail Emerger: The thin body and supple hackle of this mayfly imitation makes it an ideal emerger.