Nymphs and Emergers

Nymphs and Emergers

Tips on subsurface angling-and another one on tipping guides

  • By: Paul Guernsey
  • and Buzz Bryson
What's the deal with fishing emergers? Do I grease them first? And how do I fish them differently than dry flies or nymphs?

Emergers are just that-the emerging adult form of an aquatic insect. They don't all look or act the same, so there are many possible ways to fish them. One thing to consider is how high you want the fly to ride in or on the water, which dictates how much flotant-if any-you want to use.

One of the best examples of how emergers work was an exceptional day I spent on Armstrong's Spring Creek in Montana some years ago. It was a day that couldn't have been scripted any better by Hollywood; fishing was just that good.

At mid-morning the fish began hitting dead-drifted Pheasant Tail nymphs, fished near the bottom. Soon, they began hitting the nymphs better at the end of the drift, as the line came tight and the fly began to rise in the water column. So I switched to a simple emerger suggesting a half-open wing case and fished it a bit higher in the water, casting more across the flow so the fly would rise as it swung below. Still no action imparted by me, and the fish ate them up.

When I began seeing rise forms from fish taking emergers just below the surface, I switched again, this time to a more full-winged (soft hackle) emerger, fished with a dead drift in, or just below, the surface film. The fish stayed on the emergers for a couple of hours, long after the duns fully emerged and lifted off the water.

Finally, the fish began keying on the duns, and I switched to dries to end the day. -B.B.

I've often heard that a drag-free drift is just as important in nymph fishing as it is in dryfly fishing. My question is, since the nymph is underwater and out of sight, how do I know whether it's drifting drag-free?

Nymphs of different species behave differently. Some are active swimmers, some just drift along. But yes, in many situations, the key is getting a drag-free drift. In fact, although some will disagree, I contend that drag-free nymph fishing, done right, is about the toughest form of fly-fishing there is. That is, unless one uses a strike indicator, which removes much of the difficulty.

With a dry fly, of course, one can gauge its drift against nearby bubbles, debris or other telltales to ensure a drag-free float. With a nymph drifting just under the surface, the game is much the same, although one must use the end of the floating portion of the leader as an indicator. For the keen-eyed, or an angler using a strike indicator, this is not too tough, as long as he or she is able to concentrate.

But the deeper the nymph sinks, the more the current speed changes (check any hydrology book for velocity in a laminar flow), until bottom friction begins to slow it. That's when things get tough. Too much slack, and there's no way to feel the strike; too little, and the tight line will impart unnatural action to the nymph.

You may think your nymph is drifting drag free, but upon closer observation you see that it is lagging behind the floating portion of the line (you'll also see the sunken portion of the line/leader trailing behind). Correct this by learning to mend the line when nymph fishing, just as you do when dryfly fishing (you do mend continuously during a dryfly float, don't you?)

Maintaining a drag-free drift is, for most of us, just as difficult as detecting the subtle strikes that often occur as fish feed on helplessly drifting nymphs. It's a game not easily mastered, but those who do so are at the top of their game, and will (usually) consistently out-fish us lesser mortals. -B.B.

Quite a while ago, you had a question on how much to tip a fishing guide. Has anything happened since then to make you rethink your advice?

Well, there's been a little controversy in our Letters column on this topic, and I've had some further conversations both with guides around the country, and with people who fish with guides a lot. As a result I've revised my opinion, although not by much.

Whether to tip is always up to the client. But most anglers will want to give their guide something extra unless he's proven himself to be lazy, incompetent or disrespectful. Throughout most of the US, $40 to $50 a day for one or two clients is a decent amount to give a guide who has put in a good, full-day's work. Of course, if it's been a fantastic day of fishing, or the guide gave you some life-changing advice, you may want to be more generous. (I've heard of tips of up to $100, but usually it's only the high-rollers among us who can afford to be that nice.) For some saltwater trips, where you're paying up to $500 or even more for a captain/guide and a boat, a tip of $50 to $75 might be more appropriate.

In Canada and other countries, the standards are different-usually less expensive, although they do seem to change as more well-to-do anglers from the US show up and throw money around. If you're in doubt, you can always ask the outfitter who arranged your trip what the guides are going to expect. And, in lieu of an outfitter, ask another angler who has fished there before. -P.G.

Got questions about anything under the fly-fishing sun? Write to "Ask FR&R," PO Box 370, Camden, ME 04843, or e-mail us at editors@flyrodreel.com.