Practical and Useful

Practical and Useful

  • By: Dave Hughes
  • Photography by: Dave Hughes

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Photograph by dave hughes

practical &useful///Dave Hughes

Nymphing the Shallows

Use a multi-fly rig for wary trout in skinny water.

Jim Schollmeyer and I fished Oregon’s OWYHEE RIVER TAILWATER LAST spring, a couple of weeks after the water took its annual bump up to supply irrigation to a vast flatland of ranches far downstream. The water was just a bit off color, as always at that time of year. It also spread out over some shallows that earlier had been gravel bars and gently sloped grassy banks. Such water, recently dry land, becomes productive in a relatively short time. Trout move onto those flats to feed, but they’re somewhat exposed—and therefore a bit nervous—when they do. You can’t just wade up to them, put on your brakes, toss a standard nymph and indicator over their heads to the water upstream and then expect them to still be around when your nymphs drift by. They’ve fled in fear.

The challenge to catching such trout consists of three minor parts, which when added together can make a major change in your luck. It should come as no surprise that the same set of solutions can be put to work whenever you find trout in thin water, whether they hold on spring-creek flats, along the shallow edges of any big river or at the edges and in tailouts of standard-size trout streams.

The first minor part of the equation is to find a fly—or more often a pair of them—that trout might accept. I’ve done a considerable amount of kicking around with screen nets on the Owyhee in spring, and find that those shallows are dominated by a narrow set of insects. Most visible, though not most abundant, are long, slender and active Yellow Sally nymphs (numerous species in the Perlodidae family). These have a natural tendency to swim, unlike almost all other stoneflies. Their late-spring and early summer emergence period prods them to migrate into the very shallows about which I’m writing. They crawl out of the water to emerge, a bit of biology that demands that they be at or near the shoreline in the days before that transitional moment. You can find a lot more accurate imitations, but my favorite is a size 14 beadhead corruption of the Tup’s Nymph made famous in Jim Leisenring and Vernon Hidy’s 1941 book The Art of Tying the Wet Fly.

The busiest insects in these inundated shallows are ubiquitous nymphs of small Blue-Wing Olive mayflies (various Baetis). These are in the swimmer category of mayflies, and therefore find it easy to follow the rising water as it creeps up over shallows. They enjoy the fresh vegetables that the water covers. Because they’re swimmers, they’re active, and trout see lots of them when they nose up onto those same shallows. It’s difficult to think of a better imitation for these than the standard size 16 or 18 Flashback Pheasant Tail.

Least visible to us, but in all likelihood the insects seen most often by trout, are the common aquatic seething of midge larvae and pupae (myriad species in the Chironomidae family). The moving-water varieties of these are generally tiny, as opposed to many stillwater forms that reach sizes 10 and even 8. On shallow flats, and most other tailwater and spring-creek situations in which they’re important, midges are usually size 18 to 20 and even smaller. I recommend you buy Ed Engle’s great book Tying the Midge, which contains hundreds of effective imitations for them. I do most of my midging with size 18 and 20 Thread Midges and Zebra Midges.

You will find a different set of trout foods on the shallows of your own waters. They might be dominated by giant salmonfly and Golden Stone nymphs, early caddis pupae, or by small crustaceans such as sow bugs and scuds. The patterns I’ve listed might work as well for you as they do for me. But you’d be wise to kick around with a collecting net in your own shallows and come up with your own set of nymphs to match what you find. A word of warning: At least one of them should be size 16 or smaller.


The second part of the equation is an outfit that lets you deliver flies into those shallows without disturbing trout that are prepared to depart if anything alarms them. I visited wetfly guru Davy Wotton on his home White River tailwater in Arkansas, to learn his long-rod techniques [Spring 2012 Fly Rod & Reel], and as soon as I returned home bought an outfit to arm myself to apply them. I also wanted to extend what I learned from Wotton into other aspects of my own fishing. I’ve found that the rig he demonstrated to me can be employed in a wide variety of situations, including fishing nymphs on those tailwaters of the Owyhee I’ve been talking about.

The rod I bought is an 11-foot 4-piece with a very patient action . . . you don’t want anything quick when you rig with more than a single fly at the point of your leader. The line is a very supple double-taper floater, though for the purpose at hand it could be a weight-forward. Wotton’s rig calls for a three-fly setup. For fishing shallow water I dumb it down to two flies, mostly to reduce tangles, but also to allow a shallower drift in thin water.

The leader for fishing so shallow should be long and fine. I use a 12-foot 5X base leader, add a three-foot tippet of 6X with a surgeon’s knot, and leave the stouter tag six inches long for the dropper. I always rig the larger of the two nymphs on top, either the size 14 Tup’s above the size 16 PT, or the PT above the size 18 or 20 midge. The top fly can be dropped off a tippet-knot tag. My theory is that a trout might see the larger fly, turn to it but fail to take it, then notice the smaller trailing fly and sip it in. Half the trout take one, and half the other, though on some days it’s all on one and none on the other. It seems that on those days it would be wise to remove the nymph that isn’t working, but doing so usually cuts the number of takes, so it’s clear they both play a role in the success of the rig. Wotton taught me that, and probably would scold me for cutting his rig from three flies down to just two.

The right presentation is the third and final part of the equation, and is the key to showing this rig, and these flies, to the trout without spooking them. It’s necessary to position yourself so your flies arrive in front of the trout before they see any hint of the line or leader. If the water you fish is too deep to wade outboard of the banks, you’ll have no choice but to slip along on shore. Then you’ll need to cast out from the bank, at an angle either slightly upstream or downstream from straight across, and let your flies swim down and around into those shallows, right up to the edge. If the banks are brushy, this type of fishing lends itself perfectly to short roll casts. If they’re open, then you could haul off and cast long, but it’s still better to fish no farther out than 40 to 50 feet. Remember that you’re after trout that have moved into water associated with the shoreline; they have abandoned those central currents that require long casts.


When Shollmeyer and I fished the Owyhee last spring, the shape of the river and the level of flows allowed us to wade outside of those shallows, in water two to three feet deep, and cast back in toward them. Shollmeyer, as always, found a few risers nibbling at scattered minutiae along some upstream edges. He waded up there and patiently pestered those trout until he finally found out what they were taking—tiny BWO duns—and was able to sting a few of those poking noses.

I waded downstream and fished a flat that crept slowly along the face of an island, absent any rising trout. The water was a foot deep, flowing in an even sheet, so slow that even unweighted nymphs would have settled into the submerged vegetation if fished on a simple down-and-across swing. Any upstream presentation was out of the question.

To get my pair of nymphs swinging across the flat without anchoring on the bottom, I slipped 40 feet out from the shore, in position to cast at a 45-degree angle downstream, placing the nymphs almost on the bank. When they landed lightly on the water, I instantly made a couple of downstream mends, to intentionally place a belly in the floating line. Then I would lead those flies in a very slow swim away from the bank, across that barely moving reach of water. Trout holding just above the vegetation would see the nymphs first, without the line or leader having passed over their heads or entered into their sight. Then the trout had their choice: Ignore them; take the big one; let the big nymph pass and take the small one.

I fished hundreds of feet down that long flat. I don’t know how many trout took the first option. I do know that enough trout gently intercepted one or another of the nymphs to keep me happy.


Dave Hughes is author of Wet Flies (Stackpole Books), a book that contains many methods with which you can employ sunk flies, whether wets or nymphs, against reluctant trout.



for the



Tup’s Nymph

Hook: 1X or 2X long nymph, size 14

Head: Gold bead

Thread: Primrose yellow gossamer silk

Tails: Ginger hen hackle points

Abdomen: Working thread

Thorax: Pinkish-orange ‘Tups’ dubbing

Hackle: Ginger hen, short


PT Flashback

Hook: 1X long nymph, size 16 or 18

Thread: Brown 8/0

Tails: Pheasant-tail fibers

Rib: Fine copper, counterwound

Abdomen: Pheasant-tail fibers

Wing case: Silver mylar tinsel

Thorax: Peacock herl

Legs: Butts of body fibers


Zebra Midge

Hook: Curved scud, size 18 to 22

Head: Clear glass bead

Thread: Black 8/0

Rib: Fine silver wire

Body: Working thread

Photographs by greg thomas

Early season in the Rockies means solid rainbows and browns in shallow water. Here, Tim Wolff and Torrey Cenis show off a shallow-water rainbow from Montana’s Bitterroot River.