Currentseams Q&A: Of droppers, drop-shot, and indicators

Currentseams reader Steve M. asked this question on the Farmy Report post below. I thought the answer deserved its own thread. Thanks for asking, Steve.

Q: How about a refresher on your dropper nymphing method? Specifically how you use/position the indicator? 

First, some semantics. Dropper nymphing setups and indicator nymphing are two different things. You can nymph with droppers and not use an indicator. Or do you mean drop-shot? Same deal: you can fish a drop shot rig without an indicator. “Droppers” refers to flies that are attached to the rig by tags of leader material. “Drop shot” is a method that uses split shot suspended by a tag below the bottom fly. A drop-shot rig can have droppers or just one fly. Hope that clarifies rather than confuses!

How I use and how I position the indicator are also different things. Generally, I use an indicator when:
I want to cover water/get longer drifts;
It’s cold and the takes might be subtle;
I want to fish the bottom in deeper holes;
I don’t want to feel like my arm is going to fall off after keeping it raised above my shoulder for hours.

I use my own yarn indicators, dense, bushy creations, and I’m fairly dialed in to their nuances. The indicator need not go under for me to want to set the hook. (Look for a reason to set the hook on every drift and you’ll catch more fish.)

The general rule of thumb is to set the indicator at 1.5 times the estimated water depth away from the bottom fly or shot. I’m not sure I follow that so much as I estimate the greatest depth I’ll be fishing and place the indicator on the leader where I reckon the drop shot will be ticking the bottom. It’s more feeling than formula. Specifically, I want to find this equilibrium: the shortest distance between the shot and the indicator, and enough distance to make a natural drift along the bottom. I want to see that indicator bouncing along. If you’re not catching fish and you’re not seeing those bottom return tells, you’re not fishing deep enough. Adjust your indicator (which you can now refer to as a depth regulator) accordingly.

I often check my indicator. “Checking” means that if I feel the indicator is leading or dragging the nymphs downstream at an unnatural pace, I’ll mend the indicator upstream, literally lifting it off the water and placing it where I want it. Remember that current at the surface moves faster than current at the bottom.

Finally, a word about weight. I like to use as little shot as possible. But sometimes you’ve got to go heavier. In winter, the water’s cold, and things slow down, trout included. I’ve been using two BB shot on my drop shot rig this winter — not because the water’s deep or fast, but because that extra weight slows the drift to a pace where a trout has to move less for the fly.

Hope that helps.

Steve’s secret weapon: home brew indicators made from acrylic macrame yarn and a #36 o-ring. I build them dense, and treat them with Gink or Loon Fly Spritz 2 before each use. This is a color I can see easily, and this indicator is about as big as I’d ever use on the Farmington. I know, you want a video tutorial on construction. The answer is yes — I just need to figure out the when.

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Currentseams Q&A video debut: Adding weight (or not) to striper flies

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Currentseams Q&A videos.

I really like the idea of answering questions in a video/podcast format. It allows me to provide more comprehensive answers, and include visual elements in my explanations. Everyone learns differently, and I hope this covers more bases for more people.

What’s more, while the internet is a terrific way to connect with people many miles away, sometimes the written word can’t compete with a little face time. (Although you may see now why I have a great face for radio.) Victor Borge said, “The shortest distance between two people is a laugh.” I hope these will be fun as well as instructive.

If there’s a question you’d like answered, send me an email or leave a comment. In the meantime, I hope this helps.

Currentseams Q&A: streamer fishing for trout

Today we have two questions about streamer fishing.

Q: I am not strong on streamer fishing. Do you have any quick hints on how to improve?

A: It’s hard to offer suggestions when I can’t see where you’re “not strong.” Here are some observations that may help.

 When you’re streamer fishing, you’re targeting aggressive fish. If you’re not catching, and you know there’s a candidate nearby, change flies, change presentations – say, from fast strips to slow strips, or to a swing and dangle – and if that fails, move on. Cover water. Cover water. Cover water. The spot on the Hous where I caught a bazillion trout on streamers last month is a submerged rock field that stretches about seventy-five yards. I got nothing in the upstream fifty yards. The lower twenty-five was loaded with trout. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

Fish will move as the seasons change. As winter approaches, trout often transition from faster water to slower, deeper pools. Having said that, I have caught Farmington River trout in January in brisk currents as well as languid black water.

 Bigger streamers often mean bigger fish, and fewer smaller fish.

Don’t get caught up in streamer hype and jaunty names. Many of the streamers I fish are semi-haphazard creations I make up as I’m tying them. Articulated streamers are all the rage right now. They work. So do unarticulated streamers. A lot of people get amped up about streamers that “push water.” Those streamers work. So do ones with slim, non-water-pushing profiles. Find your own truths.

This streamer doesn’t have a name like “The Dominatrix” or “The Skull Crusher.” It’s just a cone-head soft-hackled streamer in Mickey Finn colors. Trout don’t read magazines or hang out in fly shops, but they still manage to find plenty of things in the water that look good to eat regardless of nomenclature.

10:14 Housy Raindow

When the bite is on, I have yet to find a color (or colors) that the trout won’t hit.

 Know where your fly is. Does it need to be deep? Or near the surface? This is a good segue into question two:

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Q: I wondered if you had some streamer fishing tips i.e.: weight /sinking line?

 A: Let’s start with some more questions. What do you want your streamer to do? Do you want it to sink to the bottom of the river and stay there? How fast is the current? How deep is the water? Are you performing a strip retrieve? Answers to questions like these will help determine your setup and presentation.

I have a traditional saltwater/striped bass streamer background. I draw upon those roots when I fish streamers for trout. Many anglers mistakenly think a sinking line is the big answer to presenting deep. Not so fast. We need to take into account the effects of current.

 Even with a full sink line and a weighted fly, the fly will plane up near the surface at the end of a drift on a strong moon tide current. I can see the splash of the striper’s take before I feel the tug. So while part of the drift is deep, not all of it is.

 I have a Jim Teeny integrated sinking line – I lost the box, so I don’t know its name or model number – that I use on the Farmington, mostly in the winter, sometimes in the summer when the river is high. It has, say, thirty feet of full sink (7.0ips sink rate?) at the head, then a floating running line. That is significant, because you can mend a floating line. And mends help to sink your fly, and keep it deeper longer.

 My fondness for traditional streamer presentations – mending to sink the fly, mending to perform a greased line swing – is why I use a floating line for the majority of my streamer fishing. Even at 1,000cfs, I was scraping the bottom of the Hous after a few strategic mends with my floater. (I was streamer fishing for stripers today with a floating line in a fast-moving estuary. Moon tide. The fish were hugging the bottom. So was my fly. A beautiful thing, mending.)

 I usually incorporate weight into my trout streamers, whether with brass or tungsten cone heads, heavy wire along the shank, or dumbbell or bead chain eyes. How much weight depends on when and where I’ll be fishing. Faster winter water means a heavier fly. Summer, maybe it’s just a brass cone.

 If you’re using a sink tip or a full sink line, make your leader short. Two to three feet is plenty. Otherwise you’ll negate the effects of the sinking line. Conversely, use a longer leader with your floating line to sink the fly. I think my leader this fall was between six and seven feet.

 Hope that helps.

Currentseams Q&A: attaching a soft-hackle to the hook shank

Q: When tying soft-hackled flies do you tie in the tip of the feather or the butt?

A: I’m almost always a tip guy. The stem of any feather is more flexible at the tip, and therefore easier for me to wrap. Also, feathers like starling are quite fragile — when I try to grip the tip of a starling feather with my hackle pliers, I often break off feathers to the point of rage. We don’t like rage when we’re tying. Maybe I just need to dial back the wrapping pressure. Or quit lifting weights.

Tying in by the tip is neither right nor wrong. It’s just the way I like to do it. I originally learned from Dave Hughes’ book Wet Flies, and he advocates tying in by the butt. I tried it that way, then tried it this way, and here we are. I encourage you to do the same in your tying and fishing: try different methods and pick the one that suits you. If I am tying a pattern like Stewart’s Black Spider, where I am starting at the head then winding the hackle rearward along the body, I will tie the feather in by the butt. This results in a tapered flow of hackle from large in front to small in back.

These hackles were all tied in by the tip. They look OK to me, and the trout certainly like them. So I must be doing something right.

Soft-hackles

Currentseams Q& A: Tying the bead head soft-hackled Pheasant Tail

Q: Can you give me the recipe for your BHSHPT nymph?

A: You betcha. As a point of procedure, it is not “mine.” People have been tying this fly for generations. I’m just another in a long line who discovered the magnetic mojo of adding webby brown hen to the mix. I’ve really got to do a video of this pattern.

The bead head soft-hackled Pheasant Tail:

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Hook: Size 8-16 1x short 2x strong scud
Thread: Tan or brown 6/0 or 8/0
Head: Copper brass or tungsten bead to size 
Tail/body: 6 (less as the hook gets smaller) pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Fine copper wire counterwrapped over body
Thorax: Peacock herl
Hackle: Soft brown hen

Tying notes: Old faithful, old reliable. Over the years. this fly has accounted for a significant percentage of the trout I’ve caught. Tying should be fairly intuitive. Lately, I’ve taken to tying in the hackle after I wind the peacock herl thorax. A few stray hackle fibers here and there on a nymph looks lovely to a trout. Once I get down to an 18 or 20 on this fly, I dispense entirely with the peacock herl. I also will use only three pheasant tail fibers on an 18 or 20.

Currentseams Q&A: Multi-fly striper rigs

Q: Just wondering how you rig to balance strength on the dropper and still allow movement in the fly?  Blood knot with a long tag?  Or surgeons knot with a long tag towards the tippet end? What do you think your hook-up ratio is for the front fly versus the trailing dropper?

A: I think you’re referring to a tandem rig; when I fish multiple flies for stripers, it’s usually a team of three. I build all my multi-fly teams with 20, 25, or 30# Worldwide Sportsman camo mono. The mono size depends on where I’m fishing and what flies I’m using. For example, crystal clear water or small flies would have me leaning toward 20. If I’m feeling lazy, I’ll use a triple surgeon’s knot to form the droppers. If I suspect larger fish may be in the mix, I’ll use a double uni knot. I had a “bad” experience many years ago with a school of high 30s bass — if I hooked two, the bottom fish would pull the triple surgeon’s knot right out from the top dropper. Now, if I’m targeting larger stripers, I go with a single fly.

If I am fishing multiple baits ( i.e. grass shrimp, peanut bunker, silverside) the fly that gets eaten most is usually the one that most closely matches the naturals the fish are feeding on, regardless of position. One night a small peanut bunker fly saved my bacon. It happened to be the middle dropper. It still worked when I re-rigged with a single fly.

If I know what bait is present, I’ll hedge my bets. This June I fished two small grass shrimp droppers with a small clam worm on point. The water was infested with grass shrimp. 3/4s of the bass I caught came on the shrimp patterns.

My three-fly team from early June 2014, top to bottom: Grease Liner variant, pink Crazy Charlie, Orange Ruthless. The bass liked all three flies. These tags are about 5-6″ long.

Striper ShrimpDropper Rig

In early July, small sand eels were on the menu. I rigged a dropper system of two sparse sand eels suspended between a corkie and a Gurgler. This setup was fished in barely any current at a dead drift. Even though the bass were keyed on the sand eels, I still took one on the Gurgler (the point fly) while it was just sitting there.

This Golden Knight is tied on a small freshwater hook, but on an Atlantic salmon hook, it’s the kind of fly that I like to have when I’m fishing multiple sand eel patterns.

Sparse Golden Knight

Currentseams Q&A: The Leisenring Lift

Q: Fished White Clay in Pennsylvania, after April and May. I tied some size 18, 20 wet flies using just yellow or orange floss and light Hungarian partridge or grouse. I noticed that the trout either hammer the wet fly as it swings; or, after it swings, as I pick up the line trout hit it and I didn’t know they were on it? Is this the idea of Leisenring Lift? Just finished reading your article (“Wet Fly 101”) in the Nov/Dec 2013 American Angler. Good stuff!!!

A: Thanks for your kind words, and thanks for reading. The Leisenring Lift is one of the most misunderstood of the wet fly methods. According to Dave Hughes, Leisenring would present to a fish, or to a lie that was in the two-to-four-foot depth range, in a slow-moving current. He’d make his cast 10-20 feet above the lie. He kept tight to the fly, tracking the drift with his rod, making sure that the line and the fly weren’t dragging. At the point of where he thought the take would occur, he’d stop tracking with his rod. This would cause the fly, which had been naturally sinking (Leisenring did not use weighted flies) to come off the bottom and start swimming toward the surface. So the lift comes from the physics of the fly lifting off the bottom due to drag, not from the physics of actually lifting the rod. What I think is happening in your case is a trout is following the fly subsurface — or holding at the point where your fly dangles — and as you begin to lift your rod, it sees a potential meal escaping (much like it does an emerging caddis). The trout decides, “I want that!” and you’ve got a fish on. Good for you. 🙂