Drop Shot Nymphing
By Rene Vaz
It’s in our lowest moments that we truly begin to find ourselves. For me one of these moments was upon me. It was a frosty early morning in mid July and I was standing up to my nipples in the Tongariro. As a supposed expert on all things aquatic I had brought with me two drinking buddies who I’d promised in a moment of juiced up hype that I would teach them to fish the mighty Tongariro. Although I couldn’t one hundred percent recall that conversation, a week later my buddies had held me to my promise and here we were, freezing our butts off and throwing nymphs with obesity problems into the heaving current.
I’d set my buddies up with what has now become a traditional Tongariro nymphing set up. A canary sized fluorescent yarn indicator, long 12 foot leaders of straight 8lb monofilament on the end of which is tied a sacrificial overweighted nymph or what is better known in the region as a bomb. To the shank of the bomb was tied a further foot of 8lb mono onto which I tied glo bugs (also known as emerging trout patterns by those in denial of their use). Our early morning start was purposeful, we needed to be the first through the pool and I being the host was relegated to the back of the queue as my two buddies fished through the pool ahead of me. Matt was the first in line and resultantly it wasn’t long before the floating canary was dragged under and after setting the hook a silver sided fresh fish was tail walking across the pool. Matt banked the fish and next cast hooked into number two. Moments later Mark realised he could cover the same area as Matt was and quickly started hooking into fish. I’d like to say that I was pleased for my buddies but to tell you the truth I was cold and gutted that I was totally out of the action and was being shown up by my novice friends. I hadn’t even touched a fish as they dragged fish number seven onto the bank. Then as quickly as it all started it was over, the indicators stopped bobbing under and as the sun started to hit the water Matt and Mark stepped aside so I could fish my way through the main lie of the pool where they had picked up their fish. In a quest to get deeper I squeezed some split shot onto my line just above the bomb. I’d never fished shot before and as it was the first season that it was legal in the area I thought I’d add some to my vest as I still had one of my one hundred and twelve pockets laying empty. Matt and Mark had settled in on the bank with a flask of coffee satisfied they’d caught their fish for the morning as I rolled out cast number four hundred and thirty seven through the same stretch of water. An hour later I started to call my last casts to the guys who were ready to go back to the batch for breakfast, and on my sixth “last cast”, my indicator ducked under and I set the hook into my first fish of the day. The fished turned to the back of the pool and I applied the pressure only for the weight to come off as that sickening feeling hit my stomach. I pulled in my line only for my worst fear to be confirmed my leader had broken where my split shot had been sliding up and down the line above my bomb.
So there I was fishless and cold. Had I lost my touch? Had I never had it in the first place? Were my buddies on their first Tongariro experience already better anglers than me? Probably most of these were true. Although I’d spent the total of over a hundred days fishing the Tongariro and neighboring rivers over the past few years, I’d done pretty much the same thing day after day. So was that a hundred days experience? Or was it only one days experience, repeated a hundred times over. My results had often been the same, get up early to fish through the pool first, catch a bunch of fish until the sun hits the water and then maybe pick up the odd fish throughout the rest of the day.
After this trip with Matt and Mark I came to two conclusions. First was to never let Matt and Mark fish through a pool in front of me. Secondly was to start to think more laterally about my nymphing set up. Step one was certainly to work out how to use split shot within my nymphing system. For me split shot had one strong advantage it negated the need for a sacrificial fly in the form of a bomb. I liked this thought as I very rarely caught fish on the bomb, the big tungsten beads were expensive and to change the sinking speed of my set up meant to change the bomb and then also redo the dropper knot onto the new bomb. With split shot it would be easy enough either with a good pair of pliers or forceps to add or remove shot depending on the depth and speed of the water. My biggest concern about using shot after the day with Matt and Mark was the abrasive effect of the split shot as is slid up and down the monofilament leader and that after a few hours of fishing it would wear through the mono.
Having worked in the tackle trade for a number of years I also do a bit of conventional saltwater fishing and one of the primary ingredients that has changed the way I fish in the saltwater has been the introduction of super braids. For those of you who don’t delve on the dark side and are proudly fly only, I’ll explain a little about super braids. Firstly these are braided lines unlike monofilaments (nylon, copolymer or fluorocarbon) which are obviously single strand, so in essence they are like traditional fly fishing backing but instead of being manufactured from Dacron they are made from high modulus polyethylene fibre (called either Spectra for American Fibers or Dyneema from Japanese or Dutch Fibers). The properties of interest to the fly fisherman are; its durability, Spectra Fibers are 15 times more abrasion resistant than steel and 3 times more so than Kevlar, density (specific gravity 0.97 ) which leads to the high sink rate of the material; low stretch, standard monofilaments have in excess of 30% stretch versus Spectra is closer to 3%; and lastly but for the fly fisher most importantly Spectra is roughly a third the diameter of standard monofilaments leading to less drag resistance through the water column. The only downside of Spectra is that it is coloured and although I always fish an olive or smoke coloured spectra versus the bright greens and pinks available for fly fishing purposes I’d always tie in a fluorocarbon tippet on the end for stealth.
So with the combination of split shot and a super braid leader the technique of Drop Shot nymphing was born. A 12-14' length of 8 - 10 pound braid was run from the fly line and attached using a double albright (the braid is doubled the mono is not) knot to a 45cm section of 8lb fluorocarbon. The tag end in the fluorocarbon was used for a dropper allowing for a two fly rig with a lot more fly movement than a traditional tied to the shank dropper attachment. Above the albright knot the split shot were attached (onto the braid to prevent abrasion). It is easy to remove split shot all you need to do is clamp one side of the shot with a pair of pliers and then with your nail wedge open the slit.
Just taking into account the properties of the braid it’s easy to understand the benefits of this technique over the standard Tongariro nymphing set up. Firstly you don’t need as much weight to get to the bottom, as the split shot and fine braid sink a lot quicker than comparatively thick monofilament and therefore will get your flies to the bottom a lot quicker. For the novice angler this will create an easier set up to cast as the lighter flies wont be fighting the hard work you’re putting into generating line speed. For the better anglers this may mean you’ll be able to make longer casts, get to the lies you couldn’t previously reach and make longer drifts. As mentioned before it is very easy to change the amount of weight in your set up by adding or removing split shot. This is useful when moving through a pool, too much weight in the tail of the pool will mean that your hooking the bottom all of the time and too little weight towards the head of the pool may mean that you’re drifting your flies over the fish’s heads. For me the critical thing has been that the set up has enabled me to get to the bottom of fast deep pools that I would have previously not fished and often this has enabled me to catch more fish throughout the day after the golden hour of day break has passed. Secondly removing the sacrificial fly from the set up means that your able to fish two effective patterns such as one natural imitation and one glo bug.
The last thing that I’ve found has improved my fishing has been the lack of stretch in the braid. Personally I tend to nymph with a lot of line on the water, my driving assumption is that it gives me better drag free drifts, the down side is I think I lose far too many fish. This may be because I have ADHD and struggle concentrating for long periods on my indicator movements but also I’m convinced that I’m often getting poor hook sets due to the amount of slack line I have on the water. In addition to adding in the non stretch braid in my leader I have also started to use non stretch fly lines for the same reason. The benefit has been even if I have a lot of line on the water I can strike across the water and with a lot less pressure set the hook, the results to date seem good.
As for the braid itself I’ve tried a few now. Despite it being available down to thinner weights I find that fused lines such as Fireline too stiff for dead drifting nymphs, instead I’ve had the best success with true braids such as Tuff Line XP or Suffix both are available down to eight or ten pounds and are supple enough for the job. In the area of split shot their still isn’t a lot of options on the market, although a lead ball with a slit in it is a rather low tech item so I’d always make my selections based on the ease of use of the packaging a good rule of thumb is to imagine how easy it’s going to be to use at twilight when your fingers are frozen.
Overall for me this set up is only just starting to reach maturity, there is certainly more thought and testing required in the area of indicators and potentially using a third fly in the set up. As I mentioned earlier I believe it’s helped me to fish water that I wasn’t able to before. In low and clear river conditions I would still opt for a full monofilament leader. But in the midst of winter fishing this is now my technique of choice. For me fly fishing is about exploring. Both in terms of exploring the rivers and lakes that transect our country but also the exploration of the endless possibilities that lay within the dynamics of the tackle we use and the flies we tie. Lee Wulff said “the last thing to change should be the fly”. I’m convinced that despite the state of my fly boxes my biggest explorations within this sport lie within how I fish and not what fly has become the hot favourite this season. I’m eagerly awaiting the winter runs this year and exploring the Tongariro and the rest of Taupo’s tributaries in what has to be one of the fly fishers greatest amusement parks.