Indicator-less-ness…ism…and Stiffing Fish

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

There was a time when the strength of a tippet was traded off to gain invisibility. The thicker the business end of a leader, the more it was feared it would alert fish to its presence. With the advent of latest technology fishing lines and fluorocarbon in particular, that trade-off has somewhat diminished in importance. Anglers still opt for fine tippets, but the reason is more one of allowing a wet fly or nymph to move naturally in subtle micro-currents. We’re logically less concerned about invisibility and more focused on the perfect drift. Even some of the wariest and most particular fish species, such as steelhead, are routinely pursued using 1x tippets, and sometimes even thicker.

Being drift-conscious, we still seek limp material…and we also keep an eye on abrasion resistance. But there are intentionally stiffer monos and fluorocarbons out there, often aimed at saltwater fishing (and themselves highly abrasion resistant)…and they offer us fresh-water-ers an interesting option. Let me explain:

I nearly always fish downstream — I break with the reigning wisdom. Why? I like to swing wet flies. The tight line when I get a strike telegraphs the impulse back to me, and it’s an addictive thing. I’ll cast above myself in the flow but generally only to give the fly time to sink. More often than not my cast is just roughly across, and as it swings below me I “work” the fly to coax strikes, eventually bringing it back up toward myself in short slow strips, in the seam between the downstream laminar flow and some near-side slack eddy. I’ll position myself directly ABOVE the water I intend to fish, rather than below, and work the pool below the riffle thoroughly, in progressive arcs with a little change in line length each iteration.

It’s a good (and old-time) way to fish, and I love it, but one unfortunate fallout of doing it so often is that my abilities to detect a strike when my fly is drifting down from upstream of me have degraded over the years. I just rarely do it, and since I watch the line instead of using bobbers, my upstream subtle strike detection skills have slowly suffered.

This became obvious to me earlier in the year on a trip up north, where the fish and strikes were plentiful. It was barbless hook water and I began to notice that while my fly was drifting down from above me there were just very occasionally the tiniest little pauses and darts of the fly line…practically imperceptible…and when I saw them I could sometimes but not often set the hook. Observing the pausing and darting of the line was rare…and yet the fish on the downstream portions of the drift remained exuberant about this favorite fly (the one I like to call “Veronique’s Vino” in honor of my daughter, who had donated a wisp of her hair to the first experimental tie).

Figure 1

Why were the upstream portions of the drift rarely garnering any interest? The answer was naturally that there was plenty of interest but I was seeing hardly any of it. Fish can spit out a fly quicker than a fisherman can say, “Dang it, this water’s barren.”

I was using a floating line and an 11-foot leader (counting the 6x tippet’s length), and it was a little long for managing the fly’s drift. The 6x tippet was about as restrictive on the fly as a spider web fiber might be, which means the fly was swirling and wiggling at will, and the path between the fly and the fly line’s end loop was anything but straight. So I realized I just wasn’t seeing most of the takes at all.

I began addressing that by manually tightening up on the line, “leading” the fly downstream a little with a bit of tension, like the Czech nymphers do…which helped straighten the leader. Yes, I was making the drift less natural, but the first time I tried it the peach-colored fly line darted upstream an inch or two and I set the hook on a nice little wild rainbow. Tried it a few more times and found it was helping…although again I was lightly “dragging” the fly downstream a bit. Where the current swirled the drag was less visible to the trout, but where it was laminar it spoiled the drift and I’d not only get no strikes I’d have to walk away and let that water “rest” for 20 minutes or so.

Figure 2

So I decided to improve things further; I pulled out a different leader — a 7.5 footer, one that was made of a bit stiffer mono. Rather than add tippet, I tied the 1x end directly to the fly. This had the effect of making the path from fly line to fly much less kinked, much less coiled, during the drift. The fly’s position was far more predictable. The fly itself wasn’t wiggling around nearly as much, but the rig was closer to the “tight line” state we all try to achieve.

This adjustment allowed the tip of the fly line to be a reliable “strike indicator,” as I had always intended. Despite the reduced freedom of the fly, it was evidently still free enough, and I began to detect subtle takes when the fly was well upstream of the fly line in the current. The catching improved greatly as a result; in the next two hours half a dozen pretty little wild rainbows won free tickets to the inside of my net.

So this article is a case for the thicker/stiffer tippet — a case, if you will, for the “stiffing” of fish. I’ve repeated the above experiment several times since, and have drawn the same conclusions. I re-learned from these attempts several fundamental things that I’d known long ago but had all but forgotten:

— Optimizing a leader rig on a given outing must include thought toward what portion of the drift we’re trying to tune or target. Not only leader and tippet length and diameter is important, but also its ability to track or arc a relatively uniform line.

— Split shot, which I have relied upon freely for years, adds a path discontiuity in the leader that masks subtle takes; it can be counter-productive for upstream fishing. Size 8 (0.06 grams) or less is sufferable, but larger shot does mask subtle takes. Unfortunately the counter-productivity of a given size of split shot is directly related to its ability to give the fly depth.

— Weighted wet flies (and bead heads), up to now generally avoided by me in my attempt to get a fly to wiggle as it drifts, can therefore be superior to flies that would otherwise need extra weight externally added on the leader. For upstream indicator-less fishing, letting the soft hackle fibers do most of the wiggling appears to be enough.

— Very long leaders in general are hard to maneuver and manage when fishing upstream without a strike indicator, even for subsurface flies.

— For no-strike-indicator upstream fishing, tight lines trump hair-thin lines every time. So a thicker or at least stiffer tippet can be better rather than worse.

Whatever leader and tippet is used, removing coils when first setting up is also very important.

I suspect that furled leaders, if they add stiffness or ensure uniformity of arc, can also help. Due to their greater visibility I haven’t used them up to now.

I’ll be moving to a moss-green-colored floating line for nymphing, so that I can shorten my leaders substantially; I only hope I can still see the end of the line.

The end of a visible floating fly line is an effective strike indicator if the leader allows it to be. There’s great joy in watching the line in this way, “suspending” a fly not with a float but by the current itself…and choosing the right fly weight for the current so that it can still sink and bounce and drift. Downstream takes are generally tactile and obvious (and exciting), but subtle upstream takes can still be detected by watching the line dart subtly, if the leader and tippet are straight enough (which often means stiff enough) to allow. Stiff leaders are often used to help “turn over” a dry fly for an elegant presentation, but a lot of us wet-fly-heavers tend to ignore leader stiffness when loudly plopping our offerings into the drink. But for reasons other than turnover, leaders and tippets that maintain a straight line or gentle graceful arc can still help a lot.

We can always re-learn basics; it’s part of the eternal rediscovery, part of the magic.

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