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

In the first part of this article I whined like a baby, maligning an honorable and effective method of fly fishing — that being the use of visual strike indicators attached to the leader. I did my level best to deliver a big bag of excuses about why I couldn’t cut the mustard with that approach. And then I tried to take credit for an alternative method that’s as old as fly fishing itself — maybe from back about when hedgehog gut was used for leaders. I arrogantly called it “my way,” and worse yet, I had the nerve to name it.

Well, what is “my way”?  I just watch the line. Again, for want of a better word for it, I’m calling it the “Line of Sight” technique, to have something to refer to here.

We want to detect a strike no matter how subtle, and no matter what kind of drift we’ve got going. A drift may come at us from upstream, extend away from us downstream, or both…and a strike can be very different depending on what kind of drift it interrupts. When fishing wet flies or nymphs across and down or mostly down, I generally keep the line direct enough to the fly that I’ll feel a take through my rod and fingers. It needn’t be a completely straight path, but it must be able to transmit shock or vibration back to my hands. This means either a straight line or at least a smooth arc. Admittedly it may work better for wet flies than for dead-drifted nymphs because with the line’s path fairly direct to the fly I’m likely to affect the fly’s drift to some degree — that is, if my fingers can detect something happening at the fly, whatever is at the fly might possibly be able to detect my presence too…if its brain can fathom the concept of invisible leaders tracing a path back to a human in the water. But I’m careful, and willing to take that chance.

Figure 2-1.  Smooth Upstream Glide

It’s when fishing upstream or up-and-across that a visual detection scheme is of more importance…because the current is every second increasing the slack in the line. When the visual detection device is the floating line itself, the goal is to see line movement that can’t be explained easily unless something is messing with the fly. I look for the line to:

—  Dart cross-current or upstream

—  Softly ease upstream — maybe only an inch, or even less

—  Sink at its tip faster than a weighted fly might pull it

—  Go suddenly more slack (as if the sinking fly stopped its gentle pull downward on the line)

—  Twitch oddly but not go anywhere at all

—  Do anything else an inanimate piece of string won’t do by itself, given known laws of physics

—  Do nothing more than give me a creepy feeling that something fishy is going on

Using the fly line — generally a floating fly line — as the conduit of visual strike detection is an old-timer’s way of doing things. It’s been said by wrinkled ol’ anglers that it may take longer but will eventually make a better angler of whomever sticks with it, and I believe it because it’s eerie how good those ancient folks get at catching fish. I may have initially taken to the idea because in some ways it’s a natural fallout of the catfishing techniques I employed in my tender youth: No float; the bait lies on the bottom. Between it and the cane pole, there’s only fishing line. One snugs that line up a little or a lot, depending, and then watches it like a cat watches a gopher hole. “Heck, I can do that,” the fly fishing reincarnation of myself realized years later.

If we’re to see the line move in an odd way, we must keep our eye on a specific point along it. Being able to see its end — where it attaches to the invisible leader — is best, but that’s only possible if we’re close enough to it. Failing that, we can single out a kink in the line, or a spot where it has not yet broken through the surface tension. Or we can identify a small U-shaped or S-shaped or circular “loop” in the line’s path, some sharp curve in how it lays on the water, and watch for that shape to straighten or constrict. See Figure 2-2 (which greatly exaggerates…there should not be near this amount of meandering in the line’s path). Even if the line is charging down-current, those loops or switchbacks can persist quite a ways down the drift. We try to imagine what the fly on the end of the invisible leader is doing at all times, based upon how those shapes are changing, and we mend to keep only a few such switchbacks and loops between us and the fly.

Figure 2-2.  Shapes in the Line’s Path

In relatively calm water you can keep the line pointing fairly directly toward the fly. The further from the fly you stand, or when you’ve cast the fly into the turbulent eddy water in the wake of a rock or log, the harder it will be to see the fly line’s tip or any point near it, so you may need to identify or create one of those “U” or “S” or loop shapes in its path…something to watch.

When a fish takes the fly, it’s going to affect the floating lie of the line — if it doesn’t, we’re thoroughly outclassed anyway. Whether the take is soft or decisive, the line closer to the fly will be affected first, so I try to keep my eye on a part of the line as far out toward the fly as I can. Again the end of the fly line is best if it’s close enough…else one of those kinks or loops or places that’s still atop the surface tension…anything that will change or move or wiggle or abruptly break through the surface and sink if that fly is disturbed. One must imagine how a sinking fly, or a breeze, or a riffle, would move the line, as opposed to a fish…then apply some personal judgement to filter expected and explainable movement out, so as to react only to the unusual, no matter how subtle it may be.  Some kinds of motion just cannot happen without a disturbance, and those are what we look for.

Sometimes when a line “eases” upstream, it doesn’t really even do that much. It’s so subtle that the most you can say is that it “didn’t NOT ease upstream.” Maybe all it did was hover where it hadn’t hovered on previous drifts. But you can safely react nonetheless, because with the “line of sight” method, reacting costs you nothing…not even the peace of the hole or glide, not even the chance to keep fishing that same cast.

Keep your hook points very sharp because, unlike with indicators, with this technique you’re not going to put foot-pounds of force into your hook-sets. Use hooks with a sufficiently wide gape so that detected takes are more likely to achieve the hook-up.

Clean and dress a floating line frequently to help it remain buoyant and visible, but if and when the line’s tip sinks…and it will…don’t take that as a bad thing as long as you can still see it or see a point on the line that’s not too far from it. A sinking line tip will provide an even straighter path to the fly, and if that tip does anything that a sinking fly or tiny swirl of current would not explain…however softly…then very quickly straighten the line with a decisive strip and see if you can feel a fish. If not, you were calm about it, so just keep fishing that cast.

The total line out should still let you go tight-line in an instant. If there’s too much slack, you have the same path discontinuity disadvantage that a floating indicator would give you, which is a disadvantage I personally try to leave behind. So any meanderings of the line other than the ones you’re watching should be stripped in quickly so that there’s only one or two that you’re watching, and the rest of the line is ready to be made taut.

Figure 2-3.  Smooth Downstream Glide

I had a terrific and memorable moment just a few days ago, at time of this writing: In a quick avalanche of anticipation I saw the whole progression — a gentle “S” shape of the line straightened far out there…then straightened closer…then a little 6-inch loop near me went straight…all one after another in a delicious half-second progression…and I quickly but softly took the rest of the slack out myself, to sense what turned out to be a very nice rainbow on the other end. Instantly on feeling the fish I gave it a more decisive hook-set, and minutes later was introducing myself to a hard-fighting rainbow while it explored the inside of my landing net.

I find the stealthy “snug-up” hook-set method perfectly reliable. It’s done with just enough “oomph” to feel the fish, and it’s instantly followed up with greater force, all in a crescendo motion, no pause or slack in between. If no fish, well that was just a bigger strip of the fly — no splash, no scare. If it turned out to be a snag, you haven’t buried the hook point deep into a log and can likely wiggle your fly loose using the normal unsnagging tricks.

There’s no describing the satisfaction of seeing some very subtle anomaly of motion in the line and making a decision to “snug it up” to feel, at the other end, the fish that thought it was being so cagey and clever. How it angers them, to be found out, despite their best guile! They charge and leap in rage — they turn it all loose. A quiet pool erupts, and not from you yanking stuff across the surface but from the acrobatics of the fish itself. Again, the moment you know you were right, you double down on the hook set. And if the “snug-up” proves whatever you saw to be a false alarm, well, you just continue to fish out the cast. Eyes may still be on your fly. No disturbance here, nothing to see, all’s still quiet on the front.

So-called “Czech nymphing” sometimes uses a few of these tricks, although more often as I understand it Czech nymphing just leads the fly down the current with the rod tip itself…so it’s inherently different.

In Part III, I’ll summarize the advantages of the approach I’m describing and provide some visual proof of its effectiveness.

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