If you are among my past fly fishing students, then you're likely familiar with my "ninja fly fishing technique." There's really nothing about it that is "ninja," other than the fact that I like calling it that. It's also not earth-shattering in its content. Essentially, I'm just trying to hit a variety of techniques on every cast, and it's a great way for a beginner to get into some fish. Here's how it works: (1) cast a nymph under an indicator upstream; (2) mend your line, raise your rod tip, and/or pick up slack with your line hand to maintain a clean dead drift; (3) at the end of the drift, allow the fly to swing across the current; (4) allow the fly to hang in the current for a moment or two; (5) strip the fly back toward you for 2 or 3 feet; (6) if needed, take one quiet step upstream; (7) water-load your cast back upstream. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Using "the ninja technique"
With this technique, you're nymphing, swinging a wet fly, and also throwing in a touch of streamer fishing. If you don't get a hit on the drift, you'll often get a hit as the fly first begins its acceleration around the swing or after you reach the hanging-in-the-current part of the presentation. The weakness of the ninja technique is that you don't get a bunch of hits DURING the swing itself. While using the ninja technique, if I'm mostly getting downstream hits rather than dead-drift hits, I'll usually try a pure swing presentation for a while. If they're receptive, then I'm telling you, the swing's the thing. First, I'm going to tell you why. Then I'm going to tell you how.
Imagine you're a trout hanging out in a crystal clear stream. As little bits of stuff drift by, you give it a glance. If it looks like food, you eat it. Pretty simple, right? Now imagine that the rains come, and now there are tons of little bits of things drifting by, and most of it is not food. The debris includes specks of dead leaves, bits of algae that have broken free from the stream bed, seed pods blown free from streamside vegetation, and so on. How easy is it for you to look at everything to figure out what's food and what's not? Seeing the issue? There's so much static, it's darn near impossible to feed efficiently. Now add to that the possibility of a faster current and murkier water. How does a trout adapt to this scenario? Simple. Since the debris and a typical drifting bug are too similar to quickly tell apart, a trout has to change the parameters of what he's looking for. If you're a hardcore nymph fisherman, you might have decent luck by simply switching flies to something that is easier to pick out of the static -- a huge black nymph tied with flash and rubber legs, for example. But if the trout has stopped looking at drifting food altogether, this won't help you.
At some point, the trout will instead look for food-sized items that are moving differently than the inedible debris. Any movement at all will snap that fly out of the background static. This should bring to mind a couple of options. One would be to twitch that nymph on the drift. That could work. Twitches can also startle the fish. Give it a try anyway. See what you think. Another idea would be to strip a streamer. If they're not looking for bugs, maybe they'll grab a minnow or crayfish. Possibly! Could be fun. Give it a shot. The third option is to switch your technique to a wet-fly style swing.
Again, imagine you're that trout, and the debris and current have picked up the pace. You're trying to find something to eat, but the volume to debris drifting straight at your face is making it impossible. But what if you saw some movement out of the corner of your eye? You glance over and see something that looks buggy moving from the streambed on your left toward the surface on your right. It sticks out like a sore thumb. You know it's not debris. It looks edible, and it's moving in a predictable path. You'd eat it, right? Of course, you would. That's the beauty of the swing.
The reason you won't get many hits during the swing when you're using my ninja technique is because there's too much of a bend in the line at the end of the drift. Our primary focus is the dead drift of the nymph, so we throw the fly upstream with a mend. When the fly reaches the end of the drift and swings across, the bend in the line forces the fly to accelerate downstream very quickly, and then it whip-cracks around that bend. This movement is just too sudden to interest a fish. You'll need to focus your efforts on developing a more gentle and predictable swing.
Instead of wading and casting upstream, turn around. You'll be moving downstream and casting across the current at a downstream angle instead. Finish your cast with your rod held high, so you can drop the rod tip and give the fly some slack. If you're using enough weight -- and if you've never done this before, it's a safe bet you won't be -- as you slowly drop your rod tip, the fly will sink. This is a balancing act. You don't want any tension between the rod and the fly because tension pulls the fly up. You also don't want any real slack, because you want to maintain some level of physical contact with the fly. As the fly sinks, slowly lead it across the current with your rod tip. It's important to understand that I'm not suggesting you PULL it across the current. Throughout the drift, your challenge is to maintain that no-drag-no-slack thing.
Early in the swing, a bite will look and feel like you've snagged a flexible tree limb. If you see that, just give it a touch of tension toward your side of the river to see if it pulls back. Later in the swing, a bite will feel like a bite. The trout will approach from behind, grab the fly and turn away with it. You'll feel that thump or tension, and there will be no doubt.
Any fly will work, but flies that incorporate components that move or appear to move seem to work best. Flimsy hackle, marabou, CDC, rubber legs, or flies tied with flash all fall into this category. If the water is off-color, darker colors will give it starker contrast and make it easier to see. Woolly buggers, emergers, soft hackles, big nymphs with legs and marabou tails... you get the idea. Get creative.
Last thought: the next time you're fishing dries during a hatch and not getting any action, try this technique with an emerger. And you're welcome!
Head Trout Honcho in Charge
Walt Fulps. RETIRED fly fishing guide and instructor, published author and columnist, and public speakr. My past career life was in the fields of Therapeutic Recreation and Adventure Therapy.