Bias, Big Water and Czech Nymphing

Over the last year especially, it’s occurred to me that most flyfishers suffer from a thing we call in management a ‘status-quo-bias’. In this case, the status-quo is best visualised as an ever so dependable and ever so generic size 14 Parachute Adams. This bias towards the status-quo means that come what may, the Parachute Adams will be fished. A nymph might be tied off its hook-bend as a compromise.

Suffering from biases can lead to under-performance. Three recent outings on the Rubicon, the Buckland River and the Ovens River illustrate this. On each of these outings, two things happened: 1) I met a number of other flyfishers who had a Parachute Adams on and who asked me if I was fishing ‘a dry-dropper too?’; and, 2) the water levels in each of these rivers was high, the flow was very fast and the water was crystal clear and icy cold from snow melt.

In each case I was thinking, why on earth would you fish a dry fly? Unless of course your purpose is to cast a lot and to go home empty-handed. All five flyfishers I met had blanked. In each case, I caught more than a dozen fish. How? By fishing a Czech nymph system (and I am a relative beginner at it!). That is what I mean when I say strong bias can lead to under-performance!

Big, cold, early season flows can require a rethink.

Now discussing the Czech nymph system is the BBQ-stopper among flyfishers; the equivalent of talking politics or religion. In fact, with most flyfishers, it is easier to talk politics or religion! So why is that? Flyfishing is all about matching the hatch, getting the fly to where the fish is feeding and yes, it is about catching fish. The Czech nymph system consists mainly of fishing heavy nymphs on a long leader, with a flyline that is designed not to have any weight forward. You basically cast the nymphs with a long rod, and hold a tight line to feel the fish eat the nymph.

Two years ago I was introduced to Czech nymphing during a great two-day workshop with former World Champion Martin Droz, organised by Christopher Bassano. Since then, I’ve moved out of my comfort zone – and my urge to stick on my go-to ‘dry-dropper’ whenever I go fishing. I began the journey to adopt Czech nymphing whenever the situation seemed to call for it.

So, let me try to explain what I learned when busting my dry-dropper-bias. Finding my rhythm in Czech nymph casting is as meditative, as technical, and as much fun as casting a floating line. Remember how hard it was when you started casting a conventional outfit, yet how joyful it is now? Same goes for Czech nymphing. My tip is to begin Czech nymphing by casting quite heavy flies (double tungsten on the point). It makes casting easier, and you keep a tighter system with a more direct connection with the flies.

Czech nymphing is also surprisingly visual. I see many fish emerge from the deeper water to eat the top dropper fly. This is every bit as visual as seeing a fish eat the dry. It’s also a bit more technical, as you have to set the hook on the eating behavior of the fish. The trout moves over, stops to eat and that is when you set the hook. Don’t wait for it to move back; it just spat your fly.

But here’s another thing I learned. Fish that eat nymphs are more forgiving of mistakes. So often now, I first feel a bump, meaning a fish was on only briefly. I then recast and drift the same flies in the same spot, maybe with a slight induced movement, and the trout will take again. They seem a lot less spooked from a nymph that wasn’t food. We all know how they can respond when they see a dry fly that is not supposed to be there (I am thinking the Mataura here…).

Showing a trout the wrong dry on, say, the Mataura, can end badly; trout nymphing deep seem more forgiving.

Finally, Czech nymphing taught me the art of going slow. As Christopher said when we saw Martin Droz gently combing through one single run and pulling out fish after fish: “All us blokes would be behind the next bend and into the next valley by now!” Indeed, on my last session I had caught a dozen fish in two runs. I could still see my car and I had moved perhaps 30 metres. I did a test and returned the next day to the fish dry-dropper on the same stretch. I had to wade up 100 metres through fast flowing water to catch one single trout.

So what is the upside of all this? Well, it is about learning to adapt to new situations, learning a new skill, buying some new gear (do we need another excuse?), slowing down and catching more fish. As a bonus, by the simple fact of statistics, if you catch that many more fish, you will also increase your chances of catching that bigger fish.

Above is one I pulled up from a deep, swift run, right in front of a popular campsite on the Ovens River this weekend. I bet that area had been heavily fished over the recent school holidays, maybe by the dry-dropper brigade! A trout like this is pretty much an outlier in these rivers. From this run I had taken four fish already, so I was fishing ‘in the zone’ and therefore, by the simple law of numbers, the next one in line was this beautiful 53cm brown trout!

I’ll finish with some wise words from the economist John Maynard Keynes, who said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” When the fish start rising, or when the water levels finally begin dropping, I am prepared to change my mind to the dry (with dropper, if I must!). But until that time, the facts strongly point to fishing nymphs deep to get results.