Early thoughts on the tactical nymphing philosophy

    It took me a minute to get past the use of the word “tactical” when it came to fly fishing. When I see the word it conjures up images of very serious looking dudes with a dozen spools of tippet and other doodads hanging off a stuffed vest and lugging around 3 fully rigged rods. Attacking the river like some kind of black ops trout fishing navy seal making sure no trout is safe. The thought of a fishless day inducing dry heaves and profuse sweating.

   For me fixed line fishing was a pursuit in the opposite direction of all that. At the end of the day fishing is a past time, a hobby. It is supposed to be enjoyable and a relaxing mental break from the seriousness of normal day to day life. I spent several decades taking it way to serious. When I recently found and cleaned out my old steelheading jacket I found seven fly boxes. Seven. This jacket has two pockets. In all my years of steelhead  fishing in Alaska I pretty much used two flies. A glo bug and a black wooly worm. On rare occasions I’d use an egg sucking leach when the worm wasn’t doing it. Why didn’t I just have one box with those patterns only? Why seven boxes with hundreds of flies that would never see the light of day? It’s because I took it all very serious. I’d lose sleep at night staring at a blank ceiling thinking of the horrors of being on stream without the perfect fly for whatever situation presented itself. I would do this even when I knew that the perfect fly was always a glo bug or a wolly worm. For almost 20 years.

    That sort of anxiety of not having enough “stuff” ultimately took the luster off of fishing for me. I started to loose interest because this need to be a master of any and all situations overtook the true need that got me into fishing in the first place. The need to be outdoors. The need to be in fresh air and flowing water away from people and the trappings of life. Getting out in nature for me is the point, the fishing is a pleasant by product of that. So when I took up tenkara the desire was to keep it really easy and simple. From a gear standpoint I think ive stuck to my guns on that one. I don’t have bushels of tenkara rods or jackets packed to the brim with fly boxes. I only carry one rod on stream and my little chest pack.

   So with that groundwork laid I wasn’t interested in becoming “tactical” as I previously knew it. However something interesting happened as I began getting more focused on tenkara. For the first time ever I really wanted to increase my overall stream craft. I wanted to become more in tune with the water and fish behavior. I wanted to become a better fisherman and I wanted to achieve that through knowledge and technique not by throwing expensive gear at it. When I took the time to read fully through tacticalnymphing.org with an open mind it finally clicked for me. This process of looking over the 5 tactics wasn’t about being some deadly serious trout slayer but about being a smarter, more efficient angler. To me it was about making smart choices and establishing sensible tactics to get more enjoyment out of your time on the water.

   As of this writing I am at the early stages of embracing these philosophies. I currently only apply a few of them consciously to my angling. My intention now is to go through them one at a time as the apply to me know and how I wish to incorporate them. I want to spend a solid length of time utilizing them then revisit the 5 tactics down the road and note how I may have changed as a fisherman in that time. Knowledge, growth and refinement are all things I value and I am looking forward to this chapter of a lifelong fishing journey.

Tactic 1. Lightweight. This is something I am steadily working towards achieving in many aspects and will account for the small amount of gear acquired to get there. I have always fished with heavier slow action rods since they fit my style of fishing heavier rigs. I was a split shot guy from way back. A lot of the rivers I grew up fishing in Alaska were big and swift and required a good deal of weight to get down fast. It was a real adjustment for me to just fish lightly weighted flies with no added weight to the leader. One area where fixed line rods have allowed me to improve is lighter tippets and increasingly lighter casting lines. Using these lighter lines and flies has definitely increased my hook up rate. Using sparser nymphs on light FC tippets is allowing me to reach depth almost as fast as split shot on heavier tippet.  The addition of a lighter rod will be joining the mix soon when I receive my riverworks ZX4. An area of lightweight that has benefited my fishing the most has been a decrease in my own body mass. The Summer of 2021 marked the end of a long “career” in competition powerlifting.  After the last meet that I competed in I weighed close to 370 lbs at 6’7” tall. In my early 40’s now I knew it was time to hang it up and focus on a better quality of life. The desire to fish in more remote tougher to access streams was a big motivator in getting my weight and mobility under control. I am under 300 lbs now and it has had a drastic impact on my fishing. I am able to hike longer and farther, navigate obstacles much easier and generally not feel like ive been hit by a truck at the end of a long days fishing. Finally, I only pack what will fit in my small chest pack for the day. One box of flies, two spools of tippet, a small length of extra sighter material and casting line, clippers, forceps and one small box of nontoxic shot for the occasional drop shot rig. Depending on the length of the outing a may bring a small back pack with food and water.

Tactic 2. Low Profile. This one is real struggle for me in some ways. By virtue of being a gigantic human being I struggle to keep a physical low profile. I am still too heavy to enjoy spending any length of time on my knees or crawling about and even crouched I still present a fairly large profile. I will cover some of the things I do to deal with this when we get to stealth. I am just now really starting to establish a low profile kit to fish. I have purchased lighter lines that I will be experimenting with soon, my nymphs are becoming much more streamlined and I am utilizing new to me innovations like uv resins and tungsten beads. I am also stubbornly learning new knots for my rigging that form smoother transitions from line to sighter to tippet. I do still use tippet rings on occasion especially on really cold days when I just lack the dexterity to be fucking around with knots and 6X.

Tactic 3. Dense. Another work in progress for me as far as my equipment goes. I have already switched to exclusively using denser fluorocarbon tippets while nymphing. The casting line portion I am still trying to dial in. While I am sure a lighter #2.5 level tenkara line is light enough and dense enough to handle almost any situation I do feel that with a little experimentation there could be better options out there. I will be trying a variety of lines over the coming months. The first attempt will be with a fluorocarbon coated line recommended to me by Jeff Lomino. Kastking Flourocote in 10lb test to be exact. I will also be trying spiderwire stealth, Gary Yammamoto Sugoi line in grey and some of the Sempe brand nylon and fluorocarbon lines. My basis is to first try these lines sized off the Japanese level line rating system. So if a #2.5 Japanese level line has a diameter of 0.260 then these initial experimental lines will have similar diameters. This might be a flawed approach but it’s a start and for the most part these lines are cheap. I’ll do little write ups on my experience with each and post it to the tactical nymphing FB group. What I wish to find is the absolute lightest line/tippet combo possible that I am still able to cast with my current skill set. Knowing that some competition fly fishers are running and casting straight 4x gives me hope that with some practice a lot is possible. Density of fishing time is also more of a consideration now. Rather than bounce from prime spot to prime spot I try to be more methodical in working all likely looking water. I have been pleasantly surprised enough to know that is worthwhile and trout will hold in water I use to walk right past. Doing this also improves one’s ability to read water in general. I now see likely holding spots all over. It’s a cool feeling.

Tactic 4. Stealth. Ahhh stealth, the bane of my big clumsy existence. I WANT to be stealthy. I know how to be stealthy but knowing and implementing are entirely different things. I watch videos of these amazing Japanese anglers gliding from rock to rock, dropping to their knees, crouching low and silently slinking up and down these mountain streams as light as the breeze. In comparison I am a neon orange terrified elephant. I am huge, I am duck footed, I have sheet metal screws in my boots and with the mobility of a 2×4 I am just not a stealthy being. I do however have a few things to offset this. I dress in very drab earth tones, tans and olives and camo. I approach the water slowly and I always start fishing close to the bank and work my way towards the likely holding spots. I move slowly. I constantly practice casting and presentation to drop my flies as gently as possible. Fly first and line off the water. When available I try to utilize shade and/or broken water to hide my silhouette. In Paul Gaskells wonderful book “How to fool fish with simple flies” he talks at length about using the “noise” around you to better conceal your position. I am incorporating less hi-viz lines into my set up I am also trying to learn to cast these longer lighter lines more accurately.  For me my least favorite thing about fixed line fishing is hand lining fish to net. Generally, if I lose a big trout it’s because I’m screwing around trying to pull in the last few feet. Like everything else this will just take practice. I do now use an oversized extending handle net which does help some. Lastly I do strongly believe in leave no trace approach to the outdoors. Basically follow the regs and don’t litter. As simple as that seems they are still very foreign concepts to a lot of people based off the amount of trash I see in the mountains but I digress.

Tactic 5. Contact. This is the one that I relate to and understand the most I believe. Being a self-taught fly fisherman starting out in the early 90’s pre internet there just wasn’t the vast wealth of shared information available today. At as a teenager I scoured the library and magazine stands for anything I could find on fly fishing. I do not remember what magazine I read it in but was very influenced early on by an article on hi stick nymphing. The jist was to cast upstream, as the rig flowed down you matched speeds and slowly raised the rod tip to take up slack with the highest point being when the rig was in front of the angler. Then you lower the tip accordingly to continue the drift downs stream. Rinse and repeat. This made a lot of sense to me at the time and became the predominant way I nymphed for decades to follow. I didn’t even know what a strike indicator was until my mid-twenties and by then was so adept at this form of nymphing that I never needed much else. So the idea of maintaining a perfect amount of contact with your flies is very familiar with me. Where that can be improved upon is going increasingly lighter with the equipment. While I felt I always had great contact, I was also fishing a shit ton of split shot and usually two big flies on soft action rods. Replicating that same sensation with 10lb test casting line, 6x tippet and size 18 flies on a 2 oz fast action rod is a completely different feeling all together. The most difficult part for me will be reprogramming a lifetime of muscle memory in my casting stroke. When I focus I can generally get these lighter rigs to do what I want but will quickly revert to my old ways as soon as my mind wanders. This leads me to be brought back to reality by a piled up wad of a cast or a nice big wind knot to undue.  

    So reflecting on these 5 tactics I see them not as a way to become the most lethal angler on the stream but as a way to simplify and maximize my own time on the water. I hope to make these things habit so that my focus can be narrowed down to feeling everything around me. From the nymphs ticking along the river bottom to the pressing current on my legs. Not being overburdened with an impossible amount of choices but with a small set of very refined techniques. I also believe there is joy in being lighter and more refined. Lighter in physical presence as well as thought. I am excited to see where the tactical nymphing philosophy takes me in the coming months. If you made it this far thank you for letting me share my thoughts.

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