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Nymphs differ in the way they act prior to emerging as flies. Some crawl out on the rocks, while others go up the reeds alongshore and when th e fly appears it lays its eggs there. When the eggs hatch, the little creature that is born crawls down the reed again to hide itself ' in the mud till it is time for the cycle to begin all over again. Still other nymphal forms are often seen floating downstream, riding along the surface as the fly works out of its shell and finally breaks free and flies away-if some hungry trout doesn't get it.
And so it goes, through a vast array of underwater forms of life which for fishing purposes we class together as nymphs. As a result of the great variety, it takes a close study of nymphs to match them with artificials and the tying of good nymphs is one of the most difficult phases of fly tying. Some of the products turned out are also the prettiest things in a fly man's book.
Since the nymph is usually underwater when the fish takes it, or barely to the surface, it should carry a little more weight than dries, and most commercially tied nymphs are weighted. In the case of some of the lighter, unweighted ones, however, anglers frequently pinch on a split shot about a foot above the fly if it becomes necessary to get them down to reach a feeding fish.
While many private tyers turn out nymphs of their own design, commercial tyers in the eastern part of the country, where nymph fishing has a longer history than in the West, concentrate on the well known light stone fly, yellow May fly, March brown, Tellico, ginger quill, brown drake, black and yellow, orange and black, black and the Ed Burke, all tied on sizes from 10 to 14. The smallest nymph I have ever been able to find was tied on a size 16 hook, but certainly there are naturals which would be matched with a size 18 or even 20, if these were available on the market.
On the other end of the line are such really big ones as the Western stone flies, called by various names-salmon, trout and willow fly-often so large that they are tied on number 6 long shank hooks. Rocky Mountain tyers have done an imaginative job of imitating natural nymphs. Dan Bailey of Livingston, Montana, turns out a large stone fly nymph on a 2X long, number 8 hook, that is more natural looking than the natural. It is best in the early season while the big hatch is on, but will produce well all year. Some of the best Western nymphs in larger sizes are the Bailey's May fly nymph, caddis fly, the cross guinea, dark olive and cream May fly, all tied on 10 and 12 hooks. Tied on long shank hooks in sizes 6 to 10, the light mossback with light olive and cream body is a good producer, and the dark mossback with body of dark olive and yellow is one of the best nymphs I've ever fished.
The first dark mossback I ever tried was handed to me by Dan Bailey, who invented this particular tie. He told me he thought it was one of the best early season nymphs in the West. I started using it and kept taking fish. I tried it in August and September and up to mid-October and throughout all that time I had wonderful luck with it. About that time I went out one day with Dan and. we tried the Yellowstone River about 20 miles upstream from Livingston. Dan started about halfway down a 200 yard long pool and I mosied on up to the top. I used the dark mossback and was into a good fish at once. I took four in a row and the last one went three pounds, a deep bodied, high jumping rainbow.
I noticed that Dan wasn't doing much, and then I saw him walking my way, well back from the river. Then he came out in back of me.
"What are they hitting?" he asked.
"The dark mossback," I said. "They've been hitting it all summer and fall, too. In fact, ever since you gave me that one last spring, I've been cleaning up with them."
Dan laughed. "That's typical. I tie the fly but I don't have the first one with me."
I gave him a couple from my box and he went back to his former position and took a fish on his first cast.
Potts of Missoula ties the Sandy Mite, Lady Mite, Mr. Mite and Buddy Mite, in sizes 6 to 12, to represent nymphs familiar in that area. These are hair hackle ties with either hair or silk bodies with bright colored silk strips laced into the bottom. The hackle hairs are shaped around the hook. And another Western favorite that has proven out elsewhere is the gray nymph in sizes 6 to 12, with a heavy, fuzzy body of muskrat fur, gray hackle and badger tail.
Nymphs which take fish both in the East and the West and which should always be in the angler's fly box are the caddis, the Hewitt nymphs, the flat-bodied nymphs in gray and black, and the nymph tied with gray fur body. The little black nymph tied on a number 12 hook is a good one, too. These should be carried in sizes from 8 to 18. And now and then the larger yellow and gray nymphs on size 6 hooks will also take plenty of fish in the bigger rivers.
While ants are not a natural stream or lake food, enough of them are washed into the water, or fall in, that fish recognize them as edible. And there are occasions when for some unknown reason they will go for these little numbers in preference to what would seem to be the food for which their appetite would normally yearn.
Solid black or black with a red tail are the outstanding colors in ants, but occasionally a white one will be good, too, and remembering one particular occasion when I really cashed in on white, I always carry several in my fly box.
I had been fishing Big Hunting Creek near Thurmont, Maryland, and had spotted a bunch of trout rising about 3o feet from the shore. I used dry flies without success, finally putting the fish down with my repeated casting. Then I tried everything I had in the wet fly line but again without any luck. Finally, as I dug into the box again, I saw a white ant.
By that time the trout had recovered from their fright and were rising again and a couple I saw were taking naturals with a head and tail rise that showed their bulk. I greased the leader down to three inches from the end, then put leader sink on the remainder of it so that most of it would float, but the end would sink, thus putting the ant just below the surface, as a real one would normally float. Then I tied on the white ant and got ready to cast.
I dropped the ant about three feet above the feeders, mended the line, and glued my eyes on that leader. Sure enough, there it was! The leader jerked forward and I raised the rod tip. I was fast to a good fish, a fat and frolicsome rainbow.
Natural beetles are no more the main dish for trout than are ants. But there are over 25,000 species of beetles in the United States with the result that one kind or another is found in most parts of the country. There are many types, from the long-nosed beetle to the tiger, whose coat is green but whose larva, which lives on carrion, is striped and gives the beetle its name. Some beetles $y, others crawl, but most of them at one time or another fall into the water and come within a fin flash of a fish. Many a time, on opening a fish the angler finds a sprinkling of beetles mixed with assorted flies, nymphs, worms and bric-abrac. Certainly there are enough of them to provide convincing evidence that a fish knows very well what a beetle looks like and that it's good to eat.
Probably one reason that beetles have not been more generally used is that they are commercially tied by only a few fly tying companies. It has been up to the angler to find out about their effectiveness and then tie them for himself. Lately, however, the word has gotten around and one Pennsylvania company is tying such excellent imitations that the naturals would mistake them for friends they hadn't seen for a long time.
"A bit older," they might say. "A bit more stooped, perhaps, but still a good, smart beetle."
It is interesting that the terrestrials, mentioned elsewhere in this book, and which also include beetles, were also developed in Pennsylvania.
Because fish show a certain selectivity even with beetles, it is well to go armed as to size and color. The commercial ties are pretty well limited to bronze, black, green and brown, but on hook sizes from 10 to 14, this still allows a fairly wide choice of offerings to present to the fish.
Nymphs, ants and beetles which should appear in the trout fisherman's box are:
HOOK SIZES 6 TO 12ALDER MARCH BROWN
BLACK AND ORANGE
BLACK AND YELLOW
HOOK SIZES 10 12 14 AND 16, 2x LONG-SHANK HOOK
SPECIAL NYMPHS HOOK SIZES 6 TO 12
GRAY NYMPH FRESH WATER SHRIMP OLIVE SHRIMP NYMPH, PINK STRIPE TAN SHRIMP NYMPH, PINK STRIPE
HOOK SIZES 6 AND 8
PHILLIPS PINK SHRIMP PHILLIPS TAN SHRIMP PHILLIPS BROWN SHRIMP DAN DAILEY'S NATURE NYMPHS PHILLIPS GREEN SHRIMP LIGHT MOSSBACK BLACK MOSSBACK DARK MOSSBACK
HOOK SIZE 2x, 2x LONG MARCH BROWN CREAM MAY FLY DARK OLIVE ED BURKE HOOK SIZE 10, 2X LONG LARGE MAY FLY NYMPH CROSS GUINEA CADDIS FLY
LARGE STONE FLY NYMPH ANTS, hook sizes 8 to 16 BLACK BLACK AND RED RED WHITE BEETLES, hook sizes 8 to 14 BLACK BRONZE BROWN GREEN
Whenever anyone says to me, "There are lots of trout in there, but you can't catch them," I reach for my box of nymphs. That's what happened one day a couple of summers ago when I was standing with Randy Skelton looking over the slough back of his grandad's Rock Creek Lodge near Missoula, Montana.
"They're too hard to catch," Randy was explaining to me. "You can always see them feeding, but hardly anyone can catch them."
I soon saw why. It was a lovely stretch of stream with long grasses waving slowly in the quiet motion of the crystal clear water. Gravel beds showed wherever the current moved a little faster. It was the kind of water that calls for 12-foot leaders tapered down to 4X or maybe 5X or 6X. Trout were bulging all over the surface. But obviously this was no dry fly deal. Those fish were nymphing.
Searching the water near the shore, I found several small gray nymphs. That's what I wanted to discover. Betting that they were the dish right now, I dug out a gray nymph, size 14, that was a good match for the naturals I had spotted. I added another 16-inch 4X tippet to my already 12-foot-long leader. Just before casting I greased the leader down to about three inches from the end, then applied leader sink to the last three inches. I wanted the entire line and leader to float, except for just enough of the tippet end to allow the nymph to swim an inch or so under the surface.
"Why will they take a nymph when they won't take a dry fly?" Randy wanted to know, as I explained to him what I was doing.
"The same old trout trick," I said. "Selective feeding. They're working on nymphs, taking them right under the surface, and they won't look at anything that's riding on top. That's why sometimes you can't catch trout with dry flies even though the air is thick with naturals. They're taking the nymphs before the flies emerge."
"Watch those fish out there," I went on. "Look hard and you'll see that they aren't slapping into flies riding on top, or breaking the surface the way they do when they suck in a fly. The water seems to bulge up, instead."
That meant they were grabbing those nymphs just before they reached the surface and as they turned their bodies on the take, they put up a swirl that made the water move up, or bulge. Once an angler has seen that and recognized it for what it is, he can nearly always spot the difference between bulging fish and those that are taking surface flies.
Those trout were working about 40 feet out in the current where it ran over gravel smack alongside of a patch of water cress. I dropped the nymph a couple of feet above where I'd seen a rise, stripped in the slack, then held the rod tip slightly ahead of the floating line. With the last three inches under water, the line and leader drifted along, acting as a float, sort of bobber. I knew the nymph was right where I wanted it, two inches under water, moving a bit with the eddies, lifelike.
It floated along. No strike. It went on down, reached the end of the float and then swept across the current towards my bank. I raised the rod tip to a 4o-degree angle and began to impart short jerks to the line by manipulating the tip. After a foot of that, I let the nymph float free again for a foot, then gave a few more jerks, to imitate the action of a natural nymph struggling to reach the surface, then picked it up and sent it back to the same place it had started from.
This time it didn't go far. I saw the leader jerk forward, raised the rod tip and was into a good fish. He tore downstream, back showing, then busted out in a long, splashy jump. What with his jumping and the hazards of grass beds in that slough, he gave me a rough ten minutes before I finally landed him. He turned out to be a beautiful two-pound rainbow trout.
Many times when fish are feeding on nymphs, the operation is not quite as obvious as when they are bulging, as they were that day on the slough behind Rock Creek Lodge. Sometimes they are feeding deep, tails up, nosing out nymphs from the gravel, pushing them out from under rocks, then snatching them. If the water is fairly shallow, you can see the whole procedure, but if it is slightly deeper, then all the angler can spot is the flash of their sides as they work.