Practical and Useful

Practical and Useful

Upstream and Down

  • By: Dave Hughes
  • Photography by: Dave Hughes

WHEN I FISH STREAMERS AND BIG NYMPHS FROM A BOAT ON MOVING WATER, I apply them most commonly against the banks, less often to obvious lies such as boulders out in the mid-currents. I do it as prescribed by either of two primary theories: placing my casts upstream or down, behind the boat or in front of it. Both were taught to me by guides, and I’ll outline each briefly here, because when you fish big, weighted flies from a boat, one application or the other works most of the time, and the results are likely to hang heavy in your net when they do.
Both of these methods are based on the premise that the drifting boat, out in the main set of river currents, moves faster than the fly, which when cast to the edges will land in currents at least slightly slowed by the friction of water flowing along boulders and banks. The same is true around any mid-current lie: The fly, when you cast it to the kind of broken water where trout are most likely to hold, moves slower than the boat, unless the oarsman holds the boat back.
The first of the two methods, taught to me long ago on the Bitterroot River, a freestone and free-flowing river, and insisted upon as the only way to fish big, weighted flies from a boat on moving water, is to cast them to the banks or mid-current lies at an angle behind the boat. Use a floating line most of the time, for a shallow presentation, or occasionally a fast-sinking wet-tip to get down a bit deeper—you’ll never get more than a foot or two deep with this method in any case, and the floating line gives you much more control. The leader should be about the length of the rod when using the floating line, six or so feet long with the sink-tip. When the fly touches down at a 30- to 60-degree angle behind the boat, give it a few seconds to sink. Then the line, its slack removed by the boat moving away from the fly, draws tight, and the retrieve is initiated for you.
The primary benefit of this method is almost instant contact with the fly, because of the tightening line, which enables you to detect takes. They’ll usually be thuds. You also have total control over the retrieve. You can let the fly drift fairly free by lowering your rod and feeding a bit of slack, coax it to swim slowly toward the boat on its tight tether, or dash it in the sort of panic imitated by a brisk stripping retrieve.
The fly fishes a few inches to a foot or more deep, depending on how heavily it’s weighted and how long it gets to sink before the line draws tight. During that moment between its arrival along the bank and the beginning of its movement away from it, the likelihood of a take is high, especially when fish are on the edges, holding high, and intent on feeding, which is obviously when this method is most effective. Focus on the line tip, or the interface between sinking tip and floating running line, during that brief sink. If you detect any movement away from you or to one side, or even a mere twitch or straightening of the leader or line, that’s a trout. Set the hook.
Unless something happens out there—a thump, a boil, or a trout spotted following the fly—retrieve about halfway to the boat, then loft the fly into a single backcast (at most two of them to change direction) and plunk it back to the next bit of bank water or a mid-current lie, at that same angle behind the boat. It’s a sort of fishing that can become a bit frantic. You must, simultaneously, watch the line for signs of a take on the current cast and scout the landing place for the next cast. That feeling of franticness takes a pleasurable shot upward when a lunker trout raps your fly on that tight line.
The second method for fishing big nymphs and streamers from a moving boat calls for casting at an angle ahead of the boat, rather than behind it. This method was introduced to me by a guide on the Beaverhead River, again long ago and with the admonition that it’s the only way to fish a big fly from a moving boat. The Beaverhead is a tailwater. Its banks are eroded steeply; the water tends to be three to five feet deep right alongside them. Trout hold against those edges, primed to feed on whatever might be delivered down the currents.
This method, like the first, is best executed with a floating or fast-sinking wet-tip line. The fly, whether it’s one you’ve tied yourself or bought over the counter, or is handed to you by your guide, should be heavily weighted. The idea is to get it down abruptly. Weight on the fly, not the sinking potential of the line, makes that happen fast. You’re not fishing a lake; you can’t count the fly down for 30 seconds; those good lies are whizzing past in a hurry.
The casting angle is the same 30 to 60 degrees, this time in front of the boat rather than behind it. Again, the fly is given some time to sink. But with the boat still moving faster than the fly, the result is slack introduced after the cast. The fly will continue to plunge until you gather in that slack, take control of it and initiate the retrieve yourself. If you give the fly a few seconds to sink, it will get down two to three feet, into the zone where those big trout are able to see it.
While your fly sinks it has a good chance to entice a trout. But with the introduction of slack between you and your fly, there is a low probability you’ll notice when it happens. It’s a trade you make: more depth against the chance you’ll miss shallow takes. Naturally, you make that trade on water types (such as the Beaverhead tailwater) where bank water is deep, and refrain from making it on the opposite types (such as the freestone Bitterroot) where water along the banks tends to be shallower. You also predicate your method on the weather. If it’s warm, and terrestrials are making mistakes along the edges, expect trout to be holding high. If it’s cool to cold, with no insects showing, trout should be deeper.
When casting ahead of the boat you should always attempt to notice any takes that might occur before you initiate the retrieve, while the fly is still on the sink, because such hits happen often. Draw in slack as it’s introduced by the movement of the boat, but without moving the line tip. That lets the fly keep sinking, but puts you in position to move enough line to get the hook set if something triggers that reaction. Watch the line tip, just as you would when casting behind the boat. You’re less likely to see a take, but if the line makes any sort of movement that cannot be explained by the currents around it, set the hook.
After you’ve achieved the approximate depth you desire, it’s time to get in touch with your fly and begin your retrieve. By this time you will probably have at least a minor downstream belly introduced into the line by the current. You can use this belly to animate the fly. Hold your rod low, bring your line tight against the belly, then let the current work it, and you’ll achieve two things: You’ll regain contact with the fly, and you’ll begin to swim the fly away from the bank. This animates it, makes it suddenly look alive. Once you’re in touch with the fly, you can feel takes. You’re also fishing deeper, with a greater chance to hook a larger trout. Finish out the cast by retrieving, once again, about halfway to the boat before lifting the fly and launching it toward the next likely lie.
Don’t overlook the fact that casting ahead of the boat rather than behind it lets you fish water that is less likely to be disturbed. If the river is narrow, or by mischance the person at the oars has a propensity to float so close to the bank that you feel trout will be frightened by the boat, then you should cast forward, not backward, no matter the kind of river you’re fishing, and no matter how high in it the trout might be holding.
There are other ways to fish big flies from a boat. If your experience or your intuition advise another, use it. If your guide recommends something different, do it. But most of the time, when you want to bang the banks or hit mid-current lies with streamers or nymphs, you’ll catch most of your trout by casting at an angle either behind the boat or ahead of it. You’ll need to read your own situation, and apply the right method for the water over which you’re casting. Always keep in mind that one stretch of bank might be shaped for the upstream cast, behind the boat, while the water 100 yards—or even 100 feet—downstream changes and might be better fished with a cast in front of the boat.
Keep your options open, learn to read the most likely lies, and you’ll lead a lot more big trout thrashing toward your net. I hope you land them.
Dave Hughes’s latest book is Pocketguide to Western Hatches.

Photographs by dave hughes

Fishing ahead of the boat is a stealthy method that allows anglers to hook trout before those fish spook.