My buddy and I were getting out of our gear after a day’s fishing together when he said to me “I noticed you changed nymphs a lot”. His statement started a great discussion about changing nymphs, that is, why and how often should you change nymphs. I call it “working the box”. A process I use when fishing nymphs or dry flies. Nymph fishing and working the box, to me is extremely important.
Nymph fishing: Working The Box. Working the box is changing nymphs often until you find a successful pattern. Changing nymph patterns to take advantage of size, color, or presentation to fool Mr. Trout should be a habit. But not all trout fishermen are willing to change nymphs often enough.
Dry fly fishing has the advantage of seeing a rising trout take your fly. It is an advantage because if he, Mr. trout, doesn’t take the fly it is an indicator that the fly being fished isn’t to his liking. So, naturally, change the fly. But when the same scenario is happening several feet below the surface, especially in stained water, seeing a trout let alone watching what he is doing, is nearly impossible. What’s the solution you may ask? When fishing nymphs, working the box becomes your only option.
Time of the Year
In many states, like here in Pennsylvania, spring means “opening day” of trout season. Springtime fishing is the easiest time to catch trout because fresh new fish have been “stocked” into the creeks and are typically easier to catch. If these trout can survive the initial onslaught of anglers hitting the streams, they will smarten up quickly and in turn, be more particular about what they are willing to eat.
Having spent their life living in a hatchery, it’s natural for stocked trout to school up in locations or holes where they were placed. Drifting a nymph through these pods of trout generally yields a few as their natural instinct is to “taste” things. If these caught fish are released back into the pod, they take time to recover from the incident and generally won’t hit any of your offerings for a while.
The trout in the pod that has passed up your first offering may have done so because they didn’t find it attractive enough to investigate it. By changing nymphs it plays into the curiosity natural to trout. Each new item is something new to look over and to explore and maybe “taste”. Fishing nymphs and working the box in the spring is using a strategy of presenting “something different”. Stocked fish are much more curious and take different offerings more readily.
Late Spring and Early Summer
As trout fishing moves away from its initial start of opening day’s springtime activities, two things happen. Less and fewer fishermen venture out to the streams reducing fishing pressure and the stocked trout have acclimated to stream life. Stocked trout having survived being taken from the stream are then left to a more “natural” way of life.
Additionally, these trout have become more aware of their surroundings. They have changed their behavior and have become wary of shadows and movement along the banks. They understand that these things have a danger to them. Birds, animals, anglers are all threats to them in their world.
Fishing nymphs and working the box takes on a whole new meaning during this time of the year. Simply changing your nymph for trout to see something different won’t cut it any longer. The trout now feed on the insects and other life that is abundant, becoming more selective.
The abundance of insects increases during the spring into summer and provides a wide selection of foods for trout to choose from. As insect hatches become more frequent, trout can become pretty selective as to what they will feed on at any given time. Trout feed on nymphs more than anything else in or around the water and with such an array of items to choose from it becomes much more difficult for the angler to figure out what is the “dish of the day”.
Native and wild trout live under these conditions every day and are born with and have adapted survival tactics as a way of life. They know where to hide, what to eat, and when to move or not move. (How to Read a Trout Stream to Catch More Trout)
Stealth And Deliberate Fishing
Over the years I have seen more guys walk up to the edge of a stream never taking into consideration that trout can see them. They start casting away in hopes of catching trout, but to no avail. Then comes the line “there’s no fish here” and off they go. Stealth is especially important when fishing smaller streams where the trick is to see trout without them seeing you.
Trout generally face upstream into the current and their “blind” spot is behind them. Approaching them from behind and keeping a low profile allows you to take advantage of this blind spot by casting upstream. One of the advantages of nymphing is the upstream cast.
If you are casting into clear water that is calm, meaning you are not fishing riffles, pay close attention to the placement of shadows on the water. Shadows suddenly cast onto the water are signs of danger for trout. It is easy for a trout to see your line’s shadow during the casting motion and it will many times spook trout. To keep this example simple for this writing, if a trout has the sun to his right side, a cast over his right side will produce a shadow he may detect and it will spook him. A cast to his left is less likely to be noticed and he may not spook.
Deliberate fishing is a conscious and intentional approach. What I mean by this is, taking your time and planning your casts. It takes time for your nymph to drift into a position where a “dead drift” can occur and the dead drift only last for a short time or distance. You need to take into consideration all of these factors and adjust your casting accordingly.
The trees around you, limbs in the way, bushes near the bank, items in the water, and speed of the current all need to be examined before you make your cast. Calculating how and where your cast should land to have your nymph drop into a trout’s strike zone, ideally on the first cast attempt, is what it’s all about. This is when a trout is most vulnerable because he hasn’t detected you and he hopefully hasn’t been spooked by the cast.
We all have a tendency to “overcast” a situation. That is taking three casts to get into position when only one cast is needed. By taking your time and thinking through each cast you will cast less and be more accurate with your cast. You will spook less trout and increase your catch rate.
Take Notice Of What Is Happening Around You
We all have our favorite fly. It could be a Hair’s ear, Stonefly, Frenchie, and a host of others that we like to fish because we have had success using it in the past. But some days these guys just don’t work and it could be for a host of reasons. Finding a nymph that is working is what we want and some days that will take a little time to figure out.
Look around and consider what is happening around you. Is it sunny, cloudy, is the stream clear or stained? Have you seen bug activity and if so what do they look like? What is the nymph of that bug you saw fly by, do you know? Turn over a rock or two and see what lurks then match it to something in your box.
So What Does All of This Have to do With Nymph Fishing and Working The Box?
Working the box is using the various nymphs you have available for the current situation happening in front of you. It is a process of trying different nymphs until you find one that is producing strikes more often and consistently than any other nymph in the box.
But even the best nymph at the right time won’t work if you have a sloppy approach and scare all the trout. Stealth and deliberate fishing are essential to making you a better fisherman. Remember, all of nature is dependent on not being seen but being able to see. No deer just walks into a field without checking it out first and then he eases in warily. The same approach should be taken by the fly guy to a stream. Take your time, be deliberate, and stealthy as possible. (What Are The Basic Skills for Nymph Fishing Success?)
Nymphing: Where Everything Is Under The Water
I mentioned earlier that dry fly fishing has the advantage of seeing the fly on the water, unlike nymph fishing where everything is under the water and much harder to see, if at all. What makes dry fly fishing so appealing is seeing a trout come up and take the fly as it drifts along on the current’s surface. It is also frustrating, at times, to see a trout rise to your fly but he refuses your offering. Naturally, after a few refusals, we change to a different fly and start the process all over again. The advantage, of course, is being able to see all of this happening right in front of you.
Nymphing is different because we are fishing below the surface near the bottom of the stream. Visibility is often difficult depending on water clarity. If the water is stained or deep seeing the bottom may be near impossible. Because of these conditions, we can’t see the trout. We don’t know if our offering has been refused or never seen by a trout.
Using a strike indicator is helpful to many nymph fishermen. An indicator helps you detect strikes and is a very useful tool. But trout have the ability to pick up a nymph and spit it out without any notice or change in the indicator’s drift. There isn’t much we can do about that so it is the least of my worries. But what can be done is, delivering the best dead drift you can several times through a likely spot. If your mechanics are consistent and the drifts stay true but no takes, then your only option is working the box and change your offering.
Using a Systematic Stream Search
A systematic stream search helps to accomplish two things. It helps you find trout and it helps you select the best nymph to catch them with. But I admit, it can be tedious repeating the same routine through the same locations the same way as before. A systematic stream search is sending drifts through every likely hole, riffle, or undercut bank taking advantage of every casting angle.
Using a systematic approach and working the box is nymph fishing to me. The systematic approach may be working the stream from right to left, or from the bottom of the hole to the top, or running the nymph through pockets of fast water and, most likely, all of the above.
“Working the box” means changing to another nymph and repeating the process for each location until you catch a trout or have exhausted your offerings from the box. Let’s assume you have the proper leader length and the proper amount of weight. If a nymph during this second attempt connects it could signal you are onto the right combination.
Change is a constant. From the moment you step on the stream the day will go through changes. The sun will rise higher in the sky moving shadows cast onto the water. Temperatures will change. Hatches will begin and stop. Trout will feed and rest and feed again.
I have had those very rare days when I happen to choose a nymph and it connects almost right away. So naturally, I keep fishing it until it stops working. When I finally decide that this nymph is no longer producing it’s time to change. But to what?
If a nymph was working for a while and then turns off, what is that nymph’s general characteristics? Does it have a bead? What were the colors? What size is it? Does it have wings or legs? Is it flashy or dull?
Sometimes a change to something close to what you were having success with will produce, but in a size smaller. Maybe the flash is too flashy now that the sun is higher and needs to be toned down. In other words, make your nymph fishing and working the box changes by following a systematic approach by either adding or eliminating a characteristic of the nymph that produced.
Constant Observation Is Trout Fishing
As you go through the day pay attention to your surroundings. I know I have mentioned this often and for good reason. Each hour that goes by produces conditions that are a bit different than before. Bug activity may increase because of these changing conditions. This, in turn, can trigger a feeding opportunity for trout. In addition, the activity may be a different type of insect than your original presentation. By noticing what insects are becoming active and working the box, you are more likely to match whatever insect has just become active.
Remember, the time of day is important because aquatic life moves around at different times during the day. Something that was working in the morning may not work in the afternoon. Also, it is not at all unusual for a section of the stream to be very “bug active” while only a few yards away nothing is happening. (The 5 Bugs of Fly Fishing Entomology to Know?)
When Is It Time To Change Your Nymph?
This is the question that may be the hardest to answer in general. Is it measured in casts or amount of time fished or because we moved upstream and want to present something different? Ultimately it will be because you decided to change. Change is constant and nymph fishing effectively, working the box is the constant. As they say, “the only constant in life is change” and when it comes to nymph fishing this is a true statement.
More often than not I change weight long before I change nymphs. Changing weight and making sure I am near the bottom is my first priority. If I feel I have covered the spot with good technique and I’m confident that I have drifted through a section with good dead drifts, covered every seam well, then it is time to explore a different nymph. Nymph fishing and working the box is a normal practice for me.
When I fish with the “Professor” Paul, we often fish a likely spot together. We take turns drifting the hole. While one fishes the other is changing to a different pattern. This is a quick way for us to find and decide what nymph we will use by mimicking the success of the other guy. It is a fun way for us to fish together and discuss why and what we put on the end of our tippet. Oh, and by the way, it’s another way to help fill the fly box. Rarely, if Paul gives me a fly to use, does he want it back. Fish on!
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What is a Good Nymph?
If it is good enough to look like a mayfly nymph, good enough to like a caddis, or good enough to like a small stonefly, then it may be a very productive pattern.
How should I organize my fishing flies?
Focus on creating a structure in your box that allows you to remember with ease what each fly is. Keep the flies together that are similar, for example, Hare’s Ears or Pheasant tails. In general, dry fly with dry flies and nymphs with nymphs.