Articles

South African stonefly nymph imitations

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

May flies, and to a lesser extent caddis flies, have over the years dominated the attention of fly dressers in South Africa – maybe sometimes disproportionately so. Stomach pumping exercises performed on trout caught inhabiting the fast flowing waters of the North Eastern Cape, as well as regular seine netting, have confirmed, at least in the minds of the authors, the importance of stoneflies in the diet of trout in these river systems. Dave Whitlock (see Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods) , for example, argues that the “… stonefly’s life cycle, habitat, and size make it highly compatible to fly-fishing and fly-tying … maybe even more so than the mayfly.” Careful scrutiny of local literature on fly tying has, however, revealed a paucity of South Africa-specific stonefly nymph imitations. This article presents a short overview of the stonefly life cycle, the stonefly nymph anatomy, the most important families of stoneflies found in South Africa, and a description of the materials required and tying procedure for an impressionistic, South Africa-specific, stonefly nymph imitation.

The Latin name for the stonefly is Plecoptera. The latter is broken up into pleco, which means “folded”, and ptera, which means “wings”. The “folded wings”-description refers to a unique physical characteristic present during the adult stage in the stonefly’s life cycle.(i.e. there is no pupal stage), and consists of three distinct phases, namely the egg stage, the nymph stage, and the adult stage. Unlike mayflies, stoneflies hatch all year-round. Hatching, however, occurs mostly during the night, and as such adult stoneflies and their imitations are of little importance to the fly fisherman in South Africa.

Stonefly nymphs live on the sides and undersides of stream-bottom structures, such as boulders, stones and plant detritus, in swift-flowing mountain and coastal streams and rivers. Stoneflies require unpolluted and swift flowing water with high oxygen content, and for this reason they are often used as an indicator of the relative water quality of a stream or river. Their conspicuous absence from a fast flowing stream or river is a strong indicator of compromised water quality. Stoneflies are seldom, if ever, found in stationary water (i.e. dams or other water impoundments) or very slow moving water – the reason for this absence is the limited level of adaptation of the stonefly’s breathing apparatus to changing water conditions.

Due to their limited ability to adapt to varying habitats in comparison to, for example, mayfly nymphs, the nymphs of the different families of stonefly show marginal variation in shape. This almost uniformity in shape across different families makes it easy to distinguish between a mayfly nymph and stonefly nymph. More specifically, the stonefly nymph exhibits the following physical characteristics: The body consists of 1) a head with two long antennae, 2) a clearly segmented thorax with three legs on each side, two well-defined wing pads on top and feathery gills situated on the bottom and between the six legs, 3) and an abdomen consisting of ten clearly defined segments, and two well defined tails on the final segment – gills are also found between the two tails.

Stonefly nymphs are easily confused with mayfly nymphs. The former, however, have large, feathery gills under the thorax and between their legs, whereas the gills of the mayfly are situated on the segments comprising the abdomen.  Stonefly nymphs have two sets of wing pads compared to the mayfly nymph, which has one set only. Moreover, stoneflies have two tails instead of the three found on most mayflies.

The two Stonefly families found in South African waters are the Perlidae family and the Notonemouridae family. The large and robust body of the nymphs of the Perlidae family is approximately 20 to 25mm long, with black and yellow or dark brown on their backs. The upper body is clearly segmented and the two antennae on the head and the two tails on the last segment of the abdomen are highly visible. The photograph below shows a Perlidae stonefly nymph.

The nymphs of the Notonemouridae family, on the other hand, are small with a body length of between 5 and 8 mm. The body colour of these nymphs is generally a dull grey or brown.

The two stonefly nymph imitations shown in the photograph above are fairly similar, the one tied in a realistic manner and the other impressionistic. They require the following materials:

Realistic Pattern:

  • Hook: curved stonefly hook # 14 to 8
  • Weight: 10 to 15 turns of 0.015 mm lead wire
  • Tail and antennae: X2 Cane rat skin fibres
  • Abdomen: Golden rabbit dubbing or similar
  • Back: Clear thin-skin back
  • Ribbing: 4X monofilament
  • Thorax: Golden rabbit dubbing
  • Wing case: Light brown thin-skin mottled with black or dark brown marker pen
  • Legs: Ring neck pheasant tail fibres

 

Impressionistic Pattern:

  • Hook: curved stonefly hook #14 to 8, or long shank nymph hook
  • Weight: 10 to 15 turns of 0.015 mm lead wire
  • Tail and antennae: X2 Cane rat skin fibres
  • Abdomen: Golden rabbit dubbing or similar
  • Back: N/A
  • Ribbing: Ultra wire copper
  • Thorax: Golden rabbit dubbing
  • Wing case: Golden pheasant tail fibres or mottled turkey fibres
  • Legs: Brush out dubbing with dubbing brush

These imitations should be fished in the cushioned boundary layer just above the stream bottom. Furthermore, both patterns are best fished in a drag free drift. The realistic pattern should work well in medium clear water current and the impressionistic pattern will suffice in fast currents where fish have little time examining the fly.

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 1

Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Stillwater Dead-drift Technique

Part 1

By Fred Steynberg

An introduction to the stillwater dead-drift techniques

A friend of mine from KZN visited for a few nights to show his new lady friend the pretty valley in which our “forgotten village” of Rhodes lies.  We had an afternoon to fish together and opted to fish stillwater and enjoy the catch-up time while driving up the pass to 2600m above sea level.  It was one of those windless midsummer days – her and there fish were lazily breaking the surface as we arrived.  We approached the water to see if we could identify what the fish were rising to but no hatch was apparent.  We leisurely kitted-up while chatting about flies and inevitably went through the “let me see your fly box” routine.  I have a serious thing against competing when fly fishing with a friend, but we, as always, had a friendly banter about what was inside our respective fly boxes. His box was something to behold – a colourful Bugger box that must have taken him hours to fill, while mine looked a little drab in comparison.  I opted to fish a floating line and he a sinker of sorts and, after deciding on flies, we strolled off towards a hot spot. We were going to fish the bank and wade to drop-offs and weedbeds, so tubes weren’t even packed.

I watched my friend fish a stone’s throw away; he is an accomplished angler and effortlessly casts a long line.  His fishing method was probably the most commonly used by Stillwater fly fishermen:  a single fly, fished with a sinking or intermediate line, allowing the line to settle as deep as possible, and then retrieving back with a quick hand-twist or down-strip retrieving action.  I often use this technique to prospect for fish, but prefer doing so in pre- and post-spawn seasons and especially during winter when most invertebrates, snails and such, are either dormant or inactive.  If trout are feeding and conditions are favourable, this method can be very effective, especially when using attractor patterns such as Woolly Buggers, Zonkers and some of the old wet fly favourites like Walker’s Killers or Mrs Simpsons.  These are undoubtedly great flies that have provided many anglers with much fun, since trout are predatory fish of the salmonid species and often find these large, stripped flies irresistible.

I did not feel pressured to produce fish and knew the fish in this clear water had so much food they did not have to react to moving prey, so I fished a #16 Flashback Nymph below an indicator using the dead-drift technique.  Summer is a time of plenty for trout inhabiting stillwaters with a healthy natural food supply.  Aquatic food like mayflies, midges, snails and daphnia can make up the largest part of a productive stillwater’s biomass, yet it is these imitations most anglers either choose not to fish or do not understand how to imitate.  The Stillwater dead-drift technique is not new, but maybe more a technique lost in the fast lane in which we are trapped and in an age where fast fishing (to catch the biggest and most fish) instantly gratifies.

My friend put out numerous casts, working the weedbeds, channels and drop-off, but did not attract fish.  While watching him accurately and methodically fish the correct areas, I recalled all the times I fished this technique under the same circumstances and with similar results.  It is a frustrating feeling when hours of stillwater fishing produce few or no fish.  All too often the moon or a distant thunderstorm is blamed and some anglers even complain “the fish have lockjaw”.  I know the stillwater we fished pretty well, having fished it often, so had a little home-ground advantage in knowing how deep to fish on this specific occasion.  My fly drifted or suspended without movement and I counted on fish moving within range to identify it as a potential food source )in this case, a mayfly nymph on the way up the water column to hatch), check and move to accept it.  After inhaling the fly, the fish would simply continue with its search for food without realising it had been conned.  The indicator disappeared seven or eight times during that short fishing session and I converted five into landed fish.  Admittedly, fishing was slow and unfortunately we had to leave just before the golden hour – that period is summer just before and after sunset when hatches of midges, mayflies and caddis are most prolific and fish feed in a frenzy.  As we packed away the rods, dense clouds of midges and mayflies started showing and fish moved aggressively to intercept the transforming insects on and just below the water’s surface.

Chatting to clients and other anglers, I have come to the conclusion that over-the-top technical articles on different rigs and methods to fish stillwaters often unnecessarily confuse anglers.  Many end up fishing incorrectly or simply revert back to the old trusted sinking-line-and-attractor method.  A basic understanding of trout habits in a specific environment is incredibly beneficial to ensuring a better result.  Dead-drifting in stillwaters should start as simple, uncomplicated fun fishing.  Once the technique is understood and success achieved, confidence will grow and you might never revert back to the chuck-and-strip method.

In the second part of this series, I will explain how to become a convert.

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 2

Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Still Water Dead-drift Technique

Part 2

By Fred Steynberg

In the previous introduction I hopefully was able to sketch a slight outline of the basic still water dead drift techniques. To get too technical on the subject is not at all necessary because it is simply not that complicated and if you have fished the dead drift once or twice then it should quickly start to make sense. For those that are relatively new to the sport of fly fishing, however, and who often find themselves caught up in the confusion across the counter ‘technical talk,’ I will start with the tackle suited for this technique.

Still water fishing often requires a slightly heavier rod than what is needed on our smaller rivers and streams. The weight of the rod is not necessarily chosen for the size of the fish targeted but rather to cast a longer line and leader more effectively and with less effort. A heavier rod should also, in trained hands, assist in casting the line into or across the wind, often to be encountered on still waters. In my opinion a 5 or 6 weight (9’ or more in length) outfit should be the correct choice. I have often encountered anglers who fish still waters with their 2 or 3 weight outfits and yes, by all means, this is possible but really not functional. Watching even the most competent of anglers trying to make a light rod perform the same job seems an impossible effort as the rod is forced to perform a function that it was not designed to perform.

A floating line with a weight forward taper should carry a fly a long way when hotspots such as channels, weed beds and distant drop offs have to be reached. Dispense of that old, cracked floating line that was on the real when you bought it in a job lot at an auction or inherited from your grandfather and invest in new ‘high floater’.  A floating line, when fishing the still water dead drift technique, should not submerge at all if the setting of the hook, when the fish takes the fly, is to be effective. Striking or setting the hook when fishing a partly submerged line will result in the energy of the strike being cushioned against the line that lies below the surface. Striking against a dysfunctional floating line will hook the odd fish and prove the contrary, but more fish will be missed.  It is important to remember that the hook, 99% of the time, needs to be set when fishing a floating line and the dead drift technique as the fish does not turn on the fly and hook itself (as when stripping a fly through the water column). The fish ‘vacuums’ the fly into its mouth cavity in a non- aggressive motion because the imitation appears to be an easy, vulnerable food source in a suspended state.

After the fish accepts the fly it simply continues on its food finding path but if the fly in its mouth does not have the correct texture the fish will ‘spit’ the fly out. The fly thus needs to be set and the easiest way to do so, or quickest route to the fly, is to pick the floating line off the water with the rod in an upwards striking motion.

The inability to pick the line up off the water, will the delay the hook-set and invariably cause missed opportunities.

Floating lines are porous and pick up a lot of dirt, not only from lying on the ground when stripped off the reel before a cast, but also from dirt and elements in the water and grime on anglers hands. If your new line starts sinking after a session or two it should be cleaned and then treated with a line floatant. I clean and treat my floating line at least after every other still water outing.

The choice of leaders should be straight forward but I have found that many anglers often over complicate the process.  A 7’ or better a 9’, 3X (+-8lb/3.8kg) tapered monofilament leader will suffice for most of the dead drifting but if fish are as feisty as the ones we often encounter in the highland waters of the Eastern Cape, it might be necessary to up the diameter to 2X.

Attached to the weakest point of the leader, in this case 3X as mentioned above, a length of about 3’ or 90 – 120cm of 4X tippet should be attached. A loop to loop connection is an option but I often use a double surgeons knot to attach the tippet to the leader. It is important to ensure that the tippet is lighter (thinner diameter) than the weakest point in the leader. In other words if you are using a 3X leader then your tippet could be 4X or lighter.

Fly anglers often attach the fly onto the end of the leader without attaching a length of tippet; this shortcut can often cause some problems. The leader will shorten every time a fly is changed and the diameter of the leader will thus increase and the function of the tapered leader will be lost. If a strike indicator is used to detect the strike and needs to be attached at a specific depth on the leader (without a tippet attached) the diameter of the leader may be too thick and inflexible. A strike indicator attached on the thinner part of the leader will be more responsive or sensitive when the fish takes the fly.

The tippet diameter should be chosen with care and often a balance between a too heavy tippet or too light a tippet should be found. If you are going to match a hatch and imitate Trico’s , for example, and you decide to use an imitation that assumes the emerging insect then a fly size of between 18 and 14 should be close enough to the real thing. To have this fly appear as realistic as possible, tippet diameters of no more than 5X or at a push maybe 4X should be considered. This all sounds good but 5X tippet is, in most tippet material brands, very close to the 4 – 5lb breaking strain mark and that is running a little thin when targeting trophy trout that weigh above 6 lbs (2.5kg) in a ‘wild trout’ still water situation.

To handle a 10lb brown trout on a 5W rod using 5X tippet in a pristine New Zealand stream is quite possible as the hooked fish could often be followed along the bank and more care, not to over stress the tippet, can be taken. In still water however, hooked fish could make long runs across the dam or down deep to hide in weed beds and once entangled in weeds it is almost impossible to pull free. To stop a fish from lodging itself in weed beds when using light tippet, especially when a lot of line is dragging through the water, can be a chancy task and good fish will often be lost.

I would often use slightly heavier tippet material and try to avoid using flies smaller than # 16 or 14 in still water. I often fish a snail or large midge larva imitation (#14 – #12) and then I use a thicker or heavier tippet material, 4X or 3X.

I might be sacrificing more takes because the fly may appear less natural on the thicker tippet but if I do hook a fish then my conversion rate is higher.

Best advice is to start off using thinner tippet material and if you find that you cannot control hooked fish then step up an X at a time until the right diameter, under the conditions, is found. If you are worried about the effect of a fly stuck to a fishes lip or jaw then crimp the barb of your flies before fishing and the hook should dislodge within no time.

I prefer fishing a 9’, 3X leader with a section of 3’ or more of 4X tippet making the total length of my leader/tippet configuration then been about 12’. The length of a longer leader/tippet configuration (12’ – 13’) will keep the fly line away from the fly in clear water conditions. This length could be shortened a little if the water is slightly off colour or murky to allow for better handling or casting in windy conditions.

Fly fishing with or without a strike indicator is a matter of choice but in my opinion, if you are not fly fishing every other week then an indicator will improve your chance of detecting a strike by tenfold, when dead drifting in still waters.

The strike indicator, similar to fishing with an indicator in a river or stream, does not only detect the fish eating the fly but will also keep the fly at the desired depth in the water column. This is especially important when fishing into channels or onto shallow weed beds on gravel bars. A fly that hangs stagnant and too deep below the strike indicator will eventually settle on the bottom or on structure and not have the desired effect.

If you are not sure about the depth that your strike indicator should be set at, then start off by setting it a little deeper than what you think the water is deep, with a little observation on how the fly ‘floats’ and at what depth it snags you should allow for a quick adjustment. It is not at all necessary to ‘hang’ your fly right to the bottom because unlike in a river where currents will sweep away morsels that come up or swim within the water column, in still water food often suspends in certain stages of transformation and fish do feed at different depths.  Because unlike in a stream or river, fish need not hug the bottom to economically avoid the currents.

In the next chapter fly choices for this style of fishing and the execution of the technique will be explained and conclude the subject.

Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 3

Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Still Water Dead-drift Technique

Part 3

By Fred Steynberg

Fly Selection When Using the Dead –Drift Technique

Southern Africa’s still waters support a vast number of aquatic food sources, many of which will, at some stage during their life cycle, suspend within the water column and become effective food sources which can be imitated using the dead-drift technique.  Although some of these sources differ slightly in size and colour, they are pretty similar to those found in still waters across the world, making this technique applicable abroad with only minor fly alterations.  Several of these food sources are great to mimic with a fly using this technique, but, for the sake of brevity, I will cover just three of them – midges, cainflies and fresh water snails.

Midge Larvae

Midges, often referred to as chironomids or buzzers, belong to the family Diptera (meaning two wings) and are similar to a mosquito in life cycle development and appearance.  They are so prolific in some still waters that some experts say it is possible to count an astonishing 10,000 larvae per square metre.  Yet, despite their abundance and importance as a food source, fly anglers may not always have the knowledge or sill to effectively imitate the stages of the hatch, and the fish ignore all other offerings during a feeding frenzy.

The midge’s life cycle can be divided into four complete stages:  egg, larva, pupa and adult, of which the first three are aquatic and the fourth air-breathing.  Only the larval, pupal and adult stages are really important to imitate.  However, I will concentrate on just the larval stage, as this is the stage that is mostly predated upon by fish species such as trout and can be commonly found in the stomach contents of still water fish.

The wormlike larva sometimes attaches itself to structure on the bottom but is often free-swimming and suspended off the bottom.  If not attached to some top structure, the larva hugs the lower part of the water column, which is why, when prospecting for fish, the depth that the imitation is fished at should allow it to hang as deep as possible (without snagging the bottom or weed beds).  Many different midge species make for a great number of fly imitations, but in my opinion the most simple and effective are the San Juan or Atomic Worm.

In the late evening or early morning, fish can frequently be seen moving and feeding just below the surface.  This is often a good indication that midge pupae are plentiful, having transformed en masse to the pupal stage and are moving up the water column on their way to transform into adult midges.  Because this pupal stage happens within a specific time (with greater numbers in the early morning or late afternoon), it should not necessarily be a stage used to imitate when prospecting for trout, but rather when fishing the hatch.  These pupae often suspend just below the surface in a vulnerable stage, so fish the fly shallow, just below the surface (this is for another article).  Many anglers fish the San Juan and Atomic Worm in still waters because they have heard these are fish takers, but hopefully they will now understand why the pattern is so effective.

Caenis Nymphs

 The second important food source to consider is cainflies, particularly the nymph stage.  The Caenis mayfly (order Ephemeroptera, family Caenidae) is a small invertebrate that spends most of its life as an aquatic insect.  The nymphs crawl around at the bottom of still waters and prefer silt or soft, muddy areas.  They feed on rotting plant material and often flee from predators such as fish.  Not unlike other mayfly species, they have five major life cycle stages:  egg, nymph, emerger, subadult (subimago) and adult (spinner or imago).  If is very difficult to imitate the air-breathing stages (subadult and adult), mainly because the flies are so tiny and are found in such masses that your little imitation gets lost in the mix (unless you cast directly in front of a rising fish).

To successfully imitate these tiny flying mayflies, you need to use a very small imitation such as #18 – #22.  And to successfully fish such a small pattern, you would have to use 6X and even 7X tippet, which I feel is just fooling around.  Not that fishing such small patterns and thin tippet is wrong on a small stream, but there are better ways to target fish.  These insects need to hang or cling onto structure to shed their subadult (submago) shuck and transform into the adult (spinner or imago), and streamside plants, trees, rocks and the odd angler on bankside will suffice.  Once they have become adults, they can be seen flying in clouds and spirals above the water’s surface, usually in greater numbers during summer.

The caenis nymph is approximately a #18 imitation but you can get away with using a slightly larger fly such as a #16 or even #14.  The more technically  minded among you can always first study the nymphal development and stages leading towards the hatch before imitating them, but I find the most effective patterns to prospect with are the PTN, PTN Flashback, brown Flashback Nymph, Hare and Copper Flashback or similar.  Prospecting with such small nymphs can be done suing only a single fly, but fishing it below a slightly weighted or larger nymph in tandem works really well.  Fish these small nymphs using 4X or 5XX tippet and a long tapered leader.

Fresh Water Snails

 A third important food source to imitate when considering the dead-drift technique, and one that is seldom imitated, is the fresh water snail (phylum Mollusca, class Gastropoda) that is found in most established still waters.  These aquatic snails feed on algae, weeds and other aquatic plant material.  They often dislodge from the weeds when water birds such a scoots dive down and bring up weeds from the bottom, or when strong winds create water movement.  Once they’ve lost their grip, they drift helpless within the water column and become easy prey for fish that constantly move around still water systems looking for food.  Snails die en masse after depositing their eggs, and I have seen fish gorge themselves to a point where their stomachs bulge.  Again I am not referring to hatch fishing or fishing in stages where snails are found in abundance, but rather when prospecting with these imitations.

Snail imitations can be fished in tandem at different depths in the water column below a strike indicator.  Remember that the strike indicator does not only show when the fish takes the fly but, most importantly, keeps the flies from sinking to the bottom and/or snagging.  The small, spiral-shell mollusks do not swim freely, and need to sink to the bottom or cling to structure so they can move to where they can feed.  It is difficult to tie or buy an imitation that, to the human eye, resembles the snail, but, if fished using the dead-drift, impressionistic flies such as the Peacock Snail and Coch-y-Bondhu work well enough.

All three of the food sources discussed in this article are most commonly found in conditions where trout survive, without being fed, in still water systems.  The first two (midge larva and Caenis nymph) can be fished using the dead-drift and occasionally lifted off the bottom when executing the wiggle lift or, for that matter, the Leisenring Lift.  The snail cannot flee by swimming away, so when these lifts are performed while fishing a snail pattern, fish might react to the movement and not because they see it as a snail.

Before I started exploring the dead-drift technique in still waters many years ago, I would often hook the odd fish on an attractor pattern while fish were going crazy feeding just below the surface.  This frustrated me immensely, as I knew that, if I could figure out what they were feeding on, then I should be able to match the hatch and hook many more.  Later, and after pumping the stomachs of many still water fish, I started realizing that still water fish do not only feed on a hatch or when aggravated, but also constantly move around in search of food suspended in the water column or that hugs the bottom.

With this little bit of knowledge to help with the still water dead-drift technique, food sources such as the angler’s curse could eventually become the angler’s friend.

Spiders for Survival

By Fred Steynberg

Trout, whether alien in our waters or not, have over the past hundred years become an integrated part of our fresh water systems and millions of rand is poured into our country each year because their attraction to fly fishers. Fly fishing for trout is the cradle of fly fishing and it is surrounded by mysticism and history. It is said that fly fishing is one of the most written about sports or past-times ever and it surely has become the most popular ‘el fresco’ style recreation for a wide range of age groups. Trout is also on the top of the serious fly fishers list of fish to target on fly and rightly so. The reason for this is that one can never fully predict in what way a wild trout will react from one minute to the next, leaving us constantly challenged by them. We will interminably keep improving our skills and equipment to close the gap between us and these amazing creatures.

Trout have many different food sources at their disposal but these are often small and they need to consume a large amount to be able to grow and survive. In our waters they also do not have the luxury of mega hatches such as those found at specific times in other trout inhabited countries, where they gorge themselves on the abundance. Trout in our country have to become opportunistic and feed on a wide variety of terrestrial and aquatic food sources. Spiders, although rare are one of them and as distasteful as it might sound to us as humans, trout only see them as a vulnerable, soft and available morsel. Spiders are not as plentiful as say for example mayflies, midges or caddisflies, but when they are swept away by currents after landing up in the water, will be taken as food.  The stomach contents of trout have revealed signs of sporadic spider catches.

Spider patterns work especially well, if tied and fished correctly to sighted trout in clear mountain streams. These patterns should be fished up steam on floating lines with long, thin leader and tippet configurations. Spiders that fall into the water from streamside vegetation do not swim out of a current, but will usually wait until pushed onto some vegetation before climbing out of the water. Aquatic spiders run across the water in quick, fast concessions. I have found that the best technique to imitate spiders in general is to gently place the imitation a meter or two ahead of the feeding trout. The trout should recognize the imitation as a food source and gently sip it off the surface. I have often been amazed how gently spider patterns are eaten and the reason for this can only be that the trout understand that the spider is in a vulnerable position.

Some species of spiders that live and feed on the surface of the water are quick, extremely buoyant and agile and not as vulnerable as others. Even if incidentally bushed beneath the surface by turbulent water, large rain drops… they always trap an air bubble onto there body that pop’s them back up to the surface. Some even use an underwater swimming action to maneuver themselves into favorable positions.

Spider patterns that float beneath the surface should also produce fish, but the visual aspect of fish a floating spider excites me. This way of presenting a pattern to visual fish will also immediately show whether the fish reacts to the offering or not. If the sighted fish does not move to a well presented spider imitation then the pattern may not have the correct…or the fish is rather tuned into some other food source that is of abundant.

Sighted fish in clear water will however more often be alarmed by bad presentations or long casts that ultimately line the fish.

To build a buoyant spider pattern that will be recognize as a spider by trout I use a soft foam spider body that can be cut from closed sell foam or bought in pre cut shape.

The foam body is tied on a # 16 or 14 thin wire caddis/sedge hook. To ad to the visibility of the fly a white or brightly colored post is tied in. The post can be of any buoyant, high vise material but egg yarn, poly yarn or packaging foam will probably work best. The thorax of the spider is lightly dubbed black or brown CDC dubbing to add to the floatability of the fly and often the CDC traps air bubbles making it look like the real thing. A black or dark dun cock hackle, ‘under hackle’, is firstly tied in around the post. This hackle should be sparse, 2 wraps, and the fibers just longer than the gape of the hook.

The legs are mottled brown partridge hackle sparsely wrapped around the base of post and it is necessary to have the tips of the hackle pointing down. The legs can be short but I prefer legs that stick out 15 – 20mm from the post. It is a good idea to pre-tread the hackle/legs of the spider pattern with Hydro-stop after the fly is tied as this should keep the fibers from soaking in water for a longer period of time.

Much has been written about the diets of trout, the way that they feed on specific food sources and when they feed on them. Wild trout can be extremely selective and often, during May or Caddis fly hatches, refuse any imitation but the one that fully represents the specific food source in shape, color, size and movement. This can frustrate angler’s immensely but never fails to bring back the angler that wants to present the right fly at the correct time. For many it is about catching the fish and the method is of lesser importance but for others, maybe purists, fly fishing is an art that thrives on patience, persistence and dedication.

This foam body spider pattern is a generic pattern that works amazingly well if presented correctly. For all intentional purposes specific spiders and there scientific names have not been mentioned as the generic pattern would rather simulate a range of different spider species. I find it useful to always have a couple of spider patterns in my fly box for a specific occasion when I do find a large fish looking around for something to eat in clear Mountain streams.

Tackling the Salt on fly – Part 1: Rods and reels

By Fred Steynberg

Fly fishing in the salt can be a lot less complicated than, for example, fishing for trout in wild mountain streams, but certain elements in tackle choice and set-up can be tricky and costly in the long run if advice is not followed.

Fortunately fly fishing in the salt is a lot more common nowadays and salt starters can require helpful advice from friends, guides and even fly shops. The salt water expanse is however a large and varied one with many different fish species to target in different types of waters. This makes tackle choice difficult, especially if cash flow is a problem and purchasing a range of rods, reels and lines to cater for every situation, is not an option.

Of primary importance, before purchasing a fly rod and reel, is to establish where one will spend most of the time fishing and what species are available and targetable in this area. It is then important to establish whether the fish that will be targeted are pelagic or local and how they feed and what they feed on.

If estuaries and saline river systems are the option or preferred choice around the Southern African coast then a lighter salt water rig will often suffice. Some of the general fish species in these systems are fish such as Cob, River Snapper, Skip Jack, Small Garrick, Small Kingfish, Sand Gurnards, River Bream and Mullet, to name a few. These fish are often smaller and premature specimens and lighter rods make the tussle so much more sporty and enjoyable. Cob are of the few species, except for the occasional Giant Ignoblis, that are found in our estuaries and at times exceed weights of 50lbs. Cob of this size that venture into estuaries and river systems can, with patience, be caught on an 8 or 9 weight rod as they are not particularly strong fighting fish. G.T. if encountered are indeed a different story but the chances of ever hooking a specimen large enough, in South African estuarine systems, that will over power an 8-9 weight fly rodder, is very slim.

It is also important to understand that predatory fish in our estuaries and saline river systems feed mainly on small fish, prawns, shrimps, antipods and crabs and imitations often need to be smaller and with less or no weight than flies in the deeper ocean. The line weight that needs to carry these flies need not be so heavy, meaning the rod size can be lighter.

The choice fly rod length should not be a problem as most 7-9 weight outfits are manufactured around 9ft lengths and this is a desired casting length of a salt water rod that is designed for casting rather than fighting fish. If the rod is shorter than 8.6ft it may be difficult to keep the heavier line off the water when casting and distance will be sacrificed. If however the rod length exceeds 9ft, it can become a cumbersome, clumsy process to fight and land fish, especially when fly fishing off boats or skiffs. In my opinion fighting grips will be non essential add-ons and should rather be avoided as it may affect the weight or casting ability of these lighter salt water rods.

Consider factors such as the length of the cast that will have to be made and problematic winds around the chosen area. Medium fast to faster action rods can, because of the tip action, create a narrow line loop that spear-heads into the wind or can carry the line further (if the casting style is correct and the rod is allowed to load correctly). Slower action rods often have difficulty casting into the wind as a large line loop battles to cut into the wind if blown back.

Multi-piece, travel rods are always a better option as they make packing less complicated. With the rod building technology of today, anglers will not be able to distinguish between the casting ability of a 2 and 4 piece rod. If your venue of choice is a couple of minutes drive or walk away and your rod is always in a ready, set-up state, then there is really no reason to purchase a multi-piece rod and a 2 piece rod will do fine.

Line guides should be as large as possible to allow the line to shoot without much friction through them. These line guides should be made of a non-corrosive steel will not rust.

If the option to purchase a rod with a guarantee of some sort is available and affordable, then it will be a good idea to choose it. Salt water rigs can take a good hammering from time to time in harsh salt water conditions, casting large flies and fighting stronger quarries.  Larger flies can bruise the rod if they connect the rod in full flight and incorrect fish landing techniques will snap the thinnest and most vulnerable part of the rod without much effort.

Good choice of rod for targeting smaller estuary fish such as Mullet, Blacktail, River Bream, small Skip Jack, juvenile Garrick and Kingfish to name a few, is a 5-7 weight medium/fast – fast action 9ft rod. When targeting fish such as larger Skip Jack, Garrick, Grunter, Kingfish (between 2 and 7 kg’s), Cob, Grunter and River Snapper an 8 – 9 weight medium/fast – fast action 9ft rod will suffice. The 8 weight is possibly the most versatile rod for estuaries and a good choice.

When fishing off rocks and sand bars for smaller fish, into the salt, it is not advisable to use a rod no lighter than an 8 -9 weight as hooked fish often run for cover and anglers need to muscle fish away from structures. Slightly heavier rods will also allow for casting distance, essential for casting over those irritating little shallow water breakers. 8 – 9 Weight are also less taxing on the muscles as long hours of casting can become hard and painful work.

Shallow salt water species such as Shad , Garrick, Rock Cod, Wave Garrick, Blacktail, Bream, Smaller Kingfish ( such as Brassies, Greenspot, Big Eye, Yellowspot, Black-fin and small G.T.’s) are some of the fish that can be tamed with 8 -9 weight rods.

When targeting larger fish from the shore, such as mature G.T.s (Giant Egnoblis), King and Queen Mackerel, Queenfish, larger Garrick, Brassie Kingfish, Big Eye Kingfish, Bluefin Kingfish and some shark species, for example, then it is advisable to use a rod no lighter than a 9 -10 weight outfit. If you feel that a 9 – 10 weight might be too little ‘gun’ for the fish that you are hoping to hook then an 11 or even a 12 weight (still considered casting tools) will be a better option provided that you are strong and fit enough to handle it.

Fly fishing from shore, as mentioned, often requires long casts and many anglers force the rod to extract maximum result and in the process hurt themselves instead of achieving casting distance. A medium to fast action rod is advisable for distant casting and for potentially windy situations, but remember that a faster action rod usually has a stronger ‘back bone’ (lower section) and although it  loads quicker it becomes taxing on the wrist and joints after a couple of casts. If you feel that you will not be able to handle heavy faster action rods then rather sacrifice distance and look for a rod that has a softer ‘back bone’ or medium action. Always try and avoid slow and floppy rods.

Off shore fly fishing around our coastline is often confined so shoals of pelagic fish such as King and Queen Mackerel, Kawa-Kawa, Bonito,’Geelbek’, Snoek, Queenfish, Dorado, Shad, Yellowfin Tuna, Yellowtail and smaller shoaling Kingfish species of sort. Local fish on our reefs, with the exception of maybe the odd Kingfish, Job fish, Rock cod and Snapper (found in the warmer waters of Natal), that will regularly accept a fly are scarce as many prefer the warmer waters further up the East and West coast of Africa away from the cold Augulas current. A 10 or 11 weight will handle most average sized fish in all the species except for fish such as Yellowfin Tuna when the reach weights exceed 10 kg’s. These speedsters are seriously fast and feisty, fueled by warm blood and an aerodynamic design that will test both angler and tackle alike.

12, 13 and 14 Weight fly rods are about as low as you should go if fish such as large Yellowfin Tuna, Yellowtail, Shark and other serious fighters that may frequent our coastline. It is advisable to purchase a rod that is not necessarily designed to cast but rather to fight fish; distance casting is of lesser importance. Fighting butt and grips are essential components of fighting rods and will increase rod handling after hook-up. Distance casting, under normal circumstances, especially when chumming (most often a necessary practice) for these species is not of primary importance and a shorter rod of around 8ft will increase the fighting and pulling ability on the confined area of a boat. The lifting capability of a strong but shorter fly rod will come in very handy especially if hooked fish sound deep and keep below the boat.

Other fish species that can be targeted on fly off our coastline, but with necessary teasing techniques are Sailfish and Marlin (smaller ones below 250lbs.)  Sailfish can be landed on lighter 9 and 10- weights but 11 and 12 weights are recommended as not to over fight the fish. For Marlin of just about any size a heavy rod of 14 weight plus is recommended and in both instances the rods should be the shorter fighting sticks as casting to teased fish happens at short distances.

It is almost impossible to mention all the fish species and situations that a fly rodder could encounter off shore but this summary should provide an inspiring salt water candidate a guide line to purchasing a tool that will cover the needs.

Strike!

By Fred Steynberg

Striking may appear to be a basic aspect of fly fishing, yet apart from casting, I find it one of the most difficult concepts for fly fishers to grasp.  When fishing upstream, it is, in my opinion, imperative to use a strike indicator.  Many fly fishers use this for the sole purpose of detecting a take, thus neglecting or not understanding its other uses.  The strike indicator should function as a multi-task tool.  It should be used to determine the depth at which the nymph will drift in the water, as a drag detector, and finally to alert the angler to possible takes.

As discussed in many previous articles on upstream nymphing, the strike indicator is, as a general rule of thumb, placed at a point one-and-a-half times the depth of the water away from the fly, but ultimately the distance is determined by factors such as water depth, current speed etc.  In other words, if the water is one foot deep, the ideal positioning of the strike indicator would be 18 inches away from the fly.  This will normally result in an almost instantaneous reaction of the indicator when the fish takes the fly. (Illustration 1)  On the other hand, if the fly and strike indicator are set too far apart, the fish may take the fly and after realizing that the fly is not the real McCoy, spit it out without the indicator even registering the take.

The strike indicator can also be set too close to the fly, resulting in the fly drifting at too shallow a depth.  The indicator may then also spook the fish when the fly approaches it, as it will be in the trout’s window of vision in such circumstances.  (Illustration 2)

One of the more challenging aspects of achieving the correct strike is staying in close contact with the line without allowing drag to set in.  This is where drag-preventing casts and/or mending the line become important, but casting to prevent drag is not always easy.  Although one can, to a certain degree, with the use of the rod mend line to prevent drag, it is important to retrieve excess line after the mend to stay in contact with the fly.  To many fly fishermen mend once or twice during a drift, but fail to retrieve line throughout the drift.  This creates too much slack line on the water, making it difficult for the strike to result in a hook-up.

Striking quickly and correctly is a critical factor when fishing upstream.  In my opinion, it is essential not only to strike with the rod, but with the line hand as well.  I explain this to right-handed fishermen by saying, “left hand down, right hand up.” (Illustration 3)

The rod hand, which is the right hand, is lifted smartly upwards in a controlled manner, while the left hand (line hand) simultaneously pulls the line downwards.  This method creates faster line speed, helps retrieve the excess line off the water, and in the end results in the water, and in the end results in less delay between the instant of detecting the take and the actual hook-up.  At all times during the course of the striking motion one’s hold on the line with the left hand should be such that you are able to release line immediately, in a controlled manner, should the fish decide to take off.  It is also more often than not mandatory to strike quickly when fishing upstream with a nymph using a strike indicator.  When the indicator registers the take, the strike should follow immediately.  Striking late usually gives the fish time to mouth the fly and spit it out before you can hook up.

Remember that fish, especially larger specimens, mostly move only short distances to reach their quarry, whether it be from side-to-side or up and down.  Smaller fish will dart around opportunistically and follow and attack small nymphs, but their older counterparts instinctively know that they will not replace energy lost by chasing every nymph that passes by.  For this reason, it is not only important to determine where big fish lie, but also to realize that when the fly is taken there may not always be dramatic effect on the strike indicator.

For example, a well presented nymph can drift right onto a mature fish which will move say six inches to the left or right, eat the fly and move the six inches back to its original position.  The effect on the strike indicator could be anything from a slow dip to a slight hesitation without it submerging.  Many times while guiding a client I hear, “Are you sure it was a take?” after I’ve shouted, “Yes!” for them to strike.  The golden rule when fishing a strike indicator upstream is:  When in doubt, strike!

Upstream dry fly fishing is a different ball game altogether.  Determining the take is a lot easier because the line, leader and fly can be visually observed, as well as drag setting in.  Small fish may rise to a dry fly and quite often snatch it off the surface, returning to their position in an instant.  A quick, reactive strike will not necessarily be the incorrect thing to do in this scenario.  However, the bigger the fish, the longer you need to wait before you make the strike.  An old fly fishing adage states that one only strikes after saying “God save the queen!”  This works in most cases, but you need to be aware that large fish, at times, lie and feed just below the surface, or sometimes in very shallow water.  Great care should then be taken not to strike at the wrong moment, especially when fish are sipping insects off the surface and not rising from a depth.

As a rule (particularly if a fish is visible), wait for the fish to return to a horizontal position before striking.  A big feeding fish will invariably rise slowly, eat the fly and return to its original position.  With every situation differing in some degree from the next, the angler needs to assess and determine how fast, or slowly, to strike when fishing with a dry fly.

The behavior of trout differs somewhat when feeding off the surface as opposed to subsurface.  I have noticed that, at time, trout hang onto a dry fly much longer than a nymph, allowing the angler more time to effectively hook it.  As an illustration of this, I recall guiding an American client on the Kloppershoekspruit, where a 20-inch rainbow rose more than six feet from a deep pool to take a RAB.  Watching the trout rise from this depth, the client was completely mesmerized, allowing it to return to its lie with the fly.  Realising that the client had no intention of striking, I shouted “Yes!” and feebly he lifted his rod to strike, hooking the trout.  The trout shot up the full six feet and burst through the surface, breaking the spell it had over the angler.  Had the fish taken a nymph, chances are that he would never have hooked it.

The last factor, which can have a dramatic effect on the strike, is the tippet strength versus the size (weight) of the fish.  Much can be said on this topic, but I would like to briefly mention just a few points.

Upstream fishing requires obtaining a dead-drift, with the fly being presented as naturally as possible.  This will usually necessitate using a thin diameter tippet.  The basic problem here arises when an angler hooks a fish facing upstream.  When the angler strikes, the force of the pull on the line moves it downstream, while the fish instinctively bolts upstream.  This can cause the tippet to part at the strike if the angler does not take precautions.  Smaller fish will turn or give at a strike because of their weight.  It is the larger fish that poses the problem. A method which helps prevent the tippet from breaking is to execute a short strike.  For example, if your rod is pointed between eight to ten o’clock, strike by moving your forearm up to 12 o’clock.  The biggest mistake an angler can make is to strike with the whole arm past the 12 o’clock position.  Moving your body when striking is also a bad idea, because then you have little control over the force you are exerting during the strike.  If the strike is performed correctly, the tip of the rod should act as a shock absorber, allowing the hook to set but at the same time protecting the tippet from breaking.
The first year I visited New Zealand, I had difficulty understanding why I lost so many fish at the point of strike, blaming everything except the way I struck.  When I eventually figured it out, I rarely lost a fish on the strike after that.

Striking is the link between the fish taking the fly and the angler landing the fish.  It is an action regarded by some as a natural, instinctive movement, while others battle for years to grasp the concept.  However, once properly understood and executed, you’ll land a lot more fish.

A South African damselfly nymph imitation

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

Due to the fact that damselflies inhabit the slow-moving or still water areas of rivers, most fly fisherman, especially those who practice upstream nymphing in fast flowing water, pay scant regard to their prevalence and their importance in the diet of trout. Inspection of aquatic vegetation and submerged tree detritus, found mainly on the edges of the slow moving sections of rivers and streams, as well as stomach pumping exercises performed on trout, however, confirm the status of damselflies as an important food source for trout in rivers and streams.  This article presents a short overview of the damselfly life cycle, the damselfly nymph anatomy, the most important families of damselflies found in South Africa, and a description of the materials required and tying procedure for an impressionistic, South Africa-specific, damselfly nymph imitation.

South African damselfly nymph

Damselflies (Zygoptera) and true dragonflies (Anisoptera) comprise the suborders of the order Odonata. The Latin name for the damselfly is broken up into zygo, which means “yoked”, and ptera, which means “wings”. The “yoked wings”-description refers to a unique physical characteristic – the wings of the damselfly are more yoked than any of the other aquatic invertebrates trout feed on.

The life cycle of the damselfly is incomplete and consists of three phases of development, namely: the egg stage, nymph stage and the adult stage (the newly emerged adult is known as a teneral). The damselfly nymph has a life span of one to two years depending on the specific species, and, as mentioned above, occupies the aquatic vegetation found in the slow or still water areas on the edges of rivers. The nymphs swim amongst the aquatic vegetation by moving their abdomens in a side-to-side or wiggling fashion, or simply walk around amongst the aquatic vegetation. Damselfly nymphs are efficient predators that actively feed on smaller aquatic invertebrates – to this end their lower lips (also referred to as masks) are modified, which allows them to fold open to catch prey. Closer inspection of the damselfly nymph shows that the lower lip lies tucked back under its head.

Prior to emergence the damselfly nymph swims or crawls to aquatic vegetation or other in situ structures, which break the water’s surface, and crawls up to the surface, where it emerges into the adult. Trout readily target the nymph during this period of migration – due to the fact that these nymphs are relatively large when compared to mayfly, caddisfly and stonefly nymphs, large trout will commonly feed when they are emerging. Damselfly nymphs may on occasion loose their grip or footing and as a result get washed downstream, especially during floods – this occurrence is known as “catastrophic drift”.

South African damselfly nymph

The common physical characteristics that define the anatomy of all damselfly nymphs include: two to three tracheary gills (erroneously referred to by some as tails) situated at the end of the abdomen; an abdomen long and slender in appearance; a very short thorax (broader than the abdomen); dorsal wing cases overlapping the upper thorax and abdomen; three sets of long, spider-like legs situated along the thorax; and a short head, wider than the thorax, on which a large pair of compound eyes are located. All the South African families have visible antennae situated on the front part of the head.

Dragonfly nymphs are easily confused with damselfly nymphs. It is, however, fairly easy to distinguish between the dragonfly nymph and the damselfly nymph – dragonfly nymphs are generally stockier in appearance compared to damselfly nymphs (damselfly nymphs have thin, cylindrical bodies), and the dragonfly nymphs do not have tracheal gills situated at the back of their abdomens, whereas the damselfly nymphs do.

There are seven families of damselfly found in South Africa rivers and streams namely, Calopterygidae, Chlorocyphidae, Chlorolestidae, Coenagrionidae, Lestidae, Platycnemidae, and Protonearidae. Of the aforementioned families, the Coenagrionidae family is found most often, during seine netting exercises performed in the rivers and streams of the North Eastern Cape, as well as the stomach contents of trout, subjected to stomach pumping, that inhabit these rivers and streams. This family exhibits a body colour ranging from pale green to pale brown.

Although there are seven different families of damselfly that occupy South African rivers and streams, one only requires a single, generic imitation in either green or brown. The creation of an artificial facsimile of every single family, whilst at the fly tying bench, translates into superfluous time wasting – time better spent fishing than fly tying.

The damselfly nymph imitation shown in the photograph above is neither suggestive nor exact, but is impressionistic, and requires the following materials:

Imitation 1.

  • Hook: # 12-8, 2 X long nymph hook.
  • Eyes: 30-40 lbs mono.
  • Weight: 6-12 turns of 0.015 mm lead wire, depending on flow and depth.
  • Tail/ Gills: Olive, brown or tan marabou
  • Abdomen: Olive, brown or tan rabbit or squirrel dubbing
  • Wing case: thin-skin, scud back or in this case 1mm olive or brown foam, pulled tight.
  • Ribbing: 6-10 lbs mono filament
  • Thorax: Olive, brown or tan squirrel or rabbit dubbing
  • Legs:   Thin, flexible round rubber

Imitation 2.

All the same except for abdomen that consist of green, olive or tan nymph rib.

The imitation should be fished in slow water conditions with a slow hand-twist retrieve or dead drift in faster water conditions.

Fly casting: a question of style?

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

During the Master Instructor Certification Test conducted by the Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF) in the United States, candidates are required to show “intimate knowledge of the current popular casting styles” and be able to “distinguish between substance and style and show an ability to analyze different styles of casting”. Several international casting references also pay particular attention to casting styles. Perusal of South African literature on fly casting, however, reveals a paucity of information on this issue. What is classified as stylish in casting terms? What are the different styles of casting in the world of fly-fishing? How does one acquire your own casting style? Is style important for catching fish? The aim of this article is to shed some light on this often neglected element of fly casting.

Due to the fact that human beings are all different in terms of their physical make-up (i.e. differences with regard to joint arrangement, and levels of muscle development and suppleness), it would be presumptuous and downright arrogant for any casting instructor, or fly fishermen, to suggest that there is a universally correct casting style.    Given all the physical constraints, it is safe to say that there is an ‘optimal’ casting style rather than a ‘correct’ casting style. Optimal in this sense refers to a style that enables the caster to perform the most suitable cast at a specified distance with the utmost effortlessness. Most newcomers, and dare we say it, some of the more advanced casters, do not naturally migrate to their optimal style. Instead, they tend to embrace casting styles that limit them, that tire them out quickly, and that generally prevents any further casting development. Thus, casting becomes stylish when the caster performs the requisite cast optimally within the confines dictated by the said caster’s physical disposition.

We always hear “The English invented fly-fishing, but the Americans perfected it”. This is true to a large extent – two American fly fishers (A Kyte and G Moran) have even researched different casting styles by closely observing and studying elite-level casters. Casting styles can simply be distinguished from one another based on the position of the elbow relative to the upper body during and after completion of the backcast. Accordingly, casting styles are plainly grouped into the “front-elbow” style and the “side-elbow” style.

The former style refers to a situation where the elbow is positioned in front of the caster during the backcast portion of a complete overhead cast. Moreover, the elbow moves in an up-down fashion during the cast.

The latter style, on the other hand, refers to a situation where the elbow is positioned to the side of the caster during the backcast – in fact, the elbow is slightly behind the caster once the backcast is completed. Furthermore, upon completion of the backcast, the upper arm is aligned almost at a right angle in relation to the intended direction of the cast. Finally, the elbow moves in a horizontal direction during the cast.

There are, however, many variations on this theme – the two styles mentioned above can almost be viewed as polar opposites with a large number of varying arm/casting positions falling in between. The question arises: which casting style is better? The answer is simple – the one that suits the individual the best. The easiest way to determine the best style is to simply practice both and retain the style that allows you to perform the required cast optimally.

It is important to realize that the two casting styles are generally applied to different fishing situations. For example, the “front-elbow” style is most often used by those who mainly fish streams and rivers, where accuracy and shorter casts are the norm rather than the exception. The “side-elbow” style, on the other hand, is most often used by still water and saltwater fly fishermen, where less accuracy and longer casts are required. Please bear in mind that it is possible to execute long casts whilst employing the “front-elbow” style, and that it is possible to execute accurate and short casts whilst employing the “side-elbow” style. In the final analysis, it is probably prudent to practice and master both casting styles as this will allow you to comfortably and optimally cast in most fishing situations.

In developing your own casting style there are a number of issues that deserve closer inspection. These include the grip, the stance, and the use of the wrist. Generally, three grip positions are recognized by most instructors and fly fishermen: the thumb-on-top grip, the V grip, and the index finger-on-top grip.

As the name suggests, the thumb-on-top grip refers to a situation where the thumb is placed on top of the rod handle – the rod is in essence held by the thumb and index finger, and the remaining fingers gently wrap around the handle. Many instructors and fly fishermen, especially the so-called traditionalists, argue that this grip is the most stable, versatile and suitable for all fishing conditions. Joan Wulff, for example, presents a detailed study of the merits of this grip in her casting manual – see “Joan Wulff’s Fly Casting Techniques”.

The V grip entails placing the thumb to the side of the rod handle – as a result the rod handle dissects the space between the thumb and index finger. Jason Borger refers to this grip as the “Three-Point” grip and argues that it provides him with “the most complete overall level of control” (see Nature of Fly Casting: A Modular Approach).

The index finger-on-top grip simply refers to a situation where the fully extended index finger of the casting hand is placed on top, or on top and slightly to the side, of the rod handle. Many casting instructors argue that this grip is not as robust or comfortable as the thumb-on-top grip. The index finger-on-top grip is, however, often used by many fly fishermen around the world whilst fishing lighter fly-fishing equipment on small streams and rivers. The proponents of this grip feel that it provides them with a better pivot point for producing accurate presentation casts.

All the grip positions discussed above have their merits and demerits. As was mentioned before, it is up to the individual to discover the grip that works best for him or her. The authors prefer the thump-on-top grip for long distance casting on still waters and saltwater, but use the index finger-on-top grip for small stream and river fishing with light tackle. The thumb-on-top grip is “stronger” and allows longer casting periods with heavier rods (i.e. 5-weight and above) that are used for distance casting, whilst lighter rods can be accurately controlled with limited arm movement with the index finger on top when presenting short casts.

The stance adopted by a fly fisherman generally refers to the way he or she positions his or her feet. Three main stances can be readily identified: first, the feet are placed parallel to each other (i.e. a neutral stance); second, the left foot is placed in front of the right foot if the caster is right-handed (i.e. an open stance); three, the right foot is placed in front of the left foot if the caster is right-handed (i.e. a closed stance). Once again, there are a myriad of intermediate stances that can be adopted. One stance is not more correct compared to another – the correctness of the stance depends on the levels of efficiency (i.e. casting and fishing optimally) and comfort obtained from it. In most cases, the open stance is adopted by fly fishermen – this is also the stance that is taught at most fly-fishing and casting schools. The closed stance is mostly employed where accurate casts are required – with this stance, aiming is enhanced by partly or fully eliminating the angle between the angler’s line of vision and his or her casting arm. The neutral stance is often used as a remedial measure with beginners – placement of the feet in a parallel fashion prevents the caster from over-using or over-extending his or her entire arm and shoulder during the cast (over-use of the arm and shoulder often leads to the creation of very open loops or no loops at all).

  1. Over and above the stances mentioned above, there are other casting positions, which for all intents and purposes can also be classified as stances. For example, a sitting position is probably the optimal, if not the only, ‘stance’ whilst fishing from a float tube or small vessel. Bank conditions, low and clear water situations and ultra spooky fish may necessitate kneeling down to execute the cast. Sometimes anglers are also required to elevate one foot/leg onto a bank or rock in order to achieve the best casting position. In summary, the best or most correct stance is the one that maximizes efficiency and comfort.

The use of the wrist is one of the most complicated and misunderstood elements of fly-casting. In many cases, beginners use too much wrist (i.e. the wrist bends too much during the cast) – this leads to the formation of a very wide loop or no loop at all. In an attempt to prevent this from occurring, many casting instructors tell beginners to maintain a stiff or unyielding wrist position. This does not pose a problem initially, but becomes an issue when more power application and control is required as the skills of the neophyte improve.  Many of the ‘crack’ casters the authors have met use mainly the wrist to move the rod through the casting arc whilst fishing on small streams and rivers. As more distance becomes a requirement, these casters simply reduce the use of the wrist and extend the use of the fore arm. The authors agree with the firm wrist idea when teaching beginners, but, where short to medium casts are concerned, would encourage intermediate to advanced casters to incorporate more wrist movement into their casts. With short to medium distance casts the rod only needs to move a short distance, which can easily be achieved with the wrist only. Use of mainly the fore arm whilst fishing with light tackle produces a whooshing sound – this sound in itself is an indication that the caster is compromising casting efficiency. Longer casts and the use of heavier equipment will necessitate the use of the fore arm and shoulder. In many cases, casting instructors  neglect to check that the grip around the crock of the rod is tight enough and often the rod moves within the grip, creating the same effect as when to much wrist action is used.

What are the attributes of those casters who are considered to have a good casting style? Once again, there is no definitive answer. There are, however, a number of general style elements that are worth mentioning. First, a good casting style is inevitably couched in economy of movement – in other words, cast with a “quiet” body, especially where short to medium distance casts are concerned.  A quiet body sometimes demands the elimination of hauling (single and double) – in most stream and river situations, hauling is not required. The absence of excessive false casting is also an indication of good casting form – two to three false casts are enough in most situations. In most small streams a mere lifting and shooting of the line with one false cast to the desired area is sufficient. Second, a good casting style implies silent casts – one will never hear the rod of a good caster whooshing on the front and back casts. It is of primary importance to understand that it is the flex of the rod that carries the line and that limited power application can flex the rod tip for optimal performance. The rod should not be seen as an extension of the arm otherwise a waving motion of the rod with poor results will be inevitable.  Third, a good casting style implies balance – a well balanced angler automatically has better control. Fourth, with a good casting style the line hand’s role is understated in the sense that it does not move excessively during the cast – the line hand grips the working line and mainly stays in a stationary position just off the caster’s left pants pocket. Excessive movement of the line hand compromises balance and control, and might even alert fish to your presence. Fifthly, limited upper body and head movement, and keeping the eyes on the target area are essential. It is imperative, especially when accurate casting is of the essence, that ones shoulders face the target straight on and that they remain this way until the cast has been presented. If the shoulders move within the false casting or overhead casting process, the plain of the line in the air will not follow a true track resulting in an inaccurate presentation, a loss of power and often tailing loops. Finally, a good casting style is one where the casts are performed in a relaxed, slow and controlled manner – it almost seems dreamy to the observer.

Once a line caster understands the basic workings of a fly rod and masters the overhead cast to perfection he or she will be able to move comfortably onto other technical casts that will improve fishing results. A fly rod is a tool that can be used in numerous different ways. Will an improvement in or slight adaptation of your casting style make you a more accomplished fisherman, and will it make you catch more fish? You would be surprised! The authors are convinced of the fact that a satisfied fly fisherman is one that extends his or her boundaries and improves him or herself on a more or less continual basis. Serious fishermen sooner or later realize that fly casting is an organic process which develops with hard practice, dedication and time.

A South African dragonfly nymph imitation

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

Dragonflies differ from most other aquatic invertebrates in two important respects: first, they usually have a much longer life span, and, second, they are normally much larger in size (during similar phases of development). These characteristics, coupled with the fact that dragonfly nymphs are very vigorous predators, enhance their levels of exposure, as well as appeal, to yellowfish and trout. The abovementioned differences between dragonfly nymphs and other aquatic insects, as well as stomach pumping exercises carried out on trout caught by the authors, verify the status of dragonfly nymphs as a major target for, especially, cruising trout and yellowfish in rivers and streams.  This article presents a short overview of the dragonfly life cycle, the dragonfly nymph anatomy, the most important families of dragonflies found in South Africa, and a description of the materials required and tying procedures for impressionistic, South Africa-specific, dragonfly nymph imitations.

The true dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera) comprise the suborders of the order Odonata. The Latin name for the dragonfly is broken up into aniso, which means “asymmetrical”, and ptera, which means “wings”. The “asymmetrical-wings”-description refers to a distinct anatomical feature – the discrepancy in size between the insect’s fore and -hind wings – the forewings are narrow and the hind wings are wide.

Not unlike the damselfly, the dragonfly has an incomplete life cycle, which consists of three stages, namely the egg stage, nymph stage and the adult stage. The life span of the dragonfly nymph, its water breathing stage, varies in duration, and can be anything from two to four years depending on the specific species. Dragonfly nymphs occupy a habitat which could include aquatic vegetation, stones and rubble, or submerged tree stumps and branches. In comparison to mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and midges, these insects are not found in vast concentrations in the specific areas they inhabit.

A dragonfly nymph moves by means of a very unique mechanism – it takes water into its system via an anal breathing and propulsion valve (situated at the end of the abdomen) and ejects the water out quickly, which propels the insect forward in short bursts. Dragonfly nymph movement is not restricted to sudden darts, but also includes crawling. As was mentioned above, dragonfly nymphs are effective and active predators that feed on any smaller aquatic invertebrates as well as small fish. The lower lips, also called ‘masks’, of the dragonfly nymph are modified to allow them to fold open to catch prey. As with the damselfly nymph, closer inspection of the dragonfly nymph reveals a lower lip that lays tucked back under its head. As adults, dragonflies hunt on wing in a hawk-like fashion or they wait in ambush to attack passing prey that includes a range of insects smaller than themselves.

Adult dragonflies are able to fly up, down, forward and backwards in quick bursts and according to Warick & Michele Tarboton’s handbook “A field guide to the Dragonflies of South Africa” they can reach speeds of up to 70km/h.

The mature dragonfly nymph crawls out and up on aquatic vegetation or other structures next to the stream bank, where it emerges into the adult. During their migration to the shoreline trout do target them, although the number of migrating dragonfly nymphs is small in comparison to that of migrating damselfly nymphs.

The common physical characteristics that define the anatomy of all dragonfly nymphs include: an abdomen thick and triangular in appearance; a very short thorax (narrower than the abdomen); a short head on which a large pair of compound eyes (almost touching each other) and two front facing, short antennae are located; wing pads overlapping the upper thorax and abdomen; and three pairs of legs situated along the thorax.

Although dragonflies and damselflies form part of the same order of insects, they do exhibit fairly different body profiles. Damselfly nymphs have thin, cylindrical bodies whereas the bodies of dragonfly nymphs are generally stockier in appearance. Moreover, dragonfly nymphs do not have any gills situated on the outer surfaces of their bodies, whereas the damselfly nymphs do (the tracheal gills situated at the end of the abdomen).

There are four families of dragonfly found in South African rivers and streams namely, Aeshnidae, Gomphidae, Corduliidae and Libellulidae. Of the aforementioned families, the Aeshnidae and Gomphidae families are found most often, during seine netting exercises performed in the rivers and streams of the North Eastern Cape. The Aeshnidae (‘swimmers’) family exhibits a body colour ranging from green, brown to black. This family of dragonfly has a very distinctive body shape compared to the other families found in rivers and streams: the body is longer with a very definitive taper.

The Gomphidae (‘burrowers’) family of dragonfly is brown coloured and their body profile is shorter and more oval in appearance compared to that of the Aeshnidae family. The Corduliidae and Libellulidae (‘crawlers’) families also exhibit body shapes that are short and oval and their bodies are also mainly brown in colour, and as such, are easily confused with the Gomphidae family. The relative similarity among the body shapes and colouring of the Gomphidae, Corduliidae and Libellulidae families allows the fly tier a measure of leeway: he or she only has to tie one generic pattern which emphasizes the abovementioned similarities or trigger points.

We have, however, included three imitations below, which covers swimmers, burrowers and crawlers.

The dragonfly nymph imitations shown in the photograph above are neither suggestive nor exact, but are impressionistic, and require the following materials:

Aeshnidae (swimmer) imitation:

Fish deep in still waters and use a fast or slow hand twist retieve with intervals. Fish in rivers and streams using a Leisenring lift in slow pools or drag free in currents.

  • Hook:             # 12-6  2-3X long nymph or streamer hook
  • Weight:           Optional
  • Eyes:               80-100 lbs burend mono fillament
  • Abdomen:      Black, brown or olive chinelle or wool under body dubbed over
  • Tail:                Black, brown or olive marabou (optional)
  • Thorax:           Black, brown, olive Squirrel dubbing with seals fur mix
  • Wing case:     Swiss straw or rafia
  • Legs:               Brushed out seals fur or rubber legs or thin round rubber

Gomphidae(burrower) imitation:

Fish deep or as close as possible to the bottom in freestone rivers.

  • Hook:             # 12-10  2X long nymph hook
  • Weight:           Lead wire
  • Eyes:               80-100 lbs burned monofilament
  • Abdomen:      Olive or light brown chenelle
  • Tail:                Marabou (optional)
  • Thorax:           Squirrel dubbing with seals fur
  • Wing case:     Rafia or Swiss straw
  • Legs:               Brushed out seals fur

Corduliidae and Libellulidae imitations (crawler)

Fish very slowly over weed beds in still waters (the deer hair helps keep the fly boyant).

  • Hook:             #12-8 nymph hook
  • Weight:           none
  • Eyes:               80-100lbs monofilament burned
  • Abdomen:      Brown or olive spun deer hair
  • Tail:                Marabou
  • Thorax:           Squirrel dubbing
  • Wing case:     Raffia or Swiss straw
  • Legs:               Mottled rubber

Fishing method

Dragonfly nymphs spend 99 % of their time crawling around on the river or still water bottom or on some form of water plant or structure in the water. The crawling movement is very slow and because it is on a structure, it is hard to imitate as the fly snags especially if a weed-guard is not incorporated. It is only when fleeing from danger or when attacking prey that the nymphs generally move by ‘jet propelling’ themselves. This quick darting action can be imitated in slow deep pools or in still waters by using a quick hand-twist retrieve interspersed with intervals, which allows for the simulation of rest periods, and/or for the fly to achieve depth before resuming the action. This method attracts fish or triggers a reaction, but often a very slow retrieve,which hardly moves the fly, or a dead drift in slow moving water or in water where currents are absent, works just as well and attracts the interest of, especially, larger fish that are looking for a vulnerable, big morsel such as this. A method that is often successful in slow, deep pools in streams when using these imitations is the ‘Lisering lift. The lift would resemble a fleeing nymph and often trigger fish.  A long leader is essential and no strike indicator is used.

One of the most effective methods in stronger currents or in flowing water is still just casting it upstream and drifting it down with the current, drag free. This resembles a nymph that has lost its footing in the current and is now drifting down until it reaches a spot were the current in not too strong to fight.

These patterns are suggested imitations and work well if fished correctly. There are, however, many other effective imitations that could be copied or bought.