Short Line Nymphing Technique – Another Perspective (Part 3 of 3)

The cast and the drift

Experience has taught me that the first cast to a fishy looking spot can be the most productive cast, dictating a cautious, thoughtful approach; a cast that is executed properly and accurately; a tight drift; and focus on the in-line indicator for any telltale aberrant movement. Too often I have observed fly fishers cast quickly into a nice pocket before properly adjusting weight and line length— in other words, using the first cast as a “test” or “adjustment” cast. This is, to be blunt, a serious error, irrespective of whether the angler is nymphing or drifting a dry fly. Make that first cast count!

Casting the tight line rig is not a pretty sight—it’s actually more of a lob than a cast. Let’s begin with the “how” of the cast. The cast begins with approximately 2 feet of the fly line outside of the top guide, with the rig positioned downstream. The rod is raised to nearly vertical and held there momentarily to allow for rod loading and aiming the cast; in other words, the cast is not one fluid motion. The rod is then snapped forward with the tip pointing at the desired drop spot for the flies. There should naturally be no slack in the line at this point as the line and leader are stretched out by virtue of the cast; from here it is up to the angler to establish and maintain line control in order to keep the drift slack-free.

Next, let’s look at the “where” of the cast, meaning the direction which the rig is cast, because correct fly placement is critical to an effective drift. With the tight line method, the flies should land at a 45 degree angle upstream of the angler. There are, to be sure, situations where a likely looking pocket across the stream can only be reached with a perpendicular cast because stream depth or strong current prevent safe wading to an ideal casting position. But these occasions are the exception rather than the rule, and most casts should be made upstream.

Now let’s consider the drift. As soon as the flies hit the water, the reel is immediately lifted and the rod tip is kept down; the rod itself remains horizontal for the drift. If the tip is lifted, only one thing can happen since the line is tight: the flies will be pulled up from the bottom and away from the fish. For the tight line method to be effective, the flies must drift at or near the bottom. Remember: the drift begins with the splash of the flies; don’t pause downstream rod movement on the assumption that the flies need to sink, because they will sink immediately. Don’t be concerned that the noise generated by the splash of the flies will put the fish down; there is plenty of ambient noise in pocket water already.

With the rod horizontal, the rod tip leads the flies downstream, keeping line, leader and indicator taut without pulling the flies unnaturally. The flies should never be allowed to drift under the rod, as this results in loss of line control (i.e., slack) and therefore loss of communication with the flies. The leader should enter the water at and remain at a 45 degree angle upstream from the rod tip to the water surface during the drift.

Careful attention to drift speed is essential during the drift. If the leader or indicator is moving at the same speed as the top water, judging by bubbles or floating debris, the subsurface flies will “drag” or move too fast since in general the current at the bottom is slower than on top due to the effects of friction. The remedy for this is additional weight which, besides getting the flies down also functions to slow the entire rig down to proper drift speed. With experience, this situation will become easy to spot and remedy with the right amount of additional weight.

Once the line, leader and flies have drifted to a point directly downstream of the angler, the next cast can be commenced. Once the entire pocket has been thoroughly covered by successive casts, adjacent areas can be covered in the same manner without changing position, by adding another foot of line outside the top guide. With experience the angler should be able cover even more water from the same point by casting with 4 or 5 feet outside the top guide while still maintaining the constant line control that is critical to success with the tight line system. In general, as the cast is lengthened, additional weight must be incrementally added to the system in order to maintain good line control.

Take recognition and hook-setting technique

Success with the short line technique requires skill in both take recognition and proper hook-set technique, as the trout are lightning quick and seldom take the flies with gusto; indeed, most takes are subtle and not particularly easy to spot irrespective of what type of rig and indicator are used. My experience has been that where the take is sharp and the leader jumps, the fish is generally small; where the take is subtle and the leader/indicator barely pauses or just slows down when it shouldn’t, there is a good chance that it is a large fish. But that’s just a rule of thumb, and sometimes there just are no rules.

Avoiding the “vertical” hook-set technique when nymph-fishing for trout will greatly reduce fly fisher stress and, with enough practice, will increase hook ups. When the rig leaves the water because of a vertical rod lift, a lot of unpleasant things can happen: acquiring or giving one’s guide an unwanted ear ring (in which case the guide is liable to become grumpy); getting practice removing massive tangles and knots; learning how to extract the rig from the canopy or berry bushes; or experiencing all of the above at one time.

To eliminate this bothersome fuss the angler needs to learn to set the hook with a quick horizontal downstream flick of the wrist. The rig remains in the water, allowing completion of the drift if the hook-set motion is not answered by the tug of a fish. Gravity does not bedevil rod movement and the flies move unhesitatingly and directly. No ear rings, leader snarls or line-snatching trees or berry vines to kink one’s day. Life is good.

But when to set the hook? Simply put: Any time that the indicator twitches, hesitates or moves in an inexplicable direction, just do it. The culprit can be a fish, a rock, a stick, a leaf or…whatever; since the “take and spit” happens so quickly and the price of not setting can be loss of a nice fish, there is simply no time or room for speculation. In other words, as I drill into my clients, don’t second guess, just react. When I hear “It was a rock,” I ask “Are you certain?” We all know the answer to that question.

Because in-line indicator activity (or just plain leader activity, if an in-line indicator is not used) is often quite subtle, single-pointed focus and concentration are a must. The correlation between distraction and lack of productivity is clear and direct. For most fly fishers, subtle take detection is a skill acquired after long days of “paying dues” on the stream. As a guide, I often find myself patiently describing the client’s many undetected takes when the client expresses the typical frustration experienced by beginning to intermediate nymph fishers. Still, I have found that such gentle prodding is instructive, assists the client in maintaining focus, and produces results.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity, over many years, to teach the Ted-Fay style short line nymphing technique to many anglers. Most stay with it, incorporate it into their arsenal, and become intuitive short-liners; some find it too difficult or frustrating. For me, short of the grab of a winter steelie on a swung fly, there is nothing sweeter than spotting a subtle take on a short-line rig, setting the hook, and feeling the head-shake of a surprised and angry trout.

The High Country of the North Fork of the American River: Backcountry Angling and Hiking Dreams (Part 1)

Residents of Placer County are blessed with a resource that is unparalleled in beauty and ruggedness and rich in history. The misty-blue canyons of the North Fork of the American River, geologically shaped by uplifting plates and the cutting forces of water, hold secrets and long-forgotten tales that remain unrecorded — tales of original people, hordes of miners in search of the golden Holy Grail, entrepreneurs, ne’er-do-wells, failures, ladies of the night — all this amid grandeur and beauty that both stuns the senses and bestows inner peace. The canyon can be viewed from afar from an aircraft, on Google Earth, or from the road that edges its way from precipitous cliff to deep valley. Or it can be experienced by walking trails, mostly steep and long, but with a few easier walks, deep into remote areas.

Among the crown jewels of this magnificent canyon are the ancient rivers, streams, and creeks that drain the vast area lying on the north side of the Foresthill Divide, which separates the North and Middle Forks. What follows is a brief description of some of these dark, turbulent watercourses, from their headwaters in high-altitude wilderness lands on down through the canyons of the upper river; how to gain access to them; and the fisheries that they support. I have previously written, in this magazine (“Winter Fishing on the North Fork of the American” California Fly Fisher, January/February 2010) about fishing along the lower portion of the river when the snow flies higher in the Sierra. This article describes some of the available high-country wilderness trout fishing that is available in the summer to those willing to hike the canyon’s trails.

The North Fork American River Watershed

The North Fork rises in a vast expanse of wilderness lying due north of Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, and the Granite Chief Wilderness Area. From there, it falls precipitously into the deep crevasse that is its home, north of the great Foresthill Divide. In this high, remote upper area, the river is formed by a number of small creeks, including Chief Creek, Cedar Creek, Onion Creek, Serena Creek, Wabena Creek, Long Valley Creek, and Palisades Creek.

Below these higher creeks, the river flows from Heath Springs into the Royal Gorge, where it cascades amid cliffs, flowing in delightful cataracts, falls, riffles, and runs. From there, it continues to be fed from the south by Wildcat, Sailor Canyon, and New York Canyon Creeks and from the north by Big and Little Granite Creek, Big Valley Creek, and others. Downstream, the river is joined from the north by the North Fork of the North Fork and from the south by Humbug Creek, Indian Creek, and Shirttail Creek. The lower portion of the North Fork passes through Giant Gap and its mystical vistas, including Lover’s Leap, past the bridge crossings at Iowa Hill, Yankee Jims, and Ponderosa, and flows into Clementine Lake, a run-of-the-river hydroelectric facility. From there, it cascades over the Clementine dam downstream for a short distance, where it meets up with the Middle Fork of the American River at the popular Confluence area. From there, the conjoined rivers, now just called the North Fork, pass under No Hands Bridge, past China Bar, and into Folsom Lake.

North Fork Status Designations

The North Fork, in recognition of its pristine surroundings and extraordinary beauty and remoteness, is classified under both state and federal law as a Wild and Scenic River. The Wild and Scenic River designation commences at the Iowa Hill Bridge and extends upstream to the Heath Springs area, near a privately held enclave known as The Cedars. Pursuant to these classifications, management plans have been developed in order to protect the resources and values that led to the designation of the river as Wild and Scenic. The river is entirely free flowing from its source down to Lake Clementine. It is at once a kayaker’s dream, with its many class-rated runs and wildly varied terrain, and a hiking and angling paradise for those with an adventurous spirit and the will to endure strenuous, sometimes risky trails. The river also enjoys Wild Trout status from the Iowa Hill Bridge to its confluence with Palisades Creek under California’s Heritage and Wild Trout Program, managed by the California Department of Fish and Game.

These well-deserved designations provide a modicum of legal protection for the resource. Still, there are those who would, if allowed to do so, engage in destructive private and public projects that would adversely affect the North Fork, positing a need for constant vigilance by the numerous nongovernmental groups whose mission is to protect the river, its watershed, its natural history, its flora and fauna and their habitat, and its fisheries. These groups include, among others, Protect American River Canyons, the Friends of the North Fork, the North Fork American River Alliance, the Save the American River Association, and the Foothills Angler Coalition, which includes Trout Unlimited, California Trout, and the Federation of Fly Fishers.

Access to the Upper River

Road access to this upper area is limited to Foresthill Road, which becomes the Soda Springs Road somewhere near Robinson Flat. Foresthill Road begins at the Foresthill off-ramp from Interstate 80. just northeast of Auburn. The town of Foresthill is approximately 17 miles from Highway 80. From there, the road winds up the divide to The Cedars, where it turns north and away from the river, toward Soda Springs. In this article, the road will be called the Foresthill/Soda Springs Road.

There are a number of trails that provide access to the upper canyon, all of them steep, difficult, and sometimes obscure, but always worth the effort. These include the Tevis Cup Trail, the Western States Trail, the Palisades Trail, the Painted Rock Trail, the Wabena Creek Trail, and a few others. Below the Royal Gorge area, the trails from the north include the Big Granite, Euchre Bar, Green Valley, and Pickering Bar Trails. From the south, the Sailor Flat, Beacroft, Mumford Bar, Dorer Ranch, and Italian Bar Trails provide access to the river. All of these trails are described and depicted in a highly informative book authored by my friend Ron Gould, North Fork Trails: Hiking Trails of the North Fork American River Canyon. (See the sidebar for more information.) This article will concentrate on the five trails that are found on the south (Foresthill) side of the river and divide, plus the American River Trail, which intersects some of them and which follows the river upstream in an easterly direction. Other trails and venues along the river will be the subject of a future article.

The Sailor Flat Trail is the easternmost trail down to the North Fork, west of The Cedars. To get there, turn left on a rough dirt road located 26.5 miles from the Foresthill Ranger Station on the Foresthill/Soda Springs Road (39° 10.400′ N; 120° 30.455′ W). Follow this road for about 2.5 miles to the trailhead (39° 11.364′ N; 120 deg. 30.07′ W). A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, because the road is rocky, with many water bars. From the trailhead, follow the 2-mile, steeply dropping trail past the abandoned Trinidad Mine (worth exploring) and continue down to the river, where the trail intersects with the American River Trail, which follows the river upstream and downstream. Sailor Canyon Creek joins the river a short distance upstream from that intersection. This little creek sports fine pools and runs that are home to small, but eager rainbows that will eat any well-presented size 14 dry fly.

This portion of the North Fork is within the Wild Trout Area and is characterized by classic pocket water, riffles, and runs. Fish it with high-floating dries or with nymphs using a dry/dropper setup or a short-line nymphing rig. Golden Stoneflies in sizes 8 and 10 work well, as do standard mayfly and caddis nymphs. The elevation drop on this trail is approximately 3,000 feet; the Forest Service rates this trail as “most difficult.” The relevant topographical maps are Duncan Peak and Royal Gorge.

The Beacroft Trail is reached via a dirt road located approximately 21 miles from the Foresthill Ranger Station on the left off of Foresthill/Soda Springs Road (39° 11.581′ N; 120° 34.059′ W). A short distance down this road there is a parking area where the trailhead is located (39° 11.696′ N; 120° 34.059′ W). This steep and difficult 2.5-mile trail crosses the Iowa Hill Ditch, passes a spring, and drops to the river. A fire burned this area badly in 2008; subsequently, there was a large landslide near the base of the trail, which necessitates finding an alternate route down to the river. Once there, find Tadpole Creek a short distance upstream. In wetter years, this creek will have plenty of fishable water with small rainbows. The river here is part of the Wild Trout Area and fishes like the Sailor Canyon Creek area. There are good camping sites downstream from the trail intersection. The elevation drop on this trail is approximately 2500 feet; the Forest Service rates this trail as “most difficult.” The relevant topographical map is Duncan Peak.

The Mumford Bar Trail begins at a campground just off the Foresthill/Soda Springs Road on the left about 17 miles from the Foresthill Ranger Station (39° 10.684′ N; 120° 34.348′ W). This popular trail is approximately 4.5 miles long and less steep than the other trails mentioned above. It terminates at the river and the intersection with the American River Trail. The river here is within the Wild Trout Area. More anglers fish here than at the Sailor Flat and Beacroft areas, but the fishing can still be good when with nymphs in the pocket-water areas. Another strategy is to swing small streamers through the deeper spots. The fish population is mostly rainbows, but there are also a few sizeable browns lurking about. The elevation drop on this trail is approximately 2700 feet; the Forest Service rates this trail as “difficult.” The relevant topographical maps are Duncan Peak and Westville.

The Italian Bar Trail, like the others mentioned above, is an old miner’s trail that leads to the North Fork within the Wild Trout Area. To get to the trailhead, follow the Foresthill/Soda Springs Road about 15.5 miles from the Foresthill Ranger Station. Turn left on Humbug Ridge Road, which is designated as U.S. Forest Service Road 66 (39° 09.482′ N; 120° 39.867′ W). Follow this road about 3 miles to the trailhead (39° 10.939′ N; 120° 40.629′ W). The trail is steep, winding 2.5 miles down to the river, where it ends at a rock terrace. At the base of the trail there is an old stamp mill and some narrow-gauge railroad track leading back to a mine shaft. It’s probably a good idea to stay out of the shaft.

There is good fishing water near the base of the trail. A dark-colored soft hackle will produce fish if swung properly. Short-line nymphing water abounds here; use stonefly patterns, and the standard array of goodies for mayfly and caddis nymphs. Unlike the trails mentioned above, there is no connection here with the American River Trail. To get upstream for hiking or fishing purposes, it is necessary to bushwhack along the edges. During the summer, this is possible, although there are a few places where a dunking is necessary. The elevation drop on this trail is approximately 2600 feet. The Forest Service rates this trail as “most difficult.” The relevant topographical map is Westville.