I spent the majority of my time on iconic Grand Lake Stream learning to nymph. “A successful nympher,” said my guide, Roland, “is an eternal optimist.” Which translates to treating every twitch and jiggle and stoppage as if it were a fish, not the bottom.
The concept of nymphing is to allow the flies to travel at the speed of the water in which they are moving. The trick is that there is also line floating on top of the water and connected to one’s rod. If the line gets a ‘belly,’ a loop that is being pushed by the water, it will travel faster than the flies and pull them faster than they would naturally float. If the line straightens out too much, it will hold back the movement, causing the flies to move slower. Especially in heavily fished waters like these salmon pools in northern Maine, flies must act naturally.
I have tried the technique before, and, like many anglers, found it boring at best, frustrating at worst. Last year I thought I had a good idea of what I was doing, having followed my guide’s instructions and learned them well enough to draw a picture to remind me on future trips. However, I had not heard, or perhaps had heard but not internalized, the basic concept of allowing natural travel. This trip, after a day and a half, I thought I understood.
For the first several hours I had followed the instructions. The set-up of indicator, multiple flies and weights does not lend itself readily to normal four-step fly casting. Instead the line is pulled across the water by raising the tip of the rod in a similar fashion to the beginning of a roll cast, and, using both hands, simply tossing it somewhat upstream. As soon as the flies hit the water, the rod is lifted to move the line that is on top of the water upstream. This manuever is called a ‘mend.’ When the indicator gets to you, follow it by moving the rod at the same speed as it passes and goes downstream. The line will either straighten out, which will slow the flies, or suddenly pull towards you, which will make the flies abruptly travel faster in a new direction. As soon as this happens, you must set the hook just in case there is a fish right behind who will be excited and grab the fly because it changed what it was doing. Lift, toss, mend, follow, set. Repeat. Watching that line like a hawk on its entire voyage, ready to set that hook at the slightest quiver.
At the lunch break on Friday, which we took almost an hour after the designated meeting time because no one in the group wanted to stop, I thought I had an idea of what I was doing. I was wrong, but going in the right direction. That night I thought I really had it, and I was closer but not winning the cigar, yet.
Mid-morning on Saturday I was tossing the line, mending, maybe even doing some tiny mends after it landed to keep the flow, setting the hook when the line drew taut, lifting and repeating. I was eternally optimistic, setting at every little tug I felt or indicator wiggle I saw. As the puff of yarn I was using to let me know if anything was happening below passed the back of a big rock I felt a solid hit and I set that hook as if it were Moby Dick. Nothing moved. I had firmly set my hook into the rock.
This was not the first encounter with an inanimate water dweller, and I knew to “take it out the way it came in,” so I tugged the line upstream. Nothing. I moved slightly closer but not enough to scare the fish in the pool. Finally, I admitted defeat and called Roland. He tugged and pulled and moved the line around and, suddenly, the line went slack and my entire rig was gone.
We could see the fish. There were dozens of salmon lying along the bottom of the pool, facing the dam which would be opening in a week allowing them access to the lake where they would summer. (Fish are more like people than we might think, apparently.) We were able to drift the flies directly over the hovering salmon, but no one was bringing in fish. The fish were obviously eating, but we couldn’t see what they were taking. They were not interested in what we were offering.
Roland decided to set me up with a similar pattern to the one I had lost, minus the tiny weight, putting an ant design in the bottom position.There was no question when the fish hit! It was a beautiful salmon, golden rather than silver in color, so that he stood out from the others while he was moving underwater, before he decided to jump. It was a nice competition, and he ran from the net several times before finally conceding. He was 17-inches long; my first larger salmon.
As the day wore on, there was no more action in our pool. The weight went back on to allow me to get the ant a little closer to the ground. Eventually, I moved so that I was again directly in line with the rock on which I had lost my setup earlier in the afternoon. Now, however, I was becoming quite confident in my drifts. Enough that I was sure I was floating my line right into the fish I could not see but knew were just on the far side of the rock.
As I had anticipated, Bam! I had a hit, and bam! I set that hook. Nothing moved. I held on and waited for the big fish I knew had taken that ant. And, then, to my chagrin realized that once again I had hooked the same rock. I moved the line upstream to dislodge it, but it was the same as the first time. I could not get loose.
I was humiliated as I answered Roland’s question of ‘Fish or Rock’? He made his way over, and, as earlier, pulled and tugged, and moved the rod all around, and, suddenly, there was no resistance but the line was still loaded. Roland stripped in the line, and right on the hook was the entire rig from the first snag. My catch of the day!