Rites of spring, in my mind, always feature vivid images of nymphs.
No, this is not some kind of Bacchanalian orgy.
However, it does involve a feeding frenzy of fish in western Montana streams, accompanied by a fanatic celebration among local anglers.
Spring insect hatches on our area rivers have long garnered widespread acclaim for producing some of the most exciting fly-fishing opportunities of the year. And the emergence of the bugs triggers a pilgrimage of fly rod-toting visitors from near and far.
Headlining the list of these super hatches, of course, are the skwala stoneflies, usually starting in March and continuing through April and into May, followed by their big brothers, the salmonflies, typically in May and June.
But overlapping those hatches are the appearances of mayflies, including blue-winged olives, March browns, and gray and green drakes, as well as caddis flies and smaller stoneflies – all of which can provide some fabulous fly-fishing.
It seems, though, that the discussion tends to begin and end with dry flies and the choice of patterns to imitate the adults of the various insects.
Of course, we know that all of those bugs have immature stages, or nymphs, that fish feed upon subsurface, frequently even more voraciously than on the adults.
Yet, nymph patterns often are neglected by fly casters fixated on the spring hatches.
This is certainly understandable.
Few would disagree that the most fun you can have fly-fishing is to watch trout rise to snatch a high-floating dry fly, especially when the hatch is in full swing, and the surface action is frenetic.
Many anglers are reluctant to fish nymphs if they haven’t tried it. For them, not being able to see their fly under water requires a precarious leap of faith. I know. I’ve been there.
Still, there are valid reasons to have nymphs in your spring fly-fishing arsenal.
At certain times earlier in the season, prior to the peak emergence of an insect hatch, and sometimes in the cooler, early hours of the day before a hatch takes off the fish are likely to be feeding on the active nymphs of those insects.
The same is true when particularly cold days (always a possibility in the spring) put the brakes on a hatch in progress.
Another good reason to fish nymphs is that larger trout have a penchant for a subsurface diet. Feeding on nymphs offers them more security, and requires less output of energy, than rushing to the surface to grab a morsel floating past overhead.
A significant number of the biggest trout I’ve landed in the spring have succumbed to nymphs.
But first I had to overcome my own fear of the unknown in fishing flies beneath the surface.
That process started more than 30 years ago. I was encouraged by reading several excellent books on the subject. They included “Nymphs,” by Ernest Schwiebert; “Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout;” by Charles Brooks; “The Masters on the Nymph,” edited by J. Michael Migel and Leonard M. Wright Jr.; “American Nymph Fly Tying Manual;” by Randall Kaufmann; and eventually many others.
Using those books as my guide, I set out to learn about aquatic entomology by collecting and identifying nymphs in the local streams. Then, using the same references, I started trying to imitate those critters in my fly-tying vise.
The next step was scary: actually testing my creations in the stream. I chose Rock Creek as my laboratory.
It proved to be a good selection. The Rock Creek trout fishery, which had been seriously depleted by excessive angler harvest in the 1960s, was on the rebound in the late 1970s when I started my nymph project. Several years previously, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had imposed new regulations on the stream, including greatly reducing creel limits for trout in two sections, and a catch-and-release provision in a third.
Trout populations prospered almost immediately. Fishing was great.
And, to my great relief and satisfaction, fish readily gobbled up my new nymph patterns.
With that confidence, I began to develop a feel, almost a sixth sense, for what was happening with my flies in the unseen depths. I was aided, no doubt, by my early exposure to bait fishing as a kid.
At first, my focus in tying was to produce realistic-looking nymphs. I accomplished this by using materials like nylon, plastic and rubber for bodies, legs and shellbacks that did look like the real thing in the vise.
But as I continued to experiment, I found I had more success with impressionistic nymph patterns tied using softer, natural fur and feathers that, when dry, might not look like exact imitation, but proved to be more suggestive of movement and life in the water.
Nymph fishing has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, in large part due to the “hopper-and-dropper” technique employed by so many fly-fishing guides to help their clients catch more fish. In this method, a nymph is suspended below a buoyant dry fly that acts as a bobber. When the dry pattern dips under the surface, it’s time to set the hook. Strike indicators serve the same purpose.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the hopper-and-dropper method. Too many tangles. But it does work. And it helps a novice gain confidence in fishing nymphs.
Nowadays, most fly shops offer an extensive selection of nymph patterns designed to match the local hatches.
So, by all means, have fun with dry flies. But don’t forget the nymphs of spring.
And enjoy the orgy.
Daryl Gadbow is a former Missoulian outdoors reporter and sportswriter, now retired, and a freelance writer and avid fly fisherman in Missoula.