Bottoms-Up!

By Jeff Morgan

About this time of year the urge to head for a lake starts boiling in the veins. Unfortunately, it's a couple of months too soon to do much about it--at least for most lakes--but it's not too soon to think about the coming spring and to be prepared for it.

What gets many stillwater anglers excited in the early spring is the memory of those few glorious moments when trout are in the shallows feeding on emerging midges, or fresh stockies are schooled up and aggressively slashing any moving object that dares to venture within range.

However, these mental vignettes are the exceptions. Most early-season trout fishing in coastal lakes and lowland reservoirs makes my normal graduate school reading load (well over 100 academic books a year) seem rather appealing. After a few drizzly, cold, windy days marked by slow trolling or hand (and mind) numbing "figure eight" retrieves, many newbie stillwater anglers to put their pontoon boats on E-bay and book guide an August guide trip on the Madison.

I recall one early spring on an Oregon coastal lake when I was in high school. A friend and I were slaughtering trout on chartreuse Power Bait. Since any right-minded trout would prefer a nice leech or dragonfly nymph to a gelatinous synthetic blob, I figured this hot action would translate into an excellent fly-fishing opportunity. Yet ten fly changes and innumerable retrieve variations later, I was fishless; my buddy kept reeling in trout on the purple goo.

The problem wasn't the fly, it was where it was fished. My friend nailed countless trout because his bait danced only a foot off the bottom. No matter what I did, I could not keep my fly at that depth without snagging or accelerating it out of the zone.

Early-season trout love to hug the bottom, as this is where the water is often the warmest at that time of year. In some waters, trout will winter at significant depths, but most fish hang near the bottom of flats 10-20 feet deep or around points of land. Both habitats are easily within the reach of a fly angler. It doesn't hurt that most insect life is so lethargic in the early season that it creeps along near the bottom mere inches from shivering trout.

These bottom-hugging trout are neither aggressive nor hungry, which makes them difficult to pursue with standard approaches. Trolling moves the fly too quickly, and classic stillwater tactics with sink-tip/intermediate lines simply do not place the fly at the proper depth.

Two ways to approach this style of fishing are top-down and bottom-up. Each requires different types of flies.

Top-Down Fishing

The top-down approach incorporates a floating line, long leader, perhaps a strike indicator, and a lightly-weighted fly. This deep midge presentation often incorporates no retrieve, allowing waves to provide all the motion to the fly. It is preferred for midge larvae and pupae, though it can work for leeches also.

For top-down fishing, I like a fly that will dance with the motion of each wave. This usually means a small bead head that will get the fly down deep-preferably hanging vertically below a strike indicator. An extended body of supple rubber, marabou, or some other pliable material will help maximize movement.

Bottom-Up Fishing

The other technique, the bottom-up approach, utilizes an ultra-fast sinking line, short leader, and a floating or neutrally-buoyant fly. This method has the advantage of working with almost any retrieve speed because the heavy line and short leader keep your fly close to the bottom.

As with all tactics, your fly choice matters. Flashy patterns such as Zonkers , Marabou Muddlers , or other gaudy streamers are more likely to intimidate lethargic trout rather than coax a strike from them. And beadhead Woolly Buggers and Mohair Leeches are too heavy for the narrow two- to three-foot zone above the substrate, often forcing a retrieve that is too speedy for cold-water fish.

One fly I love for the bottom-up technique is the Booby Nymph . This controversial fly has dominated British stillwater fishing for the past decade, yet has not caught on in America. The Booby Nymph is the fly angler's answer to power bait: it can be suspended only a foot off the bottom, and danced suggestively as long as you wish . . . or as long as trout leave it alone. The fly floats with the aid of two large foam "eyes." The original patterns were constructed from Styrofoam balls wrapped in mesh and tied to the fly in the same manner as Goddard's Suspending Pupa.

Prefabricated eyes can be obtained from English tying suppliers like Lakeland Fly Tying, but they can be expensive (over $5.00 for eight, plus shipping). I avoid the intercontinental hassles and simply tie Rainy's Fly Foam figure-eight style, then clip it to an appropriate length. Once the eyes are done, the body is up to you.

This fly is purely an attractor, so different colors can be used to match water conditions. Hot butts, sparkle yarns, Flashabou-it's up to you. These flies float best when tied on smaller, standard-wire hooks. Avoid extra-heavy streamer hooks; they're too heavy.

The action of the Booby Nymph is the key to its effectiveness. With floating eyes, the fly suspends with the hook pointing up, even though the sinking line and leader hang down below it. As the line is retrieved, the eye of the hook swings downward, resulting in an erratic active motion, despite little forward propulsion. An extremely slow retrieve causes this fly to bob and twitch constantly, which can be too much for even the most lethargic trout to ignore.

While the Booby Nymph has floating eyes, the Popper Nymph uses an extension of its foam underbody to create a "bubble butt." This keeps the fly's hook up, but the eye is pointed at the bottom. When stripped, this fly flutters downwards, then slowly rises butt-first. This unorthodox movement is effective on both wary trout and aggressive fresh stockers which are eager to slash at anything out of the ordinary.

New Patterns

Booby Nymph
Popper Nymph

Jeff Morgan has written many articles for Westfly, mostly on entomology and fly tying. He is the author of An Angler's Guide to the Oregon Cascades and Small Stream Fly Fishing.