What separates the men from the boys (?) – Part one: The birth of Poly Nymphing

This is the 1st post in a series of articles that will focus in part on ethics of fishing and modern progression in fly fishing (in a South African context).

Maturation as a male human being is not a simple concept. To describe my imaginary fortune in my teens and twenties I often used the phrase: “One day when I’m grown up…” That was until I turned 31 and realised that I reached maturity and complete independence because my parents discussed their retirement with me and mentioned that they may require financial support from their children until they passed away…

However, at 33 it felt like I reached a new mile stone because grey hair appeared on my head…Was I then truly a mature man? I think not. Only a year later my wife’s expecting our first child and I can sense that I will once again ‘mature’ into manhood when I hold my new-born son in my hands for the first time. Then I think ahead, way ahead and realise that unfortunately this trend will continue until I move into an old-age house myself. These changes aren’t getting any easier and I believe that the distant future holds a grim realm of manhood; I can feel it in my bones.

In retrospect, reaching ‘manhood’ in fly fishing is a much simpler theory – which is applicable to all genders of course. In my opinion, and similar to the aging process of humans, maturation has many different stages in a person’s fishing career.

The first part of the process, which may take the longest for most to overcome, I believe, is fishing for numbers. Humans are competitive by nature and as a young and enthusiastic fisherman I naturally took part in competitive angling. There may be a great social aspect to competitive angling, but the argument is fundamentally flawed as the urge to reach the top of the league, at whichever level, is what drives competitive angling.

The rankings are based on a fish counting scheme and although size does matter, it is the amount of fish that is caught that will ultimately determine the ‘winner’. Been there, done that, I am guilty as well – and still am.

What I noticed in my competitive career though was how many of the fish caught in leagues were crippled or even died. It was a taboo subject that rested heavy on my shoulders, but it was not the reason why I initially steered clear of competitive angling. It was the fact that getting placed and maintaining it was tiring and stressful to the point that fishing was no longer a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

So I moved on to ‘soul’ fishing and specifically fly fishing. Even though I realised that fly fishing was extremely limiting and certainly not the best method to catch fish in most scenarios, I enjoyed it because it was challenging. The competitive drive is still present though and large quantities of fish matter and especially on social fishing trips with friends that share the same immaturity in fishing ‘manhood’. I’ll focus more on this later in the posts as there are other reasons too why I left competitive angling and since readers may find that crux of my story offensive, I’ll leave it to the end (this is a blog post after all).

Another reason why I left structured competitive angling was the fact that competition rules forced participating anglers to fish in specific manners. The techniques and constraints were limiting more than helpful in many situations. A good example is Polish nymphing, Czech nymphing and other short-line nymphing techniques adopted mainly to catch yellowfishes in South Africa’s Orange/Vaal River system by locals. People have argued that competitive angling gave birth to these methods and that we’d stagnate without it. Well, I have a counter argument of which polyethylene nymphing is a prime example. Aha, got you!

Gerald Penkler with a fine smallmouth yellowfish caught by using the poly nymphing technique
Gerald Penkler with a fine smallmouth yellowfish caught by using the poly nymphing technique

Before I venture into this well established technique (let’s just call it poly nymphing shall we?), a much more contested argument would be that most enthusiastic fly fisherman have stumbled across both named short-line nymphing methods and even the long-line nymphing method, French nymphing, on their own. Have you ever dapped a weighted or non-weighted nymph to a sighted trout only by fishing the leader? Have you ever tried to feel or felt the take when doing this? Have you ever watched your leader where it slips under the surface or the end of your fly line to detect takes when fishing a nymph without an indicator (and felt the take)? Most dedicated fly fishermen reinvent the wheel many times; someone in Europe just gave some of the short line nymphing methods a name and ‘fine-tuned’ it. It is not unlike the by and large inherent separation of human races across the globe, but the South Africans gave it a name, apartheid. Idiots…

Anyway, back to poly nymphing; it is the method by which fish are caught in fast water by using gel-spun polyethylene. This polymer is much stronger compared to its nylon or fluorocarbon counterparts in diameter; it cuts through water and the non-stretch property allows the angler to sense every obstacle that control flies come into contact with. In short, its efficacy exceeds that of any other short-line or long-line nymphing method currently used by fly fisherman targeting yellowfish in the Orange and Vaal Rivers in South Africa. Understandably it is also frowned upon by competitive anglers because they are not allowed to use it (“evil laughter”).

Gerald 'working' water in the Richtersveld with a poly rig
Gerald ‘working’ water in the Richtersveld with a poly rig
...And fast into a fish!
…And fast into a fish!

Mark Krige (The man in this story) was the first person to teach me poly nymphing; he’s not a competitive angler, yet he came up with this method all by himself. In other words, Mark took the named European nymphing methods and progressed them to an exceptional technique that may well be at the pinnacle of its kind? Interestingly, Mark was not the only person to experiment with this low-stretch, low-diameter polymer to catch yellowfish with weighted flies. MC Coetzer had also ventured past the competitive rules to try poly nymphing and I believe he co-invented the idea, independently of Mark, perhaps with a few others?

Nevertheless, it works extremely well and especially in fast water that is difficult to fish with (or impossible rather) any other method I am aware of and/or tried previously. So the method is simple to use and the rig easy to set up – even beginners catch yellows on their 1st trips to the Richtersveld using poly nymphing.

The rig consists of three loop knots in the polyethylene ‘main line’ – good and well-known brands include Spiderwire and Berkley Fireline. You are looking for poly with anything between 7 kg and 9 kg breaking strength (~15 lb and 20 lb) – you’ll need approx. 5-6 m of poly on the fly reel. The loops are created by making and ‘improved’ surgeon knots or a J-knot (Fig. 1) in the poly about 30-50 cm apart from each other. Tippets are then added by linking 3X mono or fluorocarbon loop-to-loop to the poly (note that the length of the tippets should not exceed the distance between the loop knots in the main line, otherwise the flies will continuously hook and tangle with the following loops).

The J-knot sequence
Figure 1   The J-knot sequence

Loop 1

Loop 2

Loop 3

Loop 4

Loop 5

Loop 6

 

Loop 7

Loop 8

Orvis Mirage 3X fluorocarbon is an amazing line for the 'tippets' that are looped to the poly loops by using the Lefty Kreh loop knot
Orvis Mirage 3X fluorocarbon is an amazing line for the ‘tippets’ that are looped to the poly loops by using the Lefty Kreh loop knot

I generally fish two control flies on the point and dropper, and a small nymph/caddis pupa/caddis larva (sometimes even non-weighted) as the top fly. If the water is shallow, you can get away with one control fly.

A hand-full of control flies tied on Mustad circle hooks
A hand-full of control flies tied on Mustad circle hooks
Mustad 39951 BLN circle hooks are perfect for control flies in poly nymphing
Mustad 39951 BLN circle hooks are perfect for control flies in poly nymphing

Musrad circles

It is very important that control flies are tied on small circle hooks – I use the Mustad #8 and #6 circles – because they will snag much less than normal scud/caddis hooks as the flies need to make contact with the substrate of the river. I weight the control flies with even up to three tungsten beads – two ‘heavy’ beads at the head and one smaller bead behind them, near the bend of the hook (typically tapering the body of the fly). The beads in the ‘abdomen’ and ‘thorax’ areas of the fly are then covered in dubbing.

Caddis pupa imitations work well on the top dropper
Caddis pupa imitations work well on the top dropper
Hot-spot nymphs, such as this Krige nymph is deadly in combo with control flies
Hot-spot nymphs, such as this Krige nymph, are deadly in combo with control flies
Natural and olive Hare's Ear nymphs are great additions too...
Natural and olive Hare’s Ear nymphs are great additions too…
Yellowfish (and trout) love Brassie nymphs and they sink quickly
Yellowfish (and trout) love Brassie nymphs and they sink quickly
Don't forget to try soft hackle emergers
Don’t forget to try soft hackle emergers
A selection of poly nymphing flies
A selection of poly nymphing flies

The flies are ‘cast’ out by lobbing the lot upriver with a wide, circular swinging motion of the rod tip (the flies can also be ‘lowered’ into the water with a subtle underarm swing) – if the poly is twisting around your rod tip then you are doing it wrong. It is important to ‘reach’ out upstream and lower the rod tip as you are about to ‘plonk’ the flies into the water. The line is then left slack for a few seconds so that the flies can gain depth; then, as the slack line is approaching your stance, slowly start making contact with the flies by lifting the rod tip and following the line as it speeds past you and down-river (keep index finger ‘contact’ with the poly near the rod handle to help feel the takes). A ‘scratching’ sensation in the poly is a sure sign that the nymphs have reached the bottom of the run and are bouncing and dragging over the rocky substrate (then you are in the zone!).

Takes can still be tricky to sense and often feel like a patch of grass on the bottom – lift sharply! At times fish can be so aggressive that they will grab the flies mid-water and start running with the line. It is also not unusual to catch more than one fish on a ‘drift’.

Gerald and yellow small

One thought on “What separates the men from the boys (?) – Part one: The birth of Poly Nymphing”

  1. Alan Hobson says:

    Great article and very well put, thank you!

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