Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Techniques

Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tactics: Thinking About Flat-Water Nymph Fishing

Cons: Flat-water can be challenging, frustrating and intimidating. Flat water is not usually seen as “tenkara-perfect” and typical tenkara rigging and techniques may not always be effective.

Pros: Flat-water can be challenging (yeah that’s a pro too). Flat-water is often overlooked by other anglers and that can mean less angling pressure; which can be a huge blessing on popular and otherwise crowded waters . Learning to effectively fish in flat-water can greatly increase your fishable water. Sometimes really big fish reside in flat-water.

A Few Words …

Whenever I sit down to write a piece like this I get analysis paralysis. Topics that seem small at first soon expand beyond control when I start to think about them. So by way of disclaimer, this is of course is not a definitive how-to on the subject. I couldn’t write that definitive piece even if I wanted to. Rather, I hope to share some of the things that I do when confronted with the problem of placid, flat water tenkara rod in hand.

There are many ways to solve the same problems. My biggest hope with these “how-to” type pieces is that folks find a tidbit or two to incorporate into their tool boxes and more importantly get inspired to be creative in their own rigging and tactics.

Also, as the title states much of this falls more appropriately under the name of “fixed-line fly fishing” rather than traditional tenkara.

Flat Water

So what I’m talking about is a few different types of water actually. A common feature of the type of water I’m talking about, regardless of specifics, is that it is barely flowing.

One type of flat water is the wide, long pools. The water is smooth and imperceptibly flowing. Sometimes the water is deep. Sometimes not.

Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tactics: Thinking About Flat-Water Nymph Fishing - Tenkara Angler - Anthony Naples

Another example is water next to the bank. Very often this type of slow flat water is fairly shallow. I’ve often caught fish in this flat, skinny bank-side water in mere inches of water. This slow bankside water may be adjacent to a large placid pool or it may next to faster flowing water.

That decent brown trout (below left) was taken from the extremely shallow water along the left bank in the photo below. The fish was sitting in inches of water.

These placid pools and stretches of still, bank-side water can be quite extensive on certain streams. Meaning that if you ignore them you’ll be skipping lots of water and spending time walking past them in search of “better” water.

In the picture below, one might be tempted to ignore the placid backwater to the left and fish the “fishier” looking water more mid-stream. But on this day I was doing well in those shallow edges. This is a pressured stream and perhaps many anglers don’t fish that type of water.

Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tactics: Thinking About Flat-Water Nymph Fishing - Tenkara Angler - Anthony Naples - Water

A third type of fat-water I’ll call “micro-flats”. And really all I mean by that are those small areas of placid water that are mixed in with faster water. Think about small bank-side structures, pocket water and eddies. That type of thing.

The area circled in yellow is a small area of flat water created by bank-side structure. These small areas are easy to ignore, especially if the casting is difficult. But the structure that makes it a difficult cast is often the reason that the fish like to hang out there. Again these areas are often ignored by many anglers.

Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tactics: Thinking About Flat-Water Nymph Fishing - Tenkara Angler - Anthony Naples - Bank

Some Difficulties of Flat Water


Stealth is always important. Whenever I’m not catching fish and I think I ought to be, I look to stealth first. In the flat water stretches of streams you’ll have to be on the top of your game. Think great blue heron not water buffalo. You will need to move very slowly, wade carefully and try not to create a wake. All easier said than done. I know.

It is the patience required to be stealthy in placid water that holds a lot of the charm for me. You’re forced to slow down. You need to make each step count. You need to make each cast count. There isn’t much room for error. I’m not always up to the challenge. But success against such challenge is rewarding.

Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tactics: Thinking About Flat-Water Nymph Fishing - Tenkara Angler - Anthony Naples - Shadows

Be aware of shadows. On sunny days shadows are going to be your worst enemy. A shadow moving over a fish in this kind of water will spook the fish without a doubt. This includes not just your shadow, but the shadow of the tenkara rod and the line. On sunny days the line itself can easily cast enough of a shadow to spook fish. To avoid casting shadows you may have to reposition. Sometimes lowering your profile will be enough. Sidearm casts where the rod remains low can also be helpful. You can try to focus on the shaded areas and avoid sunny areas. In the photo above for example, you could stick to the shaded areas along the banks and avoid creating fish spooking shadows.

When fishing flat water that is adjacent to faster water, it can be easier to remain stealthy as wading in the faster broken water will be inherently stealthier than wading in the placid still water.

Some Thoughts on Presentation and Rigging

When I know I’m going to be focusing on flat water and especially if that means skinny water at the edges of streams I know that probably means overhead branches in my neck of the woods. So, if I’m using a single length rod I usually go with 12 feet. But ideally I like a zoom rod for this. It’s not really about casting but about landing. I love to have the longer reach of a 12 or 13 foot rod, but when it comes to landing fish under those branches I find it can be convenient to be able to collapse to a shorter length.

Though you could use a light PVC floating line or floatant dressed furled line for this fishing, I generally use a level line. A level line is just generally more versatile if I want to switch between tactics.

Some people don’t love zoom rods – but I’ve always liked them. Lately I’ve been using the DRAGONTail Mutant (see Mutant Rod Report here) and the Tenkara Rod Co. Teton (I discussed the Teton a bit in this post).

Of course if fish are willing to come up and hit a dry fly, then are task can be simpler, but often this is not the case.

When fishing large placid pools and long stretches of flat bank-side water anchoring your line to allow for a “line off of the water” presentation is going to be next to impossible (unless fishing at very close proximity). The reality will be that you’ll have to settle for some line on the water, maybe even most of it. Don’t fret too much though. With careful casting allowing line to lay on the water isn’t a big problem. You can still catch plenty of fish.

Fishing the “Drop”

When fishing nymphs in the still water that we’re taking about, you’ll be fishing the drop. Meaning without current the fly won’t be drifting past fish but merely dropping vertically. Interested fish in the area will often respond very quickly and you will need to be prepared to detect strikes as soon as the fly hits the water. More on this later.

Dry Dropper

One way to help anchor your cast at a distance and detect strikes is a dry dropper rig. If you’re interested in how I rig this, check out the previous article that I did called Fixed Line Fly Fishing Tactics : Dry Dropper Part 1. A combo of a dry fly with a small beadhead or lightly weighted nymph can anchor quite nicely in placid water compared to either one alone. And this may even allow you to keep line off of the water.

When fishing nymphs on the drop in still water, strike detection can be sometimes be difficult. Fish can take a dropping fly and reject it very quickly and without the benefit of moving water the takes can be extremely subtle. Not to put too fine a point on it the dry fly is going to act like a bobber and help to show strikes.

The dry dropper rig is not without it’s own problems though and when fishing small weighted nymphs or unweighted subsurface flies there is another suspension tactic with exploring.

Floating the Sighter

This is a tactic taken from the modern nymphing playbook. I learned how to do it from George Daniel and Josh Miller. The tactic of floating the sighter is an especially delicate and sensitive suspension nymphing technique. When floating the sighter one uses a section of hi-viz nylon sighter material as the suspension device instead of something like a dry fly or bobber style strike indicator. To provide greater floatation it’s good to apply some paste floatant such as Loon Payette to the sighter. I have an easier time seeing sighter of a fairly large diameter; something like a 0X (approx. 0.011″ diameter). I do like a tri-color sighter with a white section like the Orvis Tactical Sighter below or black section like the Cortland Indicator Mono Leader.

To add in visibility, strike detection and buoyancy I like to add “bunny ears” to the sighter (as shown to me by George Daniel). To do this simply cut the sighter material into 3 or 4 pieces and tie back together with blood knots or double-surgeons knot. And leave about 1/2 inch the tag ends on the knots (the bunny ears).

Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tactics: Thinking About Flat-Water Nymph Fishing - Tenkara Angler - Anthony Naples - Tippet

Fishing with the Floated Sighter

When floating the sighter simply tie the prepared sighter to the end of your tenkara line and apply some paste floatant. When casting allow the sighter to lay on the water (this will provide some anchoring) you may have to allow a significant portion of line on the water too, depending on the particular situation.

Strike indication may be very subtle. Sometimes a fish will pull the sighter under quickly and obviously but often the only indication will be a slight twitch of the bunny ears. I cannot over emphasize how subtle the strikes can be. When I started out with this method I was not being nearly observant enough and I was missing most of the strikes.

When floating the sighter you may want to change your typical cast from fly on the water first to line first. I know this is anathema in tenkara circles. But this presentation offers some advantage when fishing this system. When the sighter lands before the fly this means that you’ll have it in a position to detect strikes as soon as the flies hit the water.

The sighter is not going to suspend very large nymphs but small beadhead flies (16s and smaller) or even larger lightly weighted flies will work.

I’ve been successful with a variety of flies from wet ant patterns to green weenies and standard nymph patterns like muskrat nymphs and pheasant tails. Of course you could try this with kebari as well.

Some Advantages of Floating the Sighter

  • Subtle strike detection. Because the sighter is not overly buoyant and due to the visual cue of the bunny-ears a floated sighter is an extremely sensitive strike indicator. Though serving much the same purpose as a dry-dropper rig, the floated sighter is more sensitive.
  • Delicate presentation compared to “bobber” style strike indicators
  • Versatile rigging. One cool thing about using the sighter as your suspension device is that you can go back and forth between tight-line nymphing, suspension nymphing and more traditional tenkara methods without re-rigging.

Fishing that flat water is a rewarding challenge. Additionally it will add to your fishable water if you decide to focus on it. Also it can help you find and target overlooked fish, which could be a large benefit especially on heavily fished waters.

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    1. what part of the world do you call home? I’m always curious about the fishing in different places.

  1. My home water is low gradient spring creek with lots of both shallow and deep flat water that ranges from barely moving to slowly moving. If you mentioned using Japanese fly movement techniques, I missed it. These subtle, but natural movement techniques are often helpful in slack or flat water. But, I’ve found for my water they have to be extra subtle in the slower moving water

  2. My first thought, on reading the title, oohh – tenkara fishing on lakes….nope, not even close. I enjoyed the article, gave me alot to consider. The spots you covered are pretty much the same as I fish w/ultra-lite gear.
    The closest waters to where I live in West Central Texas is a river that is dammed in places, creating flat water…and many tributaries are available by canoe or kayak. So fly fishing is from center to the edges of structure or pads or banks…seems to me that if I can fly fish from canoe or kayak, I should be able to tenkara fish from the same vehicle. Or am I waay off…

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