As is the nature of fly fishing for trout, the biggest fish and the most plentiful catching opportunities tend to be in spots on the river that fishing is the most difficult. To adjust to this tendency, fly fishermen have developed techniques catered towards fishing difficult water; one of those methods is high sticking.

What is High Sticking in Fly Fishing?

High Sticking is a technique fly fishermen use that minimizes the amount of fly line that is in contact with the water by keeping the fly rod raised. It is used to avoid the effect of currents that make the drifting fly appear less natural.

Why Should I High Stick with a Fly Rod?

(You shouldn’t! Because if you do, you’ll catch more fish, and that means I’ll catch less.)

As we all (unfortunately) know, you can’t always catch trout with dry flies. All too often, the fish are feeding on subsurface aquatic insects and invertebrates on or near the bottom of the river. When they’re doing this, they will completely ignore your surface presentations, and continue to feed on natural food sources.

So, we are forced to fish with wet flies below the surface, and to do so productively, must present these flies in the most natural manner possible. While nymphing, there are three main considerations that affect the success of your fishing: the fly you are using, how that fly is being presented, and where the fly is being presented.

In Jason Randall’s book Nymph Masters, (This book is amazing link to Amazon) he describes this phenomenon, saying: “So the first goal of any successful nymph-fishing system is contact with the bottom, or at least the lower layer of the vertical water column where natural invertebrates drift when displaced from the streambed- the type of natural invertebrates trout like to eat.”

High Sticking is an effective method for catching trout because it:

  1. allows you to present the fly in a more natural manner.
  2. opens up areas to fish where trout are often feeding.

Why does High Sticking present flies more naturally?

Imagine you’re walking along the river looking for a fishing hole when you come upon a long, smooth tailout. The water there is deeper than in other parts of the river; here it’s 5 feet deep, but most of the river is only up to your knees. The current is definitely flowing, but it’d be a far stretch to say it’s flowing quickly.

High Stick Fly Fishing puts Trout in the NET
High Stick Fly Fishing puts Trout in the NET

You examine the area for a moment, praying that you see rising trout. And of course, you don’t. You’re a glass-half-full guy though, so you’re consoled by the fact that though you may not experience the life fueling adrenaline rush of catching trout with dry flies, this is a perfect spot to nymph.

So, you tie on your favorite nymphs, cast upstream, throw in a couple of mends, and the entire happy rig floats past you at the exact same speed as the water. You do that for an hour or so, and catch a few small fish.

But, now imagine that same situation, but it’s not a perfect spot to nymph. Instead of the long, smooth water you found a boulder filled rapid with 4 intersecting currents.

In this water, if you tried the same tactic you would be wasting your time. Leaving your fly line on the water would cause it to be sucked down below or bend into unmanageable curves. If did for some reason to try it, you’d probably end up walking away from the river after snapping your rod over your knee in frustration

Your fly would never have a chance of looking natural- it would be flowing either too slow or too fast. It may even begin to flow upstream!

But High Sticking will work.

So, you add some weight to your nymph rig, and do a much shorter cast. As the fly hits the water and the rig sinks down, you raise your rod as high as you need to keep your fly line from floating on the water. The entire drift, you point your rod at your fly. When the rig drifts passes you, you slowly lower the rod.

During the second drift, you feel a tug and quickly set the hook. Because there’s no slack line of the water and your line is basically tight, setting the hook is about as easy as it can be. You just flick your wrist.

So, to the initial question, why does high sticking work?

By keeping your rod high and your fly line out of the water, there is no slack line on the water’s surface. The multiple currents in the run can’t influence the fly’s drift because there’s no slack line of the water experiencing drag.

While fishing this run, the water you’re standing in maybe moving slowly, but the water 5 feet in front of you maybe whitewater, and 5 feet from that maybe totally slack. If your line is in that water, there’s no way you could manage it to maintain the speed that your fly is in.

But by high sticking and keeping your line in the air, you can present a natural drift, and catch all of the fish that non-high sticking fly fishermen have been just walking past.

Where does high sticking work best?

Because High Sticking requires a shorter amount of line, using it requires getting closer to fish than you maybe accustomed to. You’re not going to be quietly stalking fish that you’re high sticking; you’ll be walking right up to their front door.

You’re looking for rowdy, confusing water that maybe difficult to even read. Water that, if you laid down a 40-foot cast, would tangle your line into 8 different drift speeds and have your nymph flying or crawling past confused trout.

The noise of the rapids crushing on the rocks will mask the sound of you walking so close to the fish. The bubbles, rapids, and currents will camouflage you in the water, and prevent trout from spotting you. Trout in this kind of water will not be spooked, and you can stand very close to them. You probably won’t see them, and they won’t see you.

Look for deep pocket water for high sticking- water that is aggressive, bubbling, foaming. Fish right behind boulders, logs, or whatever else is in the river. Places where you can barely cast, and you wouldn’t normally try drifting a fly through. Basically, look for places that you probably wouldn’t think of fishing if you didn’t know how to high stick.

Do I need any special equipment for High Stick Nymph Fishing

High Stick Nymph Fishing does not require any special equipment. Your typical 9-foot 5-weight trout fishing setup will work for high stick nymphing. But there are some pieces of equipment that you can use to make your high stick nymphing more productive.

If you’re fishing deeper water, you may find that using heavier flies will make your high stick nymphing more productive. Because you’re fishing shorter distances, this gives your fly less time to sink down to the strike zone. Heavier flies will sink down quicker, and let your fly spend more time drifting through the area of the water column where the fish are. Alternatively, you can add split-shot to your nymph rig to have a similar effect.

Also, while a normal trout fishing fly rod is adequate for high stick nymphing, there are others that can be more effective. Because high stick nymphing relies on the rod to keep the fly line out of the water, longer fly rods will be able to keep more line out of the water. More line out= longer, more productive drifts.

So, using a longer rod may help you catch more fish. Because of this, many rod companies have begun to develop rods that are especially created for high stick nymphing in mind.

TFO Drift Fly Rod
TFO Drift Fly Rod

One of my personal favorites is the TFO Drift Fly Rod. (Amazon Link for Price Check) This rod uses revolutionary technology to allow for length adjustments to your rod. The TFO Drift can be fished at lengths ranging from 9’4” to 12’3”. So, using it gives you the ability to easily fish various types of fishing holes and you can even use it as a spey rod!

Can I use a strike indicator while high-stick nymphing?

While high stick nymphing, you’ll often be maintaining such a tight line that you’ll be able to feel bites when they occur. This basically eliminates the need for a strike indicator.

But, if you’re more comfortable using one, a strike indicator can be used while high stick nymphing, just like traditional nymphing.

While high stick nymphing under an indicator, I use the smallest indicator possible. Because you will be fishing water close to you, the indicator won’t be hard to see. And because your line will be out of the water, you won’t need the buoyancy of a large indicator.

Can I High Stick Method for Dry Flies?

YES. High Sticking dry flies can be a deadly tactic for fishing pocket water. It can be used behind boulders or logs where a drift is impossible or in rough water where you can’t get a clean drift. Just be sure that your rod isn’t right over the fish.

I’ve found high sticking hoppers behind boulders near the shore to be especially productive during the summer months. I drop the hopper on the boulder, raise my rod high keeping my line out of the water, and point the rod slightly down stream. This nudges the fly into the water, and I keep the rod pointed at the hopper as it drifts. After two drifts, I move on.

High Sticking hoppers in this pocket water allows me to cover a lot of water quickly, and the water I’m focusing on is often neglected by other fishermen.

This way of fly fishing is very similar to the Dapping technique I describe in this article. What is Dapping in Fly Fishing.

Want to Read About more Ways to Catch Fish or a Fly?

I poured my heart into this article. How to Fly Fish for Brook Trout: A Beginners Guide

Are you in Michigan and Would Like to Fly Fish. Read this article on the Best Places to Fly Fish in Michigan

Learn how to setup a traditional nymph rig in this article. How to tie and fish a Traditional Nymphing Rig for Fly Fishing