Q&A: Fishing In Shallow Water

It has been awesome to see the response from my video: The Best Strike Indicator. A lot of people have been introduced to my website through that video. I have a couple more in the works (something about casting) so stay tuned they should be informative. I have gotten many emails recently asking me questions. I think I have gotten to all of them… If you have sent me an email recently and you didn’t get a reply, try again. I am honestly trying to get everyone’s questions answered!

Today my post was inspired by a question through email from Lenny in CA. He is new to fly fishing and has asked some really great questions. ENJOY!


A Dolly Varden from our Tordrillo trip this summer.

The Questions

Good morning Spencer,

We spent the past weekend in Bishop California fishing Hot Creek along with the Upper and Lower Owens River.  By Saturday afternoon I was a little frustrated, I could see fish everywhere but not luck catching anything.

I spoke to a group who told me they had a great day at Hot Creek catching between 20/30 fish a piece.  One of the guys was cool and gave me some small nymphs to try.  They were 20/22′s and I think I was using an 18.

I had a couple of questions for you: 1) Hot Creek was very shallow with a lot of grass/vegetation. I got tangled in the grass on almost every cast. Any suggestions on how to fish a shallow stream with so much vegetation?  2) There were several other (very friendly) fly fishers who gave me suggestions on flies to use.  The problem was I had no idea what they were talking about :-) Zebra something and caddis something, it was like a foreign language.  What is the best was to learn which flies are which?

On a good note, I hooked three and caught two.  My leader broke on one so it was his lucky day.  My friend made up some of your strike indicators and they worked perfectly so thanks for posting that video!!

I hope I’m not bothering you with all the questions but I’m really excited about learning this sport and I’m looking forward to becoming as proficient as I can be.

Thanks again for your time and have a great holiday!!

The Answers

Hey Lenny,

Good to hear you had some success with your fly rod. I have no problem at all answering all of your questions. I appreciate you feeling like you can ask me. Of course, my answers are all based on my own opinions and experiences but I can definitely give you my two cents.

So when you are fishing a shallow river with lots of vegetation, there are a few solutions you can try. I have written several blog posts that will assist you with these suggestions. I haven’t written about this topic specifically, but your questions will give me the opportunity.

Rigging For Success

Hand Tied Leaders Are Better

When you are fishing shallow water it is very important that you get the right length of leader. You don’t want any slack in the system you are fishing. Having a leader that is too long for conditions will cause a delay in your strike detection as well as your hook set. There are several different methodologies out there for calculating leader length. Some anglers say (1.5 x Depth). So if you are fishing in 2 feet of water then you should be using a leader that is 3 feet long. However, I use (5 ft + Depth). That is, strike indicator to split shot. So if I were fishing in 2 feet of water, I would have a 7 ft leader. I usually don’t tie leaders that are much shorter than 7 ft… I have used 5 ft leaders in the past but I find it just as easy and effective to move my strike indicator down the leader to shorten up the amount of line in the water. But your leader length is very important when it comes to nymphing.

Split shot… You have to know when to add or subtract split shot. I use two sizes B and BB. I wish there were some sort of mathematical equation to how to use split shot but there just isn’t. I comes down to feel. Over time you will get a sense for what how many to use. That being said, you have to make sure you are getting to the bottom where the fish are feeding. I like to put on enough split shot to find the bottom, then I will back off. If you are hanging up in the weeds every time then you have too much weight. If your aren’t hanging up at all, then you don’t have enough on. I like to tick bottom and pick up grass every 3-4 casts or so. I hope that helps. You just have to get the feel for it.

If you are fishing an area that is extremely weedy, sometimes it is best to suspend your nymphs just off the bottom. Suspending flies means that you are using your indicator as a float and the flies are drifting just above the bottom. With this rig, they are not ticking bottom. It gets kind of tricky because water depth can vary from place to place on a river. So you just kind of have to experiment until you find the right length of leader to use according to the depth of the spot you are fishing. To change the length of your leader just slide your indicator up and down your leader. It’s definitely a process but you will figure it out with time.

About Nymphs… That is an entire long email all by itself. ha ha. So I will give you a brief explanation and a few resources. Hopefully it will answer your question.

I’m not good at memorizing all the different names for fly patterns people have invented. What I focus on is imitation. What I mean by that is, if the fly looks like the bug I am trying to imitate then that is the one I’ll use. Especially with nymphs, I tie my own. I go to the river and figure out what fish are eating and then I choose my nymphs accordingly. When someone comes to me and asks me what fly I’m using, my answer is usually “a grey one” or “a green one”. I think most people just want to be able to go to the store and say give me some _________, and catch fish. But it is a very personalized game when it gets down to it.

Yes, there are your generic patterns that every one learns to tie and every fly shop carries. But then there are flies that are just specific to your area and your personal preference. Sounds like they were using Zebra Midges and Caddis Pupa or Larva. Those are classic nymphs. So without going into any more confusing detail I will give you the generic types of aquatic insects for you to research:





Sow Bug





That is the most basic list of aquatic organisms that fly fisherman attempt to imitate with their flies. There are an endless number of patterns out there that can be tied to resemble one or many of these bugs. I have written a few posts about bugs. Not as many as I should have, I will definitely be writing more in the near future but for now read up :)

The Nymph

Feeding Economy of Fish

Nymphing: You’re missing out if you don’t

Thank you for your questions. Honestly, this is why I have a website and why I put up the videos on YouTube… I LOVE to answer questions and teach. Keep them coming and tell all of your friends ha ha! Until next time, Tight lines!


  1. Nice post Spencer I have a couple pennies to contribute as well. In shallow water rather than using an indicator i prefer a dry dropper rig with a dropper being a weighted nymph and you can vary the length pf the tippet between the dry and the nymph to get the correct depth. Another thing is that i will attach tippet using a double surgeons knot and leave a 6″ tag on the heavier line to hold the nymph and add the split shot below the tag. I think this is called a bounce rig. The shot will bounce on the bottom with the nymph suspended just off the bottom. The hook on the nymph wont hang up on the grass as much while still ticking the bottom with the shot. If the shot gets hung up it usually will pop loose or if you break the line you may loose the shot that is attached to the lighter tippet but save the fly.

    • Fishing a dry-dropper rig is definitely a great choice for shallow water. I can’t tell you how many times fish have come up and hit my indicator, even in deeper runs. I need to experiment more with different rigs, too bad I can’t go fishing with you any more… When are you coming to AK again?

Leave a Reply