This article, Fishing the Sparrow, is part 2 of a two-part series on the Gartside Sparrow nymph. Part 1 of this series is Tying the Gartside Sparrow.
Fishing the Sparrow
One of my favorite unprovable theories is that fish, like people, will often see what they want to see at the moment of their desiring. At this time they may ignore distracting or otherwise disturbing elements that do not quite fit the image they have of their heart's or stomach's desiring.
As an example, a trout looking to take a natural mayfly dun off the surface will often take a Royal Wulff and here we must be presumptuous because the general shape or outline of the fly is suggestive of this insect and corresponds with what has been called the fish's "search image." According to this theory, the trout will ignore the severely segmented body of peacock herl and floss, which is more like the body of an ant than of a mayfly. When ants are on the water, on the other hand, the trout will now focus on the segmented body parts of the Royal Wulff and ignore the parts that suggest the mayfly. It is this combination of disparate, coexisting parts with the potential to be more than just the sum of its parts - that makes the Royal Wulff such a generally effective dry fly pattern. Or so I believe.
Many effective "non-specific" fly patterns possess this quality of containing within one dressing the suggestion of several different life forms; or, because of their general make-up, they allow the angler to fish them ways that are consistent with different foods that fish like to feed on. I think of the Adams, Wooly Worm, Wooly Bugger, and the Muddler Minnow to name just a few. And to this list I would add the Sparrow, a fly of my own devising that I often tie on when I don't know what else to use, or when I want to fish one fly that will do the job of two or three.
There are almost as many ways to fish the Sparrow as there are ways to fish. It all depends on the water you're fishing and the fish that you're pursuing. Here are some techniques that I've found effective:
When fishing the Sparrow as a nymph in fast or deep water, I generally will fish the fly on a long leader (10-12 feet), with a couple of size BB split-shot affixed to it about two feet up from the fly to sink it quickly and deeply. I usually like to work my way upstream rather quickly, casting the fly into any likely-looking water ahead of me and dead-drifting it back to me. My casts will be fairly short, little more than thirty feet or so, leader included. The short line and the split shot allow me to keep in touch with the progress of the fly more easily and also to detect strikes. When fishing cross-stream, I'll cast the fly upstream and across and then let the fly drift down to where I think the fish might be holding. Just before it reaches this area, I often find it most productive to start "jigging" the fly, holding my rod-tip high and giving the fly an up-and-down motion as it passes through productive water. I've caught many large trout over the years using this method, including one brown trout that weighed almost thirteen pounds and this on the Gallatin River in Montana, a stream where fish of such size are exceptionally rare.
After working my way upstream over a stretch of water say, a mile or so I'll often fish my way back to where I started, this time, though, fishing the fly perhaps less deeply, casting my way back with down-and-across drifts, swinging the fly against the current and working it back to me in small twitches. If the water is slow-moving in stretches, I'll work the fly very quickly across the current and just under the surface, sometimes working it back towards me with three-foot long strips, an action that can provoke some incredibly hard strikes. This is an especially effective technique on relatively slow-moving rivers like the Big Horn in Montana.
Among a host of creatures the Sparrow might look like is a grasshopper a drowned grasshopper. If you fish in areas where hoppers are plentiful, you'll notice that trout (in most latitudes) will often not take a floating hopper imitation much before ten in the morning and not much after five o'clock in the afternoon. However, they will take a well-presented Sparrow, which to my eyes - and perhaps to the eyes of the trout looks very like a drowned grasshopper. When fishing the Sparrow to imitate these hapless hoppers, I most often fish the fly "neat," without split shot on my leader, casting it slightly upstream (again with very short casts) and dead-drifting it back towards me. I've taken many fish using this method, often at times when they've been reluctant to take anything else.
The Sparrow is a good fly - maybe even a great one. But, as with all flies, it is often only as good as the way in which it is fished. So my advice is to experiment with it, play with it. Tie it up in various sizes and colors. Fish it shallow or deep. Vary your retrieves from slow to fast, dead-drift it through the waters you enjoy fishing until you find out what works best in the water and on the fish that you're fishing for. Have fun with it. This is what fishing - and fly tying- is all about.