Fly fishing from a boat can take many forms, whether it be sight fishing from a flats skiff or drifting the rapids of a wild Western river. Along with the wide range of boating possibilities comes a myriad of presentation techniques. In stillwaters, one of the simplest, but most important techniques is the Countdown Method.
In stillwaters, fish may stratify at a certain depth. If your fly is not at that depth, your cast-to-catch ratio will not be to your liking. Some years ago, I had a very memorable day fishing lake Number One on New Mexico’s famed Vermejo Ranch property. It was crisp and bright at the lake’s 10,000 foot elevation, and a mid-summer cold front had dropped the water’s surface temperature. I was in a johnboat on the outer edge of a submerged weedbed. The trout were stratified 12 to 15 feet down and they weren’t moving up for anything. Once the right level was determined, the fishing became almost hilarious. It didn’t matter what fly was tied on—as long it was at the right depth. Streamers, mayflies, caddises, snails, damsels, midges—all of them worked. I’ll never forget it.
The trick to catching fish on Number One that particular day was not found in the fly, the tippet, the leader, the cast or the retrieve. Rather the trick was in counting. Anyone could have had a stellar day on that water, even a total novice who didn’t understand one thing about entomology or casting.
The Countdown Method requires a sinking fly and/or line system. A sinking line/short leader combination is good for holding a fly at depth. A floating line/long leader combo is good for allowing a weighted fly to get down quickly and for jigging imitations of midge pupa and the like. Be aware that line inclination will change as depth increases.
Regardless of line/leader rigging, the overall Countdown method remains the same: Cast, and as soon as the fly hits the water, begin to count, allowing the fly to sink dead as you do so. You can use any counting speed you like, as long as it is consistent. In other words, space your counts evenly (one-thousand…two-thousand…three-thousand, etc.) I typically space my counts at one-second intervals because it is easy to be consistent and because it is easy to communicate the spacing to others if need be.
If you have no idea where the fish are in terms of depth, begin with a count of five, then retrieve. If several casts produce nothing, then move to a count of ten, and so on. If you catch the bottom, you’ll know you’ve counted too long. If you catch a fish, then you’ll know where to begin concentrating your efforts. Sometimes fish will take on the dead-sinking count (e.g. “17”) rather than the retrieve, so be watchful. Be prepared also, to have a fish already on as you start your retrieve. I have had days when fish tore the fly off the tippet during the count. I have also had days when the fish simply took the fly and swam off, towing the line behind them.
I remember when I was quite young and fishing a small lake in central Wisconsin. It was a cold early-autumn morning and nothing was happening on the surface. My father had set me up with a sink-tip line and a short leader pointed with a Hare’s Ear nymph. I walked the shore of the lake, casting and counting, casting and counting. At the deep, far end of the lake, I stopped and let the fly sink an extra 10 counts. As I watched the seemingly impenetrable water, I saw the unmistakable “wink under water”—the white flash from a trout’s mouth opening and closing. Not sure if I my eyes and brain were telling me the truth, I raised the rod tip. My reel soon confirmed that my faculties were indeed functioning properly. A few sweaty-palmed-minutes later, a 19-inch rainbow was cradled in my net, accompanied by excited congratulations from my father. The Countdown Method had done its duty.
The Countdown Method is disarmingly simple, but that’s what makes it so effective for so many anglers. Just cast, count and retrieve. And while the Countdown method sees the most use from a boat or float-tube, it can also be used to great effect when wading and walking.