James ("Big Jim") E. Leisenring of Allentown, PA, was a tool maker by trade whose expertise at fly fishing led to him becoming known as the Wet-Fly Wizard of the Brodheads. He published The Art of Tying the Wet Fly in 1941 and died ten years later. His name has endured among fly fishers because he invented the "Leisenring Lift," a technique of fishing a wet fly or nymph underwater.
I thought I understood this technique: you fished the fly in the typical manner, casting it upstream and letting it drift down as drag-free as possible. At the end of the drift, you raised your rod tip so that the nymph rose in the water column, thereby imitating a nymph swimming to the surface to metamorphose into a dun. I had tried this lift from time to time, but never had enjoyed success with it.
Earlier this spring, while reading William C. Black's engaging survey, Gentlemen Preferred Dry Flies: The Dry Fly and the Nymph, Evolution and Conflict (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2010), I came across a quotation from Leisenring that stopped me in my tracks. What I thought I knew about the Leisenring Lift seemed to be altogether mistaken, so I decided to read what the Wizard himself had written. Leisenring's book was reprinted by Crown with additional material by Vernon ("Pete") S. Hidy in 1971 as The Art of Tying the Wet Fly & Fishing the Flymph ("Flymph" is Hidy's coinage for a nymph near the surface or in the surface film that is about to become a dun).
Leisenring describes the lift in his last chapter, "Fishing a Wet Fly". His technique is based on first spotting a trout and then casting a fly upstream some fifteen feet or more above the trout. As the fly sinks to the bottom, the angler follows it with his rod, allowing no slack but being careful not to make the fly move unnaturally.
"Now watch the fly," Leisenring instructs the reader, invoking a dramatic scene: "It is almost to him, and would only have to travel about four more feet to pass right by his nose without his looking at it unless it can be made to appear alive and escaping. At this point the progress of the rod following the fly is checked, and the pressure of the water against the stationary line and leader is slowly lifting the fly."
As the fly rises in the water current, Leisenring continues, its movement attracts the attention of the trout. As Leisenring explains, "Now the fly becomes slightly efficient or animated and deadly, and the trout notices it. The hackles or legs start to work, opening and closing, and our trout is backing downstream in order to watch the fly a little more, because he is not quite persuaded as yet. Now you can see the fly become even more deadly. As more water flows against the line, the fly rises higher off the bottom and the hackle is working in every fiber. It will jump out of the water in a minute, now, and the trout is coming for it. Bang! He's got it" (p. 123).
The Leisenring Lift, then, is not caused by the angler raising the rod tip after the wet fly or nymph has come to the end of its drift. Instead, the angler stops tracking the nymph's movement with his rod tip partway through the drift, some four feet or so upstream from a specific trout's position. Stopping the rod makes the current begin lifting the fly to the surface. From the trout's point of view, it seems to be alive and to be escaping, and so the trout goes after it.
In the next to last paragraph, Leisenring repeats that elevating his rod tip is not what makes the fly seem alive and therefore desirable to the trout: "I do not try to impart any fancy movements to my fly with my rod but simply allow the fly to advance naturally with the current over the stones and gravel until I check its progress gently by ceasing to follow it with my rod. Then the slight tension from the water pressure flowing against my leader and line causes the fly to rise slowly, opening and shutting the hackles, giving a breathing effect such as a genuine insect would have when leaving the bottom of the stream to come to the surface. The water will do all that is necessary to make a fly deadly if it is properly tied" (p. 124).
Twice, therefore, Leisenring states that checking his rod's movement causes the water current's pressure to move the fly upwards. He does not elevate his rod tip to perform the Leisenring Lift.
That much seems clear. One complicating factor is that apparently Leisenring practiced other techniques as well. Dave Hughes knew Pete Hidy, commenting in Wet Flies (Stackpole Books, 1995) that Hidy had told him that Leisenring and he had meant to write another book on fishing the wet fly. "'The Lift,' Pete said, 'was just one of many techniques that Jim used. It's too bad that today everybody believes it was the only method he used'" (p. 29).
I believe we can see another method in an account by Ed Zern. Leisenring gave Zern a demonstration of nymphing one day on the Brodheads. As Zern tells the story in The Masters on the Nymph (ed. J. Michael Migel and Leonard M. Wright, Jr.; Nick Lyons Books, 1979), he was sitting on the bank, fishless, when Leisenring appeared (pp. 257-58). Zern told him he had been reading The Art of Tying the Wet Fly and didn't understand how one could let the fly drift freely in the current and still maintain contact with it. "I'll show you," Leisenring said.
Leisenring then proceeded to stand quite close to a run and flipped the fly upstream, holding the rod tip high as the fly swept down beside him and then downstream. Zern comments that the fly traveled no more than fifteen feet. It was obvious to him that it drifted freely and Leisenring would have felt, and probably seen, any trout that touched the fly. The demonstration over, Leisenring went on downstream. Zern stepped into the river, cast as Leisenring had, held the rod tip high, and proceeded to catch one brown trout after another!
Several points seem worth noting about this episode. First, Zern did not ask Leisenring to demonstrate the Lift (perhaps because the term was as yet unknown in the early '40's?). Instead, Zern asked him how he maintained contact with the fly as it came drifting down the bottom. We can't tell from Zern's description whether Leisenring let the water current raise the fly or not. I'd say perhaps not, as the fly continued to drift downstream. He wasn't trying for a specific trout but fishing the water. So why was the rod tip high? I'd guess, and it's no more than a guess, that first Leisenring and then Zern had to hold the rod high to avoid drag from other currents, much indeed as one must when fishing a dry fly.
It's a shame Leisenring and Hidy never managed to write their book on fishing the wet fly. We have Leisenring's own words describing the Lift, and we can extrapolate from Ed Zern's account that Leisenring also fished a nymph on a short line with rod tip held high when he was fishing the water and not targeting a specific trout. What his other techniques for fishing a nymph or wet fly consisted of is a question that can't be answered.
But now I know that I was wrong about how to do the Leisenring Lift, I'm going to see what happens when I do it the right way. What worked once should work again. I'd also like to hear from anyone who has used the Lift successfully. Please comment. Stay tuned, and tight lines!