How to Fly Fish with Nymphs (Setup, Flies and Techniques)

Fly fishing has become a pastime for perfectionists. People who have type A personalities can thrive in fly fishing. Picking the perfect spots with your cast, tying a realistic fly and staying composed is all part of it. Those who don’t have a perfectionist personality find themselves becoming more particular in an effort to land trophy fish.

On top of the gear and equipment, fly fishing requires perfect presentations. Fish aren’t going to strike a fly if they don’t think it’s realistic looking. There is no type of fly fishing that requires more precision than nymphing. You’re working with a smaller fly and trying to emulate a fly that’s in the midst of hatching.

Nymphing is one of the more challenging ways of fishing, but if you learn how to do it, you’ll find yourself catching quite a few fish. Fish struggle to turn down a properly presented nymph. Plus, nymphing is a blast. You feel accomplished as an angler and land a surprising amount of fish.

What is a Nymph in Fly Fishing?

A nymph is a representation of an insect larva. This is the beginning of an insect’s life. A larva will cover themselves with a protective casing and they stay within this casing for up to a year. The casing is made up of sand, dirt and other sediment found on the bottom of a river or stream.

Life Cycle of Flies for Fly Fishing
Life Cycle of Flies for Fly Fishing

These “flies” don’t yet have wings, so they spend their time crawling around the bottom of a stream or river searching for food. They look like small worms in the midst of this stage. As they grow, they’ll eventually form a gas bubble and enter the pupa stage.

Nymph flies often look like small worms. They are two-toned and have some sort of beadhead or other weight on the fly to ensure that they stick near the bottom of the water column. If your nymph isn’t near the bottom, you will struggle to land as many fish!

What Fly Fishing Gear Will You Need to Nymph Fish?

Nymphing requires a fairly large arsenal of gear. The more variety you have, the more you can adapt to the water that you are fishing. While some anglers are extremely traditional with how they nymph, you’ll find more success when you build out your gear!

Fly Fishing Rod for Nymphing – Go Long

As far as your rod is concerned, it’s never a bad idea to have one that is a little longer. If you use a 9’ to 11’ rod, you’ll have more reach out over the water. You want to accomplish the most natural looking drifts possible and a shorter rod is going to be a bit tougher to work with when you’re reaching far out over the water.

When it comes to weight, anywhere between a 4 and 6-weight is going to do the trick. You’re casting and working with small flies, so you want to be sure that your rod has enough finesse to cast and mend in tight quarters.

Check out this article on selecting a fly rod – How to Select a Fly Rod [Complete Guide]

At the end of the day, however, as long as you’re comfortable with your rod, that is the most important thing. If you’re spending time trying to get the feel of your rod and making poor casts and mends, you aren’t going to land fish. It’s better to use a slightly less appropriate rod and feel extremely confident than a proper rod and fumble your way around the water.

Nymph Fishing Fly Reel

When choosing your reel, the most important thing is that it fits your rod. Rod balance is key when you’re fishing with more of a finesse technique. Too many anglers purchase improperly sized reels and wonder why they can’t cast where they would like or mend in the proper fashion.

Fly Fishing Reel for Nymph Fishing
Fly Fishing Reel for Nymph Fishing

When you’re choosing the reel to go with your setup, be sure that it is no more than one weight lighter or heavier than your rod. For example, if you’re using a 5-weight rod, make sure your reel is no smaller than a 4-weight and no larger than a 6-weight. The obvious choice would be a 5-weight reel, but that isn’t the requirement.

There’s a lot to say about finding the right fly fishing reel. I wrote an in-depth article – How to Select a Fly Fishing Reel

Once you get a reel you need to Understand the Drag and Learn How to Maintain a Fly Reel

Also, if you can purchase a large arbor reel, that would be best. Large arbor reels are going to be the most versatile. You can fish with a peace of mind that you aren’t going to get spooled no matter how large the fish is.

Leaders for Nymph Fly Fishing – Fluorocarbon

Fluorocarbon Leaders at River Traditions

Leader is quite important when it comes to your nymphing setup. If possible, go with a 9 foot, 4x leader. It’s light enough that you won’t spook fish, but still maneuverable enough to attach tippet to and not worry about unnecessary knots.

Tippet for Nymph Fishing

Tippet is another necessary piece of equipment for your nymphing excursion. If you’re using 4x leader, go ahead and use around 20 inches of 5x tippet. You can attach tippet to your leader by using a double surgeons knot. These are easy to tie and work very well.

Strike Indicator

Strike indicators can be the best friend of an angler who enjoys nymphing. Depending on what type of water you’re fishing, you may not be able to see when your fly line darts one direction or another. There is often glare on the water or you’re fishing in riffles and can’t follow along as well as you would like.

types of indicators
types of indicators

Bring a few different types of strike indicators and see what you like. You can use bobbers, strike putty or even pieces of cotton

Favorite Nymph Flies

The most obvious piece of equipment you need when nymphing is a nice selection of nymph flies. There are thousands of nymph patterns that you can choose from, but this list is filled with tried and true nymphs that have proven to work all over the world.

Pheasant Tail Nymph

The Pheasant Tail Nymph is one of the most famous flies in all of fly fishing. You’ll find this fly anywhere from size 10-18. The extra hackle off of the backside of the fly is a nice representation of a larva. As this gets more wet, it will look more like a longer body of a worm.

Pheasant Tail Nymph
pheasant tail nymph a GOTO fly

Plus, the beadhead on this nymph provides a nice amount of extra flash. The most successful colors of this fly are dark brown, black and olive. These do well to match the color of the water and the beadhead provides a nice amount of extra flash. If you’re wondering what fly to choose, you can’t go wrong with a Pheasant Tail!

Hare’s Ear

The Hare’s Ear nymph is a very “buggy” nymph pattern. The Hare’s ear dubbing gives it a more disorganized appearance. Similar to the Pheasant Tail, these flies are found anywhere between size 10-18.

If you’re wanting a fly that is going to make more of a statement and stand out in the water, go ahead and use the Hare’s Ear. This fly is successful in darker water that moves faster. It catches the attention of the fish and you don’t have to do much extra work to entice them.

Green Caddis

The Green Caddis is another staple in the world of nymph fishing. This is a sleeker looking fly. The material is tied close to the hook and there’s no extra material off of the back. This is a wonderful representation of a caddis larva.

green caddis wet fly
green caddis wet fly

Caddis are often a darker green in their larva stage. The thread is usually a black and there’s a small patch of hackle near the beadhead that does a nice job imitating the formation of the gas bubble. Again, the beadhead is just enough flash to gain the attention of the fish.

The simplicity of this pattern can often come in handy. If you know there is a caddis hatch on the water you’re fishing, have this fly at the ready.

San Juan Worm

The San Juan Worm is a wonderful fly. Plus, it’s extremely easy to tie. It’s around an inch long and is often found in pink or red. If there has been a recent rain or there are minimal insect hatches, go ahead and throw this fly. You won’t be disappointed in the results that you have!

This fly is exceptionally useful in the Southwest. The San Juan River in New Mexico has made this fly famous. Tie this on and it won’t take long for you to tie in to a 20-inch fish.

Squirmy Worm

The Squirmy Worm has a bit more action than the San Juan. The rubber-like material will move even at the smallest twitch. If you’re fishing still water and know that worms are going to be successful, go ahead and use the Squirmy Worm.

Worms often act erratic when they’re in the water. Fish love to see this and the Squirmy Worm emulates this action better than any other fly. This can act as a great search fly. Even if you have no idea if worms are working, it’s always worth a shot!

Black Stone

The Black Stone is a nice imitation of a Stonefly Larva. Stoneflies are extremely common across streams and rivers all over the United States. They’re hatches are legendary and always lead to a nice amount of action.

If you know there is going to be a Stonefly hatch, start throwing this an hour or two before it begins. You’ll land fish and gain even more excitement for the hatch.


An Egg nymph is about as simple of a fly as you can find. These flies work wonderfully right around the spawn. Trout will feed on eggs and so will Steelhead and salmon. You can’t go wrong with fishing an egg.

It’s not a bad idea to attach some extra weight to your rig when using this fly. It’s a light fly that doesn’t have enough on it to reach the bottom of the water column. Attach a splitshot to your line about a foot or so above the fly. This will pull the fly down towards the bottom, but still keep it a little way away from the snags.

Fishing these flies with a strike indicator is a must. You don’t want to miss out on a strike you receive!

Prince Nymph

The Prince Nymph is one of the more versatile flies that you can find. It will work in almost any body of water across the country. They have a nice variety of colors and tend to sit a little higher in the water column compared to other nymphs.

If you know that the hatch is going to happen quickly and the fish are starting to look up, go ahead and throw the Prince Nymph. You can find these in size 10-18 and a variety of colors. If you’re fishing clear waters, this is a wonderful fly to use. Fish want a bit more flash and this will give you all the you could possibly need. 

French Nymph

The French Nymph is very similar to the Pheasant Tail Nymph. However, there is a small flash of color that is placed right below the bead that adds an extra element of appeal to the fly. If you think a Pheasant Tail would work, but you need something a bit more obnoxious go ahead and use a French Nymph. You can’t go wrong with one of these flies.

Also, if the fish are feeding, but need something to rile them up and make them a bit more aggressive, the French Nymph can be your answer. Use this as a searching fly to test out the aggressiveness of the fish.

Blood Midge

The Blood Midge is a fan favorite in the world of fly fishing. Don’t leave your house without a few of these in your fly box. You’ll find these in waters with lower oxygen levels. These flies turn a darker shade of red because they’re carrying hemoglobin. Hemoglobin helps them survive in dirtier waters.

When you know these exist in a body of water, you’ll land a massive amount of fish when you use it. Most fish eat about 90 percent of their food below the surface of the water and this fly always seems to catch their eye!

Light Cahill Nymph

The Cahill Nymph is a classic fly that is used up and down the east coast. If you’re planning on fishing any of the traditional rivers and streams out east, be sure that you have a few of these packed in your fly box.

When Should You Consider Nymph Fishing? Nymphing vs. Dry Fly

Beginner anglers often wonder when they should use a certain type of fly. These questions can be overwhelming especially if the fly that you decide to use isn’t working! However, the decision to use nymphs really isn’t that complicated.

Flies hatch primarily in the mornings and the evenings. The best time to use nymph flies is right before these hatches. As flies leave the larva stage, the pupa and adult stages don’t take long to reach. As a result, the fish are extremely active during these times!

When the fish know flies are about to hatch, they begin to feed. I like to throw nymphs an hour or two before a hatch begins. At this point, I know that the fish are starting to look around and the flies are beginning to move up in the water column. This doesn’t mean that the fish won’t eat a nymph.

As soon as you start to see fish surface, I would put away the nymph flies and tie on a dry. Dry fly fishing is some of the most fun fishing that you can possibly find.

I also throw nymph patterns if I am fishing in the middle of the day. I know that the fish are not looking up to try and eat a dry, but I also know that they may not be active or hungry enough to eat a streamer. A nymph is a small enough pattern that fish are willing to eat it at all times of the day.

What is a Common Nymph Fly Fishing Setup?

There are a few options you have when you choose to setup your rod for nymph fishing. Your first decision that you need to make is what line you are going to use. I like to use weight forward line when I am nymphing. It’s not too heavy like sinking line, but it’s also not going to keep your fly higher in the water column like floating line would.

Option 1 – Traditional Setup

Your first option is to fish with 9-foot leader, 20 inches of tippet and your nymph. This is a traditional setup! Notice that you don’t have a strike indicator on this rig. This setup is going to get your fly deep in the water column and allow you to not worry about setting your strike indicator at the proper depth.

how to setup nymph rig
how to setup nymph rig

I don’t mind using this setup when I drift through larger pools in slower moving water. I can see my fly line and I don’t have to worry about losing it throughout riffles or fast-moving water. If I want to minimize the amount of intrusion I have in the water, I like to use this setup.

Option 2 (Fishing with an Indicator)

The second option you have is to use the same sort of setup in option one but attach a strike indicator. A general rule of thumb for a strike indicator is attach it two times the water depth up from the fly. You want to be sure that your fly is bouncing along the bottom. Again, nymphs are going to sit on the bottom of the water column, so you need to make sure your fly gets there!

How to tie a basic fly fishing nymph indicator rig
How to tie a basic fly fishing nymph indicator rig

If you find that you aren’t seeing any strikes and you know your fly is near the bottom, consider raising the indicator a bit. You can have it set too high that you won’t see any of the strikes you receive. I find myself messing with my indicator quite a bit in “fishy” areas.

I tend to start with my indicator a bit higher until I know that fish are eating my fly and then I’ll move my fly lower in the water column if I need.

What are the different Nymph Fishing Techniques and When to Use Them?

There are a variety of different nymphing techniques that each have their place and time on the water.

Traditional Nymphing

A traditional nymph rig does not have a strike indicator. I use this rig in deeper pools or when I’m fishing through riffles or pocket water. If I’m using a traditional setup, I’m usually not making long casts and am standing fairly close to my line.

Nymphs catch fish, most tournament fly fishers will exclusively fish with nymphs. I go in-depth about nymph fishing in my class – How 2 Fly Fish

When this is the case, I can detect strikes without too much trouble. Some traditional nymphers choose to use two different flies. This can be challenging if you aren’t very comfortable with a nymph rig.

When you’re fishing a traditional setup, be sure to cast upstream at a 45 or so degree angle. I like to make 10-15-foot casts.   As soon as your fly hits the water, be sure to mend so your fly can take the lead downstream. If your fly line does, you’ll lose the natural presentation of your drift.

Follow the fly with your rod tip until it’s around 45 degrees downstream of you. In all honesty, you’ll likely only have around 10-15 feet of natural looking drift. It usually happens as the fly drifts right in front of you. I catch 95 percent of my fish this way!

If you’re worried about not getting your fly deep enough, make a further cast upstream! This will give your fly a chance to drop lower in the water column. Also, if you look for pinch points, these can suck your flies down! The final option is to lengthen your leader. This can also bring your fly lower and give you a better chance of hitting the strike zone.

Indicator Nymph Fishing

When you’re choosing to use an indicator, remember that you want to attach it about twice the depth of the water above your fly. This will ensure that it reaches the lower portions of the water column. Once it’s properly attached, you can begin your casting.

Indicators are perfect if you want to dead-drift your flies! Cast upstream at around a 45-degree angle, mend upstream and let your fly lead the charge. Once your fly is drifting downstream, raise the tip of your rod to keep as much line out of the water as you possibly can.

When you’re ready to “set the hook” the best method is to hold tight to the fly line and raise your rod. It can be difficult to detect strikes on your indicator; especially if the fish aren’t too aggressive. It’s better to be safe than sorry when using an indicator!

I like to use this rig in slower moving water or when I want to make longer casts. It allows me to see when I’m getting bites and helps me properly present the fly with natural drifts.

High Stick Nymphing

High Stick Nymphing is an extremely successful way of catching fish. Many fly anglers don’t enjoy using it because they almost feel as if it’s cheating. However, when you land fish, you can’t complain.

To successfully high stick, you have to remember that you can’t make long casts. You want to use this technique when there are complicated currents or sudden drop-offs where you know that fish like to spend time. Cast a few feet upstream and let your fly drift over the target area.

Read a complete article about High Stick Nymphing – What is High Stick Nymphing

As it’s drifting, pull in the slack and raise your rod tip. Your goal is to keep as much of your fly line out of the water as possible. You want your leader, tippet and fly to do all of the work. If your fly line is in the water, it will inhibit the drift! Use this technique in fast water! Since you aren’t making far casts, you’ll almost be on top of the fish. Therefore, fast water will help hide you a bit better!

How to Fly Fish with Nymphs in Lakes

The first thing you need to know about fishing nymphs in lakes is that you are going to need to be patient. Fly anglers are used to the fast paced of moving water and we can easily get restless when we find ourselves on water that stays still!


fly fishing indicator
fly fishing indicator

A great option is to use a two-fly setup. Tie your lead fly to the 24 inches of tippet and then tie another 24 inches of tippet off of the bend in the hook and attach your second fly. The more bait you have in the water, the better chance you’ll have in landing fish.

Read even more about setting up a fly rod and reel with an indicator in this article – How to Setup a Fly Rod for Indicator Fishing

Also, be sure to attach an indicator! It’s almost like glorified bobber fishing. It’s a great way to fly fish in a more relaxing way. It’s smart to use a wool strike indicator on a lake. A larger bobber is likely going to scare any fish in the area! If you use an indicator on a lake, make sure there is plenty of room between the indicator and your flies.

Traditional Style – Long Leader for Flies

If you choose to go traditional in a lake, be sure that you are using floating line. This way, you’ll be able to see when a fish takes your fly! If you choose this method, a 15-foot leader is going to be a great option. It’ll get your fly lower in the water column.

Remember, if you’re using the traditional style, you want your leader to be about 25 percent longer than the depth you want. Your flies aren’t going to go straight down so a bit longer leader will be worth your time!

Finally, be patient. It can take quite a while for these flies to sink. As you begin retrieving, don’t strip at a fast rate. Slow and steady wins the race.

Sinking Line – Fly Line Pulls the Fly Down

The final option for you is to use sinking line. This can be a very challenging experience, but it’s the only possible way to fish deep lakes with nymphs. Sinking line will pull your fly down to the bottom. Fish it without an indicator as well!

You have to be extremely patient and use a slow retrieve. The flies you are using aren’t supposed to imitate an erratic minnow so you can’t speed retrieve. Use patience and see what you can find.

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish

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