Nymph Fishing Rivers and Streams

How to Nymph Fish in Rivers and Streams [Complete Guide]

Nymphing isn’t something I think about specifically, because it’s something that I don’t really set out to do when I go fishing. I fish a dry-dropper-dropper rig, with the intention not of nymphing, but of presenting trout with flies imitating various life cycle stages, and at different areas in the water column. Rarely do I set out to just nymph a river.

But a few weeks ago, I guided a trip where my client wanted to learn how to nymph. So, I dusted off my rusty skills, found some indicators, and set about teaching how to nymph in a river.

Brown Trout Caught Nymph Fishing
Brown Trout Caught Nymph Fishing

The basics are the same as fishing a dry fly, or any sort of dry-dropper rig. As with anything in fly fishing, though, there’s more nuance to nymphing than what you see on the surface.

Nymphing is, however, easy to get the hang of, especially in rivers. Today, we’ll look at the gear you need for nymphing, identifying good nymphing water, tactics to get your flies in front of fish, and a few of my own favorite flies to use when I’m fishing completely subsurface.

The Fly Fishing Gear Used in Nymphing

When I sold my first truck (a big mistake) years ago, the guy who picked it up was a fly fisherman. He and I shot the bull for a while about fishing, and he talked about how he always nymphs with short rods, because “those long rods are for sissies.”

Nymph Fishing with Indicators
Nymph Fishing with Indicators

I’m not sure what he was getting at, but he was dead wrong. I definitely shouldn’t have sold my truck to him, even though the transmission was fried and I couldn’t afford to replace it.

The point here is that this guy was completely wrong about the gear to use for nymphing. Except for rare, extenuating circumstances, you always want a longer rod when nymphing. The only time I’ve been glad to have been using a short rod for nymphing was on a tiny stream with gin-clear water. I could see a few big rainbow trout holding on the bottom of a deep pool, and I didn’t have room to high-stick a drift with a 9-foot rod. My 8’ 4wt barely snuck through, but I ended up hooking one of those fish.

Nymphs on rod
Nymphs on Fly Rod

A good go-to length for nymphing rods is 9 feet. You can obviously use a Euro nymphing rod for “regular” nymphing, if that’s your sort of thing, but a 9-10 foot rod will get the job done for the vast majority of nymphing situations.

I like to use a 4 or 5wt when I’m fishing a 9-foot rod, because the extra stiffness helps land trout and move them in faster water. It also helps to turn the really big fish that you’ll hook into.

Speaking of hooking into fish – if you’re going to dedicate an entire rig to one style of fishing, this is one where I’d recommend a disc-drag reel. Normally for trout fishing, I don’t think you need more than a well-made click-and-pawl reel. Nymphing is a different game, though. Usually, you’re working with a lot less slack in your line than when fishing dry flies. And since the current moves slower on the bottom of the river than on the surface, trout can really rip line off quickly and get into roots, weeds, or faster water – popping the hook and ending your chance of catching them.

A click-and-pawl reel just doesn’t provide the stopping power you need when big fish take off and have less of the current to fight against than a fish eating off the surface.

You don’t need to drop serious cash on a reel here, but anything with a good disc-drag and low startup inertia will be your friend.

split shot fly fishing
Split Shot and Indicators Used Fly Fishing

Finally, some other essentials that you don’t want to go without on the water while nymphing:

Strike indicators: The fly fishing industry has a seemingly endless supply of different strike indicators you can use while nymphing. From sighter leader to puffs of wool, I’ve seen folks use all sorts of things to help detect a strike. Shoot, one guide I know even uses water balloons, blown up and tied to leaders.

Regardless of which type you pick; you want a wide variety of sizes. If you’re fishing smaller nymphs, a smaller indicator will be more accurate in helping you detect strikes. The same logic applies to larger flies.

Tippet Rings: For the longest time, I didn’t use tippet rings, and I’m not sure why. They’ve become an invaluable part of my gear bag, to the point that I always have them around. They work great to add a tiny bit of extra weight to your rig, in addition to eliminating the need to tie droppers off the bend of a hook. Changing flies out becomes a lot quicker with tippet rings.

To read more about what tippet rings are and how to use them, check out this article. What are Tippet Rings and How to Use Them

Split Shot: I don’t use split shot often. I prefer to use heavy flies, but if you’re in fast water, or don’t have flies heavy enough to get down to where the fish are, then a box of split shot can really help save the day.

Finding Good Water For Nymph Fishing

Nymphing is more about finding good water than any other kind of fishing. Dry fly fishing is relatively easy, since you can see right where the fish are hanging out. Getting them to eat your dry, though, is another proposition altogether. With nymph fishing, you’re almost never casting to fish you can see, which means you need to be able to decipher water and identify spots where fish are likely to hold.

Current Seams and Runs

Current seams are probably my favorite place to locate fish when nymphing. And most everyone else you see nymphing a river is looking for these seams, too. The seam occurs where the quicker water of the main current meets the slower water off to the sides. There’s a noticeable transition between fast and slow water – that’s the seam you’re looking for.

Nymph Fishing in Seams and Runs
Nymph Fishing in Seams and Runs

Seams are so great because they provide a lot of what trout are looking for in a feeding lie. First off, the quick current is able to bring food directly down to where trout are holding. And since the rush of water in the seam is slower than in the main current, trout expend less energy to get their food while lying in the seam. Trout are instinctual creatures, which means that they’ll always seek out the spots in a river that allow them to expend the least amount of effort for the maximum amount of food. Aside from deep pools, current seams and eddies are the next best place for that to happen.

Eddies Are Like Nymph Conveyors

Eddies are some of my favorite places to nymph for trout – but they’re also among the most frustrating. Eddies require a precise presentation, and a great deal of patience. Fish hanging out in eddies have the advantage of being able to examine their food thoroughly before deciding whether to eat. That’s a luxury trout in faster water don’t have. Those trout have to act on instinct and hope they’re right.

The trick to fishing eddies well with nymphs is to first find the foam. The old saying “foam is home” is completely true in this case. The foam line will show you the way the current is flowing in the eddy, and you absolutely want to follow the current. I see a lot of folks try to fish eddies by plopping their flies right in the middle of dead water. That tactic just really doesn’t work well. Your flies need to be moving, because that’s where the rest of the good in the eddy is located.

I like to high-stick these drifts with minimal line on the water.

Behind Rocks

Big rocks that create any kind of disturbance on the river’s surface are fantastic spots for trout to hold. Water in front of, to the sides, and directly behind rocks flows at a slightly slower rate than the water around it. This goes back to our earlier mention of fishing needing to weigh energy expended for the energy gained by their chosen food.

There’s usually a nice pocket of calm, almost dead, water directly behind rocks. Dropping a few nymphs in spots like this is an excellent way to get your flies in front of fish. Usually, the fish hanging behind rocks eat quickly, so you’ll know right away if there are any fish holding there or not.


Big, deep pools are the things that most of us imagine when we think of nymph fishing, I reckon. These are the pools that are so still and clear you can see fish in them clear to the bottom. They’re also devilishly hard to fish.

The best method I’ve ever seen for nymphing pools like this is to use a big dry fly as your indicator. Then, drop a very long piece of fluorocarbon tippet down to your nymph, and choose a smaller pattern. Cast that rig out, let it sit, and don’t move it. Trout will come to investigate eventually, and even the slightest twitch of your dry fly will spook them off.

In Front of Rocks

One area that often gets overlooked in nymphing is the spot right in front of rocks. Just like the sides and behind rocks are great, so are the bits of water directly in front of them. The rocks act as a break in the river’s flow, which means that tons of food gets pushed directly into them, before being forced to either side by the current.

Trout Holding in Front of Boulders in a River
Trout Holding in Front of Boulders in a River

An enterprising trout sets up shop in front of a rock, and only has to move its head from side-to-side to eat. And, the conveyor belt of food is pretty consistent, too. Some of the biggest fish I’ve ever landed in rivers were parked right in front of some rocks.


Finally, don’t overlook the great fish that hang out in riffly water. Riffles are a bit faster, for sure, but they’re also full of food, so fish will park in riffles if they feel they can eat enough to make the energy expense worth it. Nymph rigs that bounce just along the bottom are the best in this kind of water.

Favorite Nymphing Techniques

When nymphing, you have a few different styles to choose from. Traditional nymphing uses indicators, you can fish a dry-dropper-dropper rig, or you can use colored pieces of leader to create a Euro nymphing setup.

Within all of these styles, though, you end up needing to master just a few basic concepts. First is learning to high-stick your drift through a run. Whether you’re fishing an indicator or Euro rig, the concept is the same. High-sticking involves lifting all of your line and leader off the water, save for your indicator. That’s left on the water, and gives you a much more precise idea and vision of when and how your flies are taken.

High Sticking Fly Fishing
High Sticking Fly Fishing

High-sticking enable you to drift to current seams that are directly across the river from you. If you left fly line and leader on the water, faster currents would rip your flies from the slower water, ruining your drift.

Along those same lines, it’s important to remember that a good drift is just as valuable when nymphing as when you’re fishing dry flies. Any kind of drag on a nymph rig will spell the end of your potential success. You can spot drag by looking for your indicator moving in such a way that it creates a wake that’s not part of the natural flow.

To combat drag, it’s best to mend your line so that the fly line is either even with, or slightly upstream of, your indicator. This ensures the current is moving the entire rig downstream at a regular clip, and that your flies aren’t being dragged carelessly through the water.

Favorite Nymphing Flies

Everyone has their favorite, go-to flies, but these are the ones I count on as a guide when I need to get clients onto fish. This is far from a comprehensive list, and remember that it’s always better to try and match the food base that’s in the river, than it is to use flies that everyone else swears by.

Favorite Nymphs for Trout
Favorite Nymphs for Trout
  • Thread Frenchie: In a size 14-18, this pattern is durable, extremely effective, and works well on Euro and traditional nymph rigs.
  • Hare’s Ear: In a size 14-18, the Hare’s Ear is possibly the best mayfly nymph imitation we have available. It’s stood the test of time, and it’s still catching fish all these years after its inception. It’s one of my favorite flies, and I love to tie mine with a bit of flash added to the back, just for good measure.
  • Zebra Midge: From a size 16-22, the zebra midge is a staple of nymph fishing everywhere. Midges are perhaps the only fly as prolific as the caddis, and fish will eat midges year-round. A good zebra midge pattern that’s heavy and durable will catch you just as many fish as anything else.
  • Pat’s Stonefly: This fly is great in a size 8-12. It’s heavy, which makes it ideal for fast water, or for use on a Euro rig. In rivers with even a minimal stonefly population, Pat’s Stonefly turns trout’s heads.
  • Utah Killer Bug: This is a fantastic fly in sizes 8-12. It’s meant to mimic cranefly larva, although I think it also works so well because it looks like a worm, too. I never leave home without a good selection of these bugs.

Nymphing is an incredibly effective way to put trout in the net. Following these tips will help you better catch fish on nymphs in rivers.

More Nymph Fishing Articles – WHY because NYMPHS Catch Fish!

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, bamboo rod builder, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor to Hatch Magazine. Spencer has also written a book Learning to Fly. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.

Nymph Fishing Around Boulders
Nymph Fishing Around Boulders
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