Few of us anglers are actually the purists we aspire to be, I think. For years, I styled myself as the dry-fly guy. If fish wouldn’t eat on top, I didn’t want to catch them. And for a while, that worked alright for me. But I realized quickly how much fishing I was missing out on. After all, most a trout’s diet is subsurface, which means that you have more opportunities to catch trout when you’re fishing nymphs, than if you’re only ever fishing dries.
So, it’s only natural that, as part of your evolution as an angler, you’ll start looking into nymphing and different ways to be effective with those flies. Today, we’ll go over 15 awesome nymph fishing tips that just flat-out put fish in the net. Some of them take practice, but they’re all worth trying. You never know which one is going to work best on your local water.
1. Learn to Mend Your Fly Line
Mending line is a critical part of successfully catching fish on nymphs. Since you’re fishing subsurface flies, your floating fly line dictates where your nymphs end up in the water. If your nymphs are in slower water, but your fly line is in faster water, you’ll get immediate drag on your flies. That’s not a natural presentation, and trout won’t commit to your flies that way. I’ve got a great video on Youtube check it out below.
Good mending also allows you to extend the life of a drift for as long as you can keep mending. By mending your line to keep it moving at the same speed as your flies, you’re increasing the time those flies spend in the strike zone – thereby increasing your chances of hooking fish.
Guide Tip: Learning to mend your line for a long, drag-free drift ensures that you get the best possible presentation to the trout. Master this skill as quickly as possible.
2. Minimize Drag on Your Fly
I touched on this above, but it’s worth repeating as its own tip. Drag is the number-one killer of any fly presentation, but it’s one that we often focus on more when fishing dry flies. That’s because drag on a dry fly is easy to see. Drag on a nymph rig occurs when your line is in faster water than your nymphs, pulling the nymphs at a faster-than-natural speed through the water. By getting a drag-free drift, you’re making your nymphs look as realistic as possible.
Read more ways to reduce drag in this article. Understanding Drag when Fly Fishing and How to Reduce it
The best way to ensure you have a drag-free drift is to pay attention to your strike indicator and floating fly line (unless you’re using Euro rigs, which we’ll touch on later). If your fly line and indicator are roughly parallel on the water, then your chances of drag are lower. Watch both, though, and mend your line if you see either the indicator or line dragging across the river’s surface.
3. Learn to “High Stick” when Nymphing
This is a technique that you absolutely have to master if you’re planning to fish pocket water. Here in the Rockies, I think this was the first kind of fly fishing I really learned how to do. Essentially, you’re trying to drift your nymphs through a pretty small pocket that’s often surrounded by fast water. If you threw a traditional cast in there, the nymphs wouldn’t have time to settle into the strike zone before being whisked away by the current.
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High-sticking means that you lift all the extra line off the water, so that only your indicator is floating. By keeping all that slack line off the water, you’re able to let your flies sink without the fast water taking them out of the hole.
4. Try Euro-Nymphing for More Trout
Euro nymphing deserves its own article, but you can fish Euro-style rigs without a Euro rod. Essentially, all you need is a colored piece of indicator leader to pull this off. Fishing a Euro-style rig just means that you’re drifting only leader and tippet through the water. Your fly line never leaves the reel.
In the article Experimenting with Euro-Nymphing I describe setting up a fly rod and fishing this technique.
A long leader, with a colored indicator section, is easier to control in tight spaces, and easier to feel the bite when fish are being subtle with their takes. Again, Euro nymphing is its own story by itself, but you can employ some of its techniques in traditional nymphing settings for quick success.
5. Learn to Hook Set Often
This is something I’ve had to work on a ton over the years. My hook sets while nymphing have been notoriously soft. Often, I’ll go to lift my rig up to re-cast, and there’s a fish on the end. I didn’t notice, and because lifting the line isn’t a stiff hookset, I’d lose the fish.
The best hookset for nymph fishing is a quick, sharp pull straight up. It doesn’t matter what angle your flies are at, or where your indicator is – just set straight up, quickly, and with a lot of force. You want that indicator to pop off the water with your hookset.
6. Swing Your Nymph at the End of a Drift
Swinging flies: This is something I never really took advantage of for the first years of my fishing career. But trout love to eat flies that are swung through the water. Emerging insects – especially mayflies and caddis – will zoom up to the surface of the water. This quick movement triggers the predatory instinct in trout, and a well-swung fly can seal the deal on fish that look like they’re eating dries, but are ignoring your offerings.
To swing flies, just let your indicator and nymphs rise up in the water at the end of your drift, and pull them in a shallow arc back towards you before your next cast. This simple swing at the end of every drift will put a surprising amount of fish in your net.
7. Adjust the Depth of Your Nymph – Go Deep
When nymphing, you need to be flexible in adjusting your rig until you find what’s working. One of the most important adjustments you can make is the depth of your flies. Generally, you want your nymphs bouncing along the bottom of the river. I’ve always been told that it’s a good thing if my nymphs are pulling up moss. However, if you’re not getting any action with flies on the bottom, move to the middle of the water column, or the top third. Mess with your depth until you find where the trout are feeding consistently.
In the article What is a Strike Indicator and How to Set it Up, we discuss even more about this.
I like to fish one fly just off the bottom of the river, then another a few inches above it. This covers most of the fish that are hugging the bottom, and aren’t willing to move too far to eat. Then, I place another nymph at what I think is the midpoint of the water column. This covers almost everywhere that actively feeding trout will. I tweak my rig constantly until I find that sweet spot, then stick with it.
8. Selecting the Right Indicator for Your Nymph
Indicator choice: The kind of indicator you choose to nymph with makes a huge difference in your success. For example, if you’re fishing low water, with small fish, and small flies, you don’t want an XXL bobber plopping down on the water. Not only will it scare the fish, but a bigger indicator is harder to move through the surface tension of the water. That means you’re not seeing every take, because not every take is forceful enough to pull an indicator down a few inches below the surface.
I tend to go on the small side with my indicators, even if I’m fishing bigger nymphs. I want the most sensitivity I can get in my nymph rig, since seeing takes is how I’ll catch the most fish. The style of indicator doesn’t matter too much, although I’ve always had luck with the Thingamabobber style ones more than the wool or yarn indicators. They all have their place, though, and you’ll want to choose the right indicator type based on the water you’re fishing.
9. Nymph Fly Selection – When in Doubt Switch It Out
This almost feels too obvious a tip, but it’s one that a lot of anglers surprisingly overlook. When I’m guiding, I’m constantly switching up rigs for my clients, going through patterns until I find the fly that’s producing consistently.
Your fly choice should be inspired by the local insect population on your river. In most trout water, mayfly, caddis, and midge nymphs are present year-round. Some rivers have a lot of stoneflies, too, and you can fish those year-round to good success if you know what you’re doing. I prefer to stick with the tried-and-true trout nymphs like Frenchies, Hare’s Ears, and zebra midges. These have yet to let me down on any trout river.
You also want to make sure that you’re placing your flies in the correct order in your rig. My rule of thumb is to always put the smallest fly on the bottom. Nymph rigs cast better with the larger fly up top, in my experience. It’s rare that I ever fish the biggest fly on the bottom. I also fish my bottom two nymphs close together – usually only 12-15 inches apart. This more closely mimics the spread of nymphs in the water column on the bottom of the river.
10. Recognizing “Nymph Water” When Fly Fishing
Finding water: Just like when you’re fishing dries, you want to find water that’s conducive to nymph fishing. In general, that includes any pockets, holes, deep pools, and runs. Fishing the inside seam of a bend is always a good bet, and it’s not wise to skip nymphing riffles. You’ll be surprised at how many fish are sitting in riffly water, just waiting for a meal to come on down the conveyor belt.
A good rule of thumb is to look for water that is deep enough to hold trout, and slow enough that your flies will have time to drop into the strike zone. Any water that fits this bill is good water to nymph. It may not be the most accessible water, but there’s almost always a fish or two hiding in this kind of water.
11. Tried and True a Dry Fly with Dropper
I’ve long been a fan of fishing multiple flies, and my go-to rig across trout water anywhere in the Rockies is to fish a dry fly with two nymphs dropped below it. This rig is deadly, because it covers all the possible options for feeding trout, with the exception of streamers. But a dry-dropper-dropper rig can be modified to present nymphs on the bottom, or emerger patterns during a hatch.
Read all about setting up a dry fly with a dropper in this article. How to Setup a Dry Fly and Dropper
If I’m fishing nymphs off my dry fly, I drop between two to three feet of tippet from my dry to my first nymph. From there, it’s only usually a 12-15 inch section of tippet between my nymphs. As I mentioned above, positioning them closer together is more realistic to where bugs swim at the bottom of the river.
If you use the dry-dropper-dropper rig to fish wet flies or emergers, you can be safe with at least 12 inches of tippet between flies. Distance doesn’t matter as much if your nymphs or emergers aren’t meant to be fished right on the bottom.
12. Become Great at Roll Casting a Fly Rod
Roll casting is at the heart of nymph fishing. You’ll have to be good at roll casting if you want to succeed with nymphing. Luckily for all of us, the roll cast might be the easiest to execute in all of fly fishing.
To roll cast, simply let your line drift down below you until there’s tension on your rod from the current pulling on your line. Then, lift the rod slight and push it forward, stopping the tip at a 45-degree angle above the water. This will “roll” the line out and into place with minimal effort on your part.
Roll casts with lots of flies, or heavy ones, take a bit more getting used to. I highly recommend taking the time to practice your roll cast. Even doing it on the lawn is better than nothing at all. And, you’ll be able to find plenty of online resources to help you learn to roll cast. It really is simple, and too often made more complicated than it needs to be.
Guide Tip: Don’t force the roll cast. Let your rod do all the work of loading, and unloading, the energy of your fly line. A roll cast should be nearly effortless on your part.
13. Relax and Be Patient Nymphing Will Work
Be patient: As much as I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of switching flies to find out what fish are feeding on, it’s also important to give your rig time to work. If you’re fishing with nymphs that have caught fish before on the river you’re at, don’t switch up after 10 minutes of no action. Instead, tweak your depth, or your presentation, before changing flies.
A guide friend of mine once said that fly choice matters far less than fly presentation does. Chances are, if your flies aren’t getting any attention, it’s because you’re not presenting them properly. Make sure you don’t have any drag, and that your flies are getting down to the strike zone, before you start switching up flies.
And remember that sometimes, fish just don’t want to eat. That’s normal, and why we call it fishing instead of catching.
14. The Size and Type of Tippet Matters When Nymphing
Tippet matters: Just like with dry flies, the size of tippet you use matters a great deal in nymphing. Thicker tippet actually sinks at a slower rate, and doesn’t move as naturally below the water’s surface as thinner tippet does. This doesn’t matter when you’re fishing a single streamer, but when you’re throwing nymphs and trying to imitate bugs bouncing along the bottom of a trout stream, those bugs need to be able to bounce and float in as natural a state as possible.
I don’t fish anything bigger than 4x on my nymphs, but I’m generally using 5 or 6x fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon sinks quicker, is thinner than monofilament, and is obviously invisible, making it an ideal choice for tippet material. Make sure when you’re putting together your nymph rig that you’re using tippet matched to the water.
15. Add More Chances with More Nymphs
ish as many flies as possible: I’ve alluded to this a lot, but I do fish a lot of flies when I’m nymph fishing. Where I live in the Rockies, it’s legal to have three flies on a rig on any water. Some states don’t allow three flies (Montana only allows two flies, for example) so make sure that you’re up-to-date on local regulations. But the idea behind fishing as many flies as possible is that you’re giving trout as many chances as you can to eat your flies.
If you can fish three flies, but only fish two, you’re cheating yourself out of an opportunity to get into more fish. A three-fly rig can be a bit ungainly at first, but casting, mending, and fishing three flies isn’t that much more difficult than two flies.
Fishing all flies possible really helps you out in figuring out what trout are eating, too. By giving them options, you’re able to more quickly see what they’re keyed in on during any given day. If you fish a Frenchie, Hare’s Ear, and zebra midge, but only hook trout on the midge, then you know that’s what fish are looking for. You can switch your other two flies out to match other midge patterns, in the hopes of getting the fish holding in other locations in the water column.
Nymph fishing can be an absolute blast. As someone who grew up being taught that dry flies were the only real flies in the world, I know I missed out on a ton of fish as a kid. Even now, my preference to fish dry flies sometimes puts me at a big disadvantage, where I’m not willing to fish nymphs. By utilizing them as a regular, and integral, part of your approach to fishing, you’re expanding the tools with which you can use to outsmart fish. And after all, isn’t that what fishing is all about?
In many ways, you’ll find that nymphs are easier to fish than dry flies, if only because they often produce more fish. It’s easier to push through a slower day, or a bad weather day, when you’re hooked into trout on a consistent basis. That said, you do need to practice your nymph fishing techniques. Make sure your drifts are great, that you don’t have drag, and that you’re allowing your flies to get into the strike zone for as long as possible. Paying attention to the smaller details will ensure that you’re successful with your nymph fishing endeavors.
Are you looking for some great How To Fly Fish Articles? Checkout this list:
- How to Fly Fish for Bluegills – These amazing fish are all over the USA. I like to call them the “Gateway Drug to Fly Fishing”
- How to Fly Fish for Brook Trout – Find the cleanest, coldest, most beautiful streams and I’ll bet Brookes are present.
- How to Nymph Fish – Step by Step details for setting up, presenting and catching trout with nymphs.
- How to Fly Fish for Salmon – Image hooking into a +25 pound King Salmon in a river and your Fly Rod breaks! Seriously this happened to me on my first trip.