I’ve told this story countless times, but I grew up in a family of committed dry-fly fishermen. If you didn’t catch fish on a dry fly, then in my grandpa’s eyes, you didn’t go fishing.
Fast-forward to today, and I have two Euro nymphing rods, and the biggest fish I’ve ever caught on a fly rod came on a size 20 nymph. While my grandpa might still have qualms with how I fish, I don’t. Knowing how to fish nymphs is an essential part of being a well-rounded angler. After all, something like 80% of a trout’s diet consists of subsurface flies. And especially when trout get big, their diet becomes almost exclusively made up of subsurface bugs and other fish.
The challenge is in picking the right nymph. Now, I’m of the opinion that a well-presented fly that’s the right size and shape will almost always catch fish, regardless of its color. The only time I’ve seen color really be a factor in fly efficacy is when I’m nymphing. So, unlike when you’re fishing dries (most of the time, at any rate) you need to take color into consideration when picking out nymphs.
Which brings us to this list. If I had to pick 17 flies to take with me for a year of trout fishing, these are the ones you’d see in my box. These aren’t in any particular order – it’s not a ranked list. I will say that I’ve caught more fish on zebra midges, hare’s ears, and Frenchies than probably any of the other nymphs on this list, though, which is why those flies get the first three spots.
1.Zebra Midge: if I had to pick just one nymph to fish with for the rest of my life, it’d be the zebra midge. This thing just flat-out catches fish all the time, in any water condition, and for virtually any trout. It’s incredibly easy to tie, you can add subtle tweaks to the design to really catch a fish’s eye, and every fly shop in the world has a healthy stock of these bad boys on hand. For most of my trout fishing, I use red or black zebra midges tied in sizes 16 through 20. Add a tungsten bead on the top for extra weight, and you have the makings of a dry-dropper rig ready to go.
2. Hare’s Ear: the hare’s ear is an old-school pattern that doesn’t seem to get the love I think it deserves these days. It’s still around because, much like the pheasant tail and the elk hair caddis, it just works. The hare’s ear has an extra bit of sparkle to it thanks to the gold ribbing, flashback wing case, and a bead, and I think this all works together very well to catch trout’s attention. And, it’s another fly that’s incredibly easy to tie, making it one of the patterns I recommend most for beginning tiers.
3. Frenchie: the first time I ever used the Frenchie was on Utah’s Green River. I was floating with a guide, who tied it on underneath a cicada. That Frenchie caught so many fish that by the end of the day, it was just a few strands of pheasant tail wrapped around a hook. The hotspot thread collar and bright pink dubbing combine to make this a fly that has all the bin appeal fly shops could want, but with all the efficacy anglers need.
4. Prince Nymph: this is another old-school pattern, but just like the hare’s ear, it’s on this list because it still works. And, you’ll find it at virtually ever fly shop in the world. The prince nymph doesn’t look like anything in particular. Instead, it looks like it could pass for a lot of different nymphs. From caddis larvae to baetis nymphs, I view the Prince nymph as the Adams of the nymphing world.
5. Sow Bug: while not every river has sow bugs, a lot of lakes have their close cousin, the scud. Sow bugs look enough like scuds that they could pass for them in a pinch. Either way, these bugs are a must-have for any trout angler. I’ve yet to find trout somewhere that won’t at least glance at a sow bug. They’re not quite as ubiquitous as caddis, but they’re pretty close.
6. Utah Killer Bug: this isn’t included just because I live in Utah. The Utah Killer Bug is a cranefly nymph, and these are a kind of fly that just don’t get fished much. Craneflies are huge – bigger than stoneflies – and hatch throughout the year on spring creeks and freestone streams across the country. Their nymphs look like giant white grubs, and you can bet a trout won’t ignore a well-presented one zipping past its face.
7. Glo-Bug: what else is there to say about this fly that hasn’t already been said? Trout love to eat eggs, and the glo-bug is the most popular egg pattern there is. I have glo-bugs in my box year-round, even though they really only get fished heavily from late October to April. But wherever there are spawning fish, you should have some glo-bugs ready.
8. Walt’s Worm: this fly is misnamed, because it doesn’t really look like a worm. Perhaps it looks like the Walt it was named after? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t matter, because this fly catches tons of fish. I’ve found it effective on pressured tailwaters, where trout get tired of seeing the same patterns bashed against their noses all day. The Walt’s Worm can offer up a buggy-looking, but fresh, taste for trout that seem to have lockjaw for everything else.
9. Perdigon: I think this was the first Euro nymph I ever tried to tie. It’s a simple pattern with few ingredients, but it’s crazy effective. The resin shell helps it last longer than normal, and its slim profile ensures that it gets down deep, and fast. If you’re trying to catch every fish in the river, then it doesn’t hurt to have a few Perdigon flies in your arsenal.
10. Iron Lotus: this fly was developed by Lance Egan, a champion fly fisher for Team USA Fly Fishing. He’s one of the best fly tiers of our generation, and an incredible angler. The Iron Lotus is meant to imitate mayfly nymphs, and it does an outstanding job of that. I’ve caught tons of fish on these while waiting for a blue-winged olive hatch to kick off.
11. Bear’s Hex Nymph: a great friend Bear Andrews came up with this pattern for fishing the the days before the fabled “Hex” hatches of the Midwest. Trout love this fly and it’s become popular throughout the region. A favorite size is 8 and it’s fished deep bounced along the bottom just downstream of the mucky slack waters. A neat feature is that the body is tied with the secondary saddle feathers and large eyes.
12. Pat’s Rubber Legs Stonefly: this might be the most popular stonefly nymph out there right now. It’s easy to tie, and deadly effective. You can layer tons of lead beneath the chenille body, and it’s a great choice for use as the point fly on a Euro nymphing rig. I like fishing this on small spring creeks in the early part of the season, when trout are looking for a big meal following a tough winter.
13. WD-40: for as great as the RS2 is as a pseudo dry fly/wet fly, the WD-40 is its counterpart for subsurface angling. Small, tough to tie, and not terribly durable, the WD-40 has its drawbacks, but the benefits far outweigh those. I’m consistently surprised at how effective such a tiny fly can be, especially on tailwaters. If you spend a lot of time fishing below dams, then you need a few dozen WD-40s in your box.
14. Flashback Baetis Nymph: This is a less-stylized form of the Iron Lotus. By that, I mean that it doesn’t require the resins and bright flash of the Euro patterns, nor does it require a jig hook. That makes it a lot easier for beginning tiers to put together, in my opinion. This nymph looks just like any mayfly nymph you’ll find by turning over a rock on a trout stream, and I’ve had banner days using these flies. They just work.
15. Higa’s SOS: Spencer Higa is another local Utah guide who came up with a fly that’s now standard fare across the fly fishing world. The SOS is small, compact, but bright and heavy, too, so it works in a variety of water situations. I love its design, it’s not too hard to tie, and the bright red bead head makes fishing it in clear water a blast. I love to watch fish come eat my nymphs, and it’s easier to see that happen when there’s a bright red bead on the front of it.
16. Copper John: this is another old, classic pattern, but it hasn’t dropped out of circulation because it’s still punching above its weight. This little fly is heavier than any other on this list, I think, and durable as all get out. I’m not sure that it looks like much of any aquatic insect, but it looks good enough that fish can’t ignore it.
17. San Juan Worm: you didn’t think I’d leave the San Juan off this list, did you? The San Juan has saved me from many days of being skunked, and on some rivers, it’s the only fly that I can get fish to eat. While some anglers might look down on the San Juan worm, I can’t get enough of it. For such a simple fly, it’s surprisingly effective, and has been for decades now. And it just makes sense to fish a worm of some kind – fish love them, after all.
Setting Up a Nymph Fishing Fly Rod for Success
Nymph rigs are as different as anglers are. I don’t know if I’ve met two guides who rig up nymphs the same way. Here on my local rivers, I’ll see some guides rigging up for clients with a bounce rig, while others opt for a more traditional approach. Others still are going the Euro route.
But all nymph rigs have a few things in common, and that’s what we’ll focus on here. First off, you’re almost never fishing just one nymph. I like to fish three nymphs, with one about 15 inches below an indicator, followed by two feet of tippet. Then, I tie on two more nymphs on either end of a 15-inch section of leader. Separating the flies like this covers more of the water column, and creates a more natural drift.
You’ll always have some kind of indicator when fishing nymphs. Plastic bobbers are popular, although wool and yarn indicators have their time and place too. I prefer the colored tippet of the Euro rigs, because it places the least amount of extra weight on the surface of the river.
Finally, you have the flies themselves. If they’re heavy enough, you can get away with fishing them alone. If not, split shot done up just above each fly ensures they get down and stay in the strike zone for as long as possible.
Guide tip: Always tie on your biggest nymphs at the top of your rig, with the smallest ones on the end. This helps the heavy nymph rigs cast better on lighter rods.
Your best bet for a good nymph rig on your fly rod is to get a standard 9-foot 5x leader. Choose your first fly, which I recommend being a bit bigger. A Utah Killer Bug or Prince Nymph is a good choice here.
Tie that on, followed by two to three feet of tippet, depending on the depth of the river you’re fishing. Then, tie on a second fly. This time, make sure that fly is smaller than your top fly. If you put the biggest flies on the bottom, your casting mechanics will get all screwed up. And, you’ll end up with an unnatural drift to your flies. Remember – big flies go on top, small flies go on bottom.
Lastly, if the regulations permit where you’re fishing, then I’d tie another 15 inches of tippet off your second fly, down to a third fly. This allows you to cover three different zones of the water column, offering your flies to as many trout as possible on every drift.
You should place your indicator a few feet above your first fly, but you can obviously change this as needed based on the water you’re fishing.
When to Fly Fish with Nymphs
I almost always have two nymphs on my rods. I prefer to run a dry-dropper-dropper setup, because it allows me to cover every part of the life cycle of different flies. And, it puts flies in all three major areas of the water column – top, middle, and bottom.
A good rule of thumb, though, is that you want to fish nymphs if you don’t see any actively, consistently rising trout. An odd rise here or there is normal, but if there’s not much going on above the surface, it’s time to get down and dirty with nymphs.
Guide tip: Most big trout are caught on subsurface flies. Learning to fish them ensures you have a chance at landing your own monster.
Nymphs are also an effective way to fish deep pools and the slow eddies on river bends. Trout are opportunist feeders, meaning that they’ll only move to eat a fly if it makes caloric sense for them to do so. Spending more energy than they’ll get from a meal isn’t a good survival strategy for trout, and thankfully, the trout agree.
You’ll want to fish nymphs in water that looks like good holding water for trout. Really fast current isn’t where the trout are likely hanging out, and it’s not where you should be focusing your fishing efforts, either. Look for current seams, eddies, slacks, pools, and glides where trout are likely stacked up. Then, cast your nymphs a few feet in front of those trout. Don’t line them – that’ll sook them, especially this time of year when the water is so low and clear – but focus on presenting the flies for just long enough that trout can see them and move to eat them, but not so long that the fish catch onto the fact that your nymphs aren’t real.
If you don’t opt to fish the dry-dropper-dropper rig like I do, then I’d recommend rigging up for nymphs when fishing in the middle of the day, or any time during the winter. Trout tend to actively feed on top in the morning and evening, making that prime time for dry fly fishing. And while you can get into plenty of midday hatches, it’s not a bad idea to switch over to nymphing around lunchtime, when the fish are hanging out a bit deeper than they were in the morning.
Where to Buy Nymphs for Fly Fishing
I like to tie most of my flies, but not everyone has the time – or the skill – to do that. And I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t bought my share of nymphs in my day. I haven’t in a while, but there was a time when I was sure my weekly trips to the fly shop for more nymphs were the only thing keeping them in business.
Kidding aside, you want to make sure that wherever you’re buying nymphs from has a track record of good, quality flies. I recommend the following places:
- Tactical Fly Fisher
- Trident Fly Fishing
- Trouts Fly Fishing
Are you looking for some great How To Fly Fish Articles? Checkout this list:
- How to Fly Fish for Bass with Poppers with 👈 Easy to catch and fun to fight, fly fishing for bass is amazing!
- 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.
The Last Cast with Nymphs
Nymphs are an essential part of any successful fly angler’s repertoire. Learning to effectively fish nymphs opens up an entire new world of opportunity for you, and in many ways, nymphs are much easier to fish than dry flies. Have these patterns on hand, look for the right kind of water in which to fish them, and don’t stop experimenting to see what rigs, fly combos, and the like produce best for your on your local waters.
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.