This will seem obvious, but very beneficial to the angler. “Fish don’t have hands” So, as feeding organisms, they must grab things in their mouths to test them as potential foods. If you could sit in an under-water viewing chamber and watch trout in their natural stream setting you would notice that they examine and take into their mouths (and eat or eject virtually everything small that drifts downstream in their “feeding lances.” As a nymphing fly fisher, your challenge is to drift your nymph drag-free down those feeding lanes.

wild trout caught on a nymph
wild trout caught on a nymph

The keys to successful nymphing are controlling a natural dead-drift and getting the nymph to the depth at which the fish are feeding. This is easier to say than it is to achieve.  The skill lies in learning to adjust the length of the leader and the weight of the fly to the depth and speed of the water you are fishing. Here are some tips on how to achieve a dead-drift at the depths and water speeds you will encounter on both streams and stillwaters.

Strike indicators can spell the difference between success and failure at nymphing. Try a variety of them to discover the ones that work best for you on the waters you fish. The general rule is: The heavier the nymph, the larger the strike indicator you need to support it.

Read all about strike indicators in this article. What is a Strike Indicator and if your wondering if you need one read – When to Use a Strike Indicator

The most commonly used small nymphs strike indicator for shallow stream trout fishing is well-hackled dry fly, such as a Royal Wulff, attached to the tippet as a point fly. Read about point flies here. The nymph is tied to a 4X or 5X tippet dropper that is tied to the dry fly’s hook bend with an improved clinch knot. The length of the dropper should match the depth of the water, and the nymph should be weighted according to the flow of the current-more current and depth, more weight on the fly.

How can you judge the right weight of the nymph and length of the dropper? Monofilament sinks much faster than fly line, so when nymphing with a floating line, you should begin with a leader long enough to reach bottom-9 feet for shallow streams; 12 feet for deep, fast streams; and 18 feet or more for deep stillwaters.

Nymphing in Faster Deep Water

The faster and deeper the flow, the more weight you will need to sink the nymph to bottom or near-bottom. You can weight small nymphs with wraps of lead wire when you tie them, increasing the number of wraps to add weight. Experimentation is the only way to learn how much weight built into the fly is enough to sink it on a dropper to near bottom in, for example, a three-foot-deep, four-mile-per-hour-flow.

The alternative to a weighted nymph is to add split-shot to the tippet (12 to 18 inches ahead of the fly). Carry a box of split-shot in your vest, so that you can match the weight you will need to the water’s flow and get your nymph down.

Buying and Organizing a Nymph Fly Box

When buying weighted nymphs, be sure that you buy a variety of weights, from lightly-weighted to heavily-weighted. Then experiment with them in different stream flows and depths to learn which ones reach bottom for each flow rate and depth. With experience, you should learn to match the weight of your fly to each flow of water.

nymph fly box for fly fishing
nymph fly box for fly fishing

It helps to make special nymph boxes to fit your fishing. In one box, for instance, you should arrange your nymphs by weight, from heavy to light to unweighted. You can further arrange them by type of fly; for instance, all weighted Pheasant-tail Nymphs in one box, arranged in size and range of weight, and all Hare’s-ear Nymphs in another, arranged by size and weight.

Trout-Nymphs-Zebra-Hares-Ear-Frenchie-Prince-Nymph
Trout-Nymphs-Zebra-Hares-Ear-Frenchie-Prince-Nymph

If you use a strike indicator (a dry fly or another type), your experimentation with weight adjustment should also teach you how long the dropper needs to be to reach bottom effectively. Start with a dropper length equal to the depth of water and adjust shorter or longer to get the drift at the depth you want. If your fly consistently hangs up on bottom, shorten the dropper until the fly only occasionally ticks bottom. A small adjustment in the length of your dropper can cause a sudden increase (or decrease) in your strikes.


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The deeper the water, the less your chances of strike detection. The reason is simple: In deep water the fly is so far below the strike indicator that the fish can take and eject it before there is any movement in the indicator. Thus, as the water becomes deeper, your nymphing success rate will drop unless you improve your strike detection.

Can You Sight Fish Using Nymphs?

One way to improve strike detection is to sight-fish wherever possible. When you fish clear waters, always use polarized glasses to see through surface glare. A deadly technique is to watch the fish, not the strike indicator. The indicator helps you achieve a drag-free drift, but since it will not move before the fish has taken and ejected the fly, you must detect the take by direct observation. When the fish suddenly moves to the left or right, it is probably moving to take your nymph. You must lift when you see that movement. Also watch for the opening of the fish’s mouth. Look for the “wink” of white that signals the mouth opening then lift the rod.

Read about how to setup a Dry Fly Dropper Rig in this Article. How to Setup a Dropper Fly

Another technique for sight-fishing in clear streams is to use the indicator fly to help achieve a natural upward movement of your nymph. Once you have spotted the holding position of a trout, position yourself just upstream of its lie. Cast the indicator/dropper so that the indicator fly and dropper nymph land upstream of the fish. (The dropper nymph should land downstream of the indicator.) Then, as the indicator nymph drifts downstream to just in front of the trout, gently stop and lift the line and twitch the rod so the nymph rises slowly in the water column to emulate a rising natural nymph. This movement should trigger a strike from the fish.

This same technique can be used to change the drift lane of your nymph. Cast the indicator/dropper above and beyond the feeding trout you have sighted. Lift your rod tip to pull the indicator toward you until it is in line with the feeding lane of the trout below, than drop your rod tip to let the indicator/dropper nymph drift downstream to just in front of the trout. Then gently lift the rod tip to make the nymph rise.

Try the techniques we’ve suggested here to get started in your nymphing. You’ll find that you can catch more fish when nymphing than you ever imagined in dry-fly fishing. And you’ll catch bigger ones, for the largest freshwater fish live in lakes and near the bottom in streams. They we call nymphs.



David Humphries at Guide Recommended

Hey David here the maker of Guide Recommended. I’m super passionate about everything fly fishing fishing; writing, teaching and even video.