When to Fly Fish Using Nymphs and Putting it All Together

Dry flies and streamers have their time and place, but it’s hard to beat the versatility and year-round efficacy of nymphs. If you understand how to adapt your nymphing rigs and tactics to cope with the day’s conditions, you’ll be able to catch fish in any creek, river, pond, or lake you visit, any time of the year.

All the technical information you need to fish nymphs successfully can be found in the previous articles (chapters) of this series on nymphing. But now it’s time to bring all the pieces together by taking a look at the key elements of nymphing that apply to all rigging styles and variations. Take the following factors into consideration when deciding how to rig up on a new river.

Depth Control

Since trout primarily eat nymphs close to the bottom of the stream, getting your flies deep is essential. Utilizing the various nymphing styles and rig modifications we covered in previous articles (chapters) will give you a large degree of control over how deep your flies sink.

For shallow (less than 2 feet) or slow-moving water, traditional weightless and indicator-less nymph rigs are often adequate to sink flies to the bottom as long as enough runway is given. As depths approach 3 to 5 feet and current speeds increase, rigs using more weight such as the two-fly strike indicator rig or a Czech nymph rig really start to shine.

How to tie a basic nymph indicator rig

Fishing water over 6 feet deep is when substantially more weight is needed to get your nymphs to the bottom. Tungsten bead-head flies on a Euro-style nymphing leader with a hi-vis sighter can be the ticket to pulling fish out of deep runs. If conditions get really extreme — high, dirty water with big fish in deep pools — you may need to swap out split shot for slinky weights and fish chuck-and-duck style.

Drift Control

While getting your flies to the right depth is critical to get trout to see your offerings, if your flies aren’t drifting naturally, they’ll be shunned. And since a natural drift is created by eliminating any drag on the flies, drift control is largely a matter of line control.  


Line control looks slightly different for each of the nymphing styles. For techniques that involve more conventional fly casting mechanics such as traditional and indicator nymphing, slack must be constantly introduced to maintain a drag-free drift, either through casting maneuvers like the Tuck Cast, or by making frequent line mends. When fishing “tight-line” European nymphing techniques, however, less emphasis is placed on achieving a “drag-free” drift, instead opting to stay tight to the flies to increase strike detection sensitivity.

Strike Detection

If you get your depth and drift right, there’s a good chance you’ll get a bite. But unless you’re ready for it and know what to look — or feel — for, the fish will spit the hook without you realizing.

When you’re just starting out, fishing with a buoyant and highly visible strike indicator has significant benefits. Not only will you be able to see when a fish takes your fly, a floating strike indicator makes it clear when your rig is dragging. Beyond that, strike indicators make it possible to suspend lots of weight to reach the proper depth.

But even with all those benefits, there can be some huge advantages to fishing without a strike indicator.

First, fishing nymphs without a floating strike indicator forces you to detect bites by feel. By leading your flies downstream, you get to feel every bump of your rig on the bottom and the electric grab of a trout taking your fly. Plus, when extra stealth is needed, whether in glassy spring creeks or shallow alpine lakes, fishing a bare leader greatly reduces the risk of spooking your quarry.

Fly Selection

BH Pheasant Tail

After you’ve chosen your rigs and tactics for the day, one of the final decisions you’ll need to make is which flies to use. Don’t sweat it if you can’t find an exact imitation — match the size, shape, and color of the naturals in the stream as close you can and get fishing.

Stream Strategy and Fly Presentation

When deciding how to dissect and work a stretch of river, reading the water is a huge first step to a successful day of nymphing. By looking at what the current is doing, where the riffles, runs, and pools are, and identifying fishy-looking structure, you’ll have the data you need to formulate a game plan to catch some fish.

Keep in mind that all bodies of water are unique and their resident fish may want different things on different days. Fly fishing, therefore, becomes an act of constant change, adaptation, and refinement. If you don’t get your presentation right the first time, make a change and try again. If you aren’t catching fish in one spot, don’t just continue casting blindly. Fish the run from a different angle, get your flies deeper, or change patterns if needed.

Using the Right Gear

Modern specialized nymphing rods, reels, and lines carry out their intended purpose exceptionally well. If you’re going deep into the world of nymphing, an 11-foot 3-weight might be a great fit for you. But if this is your first foray into fly fishing, it might be beneficial to start with a fly rod combo that has broader applications beyond nymphing.

It’s hard to go wrong with the ever popular 9-foot 5-weight. It’ll be plenty of rod to handle the biggest trout you’ll likely tie into while nymphing and will cast traditional and indicator nymph rigs no problem. You might find 9 feet to a be a bit short for fishing European style nymphing rigs, but don’t hesitate to experiment with these effective techniques.

When it comes to fly lines, unless you’re chuck-and-ducking, a weight-forward floating line matched to your rod is the only line you’ll need to nymph creeks and rivers. If you give stillwater nymphing a shot, an intermediate or full sinking line will be helpful, but you can still catch trout in lakes by using a long leader on a floating line.

In addition to your well-stocked nymph fly box, you’ll need basic fly fishing tackle to start nymphing — spools of tippet sizes 3X through 7X, butt section and/or hi-vis sighter material, strike indicators, split shot, nippers, and hemostats.

Thanks for Reading, Now Get Out There!

With that basic setup and the techniques and strategies in this series (e-book), you’ll be well on your way to becoming a nymph fishing master! Keep things simple when getting started and try your best to enjoy every aspect of the fly fishing experience — catching fish is just a perk!