When we go out fly fishing, we go dreaming about those iconic moments—when you cast a fly, drift it slowly over a feeding trout, and watch it rise to sip the bug gently off the surface. Yet, as often as we fantasize about these situations, they’re about as rare as seeing a shooting star or hearing a politician tell the truth. While more than 90% of your average trout’s diet is made up of aquatic insects, they eat the bulk of these bugs not as adults floating on the surface of the river but rather when they’re juveniles or “nymphs” crawling or swimming around near the bottom—right where the trout live.
These feeding habits mean that while you can fantasize about catching trout on dry flies, if you want to catch them consistently you have to fish underwater using aquatic insect imitations that sink. This technique is called nymphing and it is inarguably the most effective fly fishing method in existence.
How to Nymph for Trout No matter what types of aquatic insects hatch most predominantly on your favorite river, be they mayflies, caddisflies, midges, or stoneflies, they all have the same basic life cycle. All of these insects are born beneath the water, hatching from eggs among the rocks of the river bottom where they swim and crawl around for six months to over two years in their nymphal or larval forms. It’s an incredibly stressful and dangerous childhood as they are constantly hunted by hungry trout.
Nymphing is the act of targeting these hungry trout by drifting fly patterns that imitate nymphs with the current below the surface. Though this might seem as easy as just letting your flies drift down the river, nymphing is actually a highly technical and challenging fly fishing method full of nuance. However, the one thing vital to all nymphing techniques is the dead drift. No matter the method you choose, being able to match your presentation to the river’s speed is the best way to catch fish.
“Matching the hatch” and finding out which nymph to use is as simple as walking out in the water and flipping over some rocks. Take a good look at the creepy crawlies you find there and tie on nymphs that evoke the general size, shape, and/or color of the naturals. Local fly shops should also be able to tell you which patterns are producing lately as well.
If you can’t get to the bug store or just can’t bear to look at the aliens under the rocks, you can always try a generalist attractor pattern such as a Pheasant Tail or a Hare’s Ear. They emulate a broad variety of insects and are great go-to’s when you’re stumped.
Nymphing can land you a trout when nothing else will. It catches trout in the morning and the evening and the middle of the day. High water and low water. In spring, summer, fall, and even winter. While dry fly and even streamer fishing are very condition-dependent, nymphs take the fight down to where the fish live—and trout are pretty much always willing to take an easy meal drifted right past their face. You just need to understand the physics of the presentation and figure out which style works best for you and your local stream.
Indicator Nymphing Indicator nymphing is probably the simplest and most common method for presenting flies sub-surface. As the name suggests, the technique employs a bobber or “strike indicator” on your leader that suspends your flies at a certain depth, often with weight in between, and visually telegraphs strikes or hang-ups. It’s a cathartic return to the most basic type of childhood fishing with a bobber and worm, but it’s anything but simple. Novices can find success with this method, but there are endless opportunities for refinement, improvement, and mastery.
The basic idea is that you drift your rig through every likely pool, run, or riffle where a hungry trout can hide, setting the hook whenever the indicator ticks, hesitates, or vanishes underwater. Indicator nymphing is a great method for fishing blind when you don’t know where the trout are holding, such as in high, off-colored water or in large rivers.
The first step is picking a bobber to fit your fishing situation. They come in a variety of designs and sizes all suited for different fishing situations. Large, round, extremely buoyant bobbers such as the AirLock or Thingamabobber are best suited for deeper, fast-moving or off-colored water and for fishing large or heavy nymphs or a lot of weight. Smaller, lighter indicators made of cork, foam, or even brightly colored wool are better suited for fishing smaller waters, slow-moving and extremely clear water, and tiny unweighted nymphs. It’s important to match the indicator to the water you’re fishing. Too large an indicator and you won’t pick up subtle grabs from trout or you’ll spook them when it splashes down. Too small and the weight of the nymphs or fast speed of the water will constantly pull it down, causing you to constantly false set like a spastic lion tamer with a bullwhip.
The depth you set your rig, the leader distance between your bobber and flies is critical for success with this method. Too shallow and you aren’t reaching down into the pockets where fish hide. Too deep and you’ll be sacrificing lots of expensive flies to the river gods. You’ll hear a lot of different schools of thought on the subject, but a good general rule of thumb to follow is to set your indicator half-again as deep as the water you are fishing. So if the pocket is an estimated 6 feet deep, set your indicator at 9 feet above your furthest fly. If you’re fishing 8 feet, set your indicator at 12 feet. Rigging this way gives you leeway to adjust your indicator up and down as needed if you’re snagging up too often or find a consistent depth where the trout are feeding. Experimentation is always valuable, so make sure to try different depths to see what works best for you.
From shore or wading, you cast an indicator nymph rig upstream and allow it to float down and past you at the speed of the current. Make sure to recover then play out slack line so you are almost tight to the bobber the whole time. There’s a lot of slack at play with this method and you have to be able to set the hook. Early in your drift, you’ll often want to “mend” the fly line by tossing the end of it upstream, which gives the flies and weights enough time to sink to the bottom without being dragged by the bobber. It’s often necessary to mend several times in a drift to keep the line from dragging your flies unnaturally.
Weight on your line is often an important element to fishing nymphs well under an indicator. It’s not necessary in shallow or slow water situations, but helps greatly to get your bugs in the zone quicker and longer. Most anglers use split shot made of lead or tungsten in an appropriate size clipped roughly halfway between the bobber and flies. You’ll want to experiment with that proportion and the size and amount of weight you use based on your angling situation.
Tightline Nymphing Tightline nymphing, also known as Czech or Euro, is a more advanced fly fishing method than indicator nymphing. It’s incredibly efficient for getting good drag-free drifts at a close range, but requires much more attention and finesse. It’s a fantastic method for fishing small creeks or for working especially productive areas of larger rivers where trout are stacked up and feeding, allowing you to put the hammer down on a ton of fish.
Tightlining involves a relatively simple set-up with one or two nymphs and holding your rod tip high over the water to create a drag-free drift where the line moves at the same speed as the current. There’s no indicator, so you have to learn to feel for a strike or to see a twitch or flick at the end of your fly line. It can be a tricky method to learn, but when done right, tightline nymphing can be one of the most productive fishing methods there is, so long as you rig it correctly.
Tightline nymphing can be performed with a sinking fly line in deep water or a floating line with a long leader in various scenarios. Either way, most anglers like to include a “sighter” or piece of differently-colored line or a mark on the leader to watch for strikes. Usually this goes between the fly line and leader. It’s important to use a tapered leader or staged-down tippet sections to get your flies to sink properly.
When tightline nymphing, I prefer to fish tandem flies, one slightly larger and heavier than the other. I’ll tie the smaller fly directly to the tippet and then tie a second 10- to 18-inch piece of lighter tippet from the hook eye to a larger, heavier fly on the point. The heavier fly acts as a weight, keeping the rig near the bottom while the lighter fly is able to move in the current in a more lifelike manner to tantalize a hungry trout.
The Joy of Just Catching Fish While it’s true that most of us go fishing for more than just the fish, there’s no denying that there’s a certain satisfaction in going out and just smashing ‘em. Other fly fishing methods like dries and streamers can offer you such opportunities on certain days, but nymphing presents you with that chance on a more consistent basis. So, the next time you’re struggling with those two “purer” methods, give nymphing a try. You won’t be disappointed.