In fly fishing, there are two types of flies. Dry flies are designed to mimic an insect that sits on top of the water, or are hatching out of the water. Wet flies mimic insects that live down in the water column, or rise to the surface; typically the larval and pupal stages of the species they represent. These lures are often called nymphs, and nymphing is the technique that uses them to catch fish.
Nymphing has an interesting history and theory behind it, and while it may seem complicated at first, it doesn’t have to be. Today, we are going to discuss all of nymphing’s important aspects and how this technique can help you land more fish.
What is Nymph Fishing?
Nymph fishing is the practice of using small flies that sit below the water’s surface to attract trout. The practice was introduced to the sport of fly fishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before then, fly fishing really focused on dry fly techniques.
However, W.C. Stewart’s The Practical Angler and G. E. M. Skues’ Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and Kindred Studies and The Way of a Trout with a Fly paved the way for nymphing to gain popularity.
Nymphing was first developed in Scotland’s chalk streams, but this technique works on most water types. Unless you have a really weedy stream, nymphing is likely going to be highly effective.
Nymph fishing has become extremely popular and is a major part of the sport of modern fly fishing. It should be a part of every fly fisher’s repertoire due to its effectiveness and flexibility.
Why Is Nymph Fishing Effective?
Nymph fishing is effective for several reasons. The first and most important is biology. One of the foundational principles of fly fishing is matching the hatch– that is, knowing what insects are likely to be present in an area for the trout to feed on.
For most of the insects that trout regularly hunt, the adult stage is the shortest stage of the insects’ life cycle. There aren’t always adults present. However, aquatic larvae– nymphs– are present throughout the year. This means that they will always be attractive to trout!
In fact, most of a trout’s diet is actually juvenile insects, and while they will rise to the surface to feed when the opportunity arises, most of what they eat is underwater. Nymphing lets you fish where the trout are most likely to be.
Nymphing is a technique that is known to work when other types of fly fishing, like dry fly or streamer fishing, aren’t bringing in the bites.
Types of Nymphs and Nymph Flies
There are lots of different nymph fly patterns used in fly fishing. Nymphs are usually tied on very small hooks; 18-24 is a common nymph size range, and many go even smaller. Nymphs are used to mimic the Larvae, and sometimes the emerger stage of insects.
Nymphs are used to mimic the following types of insects:
If you are in need of education on the above insect categories, you should read our complete guide to fly fishing entomology.
Some of the most popular and common fly patterns are nymphs. These include classics like the Zebra Midge, the Pheasant Tail, and the Hare’s Ear. These patterns are appealing to a wide variety of fish throughout the year.
The Killer Bug is another great nymph pattern to have; it actually looks more like a scud, a tiny crustacean found throughout the year towards the bottom of the riverbed. This nymph is usually tied on slightly larger hooks than other nymphs but is fished using the same technique.
The smart nympher keeps these patterns in several sizes and color variations with them at all times; even if you can’t match an insect species perfectly and precisely, these do a great job at mimicking several different species. Fish frequently find them completely irresistible.
For more nymph patterns, check out our guide to the essential trout flies you need in your fly box.
Nymph Fishing Techniques
While all nymphing uses tiny flies that mimic juvenile insects, there are several different techniques to present those flies to the fish.
This nymphing style goes by many names, including euro nymphing, Czech nymphing, Spanish nymphing, tight line nymphing, high stick nymphing, and others. Whatever you call it, this technique involves using heavy flies, typically on tungsten hooks, and a limited amount of leader. You perform this technique at a very close distance compared to other types of fly fishing.
The biggest difference between traditional indicator nymphing and euro nymphing is that anglers often feel the take as the line remains tight throughout the drift.
Check out this YouTube video from Orvis that explains the basics of this nymphing technique:
Another nymphing technique combines the use of dry flies and nymphs to catch fish. The dry fly acts as your strike indicator for the nymph underneath the surface. The dry fly will likely be small enough and natural-looking enough to not spook the fish, which can be a problem with other types of strike indicators.
Another advantage of this technique is that the dry fly presents another target for the fish. A fish who doesn’t notice the nymph might just recognize the adult fly pattern or vise versa.
This type of fishing does require knowing how to choose the correct dry fly, and may not work as well depending on the time of year. If there are no adult insects on the water, this might not be a promising presentation for a savvy trout. However, even in these situations, this might be a great way to present nymphs to easily scared trout.
Watch this video for a complete guide to setting up a dry dropper rig:
Nymphing With A Strike Indicator
If you don’t want to use a dry fly as an indicator, you can always use a strike indicator. Strike indicators can be as simple as a piece of yarn tied to your line, or as technical as floating putty. This type of fishing frequently uses split shot to get the nymph to the correct depth.
You need to make sure to choose the right kind of strike indicator; a standard fishing bobber won’t work for fly fishing. It will likely spook your fish or detach from the line. Traditional bobbers can even damage your leader, so make sure you choose one that is designed for fly fishing.
If you want help choosing a strike indicator, we have a complete guide you can use right here.
Watch this YouTube video from Orvis that teaches you how to use indicators and dry droppers when you fish.
Nymph Fishing Rigs
Depending on the technique you want to use when fly fishing nymphs, your rig might look very different from a rig used for dry fishing. This is especially true if you are tightline nymphing!
The Basic Nymph Rig
Most anglers don’t fish just one nymph at a time; they typically fish with two nymphs on the line, or a nymph and a dry fly or another type of indicator.
- Choose your leader: A 9-foot nylon or monofilament tapered leader in 3-5X size is the perfect foundation for an all-purpose nymph indicator rig.
- Prepare the tippet: Before you tie the flies, you will want to cut off the last 12 to 24 inches of tippet and retie it to the leader using a blood knot or double surgeon’s knot. Why? Because later, when you add your split shot, you can attach it above this knot to keep it from moving around and sliding into your flies.
- Add the first fly: The first fly you tie on will be the heavier of the flies. Even if you’re fishing two nymphs (instead of a nymph and a dry fly), you still want the heavier fly to be tied directly to the line. This fly is called the point fly.
- Add the second fly: Then, you will add the second fly, called the dropper fly. You will use an additional tippet to add this fly. The dropper tippet should be about 12 to 18 inches long and 1X lighter than the tippet used to tie on the point fly. That means if you used a 3X tippet for your point fly, you should use a 4X tippet for the dropper.
There are two main methods used to attach the dropper tippet to the point fly. You can tie it to the bend of the hook, which is less likely to tangle but limits the action of the fly. You can also tie it to the eye of the hook, which is more likely to tangle but offers better fly action.
- Add weight: You can use split shot or putty to add weight to your rig. This takes significant experimentation to figure out exactly how much to add! Start small and add more weight gradually until your flies sit right where you want them.
- Add a strike indicator: All of the strike action takes place underwater. If you don’t use a strike indicator, you will likely miss more fish than you catch.
Check out this YouTube video from Trouts Fly Fishing to see how to set up a two-nymph rig:
The Tightline Nymph Rig
The biggest difference between tightline/Euro nymphing rigs and other types of fly fishing rigs is that you don’t always use your fly line to cast distances. Instead, you use an extremely long rod and use the weight of the flies and leader to carry the flies to their target. Basically, the weight of the flies keeps them at the right depth, and the line tight, so that the angler can see or feel the line dip when a strike occurs.
Another major difference between this type of nymphing and other types of fly fishing is the rod length. Tightline nymphing rods are extremely long, sometimes over 12 feet. 10 to 10½ feet is a good size for a beginner. With this being said, you do not need a long nymphing rod to fish this method, it just can help increase your tightline nymphing range.
In addition to a long leader, you will want a line designed for this type of nymphing. It isn’t necessary, but a euro nymphing line can help increase the success In many scenarios, your fly line will never leave the tip of your rod by very much; your long leader (sometimes as long as 20 feet or so) will be all that you cast. If you do think you’ll need to cast longer than that, choose a fly line designed for tightlining; these fly lines are thin as possible to reduce slack and drag, and are not designed to load the rod in any way.
Another element of the tightline nymph rig is that very often, tungsten beads are added to the flies themselves to add additional weight. This reduces the need for split shot and makes depth control easier.
When To Fish Nymphs
You can practice nymph fly fishing at any time of the year on any type of water. You can use nymphs at any time of day, too– you don’t have to wait until the adult insects rise or swarm. Nymphing is great when you have a lull in the surface insect activity, but it also works well when you have other bugs on the water. There’s never a bad time for a nymph!
Tips For Fishing Nymph Flies
Fly fishing nymphs isn’t just as simple as putting a fly in the water. There are lots of little tricks and hacks you can use to make your nymphing more successful.
Depth control is extremely important when nymphing because you need to put the fly where the fish are hunting. You need to keep the nymph at the depth where the fish are feeding. To do this, you will likely need to use split shot in faster or deeper water. Smaller pieces of split shot distributed along the line is better to use than larger pieces or pieces clustered together.
Finding the right depth can be difficult. If you indicator is showing you constantly hitting the bottom, and your flies are getting stuck, or collecting a debris, this is a sign you are too deep. If your indicator shows that you haven’t touched bottom at all, it may be a sign that you need to increase the depth.
Where you put your strike indicator is important. The indicator goes on the butt section of your leader somewhere between the fly line and the weight, and how far up the leader you place that indicator determines how deep your flies will sink during the drift.
A good rule of thumb is that you want the distance between your indicator and weight to be 1.5 times the depth of the water. So if you’re fishing in 4 feet of water, your indicator should be 6 feet above your split shot or other weight.
Learn How To Mend
When you fish with nymphs, your floating fly line and indicator determines where your nymphs end up underwater. If your nymphs are in slower water but the line is in faster water (or vice versa), you’ll get drag, which doesn’t look natural and won’t fool the fish. Learning how to mend will let you correct this problem and give the fish a natural-looking presentation.
Set Your Hooks Often
Make sure that you are setting the hook when your indicator stops moving naturally. It could just be a small bump, a slow down, or a various obvious pull under the water. Setting the hook is crucial, and keep in mind that big fish in slow water can take flies so gently and smoothly, that it is extremely easy to miss a take. When nymphing, it is common to set the hook when your fly is just bumping the bottom. Sometimes it is easy to mistake the bottom for a fish.
Know The Best Nymph Water
While you can fish nymphs on any type of water, there are certain areas in a stream that indicate nymphing will be extra successful. Look for pockets, holes, deep pools, runs, and riffles. The inside seam of a bend is always a good bet. You want to find water that’s deep enough to hold trout and slow enough that the flies will drop into the feeding lane.
Watch this YouTube video from The New Fly Fisher for a visual aid to the basics of fly fishing nymphs.
Nymph Fly Fishing Gear
In addition to the long rod, there are some additional gear considerations for nymphing.
Fluorocarbon Vs Monofilament Tippet
While stretchy monofilament tippet is great for dry flies, it isn’t ideal for nymphing. Instead, consider using a fluorocarbon tippet.
Fluorocarbon tippet is virtually invisible underwater and is heavier than monofilament tippet. This means that it sinks better and does a better job keeping your nymph flies in the trout feeding lanes.
Remember, a strike indicator is important if you don’t want to miss your fish! You have lots of options. Some anglers swear by the Air Lock (our favorite); others prefer simple yarn. Still, others like floatant putty. You may need to try a few options before you figure out what types you like best. When the water is low and clear, or the fish are easily spooked, going for a yarn, or a dry fly as the indicator is preffered.
Nymphing Flies and Hooks
In most situations, smaller is better when it comes to nymphs. Take flies with you in various patterns in sizes 18-24, with a few 12-16s for some of the patterns that can be sized up. Don’t be afraid to take lots of flies– nymphing is often most successful when you can offer a variety of options.
Nymphing is an adaptable, flexible fly fishing technique that works year-round on every type of water. If you’re a fly angler and you only fish dry flies, it’s likely that you’re missing out on both fish and fun. With our guide to the tools and techniques of nymphing, you’re all set to try this fly fishing technique out for yourself!
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about