Whether you're trying to introduce friends and relatives to the joys of trout fly fishing or you're merely trying to understand how to improve your nymph fishing game, there's no denying that a little breakdown of some of the most essential nymph fly fishing techniques could make a great deal of difference. For a lot of enthusiastic fly fishing hobbyists, nymph remains by far the most effective method to fly fish for trout in streams and rivers. So, whether you're a beginner or an experienced enthusiast, mastering the following 20 tips to improve your nymph fishing is genuinely going to get you some fantastic results.
#1. Understand the difference between nymph fishing & dry fly fishing
The first and most important thing you need to bear in mind is that a nymph isn't a dry fly. Indeed, Dry Fly Fishing means you're using a replicate of a bug in its adult stage, and therefore the fly needs to drift ON THE SURFACE.
In comparison, Nymph Fly Fishing is all about using a fly that replicates the SUBSURFACE stages of the life of the insect. Consequently, your nymph fly needs to explore the underside of rivers rocks and the little cracks in the stream.
Emergers are the stage of the fly where they are moving out of the nymph stage and moving up the water column to become the adult dry flies.
#2. Get the fly deeperWhat too many enthusiasts get wrong when it comes to imitating the movements of a subsurface insect, is the fact that your nymph needs to get into the feeding lane of where the trout are actually feeding. Trout typically hang out in the bottom 6 to 12 inches of any given watershed. They then come up for there food and then head back down again into there feeding lies. So in order to catch them, we need to get our flies down into that zone.
#3. Use a weighted fly
Unlike dry fly fishing, your nymph needs to sink to the bottom of the water. You need to use a heavily weighted fly to help it drop, especially when the current is fast or the stream is deep. Weighted nymphs and streamers typically do the job, but in slow current, they might be too much. Beadhead patterns, and especially tungsten ones, can help the nymph sink faster without deadening the action of the fly. Otherwise, you can switch for a thinner tippet (5X or 6X) to speed up the sinking process.
#4. Set your indicator high
The higher your indicator is, the deeper your nymph is going to sink. For nymph fly fishing, you want to set the strike indicator, as a rule of thumb, of about twice the depth of the stream or river for fast currents. You can experiment with a higher indicator setting for slow currents, but some anglers prefer to keep it lower on the leader. This leads us to the next point, which is how to read the indicator best when trout fly fishing. Depending on your preference, you will set it higher or lower on the leader.
#5. Don't get distracted
When you're trout fly fishing, you can't afford to be distracted. The pull of the trout can be light and subtle. Therefore, you need to keep your eyes on the indicator at all times. That's precisely why keeping your indicator in a spot that you can read quickly and easily can make a great deal of difference. Ideally, nymph fly fishing is more effective with your indicator high, so it's up to you to get used to reading it wherever it sits on the leader. River fish can be gentle, so don't expect your indicator to sink violently when the trout catches the nymph.
#6. Don't waste time to strike
As soon as the indicator gives you a sign, the trout is at the nymph. You need to strike immediately. You can't afford to wait too long as you'll miss the fish. At the first light pull, you need to be ready to strike, which means that you should keep your position as you watch the indicator. However, strike fast doesn't mean striking hard, as we'll discuss in the next point.
#7. Strike immediately but lightly
Striking fast doesn't have to involve your entire body strength. When you're nymph fly fishing, it's best to keep your strike as light as possible; otherwise, you're at risk of tensing and, as a result, slowing down your reactions. Additionally, a strong strike might rip the fly completely out of the fish's mouth leaving you empty-handed. You have to remember that the trout can be extremely light and gentle when they catch the nymph. Keeping things as light as possible will give you the best chances not to miss the fish. Besides, in the event where your strike comes too late, a light strike keeps your nymph underwater.
#8. In doubt, always strike
It's not always easy to tell the difference between the nymph catching on a rock and the light take of a trout on the fly. While keeping your eyes on the indicator can let you see the sign, the indicator doesn't know how to differentiate a rock from a fish. Ideally, you want to strike when the indicator goes down, whether it is lightly or violently. Striking gently every time means you're less likely to miss the trout.
#9. False alert: Let the fly drift furtherAs mentioned above, you might strike after the tug of a rock rather than the fish. These things happen, and with time, you might learn how to tell landscape from fish. But in the meantime, you need to know how to let the fly drift in the water when the strike is empty. Even the trout can grow suspicious if you regularly remove the nymph fly from the water and let it sink again immediately afterward.
#10. Master the slacklineYou need to give your line some slack. Admittedly, achieving the right amount of slack when you're trout fly fishing in a river can be tricky, especially when the current is fast. But, ideally, you want to be able to let the indicator drift a little. Be careful not to give the line too much slack; otherwise, you'll miss the next strike. But, ultimately, keeping your line too tense affects the drifting of the nymph and makes it look unrealistic.
#11. You need more than one fly pattern
Trouts can be picky when it comes to nymph fly patterns. Anglers can find it useful to get to know the local insect population to make sure to pick the most realistic patterns for each site. Remember that, unlike you, trouts understand nymphs better than anyone else. Not only do they know where to find them, but they also appreciate seasonality. Fly fishing is all about picking the best flies for the fish. Make sure always to keep a variety of patterns at hand.
#12. Don't limit your water
While nymph fly fishing means you need to sink the nymphs as deep as realistically possible, it doesn't mean you should limit yourself to deep water. On the contrary, you need to explore the area and run your nymph everywhere in between the rocks, along the bank, and even in shallow water. In streamy currents, trouts can hold in about a foot of water, so there's no need to choose only deep rivers and streams.
#13. Cast slowly rather than quickly
The way you cast your nymph is detrimental to the success of a fly fishing day out. While with dry fly fishing, you want to keep the loop narrow, when it comes to nymph fly fishing, you need to aim for a smooth cast with a wide loop. Indeed, with a weighted fly, a narrow loop could cause tangles and ruin the next strike.
#14. Practice your roll cast
When fly fishing with a multi-fly indicator and weights, you want to ensure your leader spends the shortest possible amount of time in the air. Besides, if you're using your nymph in a tight spot with repeated casts, you need to figure out how to do a roll casting as smoothly as possible. Wide loops are not suitable for tight and crowded spots.
#15. Bigger is not always better
When selecting your flies for the day, make sure that you have a better chance at catching more trout by selecting an appropriate pattern for that season. We recommend using our seasonal fly chart and then pairing it with smaller flies in that season. Some of the largest trout that we have ever caught is on size 18-22 sized nymphs.
#16. Set your rig properly
Except for shallow fly fishing, you want to be focusing on depth when you set your rig. Ideally, you will need to aim for something between 6 and 8 feet at a minimum. If you are still unsure how to properly set your rig for nymph fly fishing, you can have a look at our beginners' video on nymph fly fishing as a reminder.
#17. Embrace a no-indicator fly fishing technique
While it might sound counterproductive, when you're trout fly fishing in shallow water and upstream spots with a uniform current, you can skip the indicator altogether. First of all, it's the best training you can get to start learning the difference between the light pull of the trout and the pull of a rock. For this exercise, you'll be using the nymph as your indicator. But, most importantly, it can be a successful approach for shallow water.
#18. Vary your nymph fishing techniques
Because every environment is different, you need to have a range of nymph fishing techniques to rely on. Ultimately, learning the basics of nymph fly fishing isn't going to be enough. If you want to give yourself the best chance of a catch, you need to diversify your trout fly fishing approaches.
The next two tips are techniques you need to add to your fishing kit:
#19. Master dry/dropper nymph fishing
This technique optimizes fishing efficiency because it also appeals to dry fly eaters. You'll need to place the dropper 8" to 12" inches off the bend caused by a bright, dry fly. The dry fly becomes your indicator for the submerged nymph.
#20. Learn the European style nymph fishing
You'll have to maintain a tight connection between the line and the leader. Combined with a dead drift and very little slack, you'll notice the moment the nymph stops drifting. You need to control the depth and speed of the drift with this method that uses indicator nymphing.
And now you're ready to bring your nymph fly fishing to the next level! Remember: Practice makes perfect!
About the Author
Matthew Bernhardt, a third-generation Coloradan, grew up at the forefront of the state’s fly-fishing revolution, enjoying time on the water, side by side with experienced guides and lifelong anglers.
By combining his passion for fly-fishing with input from other experienced fly-fishers and guides and his fine arts degree from Colorado State University, Matthew spent five years carefully developing the Drifthook Fly Fishing System, built to help every angler catch more trout.
When he’s not spending time with his wonderful family, you’ll find him out on the water catching MONSTER trout, and he anxiously looks forward to the day when his kids are old enough to join him there.