Presented by Ross Reels
It’s been said that trout do up to 90% of their feeding underwater. Whether or not this number is accurate, the point remains the same: trout do a lot of eating under the surface.
While many anglers prefer the delicacy and finesse of dry fly fishing, using nymphs is almost always more productive. Nymphs, or flies that imitate immature insects and are fished underwater, are meant to take advantage of the fact that there are always bugs subsurface. This is why nymphing skills are a must-have in the arsenal of any fly fisherman.
Types of nymphs
Like dry flies, nymphs come in a variety of styles and patterns. Technically, nymphs are a type of wet fly. The term wet fly broadly refers to any fly fished under the surface of the water. That said, many anglers use “wet fly” to refer specifically to traditional winged wet flies, which are usually swung and were historically fished up to ten at a time.
Nymphs, though technically wet flies, refer to subsurface flies that specifically imitate insects or crustaceans, generally don’t have wings like traditional wet flies, and sometimes have a bead for added weight. Though categorizing nymphs isn’t an exact science, there are several notable types, styles, and features used to differentiate them. Here are a few of the major ones.
Nymphs without beads are some of the simplest ones out there, and can be very effective. In heavily-pressured areas where fish are wary of flashy things, non-beadhead flies may be the way to go.
One of the most commonly-fished styles is the beadhead nymph. As their name implies, these nymphs have a bead near the eye of the hook. This makes them heavier. Although an angler can add weight to the line with split shot, having the weight incorporated into the fly is usually more convenient, efficient, and easier to cast.
Euro nymphs generally refer to a group of very heavily-weighted beadhead nymphs that ride “upside down” underwater. Since getting down in the water column quickly is important in nymphing, these flies are gaining more and more popularity.
Emergers and soft hackles
Sometimes grouped separately from other nymphs, these two styles are very effective and worth mentioning. Emergers represent vulnerable insects that are on their way to the surface to transition to the next life cycle stage. Trout take full advantage of this vulnerability. Emergers are fished right below the surface or suspended in the film, much higher than other nymphs. Soft hackles also mimic emerging insects, and though they can be dead drifted, they’re usually swung in the current to entice hungry trout.
Top nymphs for trout
With so many different types of nymphs, it can be hard to narrow down which one to fish when you get to the water. As with most things in fly fishing, it depends a lot on the day, the fish, and the location. The good news, though, is that there are also tried-and-true nymph patterns that have stood the test of time across most trout waters. Here are a few examples.
Pheasant tail – a simple and effective generic mayfly nymph, useful on nearly any body of water.
Hare’s ear – one of the deadliest and most versatile patterns, often fished as a mayfly or caddis larva.
Prince nymph – a classic stonefly pattern.
Copper John – another stonefly pattern with a little more flash and color than a prince nymph.
Zebra midge – midges fish well year-round in most places and are a staple of any flybox.
San Juan worm – great for high-water days with heavy flows and off color water.
Pat’s Rubber Legs – also called a girdle bug, this large stonefly nymph is great for big rivers or rivers at high water stages.
How to pick the right ones
Choosing the right nymphs is important to consistently catch trout. The more you fish a particular river or lake, the more you’ll get to know the flies that work best there. If you’re unfamiliar with what to use on a given body of water, there are a few steps to take to narrow down your fly choice.
Consult existing information
There are a ton of resources, both online and in print, that provide information like where different insects are found, what type of water they prefer, and when they hatch. Some even give fly pattern suggestions to match. This is a great way to go in with an educated guess.
Look under rocks
Sometimes it’s hard to get close enough to flying insects to accurately identify a matching dry fly. Nymphs, on the other hand, are easy to find by lifting up rocks and looking underneath. It’s not necessary to know the exact species of bug you find. It’s helpful to know common groups like mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, but in reality all you need to do is match the look and size of the fly to the insects you find.
Ask a fly shop
One of the quickest and easiest ways to narrow down a selection of nymphs is to check at your local fly shop. Most fly shops are more than willing to give some suggestions for the area, and no one knows the fishes’ feeding habits quite like the guides targeting them every day.
Ways to fish nymphs
Arguably more important than the actual fly is how a fly is presented. This is especially true for nymphs, which can be fished several ways. Here are four common techniques for fishing nymphs.
An indicator is essentially a small, lightweight version of a bobber, and using one is probably the most widely-used nymphing technique. Though indicator fishing itself has quite a few variations, the most common is a dead drift. This means the fly moves at the same speed as the current, suspended from the indicator above. When the indicator goes down, it’s time to set the hook!
Generally considered a more advanced technique than indicator fishing, tightlining is a very effective strategy for getting good drifts with a nymph at close range. Tightlining involves holding the rod tip high to keep fly line off the water, creating a drag-free drift. Since there’s no indicator, it’s up to the fisherman to feel a strike, notice a twitch at the end of the fly line, or see a fish open its mouth before setting the hook.
Swinging is a classic technique, and is often used with soft hackle flies. This method involves casting out into a current and letting the line pull tight, causing the fly to “swing” down and across below the angler. Swinging is one of the best ways to thoroughly cover a run, since the wide arc of the fly leaves no area untouched as you take steps downstream.
Nymphs can be stripped in rivers, but more often they’re stripped through stillwater. Since most aquatic insects can’t fight the flow of a river enough to move deliberately across a channel, it can look unnatural to strip nymphs in moving water. A quickly-stripped nymph in a pond or lake, though, can trigger aggressive strikes from cruising fish.
Learn how to rig up for your next nymphing trip here!
Tips for fishing nymphs successfully
Nymphing is an art, and it takes a lot of practice to do successfully on a consistent basis. Since there are so many variations of nymphing, there are lots of different methods and techniques to master. That said, a few basic tips will go a long way when the details matter.
1. Set the hook quickly
When fishing dry flies, setting the hook often requires a slight pause to be effective. Jumping the gun is common, since the angler may see the fish before the fly is actually in its mouth. The opposite is true for nymphing. Whether you’re feeling for a strike or using an indicator, you should set the hook as soon as possible, since both of those triggers mean the fish has already made solid contact with the fly. Set the hook too slowly, and the fish will be long gone.
2. Make sure you’re getting down enough
If there’s one thing that’ll make or break the quality of a drift, it’s the depth. If trout are feeding underwater, they’re usually feeding near the bottom. Drawing them out of their feeding lane is easier said than done, but getting into the feeding lane is possible with weight. A single split shot can completely change the outcome of a drift.
3. Treat every bump as a strike
If you’re getting deep enough with your nymphs, you should be hitting bottom now and then. This will cause an indicator to dip, which can get confusing when you’re looking out for bites. Knowing that more often than not, it’s just a rock, some fishermen start to ignore smaller bumps on their indicator. This can lead to a ton of missed fish, as some takes are very subtle. To maximize your number of hook ups, set the hook any time your indicator bumps. Better to set the hook for a rock than not set the hook on a fish!
4. Minimize line on the water
Excess fly line on the water does one thing really well: drag. Unless you’re using a technique that benefits from drag, like swinging, you’ll want to minimize the amount of fly line on the water. Sometimes long casts are required, and in these cases it’s hard to keep line off the surface. But, in many cases, simply pulling in excess line and lifting your rod tip will eliminate all drag, creating a perfect dead drift.
Also check out the Top 10 Tips to Catch More Trout, regardless of whether you’re nymphing!
Example flies tied and photographed by Svend Diesel.
This article was developed by Flylords’ content team member, Katie Burgert.