The old saying goes that trout feed subsurface 90% of the time. I’m still not sure if that’s true, but I am sure that I catch way more than 90% of my trout below the surface. Nymphing often gets maligned as “easy,” “boring,” and “like bait fishing,” but the fact of the matter is that maximizing your effectiveness with a nymph requires you to consider more variables than with a dry fly. While dry fly fishing takes place on the two-dimensional plane of the surface, nymphing takes place in three dimensions through the additional variable of depth. Effectively fishing flies in the water column requires the angler to think strategically about the best way to present the fly in a given scenario. Here are 5 things to consider next time you’re nymphing that will help you maximize your success.
Should you use an indicator?
Indicators serve three basic purposes in my view. First, they suspend your flies in the
water column. This can be helpful if you find fish feeding at a fixed depth in the water
column and you want to suspend your flies at the depth the fish are feeding. Second, as
most people use them for, they help you detect strikes by reacting to tension on your flies.
Third, they allow you to fish further away and in slower water than you feasibly could
using tight line nymphing tactics. Therefore, indicators are an excellent tool when fish
won’t allow you to get close to them or they’re in very slow water. However, indicators
have a few drawbacks and in my experience, indicators are not the best option for nymphing.
In fast pocket water, where complex currents can introduce slack below your indicator.
This undermines the quality of your drift and your ability to detect strikes. Therefore, in
this situation, I normally choose to forgo an indicator for a sighter in a tight line or euro
nymphing setup. The tight line setup is preferable by allowing you to hold your line and
the leader off of the water, thus preventing drag, and putting you in direct contact with your flies for enhanced strike detection.
Where is your weight coming from and is it the right amount?
Weight can come from two places: your flies or split shot on your leader. I often tie nymphs with heavy tungsten beads and lead wire so that I can forgo split shot. I find these rigs easier to cast and less prone to tangling. With that being said, added weight offers the flexibility of adjustability. While you can add and subtract split shot from in front of a weightless fly, you cannot add and subtract weight from the fly itself. When fish are suspended in the column or in exceptionally shallow water, lightly weighted flies are necessary to prevent from hanging bottom. Generally, my approach to this problem is to carry the same pattern in a variety of weights. I fish a lot of dry-dropper setups, in which split shot is impractical. Thus, I rely on tungsten beads to get my nymph to sink quickly. The key is finding a weighting system that works for you and allows you to present your flies in a variety of ways at different depths.
How deep are the fish sitting?
This is a problem I feel often gets overlooked. Many nymph anglers are prone to trapping
themselves in a belief that their flies need to be ticking bottom at all times. While this is
often the case when fish are not actively feeding, bug activity often causes fish to suspend
mid-column to feed on emerging insects. This scenario calls for less weight and
shallower presentations. I often approach this problem by suspending a bead head
nymph/emerger pattern 12-24 inches behind a dry fly. However, an angler could achieve
a similar presentation by simply removing split shot, moving a strike indicator down the
leader, or switching to lighter flies. In slower, flatter water, swinging unweighted or
lightly weighted soft hackles can be a viable strategy as well. The key is to experiment,
pay attention to the conditions surrounding you, and be flexible.
Are the fish feeding selectively or opportunistically?
Here again, this requires you to know the water you’re fishing and be attentive. Oftentimes, fish key in on a particular food source, and an angler that fails to recognize this inevitably misses out on opportunities to catch fish. In my experience, trout feeding on nymphs are far more opportunistic that surface feeding fish. With that being said, I’ve often confronted nymph-eating trout that were keyed in on a particular bug, color, or pattern. Part of the answer to this puzzle is knowing your river and its hatches. Trout on the Madison River in Montana will, in all likelihood, be keyed in on stonefly nymphs in mid-June prior to the Salmonfly hatch. Fish on the South Holston in Tennessee feed heavily on sulfur mayflies all summer long. Having patterns that mimic these food sources is often crucial to success on rivers with prolific hatches. Another element of this problem, however, is simply experimenting while you’re on the water. Sometimes, fish key in on colors and patterns that seem to defy explanation. The only way to solve the puzzle is by changing flies until you happen to find the right one.
Is there a more effective way you could be presenting your flies?
This point is sort of a catchall, but it’s a question you should always be asking yourself on the water. Could you fish that riffle more effectively with a dry-dropper? Should you switch to an indicator rig for this deep, flat pool? Are your flies getting deep enough? By asking yourself this question and making adjustments, you’ll immediately become a better nymph angler. Don’t become a nymph-bot—fishing your same rig with the same weight and the same flies in every piece of water you fish. Be adaptable and open to change. No two situations are exactly alike, and the best anglers can tailor their approach to the situation in front of them.
Tommy Archibald is a contributor on the Content Team here at Flylords! Tommy is a former competitive fly angler on the US Youth Fly Fishing Team and has competed all over the world. Be sure to check him out on Instagram @tommyarchibald_fly_fishes!