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The Beginner’s Guide to Nymphing

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9 mins read

Nymphing is often the first style of fly fishing that beginners learn. Nymphing is most analogous to conventional fishing because both usually utilize some sort of bobber (though fly fishers love to give complex names to simple things and refer to their bobbers as “strike indicators”) and both are fairly intuitive. The awkward-at-first mechanics of a fly cast, of managing line, and keeping a drag-free drift, are mitigated into more manageable tasks when nymphing.

I also think nymphing is harder to master than it’s given credit for.

The only way to truly master any style of fishing is spending time on the water. Short of that, reading as much as you can certainly helps. This guide will go over the basics you need to know in order to have a solid foundation of skills as you hone your approach to nymphing.

What is nymphing?

Nymphing is simply the method of fishing with at least one fly that imitates the larval or nymph stage of an aquatic insect. Often, nymphs are fished in tandem beneath an indicator. In Euro nymphing, the indicator is swapped out for a sighter leader. This is just a colored piece of leader that alerts an angler when fish eat their flies.

Nymphs make up the majority of a trout’s diet – something like 80%, depending on which expert you ask. That makes sense, since

trout have to expend more energy to eat dry flies, since the current in a river is stronger at the surface than near the bottom. The more energy a fish has to expend in order to eat, the larger the potential payoff has to be in order to justify that energy expense.

And it’s not just trout that eat nymphs, either. Bass and carp are frequent nymph eaters.

Rigging Up

I answer more questions about rigs for nymphing than almost anything when I’m guiding. There’s an infinite number of ways to rig nymphs, and it’s overwhelming at times.

What I’ve found works best is to pick one rig and get comfortable with it. Once you feel you know it well enough to catch fish

consistently, then you can branch out to try different styles.

For example, I grew up fishing along the Provo River. One of the more popular ways to fish the Provo is with the “Provo RiverBounce Rig.” It’s a way of rigging up nymphs so that they bounce at a set depth in the water column. If you’ve ever done conventional bass fishing, the Provo River Bounce is basically a drop shot rig modified for use on a fly rod.

The Provo River Bounce is a good method for fishing long riffles that are a consistent depth, especially with smaller flies. I never really liked it, though, and ended up catching more fish on a dry-dropper-dropper rig off the Provo instead. That’s worked for me across the Rockies, in fact, largely because it’s how I fish most often.

So, I’ll present what I see as the most common way to rig up for nymphing, but if you don’t think it’ll work for you, don’t be afraid to make a few changes. That’s the beauty of fly fishing – there’s no right way to do things.

The Go-To Rig

Start with putting a strike indicator on a 4 or 5x tapered leader, 3 – 5 feet above your lead fly.The lead fly should be the biggest nymph you plan on fishing with.

Depending on the depth of where you’re fishing, I like to go another 3 – 4 feet with tippet between the lead fly and your second fly.

tippet

As a rule, I tie the tippet directly on the bend of first hook. I know some anglers who tie the second piece of tippet into the eye of the first hook, but I don’t think a rig like that allows for completely natural movement of your flies.

Your second fly should be the smallest that you’re fishing with.

Using Split Shot

I don’t usually use split shot because I fish nymphs tied with tungsten beads, and wrapped with lead. Using heavier flies allows for a more natural movement of the flies (more on that later) and I think it helps you feel strikes more easily.

If you absolutely need to use split shot to get your flies deep enough, then I’d recommend putting it between your first and second flies.

Fishing With Nymphs

As I’ve alluded to above, there’s a lot that goes into effectively fishing nymphs. As a reminder, though, don’t let that intimidate you. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

Nymphing is most effective when you achieve a natural presentation of your flies. When nymphs flow through the water on their own, they’re drifting without anything holding them back.

Drifting nymphs on the end of a fly rod obviously isn’t natural, and if fish see anything that looks out of the ordinary, they’ll ignore your flies.

To get a natural drift, you need to do the following:

  • Eliminate drag: when your strike indicator moves against the current, you’ll see it make small wakes across the water. Those wakes are called drag, and drag is a dead giveaway that your flies aren’t naturally drifting in the water column. It’s easier said than done, but you need to focus on eliminating drag as much as possible.
    • To eliminate drag, keep your fly line upstream of your strike indicator. Don’t pull on your indicator to try and move your flies into what you think is a better position – let them drift there naturally.
  • Manage the slack: when letting your nymphs drift, manage your slack line in a way that allows for natural movement but doesn’t leave too much slack for you to pick up when setting the hook. If that sounds complicated, think of it like this – keep a bit of slack on the water near your indicator, but very little aside from that.

nymphs

Where To Cast

Of course, all the great drift in the world doesn’t matter if your flies aren’t getting to the fish.

Generally speaking, fish are holding in places where they have to expend the least amount of energy in exchange for the most amount of food. Since the current in a river is slower near the riverbed than it is on the surface, you’ll often see fish holding close to the bottom.

Fish love calmer water, or the transition between fast and slow water. Pockets of soft, calm water in the middle of the river – in front of and behind rocks – are other fantastic places for fish to hang out.

Wrapping Up

Nymphing is a fun, effective way to get fish in the net. It’s not as hard as it looks; it just demands some attention to detail.

Questions

If you have any specific follow-up questions about nymphing, ask them in a comment below and one of our team members will reply with our best answer.

12 Comments

    • Squeeze the opposite way that it clamps down onto the line with a pair of forceps. Usually it clamps horizontally, so squeeze vertically against the seam. That usually works for me.

  1. Do you use tippet rings at all? If not, why? I fish rivers with lots of underwater logs, branches, etc., and want to break off only the “weaker side” of the tippet ring. Or do you accomplish that with knotting?

    • Hey Larry, I don’t really use tippet rings. I never used them growing up, and I’ve never really seen the need to use them in the waters I fish. I don’t think there’s a right/wrong way to use them or not, I just don’t. I tie my nymphs off the bend of the hook above them and don’t have issues with breaking off on fish or snags, so I’ve found something that works for me. I think that’s the key here – find something that works for you, and stick with it. And it sounds like you have with tippet rings. I know a lot of anglers who love them, I’ve just never really used them.

  2. Very well done. Just finished a trip to the White and Norfork rivers. Most fish caught on nymphs, but a few on scuds fished deep.

  3. Your nymphing sketch shows the split shot above the first fly but in your text it says to put it between the first and second fly. Which method works best?

  4. You mentioned putting the split shot between the first and second fly but your diagram shows it placed before the lead fly. Which way do you recommend? I usually put it before my lead or first fly. Ali

    • Ali, I usually put my split shot there as well – before my first, or lead, fly. I do it that way for two reasons. 1) it’s the way I was taught, and us anglers are creatures of habit! Ha. And 2) putting the split shot above the lead fly helps retain some of the sensitivity in your rig.

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