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In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know about Fly Fishing Nymphs.
Becoming a master at a specific fly fishing technique takes years of consistent practice. Each has its own unique details that are best learned through experience.
Fly fishing nymphs, however, may be the most involved and detail-oriented way to fly fish. As a result, it’s likely the most successful type of fly fishing, but takes quite a bit of time to master.
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For the first two years of my fly fishing career, I stuck with dry flies and streamers. I wasn’t bold enough to enter the world of nymphing. As the years have passed, I gained more confidence in my abilities and learned how rewarding it is to learn the ways of fly fishing with nymphs.
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What is a Nymph?
Nymphs are flies that imitate younger, immature insects in the subsurface of rivers, streams and lakes.
Because they are fished underwater, they are highly productive. 90% of what fish eat is below the surface, so by adding nymphing into your fly fishing arsenal, you’ll become a far more efficient angler.
What is Nymph Fishing?
Nymphs are flies that are in between the larvae and full adult stage. They’re a bit lower in the water column and will soon be hatching on the surface. Nymph fishing can be done in a variety of water, but streams and rivers are the best options.
You’ll use your regular 8 to 9 foot rod with an indicator, split shot and smaller fly. As your fly floats down the river, you’ll pay attention to the indicator and as soon as it dips in the water, you know you have a bite.
What is Euro Nymphing?
Euro Nymphing is what many of the fly fishing purists choose to do. You high stick your rod through pools and riffles, use no indicator and a bit heavier flies.
The main difference between Euro Nymphing and regular nymphing is the lack of indicator and many anglers use 10 or 11 foot rods to help them high stick far over the water.
Some anglers tie on a sighter in their leader. This is essentially a foot long portion of leader that is bright monofilament. It acts as an indicator without having to attach anything to your line.
If you do choose to Euro Nymph, be sure you have beachhead flies and a longer rod. You need to essentially keep your rod tip over your fly to ensure the most natural drift.
This is made a lot easier if you have a good pair of waders so you can hold the rod tip closer to the pool or seam so that the fly passes over it naturally.
When to Use a Nymph
The beauty of nymphs is that you can use them year-round at any time. These flies are actually the best flies to use in the winter. Wherever you would throw a dry fly or a streamer, you can use a nymph.
If the water is fishable, you can use nymphs. The most important thing to keep track of is your depth. These flies need to sit near the bottom of the water column so it takes some time to learn this skill, but once it’s mastered, you’ll land fish.
How to Cast a Nymph
Nymphs are lighter than streamers, but much heavier than dry flies. Remember that with nymphs you never want to cast very far. You need to have the longest natural drift you can manage and a long cast shortens the length of your natural drift.
The Best Nymph Flies
There are thousands of patterns of nymphs available for anglers and it can be difficult to choose the correct option. There are, however, a few nymphs that are versatile and can work in a variety of conditions.
It’s best to check with your local fly shop before you choose to invest in a large amount of nymphs.
Best Nymphs For Trout
Nymphing for trout is always going to produce fish. They’re the most successful flies, but many anglers don’t like to fish them because it doesn’t require as much effort from them. Plus, it’s very technical so it can be difficult for the non-patient anglers.
French Nymphs are almost the exact same as a pheasant tail nymph. However, there’s a flash of color tied just below the bead that often entices the fish. It’s not known what the fish think the bright color is, but it always works.
If the fish aren’t moving, tie on a French Nymph and that will change. They can’t turn down a flashy fly. Use this fly with 3x or 4x leader and a 20 inch strip of 5x tippet. You can use a 3 or 4-weight rod as well.
The Prince Nymph is my personal favorite. They’re extremely common in my home waters and some of the largest fish I’ve ever caught are on one of these. Prince Nymphs have several colors and sit a bit higher in the water column.
I throw these right before a hatch when the trout don’t want to take a dry fly, but I know they’re looking towards the surface. It’s a great emerging/nymph pattern that lands fish.
I’ll tie on 4x leader and 5x tippet when using the Prince Nymph. I’ll also use my 3-weight to ensure that I have quite a bit of control when using it.
The Tube Midge and Blood Midge are a bit interchangeable. If you know midge larva exist in your waters, be sure to have a few of these in your box. These are only going to work if you are 100 percent confident that midge patterns exist near you.
You can find these with and without a bead head so take your pick depending on where the fish are in the water column. They work great in shorter riffles and pocket water.
Be sure you have 3x leader and 4x tippet when throwing the tube midge. I’ve found some large fish with this fly that would snap off anything weaker than those options.
Best Nymphs For Bass
If you do use nymphs for bass, be sure to use them in moving water. Present your fly well and you’ll land a fish.
Bead Head Black Rubber Leg Stone
This is a bit of a mouthful to say, but the bass love them. The rubber legs and larger body make it too tempting to not eat. Cast these into the riffles above a pool, let it drift into it and pay close attention to the indicator.
Fish these in hook sizes between 4 and 8. They’ll be the most successful and lead to some impressive strikes.
Be sure you have 2x leader with 3x tippet! These bass are strong and will do whatever it takes to break free. Also, use your 6-weight. It’ll take some more technical casting, but you’ll get the hang of it.
The Damselfly Nymph is always money when targeting bass. Pick up this fly in an olive green and you’ll have yourself an entertaining day on the water. It has a similar appearance to a Wooly Bugger, but there is more material near the hook eye on the Damselfly.
The Damselfly is great to use on 3x leader with 4x tippet as well as your 6-weight rod. It’s a bit of a clunky setup for river fishing, but necessary to fight these fish. They’ll dive towards structure if they can.
Light Cahill Nymph
The Cahill Nymph can work for both bass as well as trout. This lighter color works well in clear water. If you know smallmouth are feeding in the middle of the water column, the Light Cahill is the way to go.
Use this on 3x leader with 4x tippet. If you’re confident in your fighting abilities, you can get away with this setup. It’s a bit more finesse, but still works quite well. A 5 or 6-weight should be plenty of power for you.
Gear To Use When Fishing With Nymphs
When fishing with nymphs, you need to know your comfort level and budget. Many anglers don’t have the luxury of purchasing a nymphing rod on top of the rest of their collection.
As a result, you’ll have to make nymphing work on your current rigs. Be sure that your rod is at least 8-feet long because you’ll need the extra length to get a proper drift on your nymph.
In most North American nymph fishing, a normal reel will be used on your set-up. In Euro Nymphing, however, they use a typical Euro Nymphing style reel which has a lever crank and is generally very small.
The smaller fish are generally fought on the line that’s out of the spool and you usually strip in the fish rather than reeling it in.
Also, the fly line for Euro Nymphing is silk, and you use the weight of the double fly set up to cast, rather than using the weight of the line.
You’re able to use floating, sinking and weight forward line when using nymphs. These flies need to reach the bottom portion of the water column so you may have to adjust your leader length, but each line will work well.
Sinking line is great to use if you’re fishing extremely deep water, but otherwise weight forward is a standard option that can work well in all scenarios. The weight of the fly will determine how low it gets in the water.
In Euro Nymphing, quite often a silk line is used with a colored leader and then a tippet with a double dropper rig with a floating fly (also acts as a strike indicator) and the nymph sinking about 6-10 inches below that.
Tippet is extremely important when fishing with nymphs. Fish are a bit sensitive when it comes to thicker leaders so be sure you have fluorocarbon tippet that will only keep the attention of the fish on the fly.
How to Fish with Nymphs
Fishing with nymph varies heavily depending on the water that you’re fishing. You need to be aware of where the fish sit in the water column, how to read current and what types of flies are set to hatch.
Fly Fishing Nymphs on a Lake
When you’re fishing nymphs on a lake, you need to be confident that they’re the right choice otherwise it’s not worth your time. Lakes are best fished with streamers and dry flies.
If you know a hatch is near and the fish aren’t quite hitting a dry fly, go ahead and tie on a nymph. Fish is a few feet below the surface and let it float near structure. Nymphs flies move with the current and are not often stripped. Therefore, only use nymphs in a lake if you know that a hatch is right around the corner.
Fly Fishing Nymphs in a River
Rivers and streams are the perfect places to fly fish with nymphs. Nymphs flow with current as they’re beginning to hatch so you don’t need to create much action yourself. Cast upstream and try to create as natural of a drift as you can.
Fly Fishing Nymphs in a Small Stream
Nymphing in small streams is also a blast. Fish sit in much shallower water than you could ever think and nymphing a stream is a great way to have these shallow fish strike. A fly floats right past their face in a few inches of water and they’re quick to strike.
Nymphing Techniques, Tips & Tricks
If you’re a beginner, you can actually fish your nymphs by swinging them. It’s not difficult to do, but it’s also not going to catch as many fish. However, it’s a great technique to use if you’re learning the drifts.
Cast at a 45 degree angle upstream and as soon as your fly begins drifting, mend upstream. As it drifts past you, let your leader and fly line unfurl to ensure that your fly starts swinging across the water.
The most likely places for a fish to strike are right as the fly floats in front of you and as soon as it begins swinging. This technique is best used with nymphs that are unweighted. You don’t want them to get too low in the water column and fail to drift properly.
Fish Upstream in Shallow Water
If you’re seeing fish and you’re using a nymph, stand downstream and cast upstream. Also, take off your indicator because you have the potential to spook the fish with it.
Cast your line upstream above the fish and wait for it to drift past them. If the fish are shallow, they’re looking to eat. They know they’re susceptible to arial predators so it’s important to take advantage of these fish when they’re shallow.
Fish Upstream Before a Hatch
If you’re seeing fish feed on the surface, but they don’t want a dry, it’s time to throw on a nymph. Cast up and across stream with some force so all of your leader lands on top of your fly.
This will ensure that your fly will reach the lower portions of the water column much quicker than if you completely release all of your line. It’s almost as if you want your fly to slap the water. Some call this the Tuck Cast!
Once it hits the water, be sure your rod tip is low. You’re not Euro Nymphing so you need to be able to strip in line as it drifts towards you. The most important thing to remember when fishing a nymph directly upstream is to try and eliminate as many currents as you can.
If possible, stand in the current that you’re fishing. If you have to cast across stream through three different currents, you’ll struggle. You need to be uninhibited when fishing your nymph upstream.
Also, be sure that you have an indicator tied on because it can be difficult to detect if a fish takes your fly if you’re letting it flow downstream without stripping.
Don’t Be Afraid to High Stick
High sticking is an extremely useful nymphing method and many anglers argue that it’s so successful that it could be considered cheating. If the current is slow and you have time to accomplish a better drift, use the high stick method.
If high sticking, it’s smart to use floating line to help you reach the necessary depths. Remember that nymphs need to sit lower in the water column to meet the fish.
High sticking is also a great method to use if there are multiple different currents between you and the current you want fish. If you high stick, you’ll be able to keep the majority of your fly line off of the water and not be affected by the current.
Your cast upstream must depend on how deep the water is that you’re fishing. The deeper the water, the longer the cast. Your beadhead nymph needs time to reach the lower portions of the water so don’t be afraid to cast and immediately start high sticking.
This will allow your leader and fly to sink and achieve a natural drift. Nymphs rarely fight or move in the current. They float downstream and do whatever the water forces them to do. You want your nymph to accomplish the same appearance.
If you can manage to drift your fly with the current, you will catch fish. If your fly line is dragging the fly downstream, you won’t catch anything. If your fly line is preventing your fly from drifting downstream, you’ll lose out on fish.
High sticking helps you follow your fly downstream and keep the exact right amount of fly line in the water. Remember that the longer rod you have, the easier it is to high stick, but it’s possible with any length of rod.
Don’t Be Afraid to Use Two Flies
The more flies you have in the water, the more of a chance you have at catching fish. The thing to remember is that the larger nymph should always be the top fly. Also, when attaching the second fly, use a bit lighter leader than you did on the first fly.
Be patient because tangles are guaranteed to happen. If it’s windy, the flies will tangle with one another so be sure to be careful with your casts and give them time to properly unfurl before you false cast too much.
It’s also possible for you to snag under water. Remember that if you do snag, you have the chance to lose two flies instead of one! You can follow the techniques mentioned above, to help you catch fish.
Best Destinations For Nymph Fishing
Nymph fishing is going to catch fish all over the world. It’s a universal method that has continued to prove itself over and over. The United States is filled with different areas that are perfect for nymphing.
There are dozens of rivers that are 10 or 12 feet wide filled with riffles, seams and pocket water. You’re going to need to be technical when fishing these waters because the fish can easily spook.
One of the most fun places to nymph is the North Tongue River in the Bighorn Mountains. This river is filled with trophy trout that often seem to be smarter than the anglers. Nymphing has proven itself to work at a fairly impressive rate.
Another river to nymph is the South Tongue. These crystal clear waters have quite a few hatches. During the evenings and early mornings, be sure to use a nymph. If you see the fish tailing, a nymph is going to work.
Nymphing and Colorado are often said together. The Golden Mile on the South Platte is a perfect place to try your hand at nymphing. These fish see quite a few flies so high sticking a nymph through the seams is going to look the most natural.
The Gunnison is also a great place to nymph. There is all sorts of pocket water spread throughout the river that is begging for some smaller flies and delicate drifts.
There are some great nymphing opportunities in the northern part of Portugal, particularly around the Minho Region and along the Lima River and Coura Rivers.
Get in touch with Antonio at Minho Fly Fishing and he can take you out for a private half day or full day of fishing on these rivers, and many others around Portugal.
Antonio is an expert, professional euro nymph fisherman and has lived and breathed fly fishing in this region for decades.
You can head out on your own, just get a license from one of the local fly shops in the region. Alternatively, you can hire a guide for a half or full-day excursion.
Get ready to see some beautiful, strong-fighting brown and rainbow trout in these rivers.
Are You Ready For Nymph Fishing?
To truly cement yourself in the fly fishing community, you need to be able to nymph. You’ll find that many of the most successful fly anglers are experts with a long rod and a nymph.
It can be intimidating to enter this world, but it’s well worth your time. You’ll find yourself catching quite a few fish and gaining a greater understanding of how fish behave in the rivers across the world.
Some of the images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.
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