Understanding Nymphs and Nymphing in Fly Fishing
As you stand by the river, you'll find a whole world hidden beneath its surface. In the fly fishing community, one of the major techniques focuses on using nymphs and a multitude of nymphing techniques reside in this category.
So, what's a nymph? Simply, it's a stage in the life cycle of an aquatic insect. But for those passionate about fly fishing, it's much more. It's a critical component in understanding and mastering the river. These insects, whether they are in their larval, pupal, or emergent forms, are the main food source for trout. They exist abundantly, hidden just beneath the rocks and gravel.
Nymphing a brown trout out of a hole with an indicator setup where the point fly was a heavy golden stone nymph.
To get a better look at them, turn over riverbed stones. Underneath, you'll discover a rich ecosystem of midges, mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, and other aquatic insects, all thriving in their prehatch state. By using a fine net and stirring up the gravel downstream, you can collect these nymphs, a vital step in understanding their role in the river's ecosystem.
Fly fishing using nymphs is a tactical approach. As seasons change and trout's feeding habits evolve, knowing how to effectively use nymphing is an art form. Hafell, Hughes, and Morris cover this extensively in Seasons for Trout. Numerous patterns imitate these nymphs. While it's not always about an exact match, adaptability is key. Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Hare's Ear Nymphs, and Rubberlegs Stoneflies are some of the popular choices. The primary goal is to present the nymph in a way that seems authentic to the trout.
Patterns and Techniques
Patterns are crucial in fly fishing. As dawn breaks and the river comes alive, anglers are often found crafting nymph patterns, trying to mimic nature. These patterns, crafted with care, resemble aquatic insects during their vulnerable stages. Classics like Pheasant Tail Nymphs and Hare's Ear Nymphs are staples in an angler's collection. While patterns are essential, it is more about resemblance in silhouette and size, but ultimately, the key is how you present them.
Alongside the realistic or impressionistic patterns are a myriad of patterns that are what most refer to as attractor patterns. These patterns vary in color, size, shape, and more from the true impressionistic patterns. They are meant to have a semblance of the insect and its phase, but they have some level of detail that is meant to be an additional allure to the target audience. I refer to them as the Willy Wonka versions of flies. The debate is still out if that is the fish or the angler. Regardless, and I’ll talk about this more, that presentation is really the key. Fish are opportunistic feeders, and the likelihood of eating is closer related to the presentation than the preferred diet or fly.
Achieving the Right Depth
Nymphing is all about depth. Presenting your nymphs at the correct depth where trout feed, especially near the river's substrate, can be the difference between success and frustration. Initially, when trying fly fishing on the Madison River, despite my enthusiasm, success was elusive. However, after guidance, I learned that the weight of my rigging was inadequate. I wasn't reaching the trout's feeding zone. Achieving the right depth is an art and requires various techniques, so I leaned on my mentor, Todd Jurgensen, for advice.
After repeatedly hooking whitefish this beautiful cutthroat came out of a deep hole I was Modern nymphing. The additional of heavier flies allowed me to get deeper faster and effectively fish the head of the pool.
Mending Line and Why: The mend is critical as it enables you to address line drag, as your line will typically cross multiple currents. Let’s use the example of having a fast current in front of you, and your indicator lands in the slower current beyond that. In this scenario, you would cast and mend upstream to allow your line to fall on the water above your indicator but still within the faster current. That faster and stronger current will carry your line quickly down to the point of the indicator, and again, you will mend the line the same way. Doing so will prevent your line in the faster current from pulling and dragging your indicator through the slower current. That is important because the placement of the indicator determines the depth, location, and speed of your nymph. Therefore, if the indicator is being dragged, the nymphs are being dragged. Critical here is that when I say indicator, I mean any type of indicator. A grasshopper in a dry dropper scenario is your indicator, or a plain old indicator setup, etc.
Dry-and-Dropper Technique: This method is best during hatches. It involves using a buoyant dry fly, like a Hopper or Parachute Adams, with a nymph attached below it. The dry fly serves as an indicator while the nymph gets into the feeding zone. Most commonly, I see anglers tie off their dropper fly on a piece of tippet that is not long enough to be effective. Trout tend not to move as much as we think unless provoked. The key I have found is to be in the correct location to entice the fish to make a move or, better yet, trigger an eat.
Indicator Nymphing: Suitable for beginners and advanced anglers, this technique uses a floating indicator. But to get it right, mending, which is adjusting the line on the water as described above, is essential. What I love about indicator nymphing is that there are almost endless ways to set up your leader configuration below and or above the leader. In addition, there are indicators of all types. Thingamabobgers, wool, foam, and stick-on indicators are just a handful of examples. All have their pros and cons.
High-Sticking Technique: This is all about depth. Using a weighted nymph and watching the line for any hint of a bite is essential. The biggest difference between high sticking and Euro or Modern nymphing is the use of split shot or weight besides only flyweight.
Short-Line Technique: Short-lining is a slight variation of high-sticking where the ideal usage is for faster water sections of the river, this technique requires heavy flies to achieve depth quickly. Weight is also often added, and the shorter the amount of line or leader in the water enables far less drag. Fishing the riffles with this technique can be absolutely deadly and is often an area of the river that is overlooked. I highly recommend setting up your rod for this technique and taking a set amount of time to specifically focus on it. For example, no matter what happens fish this way for a week.
You can learn all the details of these techniques and far more by reading the book Dynamic Nymphing by George Daniel.
Modern Nymphing Techniques
In the vast world of fishing, Euro nymphing has rapidly gained popularity. Originating from European fishing practices, this method is now adopted by many anglers eager to engage with rivers at a deeper level.
Euro nymphing, also known as European-style nymphing (ESN), has stirred conversations and debates in the fishing community. Its evolution into what is now termed "Modern nymphing" can be attributed to global competition and the blending of various fishing techniques. Derived from competitive fly fishing, it integrates the best methods, emphasizing accuracy and understanding the river. This technique runs the same path as Bruce Lee with his development of Jeet Kune Do. Lee’s breaking of traditional Kung Fu philosophy by adapting the best techniques from each historic practice and adapting them where necessary to develop what he believed was the greatest fighting art of all time. Just like fighting arts, there is no complete consensus on what is best and or ethical. Personally, I love that there is always turmoil that continues questioning and new technique development.
Modern nymphing is characterized by its specific equipment. Anglers use longer, lightweight, and highly sensitive rods that are typically 10 to 11.5 feet long, within the 2-4 weight range. These rods ensure precision in presenting the flies and allow anglers to better sense the river's flow.
In this approach, casting relies less on the weight of the fly line and emphasizes a direct connection to the nymph. This offers a more immediate interaction with the fish. Fly lines are often left on the reel with monofilament being the only exposed line to the rods eyelets. Additionally, below your sight indicating portion of your leader the often tapering leader is constructed of light but tagged tippet lengths to provide multiple opportunities for flies and extra light tippet to avoid drag in the water column.
Modern nymphers tend to use specifically weighted nymphs instead of split shots, adjusting to the river's flow. The key is understanding the balance between weight and friction to achieve the correct depth. Brightly colored sighter lines, usually in shades of yellow, red, or pink, help detect even the slightest bites, ensuring an optimal fishing experience. A trick I’ve learned is to cut your bi-color sigher section in the middle and re-tie it with a blood knot. Leave the tags so you can easily see them indicate subtle movements when you are experiencing a take.
I've found Modern nymphing to be particularly effective in waters where trout are especially cautious. It narrows the gap between the angler and the fish, akin to fishing with small dry flies. The concentrated approach makes for exciting catches. I have found it to be the closest experience to seeing a dry fly getting taken from the top. When I am so concentrated and diligently watching the indicator and the ever-so-slightest movement indicates an eat, I get that same feeling of duping the fish and achieving my objective.
For those keen to learn more, there's a wealth of resources available, including Devin Olsen's, Tactical Fly Fishing: Lessons Learned from Competition for All Anglers.
Swinging Flies Technique
Swinging flies is an age-old fishing technique that has stood the test of time. It's a method that many seasoned anglers swear by, invoking memories of times past.
It's an art that focuses on the presentation, imitating the movement of insects as they emerge. The fly is cast across the river or slightly downstream, letting it drift and move naturally, attracting discerning trout. Again, presentation is free so mending your line appropriately so the fly or flies is drifting into the zone in a natural motion can greatly increase your odds.
This tank was taken by a wet fly that was used on a dry dropper on the Green River, Utah.
One memory that stands out to me is being taught the technique of using wet flies from an old friend, Tom Blews. The experience felt like being let in on a guarded secret. The fly, simple in design yet effective in attracting trout, exemplified the essence of the technique. Tom’s lowering of his voice, leaning in, and looking me in the eyes was what made me realize that he was passing along a personal secret. Something that was likely taught to him and he was compelled to share with only the ones he trusted and wished to do the same. Luckily, later on I found that he was just a grateful guy and would share that secret with anyone he could. It really was his pride and joy and his confidence fishing tactic.
With swinging flies, detecting a strike relies heavily on observation and intuition. You must watch the line carefully, looking for any hint of a bite. When you feel or see that subtle movement, it's time to set the hook. Setting with a strip set helps as it retains line tension and a direct connection to the fly and set strength. In most cases, and as I was taught, the fish do most of the work. “You’ll feel they take and the will set the hook themselves…bad news is you’ll lose more fish than you normally do, Christian. The good news is, there are always plenty more!”
For many, swinging flies is more than just a method; it's an immersive experience connecting the angler to the river's rhythm. As the day fades and I prepare to fish, I'm reminded of this timeless technique's charm and allure. I imagine the olden days in the UK experimenting and logging their trials and tribulations while smoking cigars and pipes.
Last of all, don't overlook the standard nymphing techniques for wet flies. These deadly emerger patterns are often fantastic under indicators and or hoppers. What I find effective is positioning them higher in the water column and purposefully fishing them in slightly faster water to the right or left of the slower water. This tends to provide a little drag therefore pulling the wet fly and allowing it to rise in the water column like an emerging but. Often my takes are shortly after the indicator hits the water and the lower fly begins to rise due to tension.
The ultimate learning tool for wet flies fishing tying and technique is Wet Flies-Tying and Fishing Soft-Hackles, Flymphs, Winged Wets, and All-Fur Wet Flies, by Dave Hughes. Dave takes you on the adventure of wet flies and the deadly Flymph style flies that can be easily tied.
As I wrap up this discussion on nymphing and swinging flies, I encourage fellow anglers to dive deep, explore, and cherish the joys of fishing. May your adventures be full of discoveries, and may your nets always be wet.
Want to learn about European nymphing rods and styles? These three articles will be of interest to you.
- Rod Lengths and Affects on European Nymphing
- A Deep Dive into Nymph Fishing with Lance, the Competitive Angler
- From Novice to World-Class Fly Fisher: Devin Olsen's Journey
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