How to Catch Trout on Flies, Part 2: Nymphing

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Fly fishing a stream

It’s called nymph fishing or “nymphing” because you usually imitate the nymphal form of aquatic insects such as mayflies and stoneflies. Nymph anglers also imitate caddis and midge pupae and larvae, sowbugs, scuds, cranefly larva, snails, worms, fish eggs, and a host of other subsurface food items that are not technically nymphs, yet, like a mayfly nymph, they cannot swim or are poor swimmers.

While nymphing, you generally dead-drift your flies just as you do when dry-fly fishing, but you are drifting them close to the bottom where the fish are.

Most people use strike indicators when they are nymphing, and while this is a good choice for most people most of the time, strike indicators aren’t always required and sometimes are not the best choice.

Tight-line nymphing, short-line nymphing, and high-sticking all refer to a technique where you stand close to your target area and intentionally keep your fly line off the water by keeping the line “tight” between the weight near your nymphs (sometimes a heavy nymph is the weight), and your rod tip.

By using a heavily weighted rig and a tight line, you can feel the flies drag, bounce, and tumble along the bottom, and you follow their drift closely with your rod tip.

If the flies hang up on the bottom frequently, you may have too much weight. If you can’t feel the bottom and your flies quickly sweep downstream, you don’t have enough weight, or may be fishing in water that is too deep and too fast for this type of presentation. High-sticking works best in knee- to waist-deep water with moderate current.

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When a trout takes your fly, it may strike violently and drive the hook into its mouth so you don’t need to set the hook at all. More often, however, when your fly is drifting directly toward the trout, you will feel the weight “tick, tick, tick” along the bottom, and then, when the trout opens its mouth and picks up the fly, you will feel nothing, or just a slight hesitation or pause. This is when you must quickly set the hook or else the trout will eject the fly.

To set up this type of rig use a 12-foot or longer leader and tippet. Your goal is to have no fly line on the water at all as the wide-diameter fly line easily catches the current and pulls your flies downstream too quickly. The narrow part of your leader and tippet is thin enough to slice through the water, allowing your flies to stay at the right depth, and drift at the right speed for the greatest amount of time.

If you can comfortably and smoothly cast two flies without creating a tangle, attach one nymph at the end of your tippet, and then tie a 12- to 18-inch piece of monofilament to the bend of that fly and use that tailing piece of monofilament to attach a second nymph. Pinch your split-shot to the tippet between the two flies, that way one fly will ride slightly higher in the water column. You’ll have greater contact with the top fly and better ability to detect strikes. The bottom fly will drift more naturally in the current and possibly attract more strikes, but the slack line between the weight and the nymph may cause you to miss a few more strikes.

In any two-fly nymph setup, try to use dissimilar patterns such as one dark and one light-colored fly, one small and one large fly, or one caddis and one mayfly. It doesn’t pay to have two similar flies on a tandem rig.

Using a strike indicator
Your strike indicator not only tells you when a trout has taken the fly, it suspends your fly at the correct level and helps you predict and monitor current speed to defeat drag.

Strike indicators. Fishing with a strike indicator is not only productive, it can be more visually entertaining because you fish the indicator like a dry fly you drift it through the same places, mend the line upstream or downstream to control your drift and to avoid drag, and when the trout strikes, your indicator shows the strike by pausing, twitching, or sometimes violently plunging underwater.

There are many types of indicators sticky, pinch-on foam indicators; stick-on putty indictors; small and large corky-type indicators of all shapes made of painted Styrofoam; bushy yarn indicators; and many more.

If you are drifting large or heavy flies (and split-shot) near the bottom of big rivers, you’ll need a supersize indicator that can suspend your flies without sinking. A sinking indicator still works as long as you can see it under the surface, but if it gets pulled completely out of view, it is worse than useless.

For big-water nymphing, a large macramé yarn or foam bobber-type indicator is best because it floats high, is easy to pick out from a distance, and won’t get pulled under by heavy flies. Solid indicators usually have a hole through the center. Thread your tippet through the hole, and then thread the tippet through again from top to bottom so when you tighten the line, the indicator stays in place.

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Forget about the toothpicks that may come with your bobber-type indicator. More often than not they fall out, and if you do get a toothpick securely lodged, they are difficult to remove when wet, making it difficult to adjust the distance between your flies and indicator. With the “twice through” method, it’s easy to slide the indicator up and down, but it won’t move accidentally while you are casting.

Large pre-made yarn indicators are also buoyant and easy to adjust. These types of indicators have a loop at the bottom. Slide a loop of your leader through the indicator and then pass the indicator through the loop to form a loop-to-loop connection. Again, this connection is secure when the line is tight, but you can slide it up and down to meet changing river depths.

Instead of a pre-made yarn indicator, you can also loop smaller pieces of yarn directly onto your leader using a slip knot. This allows you to use a small yarn indicator with small flies or in shallow, flat water where a large indicator may spook fish.

To make your own yarn indictor, snip a ½" hank of yarn as thick or thin as required by the flies and water conditions. Make a simple overhand loop in the leader butt where you want the indictor. Reach through this loop with your thumb and forefinger, pinch another section of leader and pull it through the loop creating a slip-knot loop. Place the yarn in the slip-knot loop and pull it tight. Use your fingers to “puff out” the individual fibers of the yarn, and treat the indicator with fly floatant.

The distance between your indicator and your top fly should be roughly 1½ to 2 times the depth of the water. For instance, if you are fishing in water about 3 feet deep, adjust the position of the strike indicator to allow about 6 feet of leader between the indicator and the fly. In fast or deep water, double the water depth is usually about right, and in shallow or slower water a shorter distance is better. These are rough estimates you’ll need to fine-tune to your specific fishing situation.

Pinch one small split-shot above the tippet knot and be prepared to readjust this weight frequently as you fish different water depths and speeds. You should also adjust your strike indicator position (and therefore leader length) as the depth changes. The best anglers constantly change their weight and leader length as they fish to get the best drifts.

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Fish your indicator as you would a dry fly, and with the same presentations: upstream, across-stream, down-and-across, etc.

The upstream and up-and-across presentation angles work best for most nymph anglers most of the time because they keep the fly, weight, and indicator in a relatively straight line and therefore in similar current speeds, helping to telegraph the strike. When you cast directly across-stream, your nymph and indicator are likely to be in dramatically different current speeds, which can create slack and cause you to miss strikes, or cause your fly to drag so you don’t get strikes.

With an indicator and nymphs, use a slow smooth casting stroke with a wide loop to avoid tangles. If possible, avoid false casting altogether, just lift the nymphs from downstream and with one smooth motion lob them upstream, letting the line shoot through your fingers.

When the nymph and indicator hit the water, transfer the line to under the index finger of your rod hand and strip in line as the indicator drifts toward you for better hook sets. You can also raise your rod to take in slack, and in many cases it pays to keep the rod high to keep your line off the water and avoid currents that may pull the line and drag the indicator and flies.

Your goal is to create and maintain slack in your line so the indicator drifts freely, with no dragging influence from your end of the line. However, if you have too much slack in the line you won’t be able to pick it all up and set the hook when the strike comes. Have as little slack as possible to allow a dead-drift, and no more.

Watch your strike indicator closely as it drifts in the current. Learn to differentiate between the steady “tick, tick, tick” of the split-shot bouncing along the bottom, and the pause or hesitation when the trout takes the flies. In the high-stick nymphing technique described previously, you feel the flies ticking the bottom. With an indicator, there is much slack between you and the weight so you will see (not feel) whether your flies are on the bottom or if they are sweeping rapidly downstream.

Watching expert nymph fishers can pay big rewards observe how they mend their line upstream to create slack and avoid big downstream bows in their lines that can pull the indicator; watch how they stack mend to extend the drift and how they flick their rod tip to throw slack into the line as the indicator drifts away from them; sometimes they hold their rod high to lift the line away from drift-ruining currents; when the fly is close, the water flat, or a strike is expected they may keep the rod tip low to allow for an effective strike.

Nymph fishing is a constantly changing game through just a single drift—one that requires attentive fishing and constant observation and evaluation. Once you become a good nymph fisherman, you can catch fish throughout the day and throughout the seasons, not just when insects are hatching and trout are rising.

Choosing a fly. Before you begin nymphing, wade into a shallow riffle and lift a few rocks from the bottom. Test rocks in midstream as well as a few along the shore to give you a good idea of what you’ll find. In most trout streams you’ll probably find many caddis cases built of small pebbles or twigs, a variety of small mayfly nymphs, and a few larger stonefly nymphs.

Use nymph imitations that match the most prevalent food source. Remember that while there may be many cased caddis, these insects don’t end up in the water column as frequently as some other free-ranging insects.

What you should be looking for are larger, or at least more robust mature nymphs that may have darker or swollen wingpads and seem ready to transform into adults. These insects are likely to be in the water column soon, and many more have likely been in the water column for days or weeks. These are good choices to imitate.

When trout are rising to a single type of emerging insect, using the right imitation can be critical. On a hot summer afternoon when nothing is hatching, the best nymph patterns are not strict imitations of a single food type. The best nymphs often represent a broad range of food items, they have a bead to get the fly down and provide a jigging action, and they often have flash to catch a trout’s attention in deeper, turbulent water. Our favorite general-purpose nymphs include John Barr’s Copper John (black, copper, and red; #10-18), beadhead Hare’s Ear and Pheasant-tail nymphs (#12-18), beadhead Prince Nymphs (#6-12), San Juan Worms (red and brown; #6-12), and egg imitations (chartreuse, cheese, buff; #14-16).

The next, and last, article in this series will discuss fishing with streamers.

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