Nymphing: Fly Fishing's Misunderstood Art Form

Many of us started with single dry flies and have progressed to long leaders with strike indicators, split-shot, and two weighted flies tied-on with fluorocarbon tippets. Why did things get so complicated? Because we like to catch fish, that’s why. Few things in fly fishing top watching a fish eat your dry fly on the surface, but the more you can successfully fish flies under the surface, the more you can enjoy a bend in the rod when hatches wane. Here’s some help I never had:

Look at the big picture. Fishing nymphs requires an imaginative look into the angling scene. When fishing dry flies you’re often focused only on the surface. Nymph-fishing adds the elements of current speed, under-water structure, and depth to the equation. You must determine the proper amount of weight on your leader, depth of your flies, size of the flies, getting a proper drift, detecting the strike, and setting the hook.

Rock bottom. You shouldn’t have to swallow your pride when fishing nymphs. Nymphing is the down-and-dirty way to catch fish. Most fish spend the bulk of their life near the bottom of the river and a nymph floating by is easy to eat. Fish on the bottom exert a lot less energy than fish near the surface, therefore if you can get your fly down to the fish, you’re going to catch more fish.

Fish fluorocarbon leaders and tippets. For over twenty years now, fluorocarbon has been responsible for a lot more fish being caught. If you’re fishing subsurface and not using fluorocarbon, you will catch less fish. The thinner and stronger material helps attain a better drift. There is also the argument that fluorocarbon is invisible under the surface. I’m not totally sold on the last point, but I can say from experience, when fishing subsurface, fluorocarbon out-fishes conventional mono.

Weight and good things will come. Having some weight, for example split shot or moldable putty, on your leader will help sink the flies to the proper depth. Annoying as heck, but it helps me consistently catch fish whether I’m nymphing out of my boat on the Missouri, sight-fishing on DePuy’s spring creek, or in a deep run on the Yellowstone. Use non-toxic split shot whenever possible and when required by local angling regulations.

Use a strike indicator. I like to adjust the size of the indicator to match the size of the water I’m fishing. On a spring creek I will use a tuft of yarn or a very small foam pinch-on. For the Gallatin River I often use a medium size plastic bubble. Generally speaking your indicator should be placed at a distance from your flies approximately twice the depth of the water you’re fishing, but be prepared to change depth often. I like to place my indicator as close to my flies as possible and adjust it to fish deeper if I’m not getting any takes.