Nymph Fly Fishing: Everything You Need to Know

If you’re a fly fisherman who is relatively new to the sport and are looking to catch more trout, then upping your nymph fishing game is a great place to start. Trout do 80% of their feeding underwater and while they can be eating fry, most of the time they are eating nymphs.

By upping your nymph fly fishing knowledge you stand to increase your success rate by a lot. Join me as I run through everything you need to know about how to catch more fish nymph fly fishing.

What fly rod and fly line are best for nymphing?

What fly rod and fly line are best for nymphing

In all honesty, you can use any fly rod from a 3-5 weight to fish a nymph rig but if you really want to take nymphing seriously then a 3 weight 10-11ft fly rod is your best bet and is the preferred rod choice for euro nymphing. See our post here on what is euro nymphing for a more information.

The extra length and the lighter weight of a 3 weight allow you to feel more in your rod tip while your nymph rig is in the water so you can detect strikes more easily. It also makes short casts a lot easier so you can roll them out without a trout noticing.

The best fly line for nymphing is a weight-forward floating line that is extra floaty and has a heavier head with a longer taper. This will ensure your fly line doesn’t sink making the drift easier and the heavier head and longer taper make casting a nymph rig with a roll cast a piece of cake.

What leader and tippet are best for nymphing?

What leader and tippet are best for nymphing

Once you have the right rod and line ready to go, the next phase of being prepared to fly fish with a nymph rig is having the right leader and tippet setup.

Your leader should be, at a minimum, 9 feet in length but make it as long as 12 feet if you’re able to turn it over on the cast. The longer the leader the less likely you are to spook a wily brown trout.

At the end of your leader, you’ll attach your tippet and you should use fluorocarbon tippet material as this is invisible to fish and it sinks helping you get your nymph flies to your target depth. 5x tippet is the general go-to when fishing nymph rigs but you can also use 4x-8x tippet depending on the conditions and the size of the fish you’re targeting.

How to build a nymph rig

There are loads of different ways to build a nymphing rig and I’ll slowly build from the rigging basics into all the different options.

The Basics

To begin with, you’ll need your 9-12ft tapered leader and you’ll join this to your fly line using a loop to loop connection. If you haven’t got a loop on your leader you can tie a double surgeon’s loop knot to create one, and if your fly line doesn’t have a loop then either add a braided loop or connect your leader with a nail knot.

You’ll then need to attach 1.5 – 2 feet of 4-5x tippet to the leader and it’s best to tie a triple surgeon’s knot to join them securely.

Single Fly Nymphing Rig

How to build a nymph rig

A traditional nymphing rig uses just one fly tied onto the 2 feet of 5x tippet. It’s best to use weighted flies with enough weight to get your fly pattern into the correct depth where the fish are feeding.

Once you feel confident in your nymph selection, simply tie it onto your tippet with an improved clinch knot.

At this point, you do have the option to add a strike indicator and these can be very useful for subtle strike detection and you can also adjust the depth of your nymph by moving it up and down the leader, ideal when moving from deep to shallow water.

Double Nymph Rig

A double nymph rig setup involves having two nymphs and most anglers prefer this setup as by having two flies you are fishing multiple depths of the water column and you have two flies for the fish to choose from instead of just one. I always multiple flies when nymphing, even when dry fly fishing and boy do you catch.

When creating a double nymph setup it’s important to remember that the top fly or first nymph is known as the point fly and it should be the heavier of the two. This will allow the flies to sink faster so they get into the strike zone. The second fly is called the dropper fly and should be a lighter and smaller fly than the first fly.

How to rig a double nymph setup

How to rig a double nymph setup

To rig a double nymph setup, you’ll want to tie around 2 feet of extra tippet with a double surgeon’s knot to the end of the tippet section we built in the Basics section above but be sure to leave a 6-8 inch tag end.

Add your first fly to the long tag you have left from the double surgeon’s knot and add the second fly to the end of the second section of the tippet using an improved clinch knot for both.

Again, you have the option of adding a strike indicator to any part of the leader to control the depth you’re fishing when swapping from deep to shallow water.

Drop Shot Rig

When creating a drop shot rig you are simply adding some split shot to one of the two nymph rigs we discussed above. The key to getting this rig right is selecting the right amount of split shot to add to the rig and knowing where to put the split shot.

When it comes to where to put the split shot you have two choices. You can either place the split-shot on the leader above the tippet, which is what most fly fishermen tend to do. Or, you can add the split shot where you’d have your point fly (first fly) on your double nymphing setup, instead of the fly itself.

To work out how much split shot you need, just add one to begin with and see if your fly or flies bounce along the bottom, if so one is enough, if not, add another and keep experimenting.

Dry Dropper Rig

Dry Dropper Rig

Dry droppers are another great option when you’re fishing in shallower waters is using dry flies as a part of your nymphing setup.

You can use the same method for rigging as described in the double nymphing setup but your point fly will be a dry fly. Another method is instead of leaving a long tag, you can tie the dry directly to your tippet and then tie the second fly (a nymph) to a piece of tippet that is tied directly to the dry fly’s hook with an improved clinch.

When you make this rig you must make sure you choose a dry fly that will not sink under the weight of the nymph and a classic choice is a foam hopper, hence the term hopper dropper rig. You don’t have to use a hopper just make sure the fly you choose is floaty enough.

The dry flies in this rig then act as your strike indicators giving a more natural appearance and you have the chance of a rainbow trout taking the dry too.

Fly Selection

fly selection

When you’re nymphing it’s very hard to know what the fish are eating and how they are reacting to your flies. When fishing dries, so you can see when a fish ignores your flies or comes for a look only to refuse them, but with nymphing flies, you’re fishing blind.

This is why your fly selection is so important and a fly fisherman who catches more fish than others will experiment until she or he finds what the fish want most.

Your fly set for fly fishing with nymphs should include a vast range of flies with different weights and sizes. If you looked in my fly box you’d find 4 sizes of prince nymph fly and all with different weight bead heads, the same goes for other patterns like a pheasant tail nymph and hares ears.

Here is what you should have in your fly box:

  • Imitative flies that imitate exactly what is hatching at the time of year
  • Search patterns like hares ear flies that look like a lot of different nymphs
  • Attractor patterns in bright colors which don’t look like fish food but get their attention

Fly Selection Tips

fly selection tips

So here are some great tips I’ve learned in the past when it comes to fly selection and these have really helped me when times have been tough catching fish.

Weight matters – you might be fishing the right fly but it’s sitting too deep or too shallow. Experiment with different weight flies to get your offerings into the feeding zone.

Size is key – the first step to fly fishing for trout is matching the size of the nymphs they are feeding on naturally so have flies in sizes 12-18 in your box.

Color is next – the next most important thing after size is color so make sure you have a selection of nymphs in different colors from red to green, brown, grey, and so on.

Use bright fly to see what’s happening – adding a bright fly like a wooly worm or egg pattern to a double nymph rig when fly fishing in clear water allows you to see what your rig is doing underwater. You can then work out the depth your rig is at, if it needs adjusting, and if fish are refusing what you’re putting out there.

Understanding Depth, Speed, and Drift

Understanding Depth, Speed, and Drift

You only catch fish nymphing when your flies drift in front of a trout and to do this you have to adjust for the depth and speed of the part of the river you’re fishing in. Here is how to adjust your indicator to ensure your flies are getting a good drift.

  • In slow water, your indicator needs to be 1.25 x the water depth away from your last fly
  • In medium water, your indicator needs to be 1.5 x the water depth away from your last fly
  • In fast water, your indicator needs to be 3 x the water depth away from your last fly

For example, if you’re fishing fast water that is 4 ft deep, you’ll need your indicator to be 3 x 4ft = 12 ft from your last fly to ensure you’re fishing your flies at the right depth.

What about fishing without an indicator?

If you’re fishing without an indicator, which can be a great advantage for spooky trout, then you’ll be high sticking meaning holding your rod tip high to feel any bite that comes along.

This is how euro nymphers fish and to do so effectively you need a 3 wt 10-11ft fly rod as I mentioned at the beginning. You can use the same depth calculations as above but instead of relying on an indicator, you’ll be feeling when your flies are near the bottom with your rod tip.

This only works when you’re fly fishing water very close to you as you’ll only have 1ft of the line out the rod and using your leader to cast with.

But have you ever tried fishing without a rod?

How To Nymph & Catch Fish Doing So

How To Nymph & Catch Fish Doing So

Now that we have run through everything you need to know about the different rigs let’s talk about how to fish nymphs properly. It all comes down to giving your flies a natural drift to entice a fish to eat them which can be done in different ways, and then you need to set the hook correctly.

Finding The Right Water

When you’re nymphing you need to be fly fishing in the right kind of water. Look for parts of the river that will hold fish on the bottom such as riffles, below rapids, pocket water, and such. When you find these areas pause and think about the currents, how fast the flow is, and what depth it is, and adjust your rig as needed.

The Cast

Now that you have found a fishy spot, it’s time to make your cast. Remember you want your flies to be at the right depth and with a drag-free drift or dead drift when they move through the spot you think fish are holding in.

This means you want to cast your flies above where the fish are holding in order to let them sink to the desired depth before the fish see them. Make sure to cast 3-5 feet in front of where the fish are holding.

The Mend

the mend

In order to get a drag-free drift, you are going to need to mend the line as soon as your flies land. When casting upstream, you’ll want to mend your line upstream towards the fly to remove any drag and let them sink.

Then as the flies drift downstream, be sure to gather any slack line and follow the drift with your rod tip. Continue to mend the line up or downstream as needed depending on what the currents are doing.

Setting The Hook

If you see anything happen to your indicator other than it drifting downriver it’s time to set the hook. You can’t tell whether your nymph has bumped the bottom or if a fish has eaten it meaning whenever it stops, bobs, sinks, or anything, make sure to strike.

Setting the hook properly is done by lifting your rod gently as if you’re about to make another cast. There is no need to pull the hook sharply, just a gentle lift will hook a fish. If it wasn’t a fish that make your indicator move then you can just re-cast if it was a fish then you’ll be on and having a fun fight.


How do you fish a nymph in a lake

What is the difference between a wet fly and a nymph?

A wet fly is a fishing fly that is designed to float on the surface of the water. They are typically made of hackle feathers and are used to imitate insects or other prey. A nymph is a sub-surface fly that is designed to imitate the immature form of an aquatic insect. Nymphs are typically weighted and fished near the bottom of the water.

How do you rig a nymph for fly fishing?

Rigging a nymph for fly fishing involves attaching a leader and tippet to your fly fishing rod, threading a strike indicator onto the leader, and then tying a weighted nymph onto the tippet. Depending on the type of nymph being used, you may also need to attach a split shot to the tippet to help the nymph sink quickly. Once the nymph is rigged, you need to cast it upstream, allowing it to drift naturally downstream with the current of the water.

Is nymphing really fly fishing?

Yes, nymphing is a form of fly fishing. It involves using sub-surface flies, usually weighted, to imitate the immature forms of aquatic insects. The goal of nymphing is to fool the fish into thinking that the fly is a real insect, and then to catch it when it strikes the fly.

Are dry flies better than nymphs?

The answer to this question depends on the situation. In general, dry flies are used when there is a lot of surface activity, such as when mayflies are hatching. Nymphs are used when there is less surface activity, such as when fish are feeding on midge larvae or other subsurface insects.

Why are nymphing rods so long?

Nymphing rods are usually longer than traditional fly rods because they need to be able to cast further and more accurately in order to reach the deeper water where the fish are feeding. The longer rod also helps to provide more control over the line, which is important when fishing in fast-moving water.

How do you fish a nymph in a lake?

Fly fishing with a nymph in a lake is very different from fly fishing with a nymph in a river mainly because there is no current and lakes are much deeper than rivers. But, you still need to control the depth of your flies so they are in the strike zone and this is done with your choice of line and your retrieve rate.

If the fish are feeding deep then to get your flies down to them start with a long 12-15ft leader, a floating line, and a very slow retrieve. The faster you retrieve the shallower your flies will be.

If this doesn’t work, change to a sink tip, intermediate or fly fishing sinking line until you find the ultimate depth.

When nymphing on a lake, you can also use up to 4 flies on a rig which will allow you to fish multiple depths at the same time. This is a common tactic early in the season when the fish are eating static buzzers. You would rig 4 flies the same way you’d rig two, just keep adding double surgeon’s knots until the dropper fly.

Photo of author

Jamie Melvin

Growing up fly fishing on trout streams in Kenya and the UK, Jamie has traveled the world in search of fly fishing nirvana. From his time managing bonefish lodges in the Bahamas and running fishing safaris in East Africa, all the way to guiding on the flats of Seychelles, there aren't many species or environments he hasn't experienced firsthand.

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