How to Nymph Fish: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

Nymph fishing is a great way to catch trout, but when you start out it can be confusing. In this article, we break down what constitutes a nymph, the best …

Nymph fishing is a great way to catch trout, but when you start out it can be confusing.

In this article, we break down what constitutes a nymph, the best ways to fish these wet flies, and the gear needed to fish them successfully.

We also go into the different types of nymph fishing and share some secret tips to make your nymph fishing more productive.

What Is a Nymph?

Nymph fishing flies
Nymph flies mimic the larval stage of aquatic insects, and anglers use them to catch trout when the insects are about to hatch.

Starting with the very basics, a nymph is a fly tied to represent the larval stage of one of a number of aquatic insects – usually a mayfly or caddis, but also midges, stoneflies, dragonflies, damselflies, and more.

The larval nymph of these insects lives on the bed of the river or lake or in underwater structures such as rocks or logs.

When it comes time for them to hatch, the nymphs slowly ascend through the water column to the surface of the water, where they “emerge” into the dun stage of the insect and fly away.

Trout can feed on them at any stage in this process, but typically with nymph flies we are trying to imitate the insect soon after it has left the stream or lake bed.

What Is Nymphing? And Why Is It So Effective?

Nymphing is any form of fly fishing that uses a nymph to imitate these insects prior to them emerging.

Nymph fishing involves fish a nymph fly subsurface in various ways to get trout to eat it.

We’ll explain the various types of nymphing later on in this article.

How to Rig a Nymph

Rigging a nymph is essentially tying it on the tippet on the end of your leader. I tend to use a tapered leader for nymphing with an indicator (more on this later), although some anglers favor a straight leader (comprised of a single diameter line) to increase the sink rate of the nymph.

I use the Pitzen Knot to tie my nymph to the tippet.

Types of Nymphing

Indicator Nymph fishing
There are several popular techniques for nymph fishing, including indicator nymph fishing with a bright-colored indicator, dry dropper rigs with a high floating dry fly, naked nymphing without an indicator, and Euro nymphing with a long leader and a sighter to detect strikes.

Indicator Nymph Fishing (Fishing With a Strike Indicator)

The most common form of nymphing – at least until the recent emergence of Euro nymphing techniques – is indicator nymphing.

This simply means fishing a nymph at the end of your tippet with a bright-colored indicator attached further up the leader to provide an indication of when a fish has eaten the nymph.

Usually, whenever you see the indicator, you lift the rod tip to strike (fish can ingest and spit out a nymph in double quick time!).

Most anglers adjust the distance between the nymph and the indicator according to the depth of the water with the aim to have the nymph close to the bottom wherever possible.

This means the indicator is usually between two feet and six feet from the nymph in this style of nymph fishing.

There are various types of strike indicators from bobber style to stick-on foam and the famous Kiwi-style woolen indicator (our favorite). You can get more here on our views on the best strike indicators to use for various situations and here on how to use a strike indicator.

Dry Dropper Rigs

A dry dropper rig uses two flies and is simply an indicator nymphing rig where a high floating dry fly – think a stimulator or Royal Wulff – forms the role of the indicator. Any of the bulkier dry flies will suffice as the indicator.

The advantage of this rig is covers two bases – some fish will rise to the dry while others will take the nymph.

It avoids the frustrating situation of when a fish swipes at a conventional indicator with no hook in it and of course goes down as a missed opportunity unless it grabs the nymph on the way back down.

Naked Nymphing (Fishing Without an Indicator)

Now we into talking about nymph fishing techniques that don’t rely on a conventional indicator. This makes detecting strikes a bit harder, but some anglers swear by so-called naked nymphing as a way to fish by feel and get their flies deeper in the water column so they are bouncing off the bottom.

Some fly fishermen think it also helps ensure the nymphs travel downstream at the same speed as the current, whereas an indicator can sometimes affect the rate of movement.

In its simplest form, naked nymphing is simply removing the strike indicator (or the dry fly in the case of a dry dropper rig) and watching the leader where it enters the water for little ticks of movement that indicate a fish has taken the nymph and you should set the hook.

The other thing to do when fishing nymphs this way is to watch the end of the fly line to detect strikes. It is easier to see as it is opaque as opposed to the transparent leader. You want to avoid slack line and watch carefully when the fly is in the strike zone.

Euro Nymphing Techniques

This form of naked nymphing has really taken the fly fishing world by storm lately. Love it or hate it, Euro nymphing catches a lot of fish.

It is a whole different form of nymph fly fishing where the fly fisherman uses a long fly rod and an ultra-long 20-foot plus leader (often this form of nymphing involves fishing with next to no fly line out the tip of the fly rod) and fishes it sideways through a run with the fly rod tip held high.

This helps ensure the nymph (or nymphs, as Euro nymphing anglers often use a double nymph rig) travels at the same speed as the current at the bottom (a drag-free drift) and is bouncing off the bottom.

The angle swings the fly rod as the rig travels downstream, almost leading the nymphs very slightly to remain in tight contact with the flies while introducing no drag or unnatural movement. (You can learn more about Euro nymphing in our article on this topic).

Euro nymphing leader setups include a colored section of mono line called a sighter that the angler watches for movement indicating a fish has taken the nymph and they need to set the hook.

Types of Nymphs

Nymph fishing flies 1
Several types of nymphs used in fly fishing, including unweighted nymphs, bead head nymphs, and soft hackles and spiders, can be fished in various styles and are effective in different situations.

Unweighted Nymphs

The simplest type of nymphs is the basic unweighted nymph tied on heavy hooks, perhaps with a lead wire wrap to ensure the fly sinks.

Pheasant tail nymphs, hare’s ear nymphs, and other simple nymphs such as the Glister Nymph can be tied (or bought) unweighted.

In a double nymph rig, an angler will sometimes use a heavy tungsten bead head nymph to on the point (the fly at the end of the rig) and a more natural unweighted nymph on the dropper.

Bead Head Nymphs

A bead head nymph is simply a nymph with a brass or tungsten nymph slipped onto the hook shank and tied in at the eye.

Beads can be of various sizes but usually are somewhat in proportion to the size of the fly.

You can vary the sink rate of the fly with the type of bed – tungsten beads are much heavier for the same diameter and will make the fly sink much faster compared to brass beads.

Soft Hackles and Spiders

These are basic slim nymph patterns with a wrap or two of Patridge or CDC hackle tied in as a collar. This produces a life wiggle in the fly that often gets an eat when all else fails.

These flies can be fished in the above styles of swung across and downstream and are one of my favorite nymphs for those days when nothing else is working.

When and Where to Fish with Nymphs

Classic nymph water could be described as a ripply run of knee-deep to thigh-deep water with a moderate current. But you don’t want to be too exact in searching for this exact type of water.

I have caught fish in slow pools with a nymph and in still waters such as lakes and ponds.

You can also fish pocket water with a nymph, so don’t restrict yourself.

The best time to fish with nymphs – in my book – is when you are getting any action fishing dry flies and there are no fish obviously rising.

Nymphing is a very productive form of fishing and there aren’t many conditions or types of water where a well-presented nymph won’t catch a trout.

What Fly Fishing Gear Will I Need to Get Started?

Nymph fishing a pool
Using simple, imitative nymph patterns such as Pheasant Tail Nymph, Glister Nymph or CDC caddis nymph and having a variety of weighted and sized nymphs can be effective for catching fish in fly fishing.

You can get started nymph fishing with a standard trout fishing fly rod (see here for our top picks and here for choosing a fly rod for trout), a conventional double taper or weight forward fly line (more on fly line tapers here).

You’ll also need a fly reel (see our top fly reels for trout), some tippet, and a selection of nymphs.

Fly fishermen and women obsess a lot about different color nymphs and putting triggers or hot spots on their nymphs. There is a role for a bright nymph, particularly in a two-nymph rig or in dirty water, but often simple imitative nymph patterns such as the Pheasant Tail Nymph, the Glister Nymph, or the CDC caddis nymph will get the job done.

In my view, it is best to have a variety of different weight and size nymphs than to go overboard in terms of variety of patterns.

Nymphing vs Dry Fly Fishing

I am going to be honest and say I’d much rather fish dry flies than spend time fishing nymphs, but the trout sometimes have other ideas and refuse to rise!

I think on balance an angler can catch more fish nymph fishing than fishing dry flies, except on big hatch days and during the evening rise when fish are looking up.

But for me personally, it involves sacrificing a bit of enjoyment as I love sight fishing to rising trout as I see it as the pinnacle of our sport.

But I hate getting skunked (failing to catch a fish) on a given day, so I will nymph fish like any angler to get an eat!

My Top Nymph Fishing Tips

  • TIP 1: Make sure the nymph is getting down to the bottom, preferably bumping along it
  • TIP 2: Strike by gently raising the rod tip whenever the nymph or indicator stops; lower the rod to keep fishing the run if it isn’t a fish
  • TIP 3: Set the hook quickly – don’t wait as fish are quick to spit the nymph out
  • BONUS PRO TIP: Sometimes in sight fishing scenarios you can watch for the ‘flash’ of white as the trout’s mouth opens and then closes to work out when it has taken the fly and you can set the hook

Nymph Fishing FAQs

Nymph fishing rod held too high

Is Nymphing the Best Way to Catch Trout?

The success that tournament anglers have with nymph fly fishing shows it is probably the best method to catch a number of fish. As mentioned, the dry fly fishing brigade will say they have more fun and the streamer fishing fraternity will say they catch bigger fish, but for sheer numbers, the nymph fishers have the advantage.

How Do You Rig a Nymph Dropper?

I use the Orvis Tippet knot to join the leader to tippet or two sections of the tippet. To create a dropper I leave the tag end of the lighter tippet long and once you’ve cinched the knot up, that becomes the dropper to which you tie the dry fly, or if the dropper is for a dual nymph rig, the lighter of the two nymphs.

What Hooks to Use for Tying Nymphs?

Nymph fishing hooks are usually heavier and a bit longer than a standard dry fly hook of the same size. As well as using heavier gauge wire hooks, nymphs are often tied on curved hooks.

Can you Fish Nymphs in Lakes Too?

Yes, you can fish very effectively in lakes with a nymph. This can be nymphing by feel effectively by slow retrieving a nymph through likely water or by suspending a nymph (I love to use a stick caddis) under a dry. This is a popular way of fishing during midge hatches – suspending a midge buzzer under a midge ball dry fly is a great way to fly fish this hatch.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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