Almost every day, someone ask me if the trout are taking dry flies or nymphs. I instantly know their level of knowledge is
about fly fishing for trout is very low, so I never answer with what I feel like saying. I never infer that is a stupid question
because if something isn't known, it isn't a stupid question. Even though it is incorrect to do so, when asked that
question, I just automatically assume they are classifying any and everything that isn't a dry fly, a nymph. After all, there
are other foods trout eat. Most all trout streams have caddisfly larvae and pupae as well as midge larvae and pupae.
There are usually several species of crustaceans, baitfish, sculpins, aquatic worms, terrestrial insects, etc. Without
getting into that with the person asking the question, I usually just respond by saying they are certainly taking nymphs
and hopefully both nymphs and dry flies. I usually continue to explain that it all depends on the stream and environmental
conditions as well as the time of day. I usually continue to expound on that answer by saying that at least ninety
percent of the food trout eat, is eaten below the surface. Depending on the time of the year and the particular
stream, I usually continue to tell them what food the trout may be taking from the surface as well as below the surface.
To be completely blunt, ninety-nine percent of the time trout are taking dry flies from the surface, they will also take flies
that are presented below the surface, meaning emerging nymphs and/or pupae. As a matter of fact, they often will take
flies presented below the surface even when a hatch is occurring and they are taking dry flies rather well. It is usually a
fact that they can almost always acquire more food below the surface than on the surface, even when a particular
insect is hatching and trout are taking dry fly imitations of the adults. Even during a mayfly spinner fall, trout often eat as
many or more of the sinking dead spinners as those floating on the surface.
There is another huge factor that I consider the most overlooked thing in fly fishing for trout. Trout can see
nymphs far better than they can see adult insects on the surface of the water. As long as the water is clear, they get a
good look at everything beneath the surface as compared to a very poor look at anything floating on the surface. This
isn't my opinion. This is a fact. Even so, anglers pay far more attention to how well their dry flies match the
appearance of the adults than they do the nymphs. That is very obvious due to the fact there are thousands of fly
patterns that imitate floating insects or dry flies, and far less that imitate nymphs. By the way, there are even fewer that
imitate specific species of insect larvae. Again, keep in mind, anglers and the entire fly industry, incorrectly call all larvae
nymphs when in fact, it should be right the opposite. All nymphs are larvae but not all larvae are nymphs. In other
words, most anglers feel like any old nymph will usually catch trout but their dry flies need to look like the
real things. It should be right the opposite of that. For example, anglers tend to think a Hare's Ear or a Prince Nymph will
work just fine but when it comes to the dry fly, they need a fly that looks like the real thing. This has been true throughout
the history of fly fishing for trout. To be very blunt, that's actually a very stupid approach to fly fishing. Nymphs, as well
as larvae, need to imitate the appearance and behavior of the naturals more than the dry flies need to
imitate the appearance and behavior of the adults. In case your not following me, I'll put it like this. A March Brown
nymph (a clinger nymph) looks about as much like a Sulphur nymph (a crawler nymph) as a Billy Goat looks like a
horse. A Blue-winged olive nymph (a swimming nymph) looks about as much like an Eastern Green Drake nymph (a
burrower nymph) as a mountain lion looks like a black bear.
One reason for this gross misunderstanding is most fly shops get their flies from distributors who don't know one insect
from another. Not only that, most fly shop sales people don't know one insect from another. It is a case of the blind
leading the blind.
Now that I have written the above, I'm certainly well aware that isn't going to change the minds of most anglers when it
comes to their preference as to the preferred method of fishing. Most everyone, including yours truly, prefers catching
trout on dry flies over catching them on nymphs. However, if you prefer catching trout to not catching trout, I suggest you
learn some key points about nymph fishing. Keep one thing in mind. Although bug illiterate anglers and fly shops often
classify caddisfly larvae and pupae as nymphs, each type requires very different methods of presentation.
The following is meant only for fishing stonefly and mayfly nymphs. I will write an article in the near future on the
subject of fly fishing techniques for caddisfly larvae and pupae.
First, some basic points about fishing a nymph
1. As I'm sure you have already noticed, it is the fact your fishing a fly below the surface of the water that you usually are
not able to see, trying to catch a trout that you usually are not able to see, that makes this type of nymph fishing difficult.
Never-the-less, unless your using some type of strike indicator, it still gets down mostly to the visual aspects of the
techniques that makes it effective. You detect strikes or takes by the trout by observing the movement of the
end of your fly line or leader. Feeling the fly, can also play a part in the technique. Sometimes, it involves both
sight and feel and other times, only one of the two. You don't always feel the take and you don't always detect any odd
movement of the end of the fly line or leader.
2. I'm basing the following on fishing for wild, or native trout, and holdover trout that have been in the water a long time,
not stocked trout from a hatchery or trout that are fed by humans in the so called "trophy" trout streams. Newly stocked
trout will eat about anything that vaguely resembles food.
3. Telling someone how to fish a nymph is almost like telling someone how to type or play a musical instrument. You can
describe each movement but no one will ever learn to type of play a musical instrument without actually doing it. It
requires some practice but like anything else, you need to practice the right techniques. Practice using the wrong
techniques does more harm than good. This is the year 2014. You don't have to and shouldn't rely on trial and error
methods to determine everything.
4. There are many different ways of fishing nymphs, each with their advantages and disadvantages, depending on the
type of water. It would take a thick book to cover all the methods and techniques in depth, and I am only pointing out the
5. Some anglers think the introduction of the bead-head nymph was the greatest improvement in fly fishing for trout. For
many novice and mediocre anglers, it probably was. Bead-head nymphs offer an advantage in that the added weight of
the bead tends to help keep the fly on the bottom, but there is a problem with bead-head nymphs. Real nymphs don't
have bead heads. You're far better off to add split-shot a few inches above a fly that looks like the real nymphs than you
are using a fly that doesn't like much like the real nymphs.
Free lining the nymph
In many cases, the best way of fishing a nymph is to fish a single nymph without anything other than some added weight.
This method requires a lot of concentration. You're not going to catch a lot of trout this way if your day dreaming or
watching wildlife on the banks of the stream. Its effectiveness relying strictly on your ability to see and/or feel trout take
the fly. You don't usually actually see the trout take the fly but you can see its effect on the end of the fly line and/or
leader. If the end of the fly line or part of the leader you can see suddenly stops, or moves in a direction other than the
direction of the current, it indicates the fly is either bumping or hanging on something, or a trout has taken the fly. With
practice, you can learn to determine the difference in most cases. If your not sure, you should set the hook.
Real nymphs stay on the bottom of the stream almost 100% of the time. They don't swim up in the water column. In fact,
most of them can't swim at all and those that are classified as swimmers, more or less just dart around very short
distances. The crawlers stay on the bottom hidden behind something and the clingers are usually on the bottom or
hidden up under a rock. The burrowers stay in their burrows (holes in a soft bottom) ninety-nine percent of the time. If
you don't keep your nymph on or very near the bottom, your not imitating most mayfly or stonefly nymphs
Keeping a direct contact between the fly and your hand that's holding the rod usually allows you to feel trout taking the
fly but it also requires that you keep your eyes glued to the end of the fly line and any part of the leader you can see.
Often, you can detect odd movements of the end of the line and or leader that are caused by trout taking the fly that you
may not be able to feel. Free-lining a nymph is very effective but it does requires a lot of practice (learning to tell the
difference in the bottom and trout) and a total concentration.
Using the high-sticking method
If conditions permit, high sticking a nymph is almost always the most effective method of fishing a nymph. High sticking
keeps most of the fly line off the water and allows one to have direct a contact or feel of the fly. The cast are short,
usually only twelve to twenty feet in length. The rod tip is held high in the air and should follow the drift of the fly such that
most of the fly line is not drifting on the surface of the water. In essence, this allows you to control the drift of the fly, as
opposed to the surface current. The high sticking method is a very effective method of fishing nymphs in fast, pocket
water streams. It works best when your wading and there's enough current to help conceal your presence. It also works
better in situations where the surface of the water is broken by the current as opposed to a smooth surface. Since your
fishing close in, the broken surface also helps conceal your presence from the trout.
The lower your profile as compared to the water level, the better off you are. In other words, fishing the nymph only a few
feet away doesn't work very well if your positioned high above the water where the trout can easily see you. By the way,
within the next month, we will be releasing a new Perfect Fly rod designed specifically for the High Sticking method of
Using a strike indicator
In terms of catching numbers of trout, a novice is far better off using a float (yes, a strike indicator is a float) than free-
lining or high sticking a nymph. It's the case of a jerk waiting on a jerk. I'm just kidding. It is easy for them to see the strike
indicator shoot under the water than it is for them to detect the slight nudge or subtle movement of the end of their fly line.
One big disadvantages of using a strike indicator is the fly is usually drifting at a certain depth of water when the
elevation of the bottom of the stream varies. The more the bottom varies as to the depth, the more the fly is drifting in
unproductive water. The make this simple, indicators work best where the bottom of the stream is fairly level.
Another disadvantage of strike indicators is the trout are sometimes spooked by the sight of it. The indicator usually
makes it more difficult to get a subtle presentation because it creates more surface disturbance.
Fishing a nymph as a dropper below a dry fly
This is in essence, nothing more or less than using a dry fly as a strike indicator. There are two basic advantages of it.
The dry fly is usually less noticeable and therefore less likely to spook trout than other types of strike indicators and
secondly, it offers the trout another choice. Trout can take the dry fly as well as the nymph. I guess this provides some
advantage to those anglers that don't have much of a clue as to what they should be trying to imitate. The big
disadvantage is like any strike indicator, in most cases it doesn't permit the nymph (bottom fly) to stay on or near the
bottom. In situations where the bottom of the stream varies greatly, it isn't very effective at all. It works much better in
streams that have a fairly level bottom. The second disadvantage is the two fly rig is easy to tangle and hang during the
cast as well as the drift.
I'm well aware many anglers are going to strongly disagree with me on this. Many anglers swear by this method of fishing
a nymph. What they don't understand, is in most cases where they are catching trout using this method, the trout are not
taking the bottom fly for a mayfly or stonefly nymph. They are taking it for a emerging mayfly nymph during a hatch, or
even more likely, emerging caddisfly pupae. In situations where they are taking the bottom fly as an emerging caddisfly
pupa, they would be better off presenting a better imitation of the particular caddisfly pupae that are emerging, using a
method of presentation that more closely imitates the behavior of emerging caddisflies. The Leisenring Lift is an
example of one effective type of pupae presentation. There are others and in most cases, when your trying to imitate
cadisfly pupae, all of them work better than fishing a nymph as a dropper beneath a dry fly.
Fishing double or tandem nymph rigs
Some anglers think two flies are better than one. I guess if that was correct, presenting ten flies on one leader would be a
killer rig. I don't think any double or tandem nymph rig is better than fishing one fly. In fact, in most cases, I think two flies
are less effective than one. I don't think there is anyway possible to present either of the two flies in a manner that is
better than presenting them individually. Some will argue that it allows anglers to present a caddisfly pupae as the top fly
and a mayfly nymph as the bottom fly and that is true, but again, doing so with a double or tandem rig would not present
either fly as well as you could doing it individually the right way.
If you insist on doing it. Keep in mind both the double and tandem nymph rigs can be fished using the free-lining method
or using a strike indicator. In water with overhanging tree limbs and bushes, it can greatly add to the time your apt to lose
fishing. Two flies tend to get tangled much more than a single one. Also keep in mind, some trout stream regulations that
limit the distance between the two flies and most all have regulations limited your rigging to only two flies.
In summary, I guess you can determine that in most cases I think the best way to fish a nymph is to free-line the nymph,
keeping it on or very near the bottom. I'm sure you also can tell that I contend that larvae and pupae shouldn't be
classified as nymphs. It's not being technically correct that bothers me at all. It's the fact that neither mayfly or stonefly
nymphs behave like caddisfly or midge, larva or pupae. Each of these different stages of insects behave completely
different. For years, most all fly shop and the entire fly industry got this wrong. In recent years, some have changed and
started classifying these stages of aquatic insects the correct way.
Flies that imitate nymphs should not only look like the real nymphs you are attempting to imitate, they should also act or
behave like the real larva or pupa you are trying to imitate. This is true irrespective of whether your trying to imitate
the insect during its normal course of life, or during the time it is hatching.
Fly Fishing Techniques For Trout
Fishing For Fish You Can't See With Flies You Can't See
by James Marsh
Copyright 2014 James Marsh
October 2014 Issue
am well aware of the thrill of casting a fly to a fish you can see. I'm also well aware that most anglers prefer dry fly
fishing over anything else. Who doesn't prefer to be able to actually see what is going on? There's no doubt that
it's the visual aspects of sight casting or dry fly fishing that makes it so appealing. Fishing for fish you can't
see with flies you can't see, eliminates most of the visual aspects that are so appealing. That written, it's a fact that
conditions often makes it necessary to do just that. On most trout streams, this is more often the case than not. If nymph
fishing is your only realistic option of catching trout, you better learn the best techniques to do it. Otherwise, you will be
spending a lot more time fishing than catching.
Slate Drake Mayfly
Nymph - Swimmer
Blue-winged Olive Mayfly
Nymph - Swimmer
Nymph - Crawler
Quill Gordon Mayfly
Nymph - Clinger
Yellow Sally Stonefly
Nymph - Clinger
Little Brown Stonefly
Nymph - Clinger
Golden Stonefly Nymph -
Salmonfly Stonefly Nymph -
Golden Drake Mayfly Nymph -
March Brown Mayfly
Nymph - Clinger
Pale Evening Dun Mayfly
Nymph - Crawler
Cream Cahill Mayfly Nymph -