The Challenge of Nymph Fishing
By Paul Prentiss

Let's start by defining a nymph. It's the pre-emergence stage of an insect that lives under the surface of the water. Most stoneflies, caddisflies, and mayflies spend nearly their entire lives in this sub-aquatic state. When they do emerge as adults they live for only a matter of hours or days while they mate and then die. Once the insect's eggs are deposited in the water, the cycle begins anew. As new nymphs grow larger they provide an important and abundant source of food for the fish. In fact these insects can account for 80% or more of a trout's diet. The importance of understanding this form of fly fishing should be self-evident.

The Copper John, developed by John Barr (Umpqua Signature Fly Tyer) of Colorado, is one of the most popular nymphs ever devised and is used by fishermen the world over.

There are four main groupings of nymphs - stoneflies, caddisflies, mayflies, and midges. You need to know which forms are present in the water you intend to fish. Don't be afraid to stop by a local fly shop and ask. While you're there, get some reference material and see if you can identify these bugs on your own. Keep in mind that you don't need to be exact. Most good impressionistic patterns work well when presented properly.

Let's assume you have identified the nymphs and secured the appropriate fly patterns. At this point you need to know where to fish them. Your quarry will most likely be on or near the bottom and holding in an area which provides cover from predators, protection from heavy current, and a good place to feed with minimal exertion of energy.


Prime lies that hold the biggest fish will be behind or adjacent to boulders, beneath undercut banks, next to sunken logs or log jams, in deeper parts and drop off edges of riffles, and so on. Since you will be fishing under the surface you will generally not see the fly taken by the fish. Not being able to see the fly itself is probably what gives anglers new to fly fishing with nymphs the most problems, as it needless to say makes it more difficult to detect strikes and set the hook. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that your nymph will constantly be "bumping" into underwater obstructions that can be mistaken for strikes and fish tend to be much more subtle when they eat nymphs.

Keep telling yourself that it's simply a matter of getting used to the process, that this form of fishing will yield more hookups than any other technique, and that it can be used at any time. The key ingredient in becoming proficient is time and patience.

So how do you fish nymphs? While there are an incredible range of techniques, I'll focus on the simple upstream dead drift. Line control and close observation are your primary concerns.

The best way to get a handle on line control is to use short casts quartering upstream (under 15 to 20-feet) and learning how to mend your line with a reach cast (reaching the rod to the left or right depending on your position). As your fly moves towards you, keep tension on the line by stripping some in and positioning your rod higher. As the fly moves away from you point your rod tip in the same direction and allow it to drop. When the drift ends the fly will begin to "rise" to the surface. Raise the tip of your fly rod, which will bring the nymph a bit further up. This is a likely point of a strike.

Focus attention on where your leader enters the water and the adjacent area (using a strike indicator is most helpful). Any unnatural movements or the flash of a fish signal a possible hookup. When a fish takes, the movement can be aggressive on imperceptible. My rule is strike whenever you think a fish may have picked up your fly. Most beginning nymph fishermen miss 90% of the fish because they don't strike. Even experienced fishermen miss numerous fish due in part to an over reliance on strike indicators which don't always signal a take.

Gear for nymph fishing is pretty much the same as you would use for dry fly fishing. If you really get into nymphing there are a lot of special purpose products that will improve your success. Initially the only accessories required are strike indicators, split shot, and a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Leaders of 7 1/2 to 9-feet are fine. I like to buy 3X or 4X tapered leaders and add tippet material at the end. As a rule of thumb the length of leader from the strike indicator to the fly should be 1.5 to 2 times the depth of the water being fished.

Your ultimate success will depend on three factors, accurate casts to good lies, careful observation of any unnatural movement of the indicator or line, the right flies presented at the proper depth.

Now that we've covered the basics lets take look at one of the advanced European techniques which is gaining popularity in the United States.

Spanish Nymphing

It may seem strange to jump from a discussion about basics to advanced techniques. But this step forward will give us the framework to discuss how nymph fishing can quickly expand into a variety of interesting possibilities.

Pete Erickson works a fast run in Grand Teton National Park on the Snake River near Jackson Hole Wyoming using the Spanish technique. The fly in the insert is a weighted nymph with a tungsten gold bead in a size-10 tied on a curved hook.
Since the 1980's nymph fishing in Europe has evolved into a number of highly specialized methods that are quite different from techniques favored in the US. These new methods have become very popular with many of the best stream fishermen in the world largely due to International competition. Spanish Nymphing is a technique that all members of Fly Fishing Team USA use extensively. They are relentlessly practiced and blended into the fishing strategy. According to long time Team member Sam Mavrakis, "Each technique has particular advantages for certain conditions, flow rates, depth and so on. I adjust to the conditions as needed. I'm particularly fond of this (Spanish) approach on slower glides."

Another member of the Fly Fishing Team USA, Pete Erickson, became familiar with the technique prior to the 2002 World Fly Fishing Championship in Spain. "Trout fishing in the Pyrenees takes place on pristine mountain streams, and the target fish in these clear freestones is the trucha comun or Fario brown trout which is a native, wild fish that has been targeted for hundreds of years. They average somewhere between 6 to 10 inches, and are without a doubt the most reticent, sly, and infuriating creature that I have ever stalked."

According to Pete, "The main differences between Spanish Nymphing and the Eastern European styles lie in the overall length of the leader and the distance from angler to trout during the presentation." Sam pointed out to me that Spanish Nymphing is a "far more visual technique compared to the feel you get with polish or Czech methods."

Rods are typically 10 to 12-feet in length with a medium or slow action. In this game lighter is better so these rods are designed for 3 to 5-weight lines. In fact Pete Erickson has designed a medium action high modulus graphite rod sold exclusively by Loon Products for this kind of fishing. They're 4-piece 3 and 4-weight rods that are 10-feet or better in length.

Leaders range from 15 to 30 feet. That's right, I said 30 feet! The leaders themselves are extremely light. The traditional technique calls for a 4 to 5-foot section of 1X to 3X tippet material nail knotted to the fly line followed by a 3 to 4-foot section of material. Next the leader is built down with 2 to 3-foot sections from 5X to 6X or 7X. Use blood knots or triple surgeon knots leaving tag ends of about four inches to tie on dropper nymphs. Akin to Polish or Czech leaders, the Spanish system is set up to use two or three flies. Longer leaders simply use longer sections of the initial tippet material. To make it simple, Pete suggests buying a 12-foot 3X tapered and attach the sections described above to bring it out to 15 to 18-feet.

Strike indicators may be incorporated into the leader section by tying in a 2-foot section of bright colored monofilament (bright-yellow Stren is preferred). Ideally this indicator should be 1 to 2-feet above the surface of the water or looking at if from the opposite direction the line below the indicator should be 2-feet longer than the depth of the run being fished.

The proper selection of flies is essential to casting and presentation. The weight of the anchor fly (last fly on the leader) is critical. Your objective is to have this fly bouncing along the bottom so that it does not hang up. Proper weight is far more important than the pattern or the size. Tungsten bead heads are preferred. The middle fly (assuming a three fly rig) and the top fly should move through the water column in a near vertical manner. Choice is dependent on the prevalent insect life in a given river.

Following an upstream cast (lob may be a better description) you retrieve all the excess leader and fly line as you lift the rod. This can be accomplished by stripping in line and using a hand-twist retrieve to stay in constant contact with your flies. In general, your line and leader will be 20 feet from your rod tip. The indicator segment will be just above or at the water line. WATCH THE COLORED MONOFILAMENT for any change in direction, movement, or pauses, and respond with a quick but gentle strike. Its important to understand that Spanish Nymphing is different than the tight line approach that many of us are familiar with. In this case, the angler is slightly leading the flies as opposed to letting them simply bounce along the bottom at their own pace.

When the flies are directly in front of you, your rod tip should be at its maximum height. As the flies reach the end of the drift, slowly lower the rod tip and transition into a subtle swing. Let the flies dangle in the current for 10 or 15 seconds before repeating the sequence.

There are a few things you can do to make the process easier.
1. Initially try to keep your leaders short - 12 feet will be a lot easier to control
2. Pay close attention to the anchor fly weight. If it hangs on the bottom it's too heavy
3. Pick out something drifting on the surface like bubbles and keep the nymphs moving at the same or a slightly faster speed
4. You can gain distance by shooting the line upstream - 40-feet is probably the maximum distance for this technique.
5. Keep as much line as you can off the water
6. Don't be afraid to adjust the technique to fit your style of fishing

Because it was initially developed for competition angling, Spanish nymphing in its true form is multifaceted, technical, and requires considerable practice. Its worth the effort and will significantly improve your catch rate on difficult and heavily fished waters.

The National Fly Fishing Championship & Conservation Symposium will take place in Boulder, Colorado June 1 to June 4, 2006. Regional US Champions, existing Team USA members, two Colorado teams, and two or three international teams will be competing in this event. It will follow the Olympic style World Championship. From this contingent 15 US contestants will be chosen to compete against 28 to 30 countries in the 2006 World Championship in Portugal. This is a free spectator friendly event conducted on public waters along Colorado's Front Range. Go to www.nationalflyfishingchampionship.com for additional information