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5 Tips for Successful Nymph Fishing, by Matt Haupt

The Grey Reef is known as a nymphing paradise. The bugs that fish eat spend the vast majority of their lives in the nymph stage (if they undergo incomplete metamorphosis) or as larva (if they undergo complete metamorphosis). Whether you are imitating mayflies, stoneflies, midges, or caddis, under the surface, this type of fly fishing is referred to as nymphing, and a fly meant to represent caddis larva may still be called a nymph, although not technically correct! 

The tips outlined in this post will apply mostly to the wade fisherman using the split shot and indicator rig, the most common way to nymph fish in the United States.

This should come as no surprise, but fish are feeding under the surface the majority of the time. Even if there is no hatch coming off and no fish smacking the surface, they are still feeding.

Although these bugs spend most of their lives underwater they are generally not very good swimmers. There are many reasons for immature insects to be loose in the current such as morning, evening, and pre-hatch migrations. A dislodged nymph may float vulnerably downstream for a very long while before making contact with the bottom again. It is very common for trout to see these bugs, and this is basically the feeding opportunity you want to exploit as a nymph fisherman.

1. Adjust your length
Adjust the length of your leader between strike indicator and weight based on the speed of the current as well as the water depth. Generally the faster the current, the longer the leader. And the deeper the water, the longer the leader. This does not mean fish shallow in a slow moving pool, that pool may be very deep!
The water along the bottom of the river flows slower than the water on top due to friction and turbulence caused by the interaction of the water and the bottom structure (rocks, logs, etc). Trout need to conserve energy by using this bottom structure and consequently slower current to shield them from faster moving water. For this reason, unless you observe fish higher in the water column actively feeding on emerging insects, you want to fish right along the bottom. The general rule of thumb is to set your leader distance at 1.5 to 2 times the depth of the water.

2. Add too much weight
When youʼre first dialing in your rig for a certain spot, put your rig on the bottom by intentionally pinching on too many small pieces of weight. Then you can systematically remove weight just until you stop hitting the bottom constantly. You find the right depth faster this way as opposed to starting too light and adding weight until you are too heavy and then backing off from there!
The relationship between the length of your leader and the amount of weight you have on that leader is vital in nymph fishing. The current speed and depth along with where the fish are holding will dictate that perfect relationship. Experiment with a shorter,

heavier rig. Try a longer, lighter rig. Maybe you need to go shorter and lighter, or longer and heavier! Having fun yet?!

Fish hold in softer, slower water, too. Usually this is what is called a feeding lie and occurs when fish are, yep, feeding. When lots and lots of bugs are present in the water column it serves a trout to move into shallower, slower water such as outside seams and eddies where the main current meets softer edge type water. The current will often funnel insects into areas like this, and a fish can pick off many meals with minimal effort. Shallow water opens a fish to predation from above, but the ratio of energy gained vs energy lost is too positive to pass up. A troutʼs life is a series of potentially dangerous situations, and they must constantly weigh the hazards posed by biological imperatives such as feeding against other imperatives, such as living. A fish may be more skittish in this slack water, so be careful not to line them!

3. Get into position
You may have a beautiful, artful and accurate long distance cast, but you probably donʼt need it right now. Get as close as possible without spooking the fish. Often the most advantageous position for you to be in is off to the side and slightly below where you think a fish may be holding, not directly downstream of it. You have a high chance of putting your line right over a fish when you are directly downstream of it, which will remind them of predators, and by getting in closer you will not have so much line out that you cannot control your presentation.

4. Keep as much of your line off the water as your position will allow
“Drag” is created by the riverʼs currents, and is in a basic sense the enemy of nymph fishing. Remember how poorly a nymph can swim? Your flies should drift along at the same speed as everything else in the current, as if it were not attached to your tippet! You can mitigate the effect that conflicting currents have on your fly line by keeping as much line off the water as your position will allow. In especially close quarters you may be able to keep all of your line off the water by keeping your rod high and roughly parallel to the water. Donʼt lift too much too soon or you may drag your flies out of the correct depth and line youʼre trying to target.

Draw in slack as your indicator floats down closer to you, always pointing your rod tip in the direction of your indicator. As your indicator nears, you may need to throw an upstream mend to keep the current from forming a downstream belly in your line, and thus, creating drag. Keep following that indicator with your rod tip downstream, while also lowering your tip and reaching to extend your drift as much as possible. You can shake some of that slack through your rod tip back onto the water to further extend your dead drift. When your indicator starts to pull or swing your drag free drift is over, but donʼt recast yet! Let your indicator swing until it is fully downstream of you, which will lift your flies off the bottom and can mimic emerging insects. It is also easier to put out your next cast when the water has loaded your line beneath you.

5. Measure the water temperature
Knowing the temperature of the water can inform you on what water to fish. While some species of trout are better capable of dealing with lower oxygen levels than others, as a rule trout need cold, clean, oxygenated water to survive. As the temperature of water rises it loses itʼs capacity to carry oxygen. If warmer water delivers less oxygen to a fish it makes sense then that a fish may move to faster, steeper, more riffled and oxygenated water in this situation. Itʼs important to stop fishing when water temperatures approach 70 degrees, where a fish is stressed and using so much energy just trying to breath, let alone fighting and smiling for the camera! In very cold water approximately 40 degrees and below, a troutʼs metabolism slows down and you may find fish in deeper, slower water. Slow water means less energy lost fighting the current, and deep water means safety from dangers above.

Nymphing is not A River Runs Through It type of fishing. Sometimes itʼs even called chuck and duck fishing, but donʼt let so called dry fly purism get you down on this incredibly productive way to fish. Casting to risers is great, but ultimately what so many of us love about this sport is that we get schooled by the river, the bugs, and the fish, so adapt to the situation you are presented! Think about these tips the next time youʼre out on the river, hopefully they help you up your catch rate!
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