The Mighty Nymph

by Morgan Leigh Smith

When I started fly fishing it was nearly impossible to find anybody that was knowledgeable in the art of casting or fishing with a fly, let alone a nymph. Later, as my abilities increased, and my acquaintances involved in the art grew, I realized that perhaps the mightiest weapon, within the fly fisherman’s arsenal, is the nymph.

An old cliché is that 90% of the fishermen catch 10% of the fish and 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish. Furthermore, if one asks a marine biologist what a trout eats most of the time, the biologist would say that 90% of the trout’s diet is sub-surface aquatic insects. It would stand to reason that the angler who fishes a nymph the majority of the time, increases his likelihood of catching more and larger trout. While I do not wish to diminish the thrilling aspects of dry fly fishing, I do want to emphasize the attributes of the deadly nymph.

The nymph is a sunken fly designed to represent the larval stage of numerous aquatic insects that comprise the bulk of the natural foods available to trout. Nymphs are relatively easy for the fly-tier to create, allowing even the beginning tier to successfully simulate the size, color, and shape of virtually all of the aquatic insects. The nymph has a slender body (abdomen) that tapers from the bend of the hook and fattens gradually to the point at which the wingpad, if any, is tied in. Here the body increases dramatically, forming the thorax. Then, very abruptly, a head is formed using the tying thread. While various embellishments can enhance this basic nymph fly anatomy, the simple form described is, in most cases, all one will need for a successful day of nymph fishing, allowing that the nymph is presented properly.

The problems of nymph fishing only compound when the angler does not understand the appropriate techniques for fishing a nymph adequately. This does not mean that a beginner cannot, without practice and skill development, become a productive nymph fisherman. With determination and experience one can acquire the necessary skills needed to consistently hook fish on a nymph.

Perhaps the easiest method of taking fish on a nymph is that of a downstream approach. With this method, the angler casts his fly either at an angle downstream, or directly downstream. The fly is allowed to drift with the current briefly and then the angler begins an upstream retrieve, the speed of which depends on the water conditions, time of year, and the type of nymph being represented. It is recommended that a combination of each retrieve speed is utilized until a fish is hooked, then continue with the speed that was successful. When the strike is felt, the angler must “set” the hook, otherwise the number of hooked fish will be significantly low. The downstream approach is very productive and should never be overlooked as a means of taking fish.

Another nymphing technique requires the use of a strike indicator and an “up-and-across” cast. The angler fixes a strike indicator on his leader approximately 1 1/2 – 2 times the depth of the water being fished. He positions himself at a midway point of the length of water to be fished and casts upstream at a 45 degree angle. He then allows the nymph to drift with the current while mending his line accordingly and carefully watching the strike indicator. When the strike indicator hesitates, bobs, or sinks, the angler sets the hook. With a bit of practice one can rely on this method to produce outstanding fish on any river.

While the previous nymphing methods are highly productive on rivers and streams, the following technique has accounted, consistently, for some of the largest

trout I have ever landed. No other method I have ever used has been as successful as trolling a nymph from a float tube on a lake. While trolling is not an accepted form of fly angling in the realm of the “purist”, it is nevertheless a highly successful means of catching trout. To execute this technique, the angler must strip or cast out approximately 50 – 75 feet of fly line and begin to paddle in his float tube. When the fly line is taught, the angler must reduce paddle speed until the float tube is maintaining a speed which imparts slow but continuous movement to the nymph. Again, set the hook when the strike is felt. This approach normally induces strikes that can literally remove the rod from the hand of an unwary angler. I caution all who implement this technique, for it can cost you a paycheck worth of equipment if you are not prepared for the take.

If nymphs are used properly, they can be the difference between a successful day and getting skunked. Initially, it is difficult to close one’s dry fly box and break out the nymphs, but with dedication one can develop an appreciation for an underwater angling approach that will rival the rewards of a boiling dry fly rise. Always keep in mind that a trout is more secure while feeding under the protection of the water and is therefore more likely to feed on familiar aquatic insects, especially in areas of high fishing pressure, allowing your nymph to become an unwelcome addition to it’s daily menu.