"This story originally appeared in the 2019 Gear Guide issue of Fly Fisherman with the title "Weighting is the Hardest Part: 7 Tips for rigging your nymphs like a pro".
“Weighting is the hardest part.” While the phrase is a play on words from the great Tom Petty’s hit song, it couldn’t be truer when it comes to nymphing. By far the most popular question I get on daily basis is “how do you rig your flies for nymphing?” Most of those questions specifically revolve about the weight of the flies, placement of additional weight on the tippet, and about the right amount of weight to get a natural presentation at the right depth. I field all these questions simply because my fellow fly fishers cannot see what is going on below the surface, and people are often most curious about things that are not in plain sight.
The art of dry-fly fishing is just as difficult to learn as nymphing, but the biggest advantage dry-fly fishers have is that they can see exactly what their fly is doing throughout the presentation. They can see a dragging dry fly or notice when a trout refuses a presentation. Having these visual cues gives you motivation to change something in your system. On the flip side, with nymphing all you can do is watch the suspender or sighter (both forms of indicators) and develop a guess as to what the rig is doing.
A common trait of all good nymph fishers is that they have confidence in their systems. We all approach the same problems from different angles, yet come to successful endings if we have confidence in our systems. As Helen Keller once wrote, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”
Before I go into my views on rigging for nymphing, let me make it clear that rigging is a highly personal choice, meaning there are countless ways to be successful. There is no “right” way to do it. For example, two of the top team members for Fly Fishing Team USA differ as to where they prefer to place the heaviest fly on their Euro rigs. They agree to disagree on this anchor fly placement, and they are both successful anglers, so I deduce that their skills and their confidence are big parts of their success.
Still, while everyone does things just a little bit differently, there is much you can learn from examining how these successful fly fishers rig their nymph systems. What follows are seven important strategies I’ve learned over the past few years from some of the world’s best nymph fishermen.
TIP #1: Use a hi-vis “tracer pattern” you can see drifting below the surface. In warfare, tracer bullets contain a highly visibly burning powder that acts like a flare, showing gunners exactly where their bullets are traveling. The gunner makes corrections based on this visual information. In some ways, nymphing with a dull Pheasant-tail Nymph is no different than shooting regular bullets during the daylight, you can’t see the pathway the nymph drifts in the water. You can’t see if you’ve hit your target depth. A tracer fly shows the speed, direction, and depth of that nymph and any others that are paired with it on the same nymph rig. A brightly colored Squirmy Wormy, egg pattern, or a bright bead-head nymph are just three examples of tracer nymphs.
I use a tracer nymph anytime I’m unsure of what my rig is doing. I’ve spent many hours watching tracer flies and how they drift in the water column, and as a result of these observations I’ve made subtle changes to many of my nymph rigs. As the saying goes, “seeing is believing” and observing these high-vis patterns has changed my perspective on how I rig for nymphing.
TIP #2: The length of the drift influences the amount of weight you use. Identify where you want to fish your nymphs and develop two targets: 1) where you suspect there is a feeding fish and 2) the spot where you need to cast to give the flies time to achieve correct depth before they reach that spot.
Normally your casts and your drifts will be shorter in pocketwater and you’ll need more weight on your rig to achieve the correct presentation depth. Pocketwater is often turbulent, so your presentation may not be as important as achieving the correct depth. Trout are likely not as concerned with the drift of the nymph in fast water as they are in calm flat water where they can see the nymph drifting toward them.
In calm water, you’ll often need to cast farther upstream with less weight to present your flies at the right depth. Using too much weight in this situation may spook trout as they are often are skittish in these conditions and discriminate against unnatural nymph presentations.
You get a more natural drift when you use weight light enough for the current to move the nymph naturally in the water. Fine tuning your weight is essential when fishing clear and shallow water types.
TIP #3: Weighted flies are (sometimes) an advantage. When possible, I rely on the weight of the fly to achieve the correct depth. Several advantages of this so-called Euro nymphing system (using only weighted flies instead of split-shot or other weight attached to the leader) include less tangling and more direct contact between the rod tip and the nymph.
Split-shot on the leader between the rod tip and the nymph can create a slight disconnect due to slack line in the system. This disconnect may eliminate or delay your ability to detect a strike. Using weighted flies creates a straighter or tighter line with less slack, and may help you pick up a few more strikes. While these are strong arguments, there still are scenarios that may require the use supplemental weight in the form of split-shot and/or putty.
Antoine Bissieux’s French Leader
Antoine Bissieux is a master guide from Connecticut who has perfected his approach to French nymphing and has adapted this Euro-style rig to the Farmington River. His attention to detail is impressive. Bissieux uses a light and exceptionally small-diameter leader (see tip #5). His leader “butt section” is 22 feet of level 5X bi-color monofilament. That’s before he even attaches his tippet material. He feels it’s easier to cast/lob lightweight nymphs with small-diameter line. He also believes that the thin leader doesn’t “stick” as much, and therefore doesn’t pull the nymphs when he lifts the rod tip for line control. Even a rig made of just 15-pound-test monofilament will sag a bit and lift smaller nymphs back toward the surface when you lift the rod tip.
Antoine boils this entire leader (except for the tippet section) to make the nylon monofilament 25% stretchier. This allows him to fish small-diameter tippets of 6X or 7X with Perdigon-style nymphs to get deep even in fast and turbulent waters. His nymphs are tied with varying sized beads to adjust for the speed and depth of the water. He fishes several different color variations and four different bead sizes. He often places the heaviest fly on the point to keep the entire rig tight, and the two flies are 20” apart to decrease accidental snagging.
I’ve been using Antoine’s leader now for more than a year, and I can say that it’s the most sensitive leader for Euro-nymphing small nymphs.
Tip #4: Ditch the lead. Lead split-shot sinks quickly and is cheaper than non-toxic alternatives like tin or tungsten. However, I decided recently to switch to non-toxic weight as I believe using lead products has some negative impacts. It’s a toxin after all. We don’t want it in the paint on our walls, we don’t want it in our drinking water, so why would I introduce it to my favorite trout stream? I know as an individual my contribution of toxic split-shot in our waterways is close to zero, but when you consider the growing numbers of nymph anglers, we could aggregate some level of negative impact on the waters we treasure.
In my previous article “A Propensity for Density” (June-July 2016) I discussed the idea of using a constant piece of tin split-shot that stays on your leader while using tungsten putty to make small weight adjustments. I mold the putty directly to the tin split-shot because it’s difficult to keep putty on the leader without something it can adhere to. The putty stays in position and allows me to make micro adjustments.
If you use only tin shot, you’ll need a larger piece to get the same depth and sink rate because tin isn’t as dense. But if you add tungsten putty you can balance the size/weight issue because tungsten putty is heavier than lead. And from my eyeball calculations, the diameter of the total weight is close to identical when you compare lead split-shot to a combination of tin split-shot and putty.
In the last few years, I found that this combination of material is so efficient, and so effective at getting me exactly to the right depth, that I have no need to use lead split-shot at all.
I know this isn’t a conservation article, but we all need to do our part to protect our waters for future generations. I think about this every time I go fishing with my two children. I also think about their long term health when I see them handling a known toxic metal.
Will my children have the same opportunities to fish clean water as I’ve had? I hope so, and this is the reason why I have promised to rid myself of all lead in 2019. I’ll use what I already own, but I’m no longer going to be a consumer. I’ll sleep better knowing at least I’m not contributing to the problem.
TIP #5 Use a level-diameter tippet between the indicator (sighter or suspender) and your flies: The quickest way between two points is a straight line. The same is true with detecting a strike. A straight path between indicator and the flies allows you to see and feel the strike faster than with a curved leader with slack. Any type of slack delays strike detection.
If you use a tapered leader, the resistance of water against the large-diameter portions will create a bow in the line. A level tippet sinks at the same rate along its length because it has the same consistent narrow diameter.
The tracer concept I discussed above (Tip #1) isn’t just for flies. At times, I’ve replaced my clear mono or fluorocarbon tippet sections with small-diameter Gold Stren (a highly visible monofilament) just so I could actually see how my leader/tippet sections behave below the surface. After watching different diameters of the hi-vis mono below the surface, it was evident that a narrow, level diameter leader and tippet creates a straighter line. If you’re using a tapered leader for your subsurface work, you’re missing many more strikes than you think.
TIP #6: Use droppers. Is there a correct way to rig multiple nymphs on the leader? After watching so many excellent anglers use both nymphs on droppers and in-line (fly to fly), it’s obvious that both ways catch fish. But one of them catches more fish, particularly in tough fishing conditions where fish demand natural drifts.
There are times in choppy or off-color water when a natural presentation isn’t absolutely critical, and at those times I may use multiple flies and rig them with one fly tied directly to the second fly. It’s easy, and you get fewer tangles. However, when the fishing and the fish are more challenging, there’s no doubt that droppers are a better solution.
Dropper flies are tied using a long tag end of monofilament left over from joining two pieces of tippet material together. I use the downward tag end of a surgeon’s knot. A 4- to 6-inch dropper allows you to make several fly changes and won’t tangle as often as longer droppers.
If you’ve spent time snorkeling in a trout stream, you may notice the insects drifting higher in the water column have more movement. They lift and drop as the dynamic hydraulics of the stream transports them downstream. A natural drift is not static, these food items actually move up and down quite a bit in this fluid environment.
Sean Sullivan's Downstream Dropper Rig
Sean Sullivan is a full-time Silver Creek guide. On this challenging fishery, a downstream presentation is the preferred approach. Sullivan’s dry/dropper rig is intentionally designed short to maintain control for downstream presentations to suspended fish. A short lift of the rod tip takes slack out of the rig and then he lowers the rod tip downstream toward the fish for a controlled downstream drift. Strike indicators spook fish on these waters so uses a hi-vis dry fly as an indicator with lightly weighted or unweighted nymph patterns and the top fly tied as a dropper (see tip #6).
Insects high in the water column may be emerging, drifting to another location, or a feeble-swimming insect may get knocked off a rock and struggle before finding another in-stream structure to grab hold to. Movement should be part of your presentation as well. A light-weight or unweighted fly attached to a dropper moves freely as the current lifts and drops the pattern naturally. If fish are being picky, it will catch more fish.
TIP #7 Use chain-style drop-shot rigs. A drop-shot rig is simply a nymph rig where the heaviest weight is at the terminal end of the line instead of above or between your flies. Drop-shot rigs have shown a resurgence over the past few years, maybe in part because of Kelly Galloup’s excellent YouTube videos on this subject.
Because the weight is at the bottom of a drop-shot rig, you have better contact with your flies than in some other systems, but the main advantage is that it hangs up on the bottom less frequently. The weight bounces or slides along the bottom, allowing lightly weighted flies to drift naturally. And if the weight itself does become truly snagged, you should lose just the weight and not your flies.
Patrick Brady's Midge Chain
This rig was developed by Patrick Brady of Hunter Banks Fly Shop for dealing with fussy Southern tailwater trout. Brady uses long drifts with this lightweight system (see tip #2) to give his flies a natural drift. He feels a single weighted tungsten midge on the point allows the unweighted patterns (attached to droppers) to move freely in the water column. In low, clear water he substitutes 7X in place of 6X fluorocarbon. This setup lets him cover three different depths in a single drift. He uses a level tippet below the pinch-on indicators to create a straight line down to his flies, which eliminates drag and increases strike detection.
I lose far fewer nymphing rigs using the drop-shot approach. My own twist on this style is to use chain-style weights at the terminal end of the tippet instead of a single heavy weight.
Where I fish in the East, there are two kinds of boat anchors. One is a heavy single anchor in the shape of a pyramid, studded barrel, or just a cube. These single weights are designed to grab the bottom and hold your drift boat in one place.
If you just want to slow the boat down, some johnboat and drift boat owners use a heavy chain for an anchor. It drags along the bottom but never seems to stick because the weight is spaced over a longer area. The same is true with the weight in your drop-shot nymph rig. If you use multiple small pieces of tin split-shot or tungsten putty like a chain, you’ll find that you hang up even less frequently.
Hopefully these seven pointers will help eliminate some of the mystery of what’s going on below the water. The best way to learn is through your own observations, that’s why a tracer fly and/or a tracer leader can be a revelation. Once you see how your leader and your flies are drifting below the surface, weighting your system is no longer the hardest part.
George Daniel is the author of the new book Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole Books, 2018). He owns and operates the company Livin on the Fly and presents schools, seminars, and private lessons across the country.