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Fly Fishing Basics: Nymphing

Three techniques for catching big sub-surface trout in moving water.

Fly Fishing Basics: Nymphing

When short-line nymphing, don't use more than 2 feet of fly line and keep the rolls of strike putty inline for a properly aligned drift. Hold the rod horizontal and rotate from the waist to lead your fly and weight through the area you're fishing. When you see the leader or line pause, twitch, or stop drifting, set the hook. (Val Atkinson photo)

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of Fly Fisherman.

Nothing increases your fly-fishing success faster than mastering the basics of nymphing. Nymphing is a fundamentally simple process that involves presenting a fly in a natural manner at the trout's feeding depth and detecting the moment the trout takes that fly.

A trout's life depends on taking in more energy than it expends getting food. In moving water, it will not move far for a meal. Thus the ideal nymph presentation asks the trout only to open its mouth. This is achieved by reading the water to locate the most likely holding areas, adjusting the weight on the leader to ensure the nymph is always near the bottom, and carefully controlling the drift.

Beginning anglers often wonder where to start nymph fishing on a new stream. Here's a trick: Consider the current as an underwater cafeteria line, only instead of the fish moving to the food, the food comes to the fish. To identify this underwater cafeteria line, draw an imaginary line down the center of the main current. This line carries the greatest amount of food and most fish are in close proximity to it. Then consider a trout's other two requirements in moving water–relief from the current and shelter from danger–and you'll know where to begin. Target the edges of eddies, slower-water seams, and deep runs that neighbor the main current. Trout swim out, take a food item, and return to cover.

Wherever you decide to fish, remember that in moving water you need enough current to keep your fly, leader, and indicator moving. Otherwise you are unable to detect the take.

An illustration/overhead diagram of trout-holding areas within a stream
Trout hold in areas that provide shelter, relief from the current, and are close to current i lines since they carry the greatest amount of food. Target areas like eddies, riffles, pools, or c near other structure that allows trout to swim out, eat, and return to cover. (Rod Walinchus illustration)


An ideal nymphing setup is a 9-foot rod, floating line, 7 1/2-foot leader tapered to 4X or 5X, spools of 4X, 5X, and 6X tippet, various sizes of split-shot (I prefer the removable, reusable ones with molded ears), strike indicators, and polarized glasses. A long rod provides a better lever for casting weight and offers a long reach for line control.

One instructor at the Clearwater House fly-fishing school likes to hold up his wading staff and his plastic container of split-shot and proclaim to his students, "These are what catch fish in freestone water!" He means that successful nymph fishers wade into the right position to make the best presentation and use enough weight to get the fly into the trout's feeding zone. When asked how much weight, this same instructor answers, "One less split-shot than hangs up on the bottom with every drift." He is not being facetious. It's crucial to get the nymph to where the fish are and keep it there through the drift. A wading staff and split-shot are indispensable tools.

Short-Line Nymphing

Successful nymphing involves presenting the artificial to look as natural as possible and detecting when a trout takes the fly. In many ways, dead-drift presentations and strike detection oppose each other. Your fly must appear to drift naturally, but the line must be tight enough to detect the strike.

Short-line nymphing is a technique that involves a four-step process I call the "4Ls,"–look, lob, lift, and lead. The short line approach is best suited for situations where you can closely approach fish such as tailwaters, pocketwater, riffles, and small streams.

Begin by positioning yourself directly across current from the most promising holding water. Strip the leader and no more than 2 feet of fly line out of the rod tip. Flip that line downstream and hold your rod at a 45-degree angle down­ stream. Look at your target, which is the exact place you want your fly to land. Lob your fly into that spot by stopping the rod tip high on the forward stroke.

The weight and fly flip over the tip of your rod in a high arc and hit the water nearly vertically for rapid penetration of the water column. Immediately lift the extra line and leader off the water and carefully sweep your rod tip downstream to establish a long, shallow curve of leader up out of the water from your weight to your rod tip. Lead this curve downstream by holding your rod nearly horizontal and rotating your upper body from the waist.

Hold your rod steady and keep the curve constant. Continue to lead the line down­ stream until the end of the drift, watching for any movement that signals a take. The first drift has the highest probability of success, so be prepared before you cast.


By keeping most of the fly line off the water and leading your line and leader downstream, you can come close to a drag-free drift. Focus on detecting strikes. Beneath the surface, the trout takes the nymph in its mouth and either accepts or rejects the bug. This process takes seconds and is your only opportunity to detect and react. It's not long, but it is enough time if you are paying attention. Whenever you see the leader or line pause, twitch, or do anything other than move smoothly with the current, set the hook by accelerating your rod downstream.

You can detect more strikes by adding a strike indicator to your leader. When short-line nymphing, roll a thin coating of strike putty onto the leader just below the knot connecting the leader to the butt section and another about four feet down the leader. When the two pieces of putty are in a straight line upstream, the leader is properly aligned with the fly farthest upstream. The leader curves smoothly up from the weight to the rod tip.

Unless your fly is heavily weighted, use split-shot 8 to 10 inches above the fly to keep it on the bottom. If the distance between the fly and weight is much greater than 10 inches, the current can raise the flies off the bottom and out of the feeding range of the fish.

In-Line Indicator Nymphing

When you can't wade close enough to fish the far side of a deep, fast run; a pocket against a far bank; or seams 10 to 20 feet from where you are standing; or when the fish are too spooky to allow a short-line approach; a strike indicator attached to the leader allows a sensitive drift with minimal drag.

With strike putty and a polypropylene yarn indicator, I can fish any water type. Yarn is easy to see, easy to adjust, and causes minimal drag. Foam and cork indicators cause drag in water because they sit in the surface film rather than on it. Poly-yarn indicators-combed out and greased-sit so high on the water that drag is minimized.

An illustration of angler and rod positioning when in-line nymphing
1) Position yourself across from the area you intend to fish and cast so the weight penetrates the water vertically, driving itself to the bottom. 2) Lift the line and leader off the water and allow the indicator to drift downstream of the weight to align your leader correctly. 3) Follow the indicator with your rod through the drift. 4) Drop the rod below horizontal at the end to get the longest drift possible. (Rod Walinchus illustration)

My yarn indicator kit includes a few feet of polypropylene macrame yarn, a pair of compact folding scissors, and a small comb. For fast water, a clump of yarn about the size of an olive works well. Tie it into the leader with an overhand knot about at one and a half times the depth of the water you are fishing. Again, the weight should be 8 to 10 inches above the fly.

Position yourself opposite the water you intend to fish. Lob your fly into the water at the head of the target zone so it hits the water vertically. When your indicator hits the water, the faster current at the surface will immediately pull your indicator downstream of your weight and fly. This aligns your leader, weight, and fly correctly.

Lift the line and leader off the water to create an unimpeded drift. Use your line hand to keep excess line off the water so the drift is as natural as possible. Drift your fly through all the likely scams and pockets, paying attention to the depth and speed of the water. Adjust the weight as the water depth changes to keep the fly drifting along the bottom.

If you find yourself fishing a spot that looks ideal but are not gelling strikes, add weight to make sure the fly is on the bottom before changing flies. Presentation is more important than imitation. The wrong fly presented well will catch many more trout than the right fly presented poorly.

Split-shot completely changes the dynamics of fly casting. Hold your rod several degrees off vertical for the full casting stroke. Your rod tip should follow an oval shape to keep the loop open, preventing the weight from tangling the leader or hilling the rod tip on the forward cast. You will feel the weight for the full casting stroke. Stop the rod tip high on the forward stroke so the split­shot arcs over the rod tip, falls straight down, and hits the water vertically.

Avoid false casts. It helps to learn to cast and fish a nymph with either arm because you always get the longest and most efficient drift with your downstream arm.

Puffball Nymphing

With the short-line technique and the inline yarn indicator style of presentation, it is possible to fish pocketwater and runs up to about 5 or 6 feet deep. Beyond that depth, in the deepest pools and runs, or in water so clear that you can't wade close, the puffball style of nymphing excels. Puffball is simply a nickname for a strike indicator made of macrame yarn.

A fly angler wading waist-deep near a brushy bank throws a big mend into his fly line
Execute a stack mend by making a tight roll cast at your indicator with the loop traveling as close to the water's surface as possible. This kicks the puffball upstream and takes pressure off the tippet allowing the fly to sink and drift naturally. Make several stack mends lo get the longest drift possible. (Val Atkinson photo)

The guiding principle of puffball nymphing is to treat the puffball as a dry fly and fish it completely drag free. The puffball suspends the weight and the fly at the depth you set. Instead of fixing the indicator in-line on a tapered leader, tic the puffball directly onto the end of a 4- to 6-foot leader. Tie a length of 4X to 6X tippet just shorter than the suspected depth of the water around the tapered leader above the puffball with a clinch knot. Slide it down next to the puffball.

The tippet will hang 90 degrees from the tapered leader. You need less split­shot with this rig because small-diameter tippet sinks quickly. But you must still throw open loops, taking care to let your line straighten out behind before you begin your forward stroke.

This technique makes casting somewhat difficult because the leader and tippet are so long. Many anglers deliberately use a Jong, moderate-action rod with a double­ taper line one weight heavier than the rod calls for and only roll cast. Avoid conventional backcasts. The big yarn indicator, long tippet, and weight have wildly different velocities and tangle easily.

Remember the two-minute rule: If the tangle will take longer than two minutes to unravel, cut off the fly and weight and rerig. The first couple of tangles will encourage you to pay close attention to casting technique. If it weren't so effective, this system might be more trouble than it is worth. But it works so well in deep pools and runs d1at it more than repays the time spent mastering its subtleties.

To fish the puffball setup, start within easy casting distance of the fishiest part of the pool, facing directly across or slightly upstream. Point your rod tip downstream and feed line out until you have enough for your first cast dragging in a straight line below you.

Smoothly and quickly raise your rod to vertical to pick the split-shot up off the bottom. Use the friction between the water and the line and weight to load your rod on the forward stroke. Continue into the forward cast but stop your rod tip high. The puffball, weight, and flies will arc over the rod tip and drop down to penetrate the water column.

An illustration of angler using the water-load technique
Raise the rod to vertical to lift the weight off the bottom. Without stopping, begin the forward cast using the friction between the water, line, and weight to load the rod. Complete the forward cast by stopping the rod high, allowing the weight and flies to flip over the rod tip and down to the water. (Rod Walinchus illustration)

Raise your rod lip to vertical and execute a tight, fast roll cast, flipping a small loop of line at your indicator.·This stack mend flips your indicator upstream and takes the pressure off your tippet, allowing the weight and fly to sink to the bottom.

Continue making stack mends through­ out the drift so die fly drifts in a completely natural manner. Plan your mends so you're not moving the line or fly at the fishiest spots–areas where you need an absolute dead-drift. You can mend several times during a single drift and continue it downstream as far as you wish by stripping line from die reel and shaking it out the tip of the rod. At the end of a drift, strip line in until you have a manageable amount to recast.

To change depth with this rig means adding or cutting back tippet, a time­consuming process. In the past couple of years, Clearwater House guides have used a variation of this technique that is faster to rig and fishes almost as effectively. It involves attaching the yarn indicator using tiny orthodontic rubber bands. It provides the critical 90-degree drop, but allows the indicator to be moved up and down die leader easily to adjust for changes in water depth.

An illustration of the puffball rig setup
Tie a piece of yarn to the end of a 4- to 6-foot tapered leader using a clinch knot. Then tie a piece of 4X to 6X tippet just shorter than the depth of the water to the tapered leader above the puffball. Slide the finished knot next to the puffball. (Rod Walinchus illustration)

Start with a standard leader tapered to 4X. Add 4 or 5 feet of finer tippet. Hold the rubber band open around your left thumb and forefinger. Take a section of leader and form a tight loop by doubling it back upon itself. Wrap the loop around one side of the open rubber band three or four times. Release the rubber band so it constricts around the leader, holding the loop tight. Put the yarn indicator into the loop and slide the rubber band against it. This creates the 90-degree drop for the rest of the leader and tippet below the indicator. Move the indicator and the rubber band up or down die leader with ease without having to re-rig. This system also casts a bit more easily than a puffball setup.

A four-step photo sequence of how to set up a Rubber Band Puffball
Form a loop in the leader and pass it through a spread rubber band. Wrap the loop around one side of the band three or·four times. Release the rubber band so it tightens around the loop. Put a piece of yarn through the loop and slide the band against it. You can easily adjust this indicator depending on the water depth. (David J. Siegfried photos)

Successful nymphing is a combination of reading the water and presentation. The more you study the water's surface, seams, eddies, and depth changes, and the more precisely you place your fly in the fishiest spots, the greater your success and enjoyment of nymphing. You can rapidly improve your water-reading abilities by taking a moment after each fish you catch to look at the exact spot in the stream where you hooked it, noting the depth, current speed, and any other characteristics. As you continue to fish, look for similar water :met fish it carefully. You may find it holds fish as well.

Dick Galland is a former Fly Fisherman editor-at-large, and former owner and operator of the Clearwater House on Northern California's Hat Creek.

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