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Nymphing No-Nos

by Rick Hafele
Rick Hafele says if you avoid these five simple mistakes, your nymphing success can improve by leaps and bounds.
Rick Hafele

Mark Bachmann photo

SOMETIMES KNOWING what not to do can be more important than knowing what you should do.  Over the years I’ve made my share of mistakes and seen others fail at nymph fishing only because of a few simple missteps. Below are five simple no-no’s that if avoided I believe will greatly improve your nymph fishing success.

 #1: Don’t be afraid to use small nymph patterns!

For some reason most fly fishers pay close attention to the size of their patterns when fishing dry flies, but routinely grab the largest fly in their fly box when selecting a nymph pattern.  It’s hard not to.  Even after years and years of experience to the contrary, I still have to force myself to select a size 16 or 18 nymph instead of a size 10 or 12.  It just seems to make sense that a trout will one, see a larger nymph easier than a small one, and two, find a larger morsel of food much more enticing than a small morsel.  I mean who picks the smallest slice of cake on the dessert tray?

Ah, but trout, if nothing else, are creatures of habit, and when it comes to the size of natural nymphs floating by them, small and smaller is the rule, not the exception. As a result trout see way more small nymphs than large ones, and thus are in the habit of taking tiny morsels of food.

Trout also feed selectively when a specific food item is abundant.  We know that’s true when fishing dry flies because we see the refusals when our flies are just a little too large.  Well, the same selectivity occurs when trout focus their feeding on a really abundant food drifting below the surface. Their refusals of our oversized nymphs, however, go unnoticed and we have no idea our fly has been rejected.

Fly Fishing Nymph Patterns

While the large stonefly nymph looks tasty to us, the small size 18 mayfly nymph
in the middle bottom row is more often what trout are looking for. Rick Hafele photo

If you don’t think small nymphs outnumber large ones, I encourage you to take a few minutes and collect a good sample of nymphs out of a riffle in your favorite trout stream.  Put what you collect in a white plastic tray with half an inch of water and look closely at how many different types of nymphs are present.  Then look closely at the size of the most numerous ones.  Now take one of your favorite nymph patterns for that natural and place it in the tray next to the real thing. I’ll bet dollars to donuts your fly is significantly larger than the natural.

Fly Fishing Nymphs

The above stomach contents show that this well-fed trout had eyes only for little blue-winged olive nymphs (size 18) and small Mother’s day caddis pupae (size 16). Dave Hughes photo

I have found over and over again that using nymph patterns that match the size of the dominant natural nymphs present, even if that means using a size 18 or 20 nymph imitation, greatly improves my nymph fishing success.

Bottom line: Make sure your nymph selection includes patterns in sizes 16 and smaller, and then USE THEM.

#2: Avoid “Rootitis”

Rootitisis one of the most common afflictions of beginning nymph fishers, and it will seriously limit your success. How do you know if you have rootitis? If you find yourself parked in one spot fishing nymphs for 30, 20, or even ten minutes without getting a strike and not moving, you have rootitis.

Fly Fishing Nymphs

Looking at the insect life in a stream will keep you from fishing for a while, but it usually proves to be time very well spent. Rick Hafele photo

Rootitis occurs because the water you’re fishing looks really fishy, and maybe you have even taken good fish there before.  But one of the secrets to better nymph fishing is making sure your fly gets in front of more fish.  Because you can’t see exactly where the fish are at —at least not typically—you need to carefully cover a piece of water and then move to another piece. That could be taking just a few steps upstream, or lengthening your cast a few feet to drift your fly in different water, or walking upstream or downstream some distance.

There are no rules about how long is too long. For myself after six to eight good drifts of my nymph through a specific current seam or holding lie without a strike, I pick another lie to cover with another six to eight casts. By covering water and then moving you are increasing the chances of your fly passing near a fish. Always keep looking for the next fishy spot to cover with you nymphs, and thus avoid rootitis.

#3: Change patterns that aren’t working

This problem is sort of like rootitis in that you are continuing to do something that isn’t working. With rootitis you are continuing to fish the same water. In this case you are continuing to use the same fly pattern.

We all have favorite flies, go-to patterns, that we put on when we don’t have a good reason to choose something specific. These patterns have proven themselves effective time and again, and we fish them with confidence. But don’t let the habit of choosing certain flies become a rut. No matter how good a particularly fly pattern might be or how much confidence you have in it, there will be times fish just won’t take it.

Insects and Nymphs

Once you have a good collection of naturals in a tray of water, drop your nymph patterns into the water next to them. You’ll likely be shocked at how much larger your patterns are than the naturals. Rick Hafele photo

Like rootitis there are no hard rules about how long you should fish a fly before changing patterns. I’ve had some fly fishers tell me that if they haven’t had a strike in ten minutes they change flies.  I generally stick with a pattern longer than that. But if you haven’t had any success after an hour’s time, it’s time for a change. That’s when I recommend you put your rod down and spend 20 or 30 minutes looking around and in the stream for clues about what fish might be seeing and eating. Pick up some rocks in a riffle and see what nymphs are crawling around and shake some streamside trees or shrubs to see what adult insects fly out. The time spent looking will help a great deal in deciding exactly what that next fly pattern should be and give you confidence in it when you tie it on. This also gives you a chance to see the naturals up close so you can check their size, and thus avoid no-no #1.

#4: Get your nymphs to the bottom

Skip and Dave both mention the need to fish nymphs deep, which means near the bottom whether you are fishing in water two feet deep or ten. I want to emphasize this even more by saying: If your nymph isn’t hanging up on or bumping the bottom at least once every five or six casts, you are not fishing deep enough and need to add more weight to your leader. I don’t mean that you should loose a fly every five or six casts, but you should be feeling your fly hit the bottom. Occasionally it will get snagged, and some snags will result in a lost fly. If you want to improve you nymph fishing however, as they say, get use to it!

More than once I’ve fished a section of stream with nymphs without hardly a strike, and then re-fished the same water after adding one or two more split shot to my rig. The increased success after adding the split shot was surprising. The same water that produced zero fish suddenly produced a half dozen. Remember, ninety percent of the time when fish aren’t feeding in or near the surface, get your nymphs to the bottom.

A natural nymph and its imitation

A natural nymph and its imitation. Rick Hafele photo

#5: Fish nymphs with as little line as possible

One of the main challenges of nymph fishing is detecting a strike and then setting the hook before the fish spits out your fly. All successful nymph fishing tactics maximize these two factors. No matter what tactic you are using, you will be more effective at detecting a strike and hooking fish if you shorten the amount of line you have on the water.

Strike indicators have gained acceptance and popularity because they make detecting strikes much easier. None-the-less it is much easier to see your indicator, and know when a fish has wiggled it, if it is ten feet away instead of thirty. When nymphing without an indicator, high sticking or Czech nymphing for example, you are relying on feel to detect strikes. In this case it is even more important to have as little line as possible on the water.  With Czech nymphing there is no fly line on the water.

Once you see or feel a fish strike, a short line will also greatly increase the number of those fish you actually hook. For every foot of additional line you have out beyond your rod tip you are increasing the lag time between seeing or feeling a strike and pulling the fly tight in the fishes mouth once you react. I’ve watched fish from underwater (a wetsuit, mask and snorkel are great learning tools) suck in an angler’s nymph and spit it out so fast I wasn’t sure I saw it. After watching the speed at which a trout can spit out a fly, I’m convinced that even the best nymph fisher misses many, many fish.

With nymph fishing you need to do everything you can to increase your odds of hooking fish. Fishing a short line is one of the best and easiest ways to do it. By short I mean a cast of fifteen feet or less and ideally less than ten feet. Sometimes to reach the water you want to fish you’ll have to cast further, but if you focus on fishing nymphs with short casts you’ll see your success improve significantly.

If you avoid these five no-no’s, I’m confident you’ll see your nymph fishing success improve.

Good luck and Happy Casts!

From the June/July 2011 issue of HookedNow, the new online e-zine by Dave Hughes, Rick Hafele, and Skip Morris.  For more information and a free issue go to hookednow.com.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Rick Hafele is a professional aquatic entomologist who has studied the aquatic insects in all of the states and provinces from Alaska to California, and from the Pacific Coast through the Rocky Mountains. He is the co-author of An Angler’s Guide to Aquatic Insects and Their Imitations (with Scott Roederer, Johnson Books, 1995), The Complete Book of Western Hatches (with Dave Hughes, Amato Publications, 1981), and most recently Western Mayfly Hatches (with Dave Hughes, Amato Publications, 2004). He is also the long-time Entomology columnist for American Angler magazine. In 2003 Rick completed a four series set of fly fishing videos titled Fly Fishing Large Western Rivers. For more information, visit Rick's Web site at www.laughingrivers.com.
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  • tmu

    would the sizing information apply to larger trout also? Namely, Great Lakes Steelhead?

    • http://www.facebook.com/jason.potter.319 Jason Potter

      Yes it does…maybe? It’s all relative to that water.

  • Sharptail

    On number four, I would also emphasize the importance of adjusting indicator position along the leader to achieve depth as much as adding weight. It’s overstating the obvious, but equally important. The general rule of thumb is to place your indicator one and half times the depth of the water you’re fishing between your indicator and splitshot. Using a straight line leader is also an important element in getting your fly to depth quickly, versus using tapered leader.

  • swtwaterflyguy

    Great tips!!

  • George

    Excellent advice!

  • nymphermaniac

    Great article! It could make a super nymph fisherman out of all the readers. Don’t do this again!
    It was like you were reading my mind! SPOOKY!

  • james ure

    good stuff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19229067 Mike McConnell

    Great info in this one!!!

  • Ron

    Great advice. Thanks for your help in making all of us better fishermen.

  • FishOBX

    Great advice, particularly the one about fishing near the bottom. When I first started fly fishing I was young and on a limited budget. So I tended to keep my lures / nymphs from getting snagged. Once I started ticking the bottom, my catch per hour went up a 1000%. In fact I would say that about a third to half of the time when I free my nymph from a snag I get a strike as the nymph comes loose and starts to rise.

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  • PJW

    If you are good at reading water, change your depth, your drift and your fly before changing your location

  • Brian Koz

    Of Course I would rather have a larger slice of the cake!! Very informative, intuitive and true. Rick has long been my idol in the world of macro-inverts. Another bit of advice is to join local watershed councils if they have a stream monitoring program so you can get a better up close identification of the bugs we use to drift. Tight Lines,
    Koz
    http://www.truenorthtrout.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.potter.319 Jason Potter

    100% proven tactics! 16-18? Not on a technical river like the S. Platte that’s a big fly, 20-22 is where it’s at here in CO.

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  • Steve

    Went to Montana last year and tried it “my way”….very little weight. Caught NOTHING until a friend saw my set up and said…”add a lot more weight or you’ll get skunked”
    Went to 2 mid sized split shot, and WHAM…it was Hammer Time.
    Seriously….get down and go small and youll catch more…and bigger fish!!!

  • syr62

    Thanks, these are things I have to keep reminding myself about!

  • Nella Flurkey

    So what about tandem rigs with a heavy nymph and a little dropper? I don’t think I have any shot, preferring weighted nymphs instead. Which is more effective in a western freestone river? Thanks for an informative article.

    • http://www.midcurrent.com Marshall Cutchin

      Weighted nymphs are a perfect alternative, Nella, as long as they are heavy enough. The point is to be sure the nymphs get down. Sometimes the only way you’ll know this is happening is if they begin to pick up a bit of weed or detritus from the bottom.

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