Nymphing is usually the best way to meet trout on their own terms. Throughout the seasons, simple nymph patterns catch the most fish. That’s especially true here in the fertile limestone spring creeks of Central Pennsylvania, but no matter where I’ve fished (whether a tailwater, freestone or limestone river) nymphing produces the best numbers. And often, a dialed-in and directed nymphing game will also produce the best size. The biggest and best fish are underneath, so that’s where I put my flies. With so much time logged having a nymph at the end of the line, what’s the best fly rod for nymphing?
As the river changes, so does my strategy for approaching fish and getting a fly to them. From season to season, from day to day, and from seam to seam, changing and adapting to the conditions is the most important variable for success. On a late summer morning, I may need a pair of small nymphs cast into broken water at the head of a pocket. The following week, after a bit of rain, the same fish may be more responsive to a larger stonefly pattern or maybe a streamer paired with a small nymph. I’ve come to know what changes are required on my favorite stretches of water. And I enjoy adapting my rig (the flies and leader) for what will best catch a trout.
These things may change: the size and type of flies, the tippet length and diameter, the addition or subtraction of a suspender. But one thing remains constant as I wade upstream into the current — my fly rod.
While wading, I use the same fly rod all day long. If it was convenient to carry a second or third rod, or if the truck was closer than it usually is, I think I’d still rather use one tool to get the job done. I’ve tried various methods for carrying two rods, and I’m convinced that there’s no system efficient enough to satisfy me. As I pull on my waders and lace up my boots, I make a decision: Which fly rod will I take? For me, it’s a simple choice between my two main rods. I use the 4 weight when I think I’ll mostly be nymphing and the 5 weight when I expect to have a good reason to cast some larger streamers.
I’ve come to believe that the Mono Rig is the best choice for nearly all subsurface fishing. You can read my argument for this in the article, The Mono Rig and Why Fly Line Sucks. To summarize, a super-long mono leader gives me more control over presentation by removing the unnecessary mass of a fly line, dramatically cutting down on the negative effects of drag. With the Mono Rig, I have improved strike detection and better command over the direction of the drift. I can stay tight to my flies, streamer or suspender. So I choose a fly rod that casts the Mono Rig in all the different ways that I use it: with light to heavy nymphs, small to large streamers, tight line and with a suspender.
Do you need a specialized fly rod?
I’m happy to tell you that I’ve been able to fish the Mono Rig on every fly rod that I’ve ever strung it up. With just a little adjustment to the casting stroke, you can make it work. Of course, some rods are more fit for the job than others.
What fly rod?
I think it’s important first to realize what your own needs are. Maybe you’re not interested in casting suspender rigs or streamers. In that case, a light competition-style fly rod may be your best choice. The comp rods, or other rods marketed as Euro-Nymphing fly rods, are long and light. Rarely do they exceed a 4 weight, and 2 or 3 weights are common. The lighter rods can be easier on your arm and shoulder if you’re drifting through seams all day with an outstretched arm.
The lighter weight rods also load easier, so the minimal weight of the leader (Mono Rig) can actually flex a 3 weight rod more than a 5 weight rod. That can be helpful if you are casting very light nymphs at long distances, but it can make casting difficult when you add a suspender or switch to heavier nymphs or streamers.
I’ve also found some of the lighter weight competition rods to lack the backbone that I want for fighting bigger trout. You can land just about any size trout on any weight rod if you play the fish right, but many of the lighter rods bend too deeply into the butt section for me. Some of them don’t have the power that I want for quickly fighting large trout in heavy currents.
Fly Rod Flex
Slower, full-flex fly rods don’t suit my own, impatient style. I like a medium-fast rod for all methods of fishing, and the slower rods don’t work for me.
When you ditch the fly line and switch over to the Mono Rig, slower action rods can feel more natural because they load easier — the leader itself makes them flex. But a fast 5 weight rod can efficiently cast light nymphs too, with the right casting stroke — it just feels different because the rod doesn’t load as much. I find the flex of a rod to be a very personal choice; it’s different for everyone.
Fly Rod Length
Length, however, is more universal. Going a bit longer is one of the best things you can do for your nymphing game. It’s startling how much reach you gain with an extra 6 inches on the rod tip. I can’t explain the geometry of it all, but an extra foot of rod length extends your reach much further than just 12 inches into the current.
Anything less than 9 feet is a little short for the Mono Rig. Going over 10 feet is great for the added reach, but keep in mind that longer rods usually flex more. Again, it’s a personal choice.
To fish the Mono Rig and get into tight line nymphing, you probably don’t need more than the rod that you already have. Most fly rods will get the job done, and many standard, popular rods are perfect for it.
As you experiment with tight line tactics and become comfortable with the Mono Rig, you’ll discover how far you want to take it. Adding a suspender is easy and allows you to fish types of water that you can’t effectively tight line. Switching from nymphs to streamers is also easy, and the added weight makes the Mono Rig a breeze to cast. Lighter rods are well suited for tight lining average nymphs. Heavier rods will make casting suspender and streamer rigs more comfortable and efficient. Once you decide what you want to do with the Mono Rig, you will find your own point of compromise.
I’ve purposely avoided recommending any specific fly rod brands or models here because I really don’t think the choice is that important. Regardless, here are the rods my Troutbitten friends and I use.
Since the Mono Rig is my choice for all subsurface fishing, I choose a little heavier rod than I would if I were to be exclusively tight lining average sized nymphs.
I learned to tight line on an 8’6” St. Croix Avid 5 weight because that’s what I had, and I still love the mono rig on that rod. I use it for all my night fishing and on small streams.
Later, I got a great deal on a 9’6” Sage Z-Axis 4 weight, and that’s my primary rod.
When I start casting streamers, I wish the Z was a little more stout. And when I’m casting light nymphs, I wish the Avid had just a bit more flex. But each fly rod does the job of presenting both extremes, and the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. It’s a compromise.
I wish both rods were a little longer. For my fishing, I think a 10 foot 5 weight might be the right tool, and some of the best fishermen I hang out with use one. A good 10 foot 5 weight handles suspenders and streamers better than my other rods and yet still casts lighter rigs well enough.
Buying a specialized fly rod for tight lining and fishing the Mono Rig just isn’t necessary. If you want to spend some money on a new rod then do it. But you don’t need the latest tech-dry shirt to go for a run. You don’t need a carbon-fiber frame in between the tires to enjoy a bike ride. And you don’t need anything more than your own fly rod to start slinging around the Mono Rig. Have fun. Catch fish.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
More Troutbitten articles on nymphs:
The Mono Rig and Why Fly Line Sucks
Tight Line Nymph Rig
Sighters: Seven Separate Tools
Learn the Nymph
Tags and Trailers
The Backing Barrel
The Add-On Line
One Great Nymphing Trick
The Trouble With Tenkara — And Why You Don’t Need It
It’s a Suspender — Not Just and Indicator
Stop the Split Shot Slide
Trail This — Don’t Trail That
For Tight Line Nymphing and the Mono Rig, What’s a Good Fly Rod?
Depth, Angle, Drop: Three Elements of a Nymphing Rig
Over or Under? Your best bet on weight
Modern Nymphing, the Mono Rig, and Euro Nymphing