Fly Fishing Strategies: Learn the Nymph

by | Mar 1, 2018 | 12 comments

As a young troutbitten kid, I learned to fish live minnows strung on a small double hook with a barrel swivel and split shot. My uncle taught me to cast upstream and dead drift the unlucky creature, adding a slight lift when necessary to keep it off the bottom. When the fathead minnow was across from my position, I allowed the line to tighten and swing as the minnow was carried downstream. That transition between dead drifting and swinging was the sweet spot of the drift, and I learned to understand where it would happen. By considering the speed and direction of the various currents, I tried to position myself adjacent to the prime holding water for the best trout. Even at ten years of age, fishing was a beautifully complicated game and every cast was full of possibility. It was captivating.

I fished minnows until I was in my early teens, when I eventually (and regretfully) understood that sometimes trout just aren’t on minnows — in fact, most times they aren’t on minnows. So I switched to the fly rod and tried to catch mid-season, surface feeding trout on dry flies. I fished those dries until my early twenties, until I eventually (and regretfully) understood that sometimes trout aren’t on dry flies either — in fact, most times they aren’t on dry flies. So then, with the fly rod in hand, I figured it would be a natural and simple act to transfer my old minnow game into success with streamers. It worked well enough for a while, but with some disappointment, I eventually understood — that’s right, most times they aren’t on streamers either. I suppose that could have been the end for me, but in my mid-twenties I learned the nymph. And I was happy to quickly discovered that trout, in fact, usually are on nymphs.

Among the Troutbitten crew, we say this all the time: If the fish won’t take a Pheasant Tail or a Walt’s Worm . . . you’re probably screwed.

Sure, we’re all gonna keep trying other stuff on a slow day, but those standard nymph styles look a little bit like a lot of things that trout are eating all day long: mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, scuds, cress bugs, midges. Nymphs are crawling over, under and sideways around every rock in the water. Well . . . not every rock, right? Different water types hold different nymphs, and some of the slowest water holds very few. That’s why the best places to find and fish nymphs is in the riffles, runs and pocket water.

If you’ve never turned over rocks on your favorite stream, go out and do it tomorrow. Get your hands wet and start looking at what’s on the bottom of the river. You’ll learn a lot. Take a kid because they’ll love it too.

Aiden at 4 years old.

Trout are conditioned to seeing nymphs in the current, and they often don’t need much convincing to take the next small, drifting protein package that comes along. Trout want their lunch delivered directly to them — easy, reliable food that they recognize and doesn’t swim away. There’s no chasing when it comes to eating nymphs, just a lazy, easy grab, and the job is done.

Streamers and dry flies usually require trout to commit more energy toward the capture, moving further from their position, putting themselves in more danger and potentially wasting energy. Streamers fished with active retrieves need to trigger something that motivates a trout to take that risk. In most watersheds, an active baitfish presentation isn’t a reliable producer because the baitfish simply aren’t as easily available to the trout. Both dries and streamers have their moments, but it’s a rare day when they will outperform a well placed nymph.

READ: Troutbitten | Modern Streamers — Too much motion? And are we moving them too fast? 

If the goal is to catch fish, then nymphs are your soul mate. Everybody’s in the game for something different though, and it’s a hell of a good time pitching streamers through some prime water or searching the banks with a dry ant.

My inclination is to experiment, and I’ve gone through spells where I’ve  fished only streamers, no matter the conditions, whether the trout were on them or not. Right now, I spend about half of my time on the water fishing streamers and the other half with nymphs. However, I’m fishing streamers as a crossover technique lately — essentially nymphing them for part of the drift and activating them at other parts (a lot like I fished minnows when I was ten). I’m really just trying to find ways to make streamers even half as productive as nymphs are.

READ: Troutbitten | Streamers as an easy meal — The Old-School Streamer Thing

Streamers are more popular than ever right now, but there’s a time to put the meat away and learn the nymph. Honestly, I’m stunned by how many fishermen I see throwing five-inch streamers and sinking lines on our local limestone rivers. It just doesn’t work very often. By that I only mean that you’ll move a number of fish to the big bugs, but precious few will commit to actually eating the damn things (even on a good day). Fish drive-byes are exciting, but the novelty wears off for me, and when it happens too often, I’d rather switch to nymphs and catch fish.

My strategy is to catch a bunch of fish — up the odds — and one of them will be big.

But . . . it’s also easy to sling streamers all day and tell yourself that you were just fishing for trophies, right? There are more built-in excuses with the long flies — because the fish just weren’t on today. Here’s a gut check for the streamers-only crowd: Are you possibly fishing streamers all the time because nymphs are difficult to learn?

Same question for the dry-flies-only crew: Do you stubbornly stay on the surface because you don’t have confidence in your underwater game?

Good streamer skills are easier to learn than good nymphing. It takes years to become competent with either choice, but it takes hundreds more days to really dial in a nymphing game. I’m not talking about watching a bobber in a pool of slow water either. Don’t do that. I mean digging in and learning to tight line nymph, and then transferring those tight line skills to an indicator method. With both skills, you can match every condition and every water type, and you don’t need to rely on the trout being on streamers that day.

Good nymphing is never boring. It’s a fast paced game that requires constant thought and adjustment to do it well. Rarely is nymphing a slow, delicate proposition. You can cover a lot of water in a day by picking only the biggest, heaviest runs, wading in and fishing hard. Choose heavy nymphs that get to the bottom and stay there, and you’ll cover water that most streamers and dries can’t touch.

Find a handful of nymph patterns to call your own, then go learn the nymph game. Stick with it. Fish hard. Then go find the next heavy run and do it again.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky



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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. I have wanted to learn tight line Euro style nymphing for the last two years but the kick in the pants I needed to get started didn’t happen until this year. I cannot say enough here to thank Dom, Pat and everyone on this blog for kicking it into a jump start! Once I was all set, with the right tools, I was off and running! My old pants caught a bunch of trout my first time out this past Tuesday. It was cold and then it started to snow. Big flakes and so many takes. No ice in the guides all day long! This is so much fun!

  2. Couldn’t agree more Dom…Rarely will I be seen not nymphing, it’s been my experience that if you nymph even with duns abound on the water you still catch more fish and the bigger fish. Very well written n couldn’t say it any better.

  3. Nothing like a good day fishing nymphs, and an article inpiring it!

  4. Yep! Well said.

  5. Finally someone’s got the beads to call out the big streamer trend for what it is. Its not the best way to catch fish, but it might be the best way to catch the biggest, meanest, and fastest fish in the hole. So, like you, I also like to dead drift a streamer through a run and let it rise and swing at the end of the drift, egg sucking leeches are particularly effective. I also like to let that last bit of swing hang directly downstream for an extra few seconds as I’ve been frequently surprised to get a strike the moment before i cast again up stream.

  6. My thoughts exactly, Domenick. I think you can pretty much know in about 15 minutes if trout are going to chase streamers. I just read on another site that “nymph fishing is bait fishing.” I found out over the years the people that say that just can’t learn to nymph. They find out real soon that it something that only comes with practice.
    The Best

    • The same crowd probably couldn’t bait fish either.
      Anyone can go out and get lucky fishing any number of methods, the test of skill is being able to replicate the results time and time again.. Cheers!

  7. Great words as always!

  8. Agreed with all of the above comments and the article. I stayed away from Nymphing for years because it seemed too technical. Somewhere at the end of my 20’s, I committed to learning the subsurface game. I’m still learning in my early 50’s. It is initially intimidating, no doubt, but worth the time. Thanks for another good read.


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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