Quick Tips — When to Fish Just One Nymph

by | Oct 7, 2018 | 8 comments

John and I always keep count. He’s the only fishing friend who can pull me into such a race, and I’m not sure why.

Like all fishermen do at some point, I used to keep count of my catch. I even roughly calculated my catch rate at the end of the day, like this:

“Let’s see, I fished for five hours, but I took a twenty minute break around lunch. Walk in time was fifteen minutes, so subtract that too. I caught twenty-six trout, but I COULD have caught those couple of trout that came unbuttoned if I was more careful, so let’s add those in and say thirty. Multiply, divide and there’s my catch rate.”

But I don’t do that anymore. I don’t like to compete against anything but the river and the trout. And I don’t mind losing on occasion. Loss is a wonderful teacher.

John baits me back into counting every time we fish together. And there’s no fuzzy catch-rate-math involved either — just straight up fish counting.

— — — — — —

At the bend pool, I walked out of the river at the small mudslide — right where everybody else does. I flipped the rod tip behind me, compulsively checked the position of the net and water bottle mounted on my belt and peered through the midday fog. And a strange day it was, alternating light rain and cool breezes with warm air and a thin veil over the water. The sun showed up once, parting the fog and chasing it away into the bordering forest. But now, the white sheet had crept back to the river, and I had a hard time making out John’s silhouette through the haze.

I walked upstream around the pool, same as I’m sure John had. I knew where I’d find him. He was at the top of the flat, right where a wide riffle condenses and breaks up. Leave it to John to fish the easy stuff.

“Hey cherry picker, how many?” I shouted across to John from the bank.

He’d seen me coming, and he timed his cast to the perfect spot in the perfect seam, just so he’d be hooked up with a trout as I arrived.

“This one makes seventeen!” he said.

John feigned a tough struggle and played the fish for a while before yelling out, “Oh my! That’s a big one.”

John netted the ten-inch trout and released it. I nodded with approving sarcasm, and we both chuckled as he waded over to join me on the bank.

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seventeen?”

I had caught only half as many in the same time.

“Yeah,” John confirmed. “Scout’s honor.”

John held up and dangled a single fly from its mono tether, a simple stonefly pattern that we both keep in our confidence box.

“Ahhh, nice.” I said. “Just one fly?”

“Yeah, it seems to make all the difference today,” John replied. “The water’s up, but these fish are still feeding in the mixed and swirling currents, so . . .”

“. . . One fly holds the seam better,” I interrupted.

“Yup.” He nodded.

Photo by Sammy Chang

Like most of us, I’m a creature of habit, and I tend to do the same things when presented with the same situations. But my go to rigs became that way for good reason. I’ve tirelessly tested flies and rigs through the years, even when the fish are on, just to see what won’t work. (That’s one of the reasons I stopped counting fish — because catching the most trout is not often my goal.)

So when John held up that fly, I kicked myself a bit for being a little too ingrained in my thinking. I love a two nymph rig. Heaviest fly on bottom and lightest fly on the tag is my go to setup. But while my two nymphs were pulling against one another that afternoon, John’s single nymph solution had his one fly in one current seam way more often.

Two nymphs often land in two different seams. The upper fly might land in a fast lane and the point fly in a slower one. And we may think our dead drift is solid. But on a short drift, neither of those flies ever gets a chance to settle into the seam and do its thing. Instead, it’s being pulled by a partner, encouraged to leave its own seam and cross over into the next one. All of that destroys the dead drift.

Of course, there are a hundred different scenarios and three times the solutions on the river. Two nymphs can certainly work in mixed currents. Style, size, distance between flies, weight and material density all factor in. But often, it’s best to simplify the rig by clipping off the extra fly.

I did just that. I removed my Bead Head Pheasant Tail and swapped out the point fly to a larger stone to make up the weight and still get down. Then I walked to the next level upstream ahead of my friend. I immediately started catching more trout.

John still doubled me up by the end of the day, but that won’t happen next time.

Fish hard, friends.


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. Boy can I relate. I do hold myself out as a perpetual student. I’m willing to sacrifice fish count in the name of experimentation and learning. But still… I find myself getting hung up in patterns that likely prevent growth or even fish. Then I remind myself that patterns are baked into our human condition and by simply being aware of this fact… I’m likely ahead of most. Not that it’s about that.

  2. What I’m beginning to realize is that even a couple of feet of proper initial drift are impactful. Not unlike the realization that the last several feet prior to recasting upstream can be eventful. Also, I have to admit to a new experience that most certainly is eschewed by the purists- trolling for fish in a lake with fly gear out of a kayak. It was an effective way to introduce fishing to my 5 year old “grandnephew”. He caught fish and is now a fan of the endeavor.

  3. Agreed, for one thing, we might have got a bit “programmed” into thinking two and three nymph rigs are the go to approach, but remember the “auld days” when we fished a single nymph upstream and watched the tip of the fly line? -or a bit of wool dipped in floatant. I tend to go to two nymphs to aid in casting and to get down to depth, however, my rivers have rocky and uneven depths, so sometimes the lower end of the sighter is in the water as I adjust for depth, you can often see the sighter tracking away from the drift, even when I am leading the nymphs a tad. In our low river conditions here, I start with single nymph and often change between brass/tungsten/glass bead heads trying to get depth and drift right. Over here, one fish is a result, so as long as I get one, any others are a bonus, lessons are usually learned from a blank session, and anyway, it was time by the river with the brain thinking only of fishing, so its still a win. 2/3 nymph rigs have their day, but a single rig will still score.

  4. So, if I got this right…in swirling currents I can cut off my top fly (on a two fly rig) and fish just one to see if it stays in the seam better, right? I suppose if I move on to normal water, I can tie the top fly back on (and if I left the dropper tag that should be really easy). I just don’t know how would I know that my 2-fly rig is in swirling current, and therefore not drifting correctly.

    • Hi Tomas, if you “dip” the sighter, assuming you are not fishing an indicator, you will see the sighter point away from the drift, maybe left, maybe right, or, it will curve, indicating the nymphs are either ahead of the sighter or being pulled up out of your estimated depth, those last two though are usually too light a nymph for the current in my experience. You don’t need to leave the dropper tag on, if you think it maybe causing drag or spooking fish, cut it off at the knot, you can then tie on a fresh dropper if need be, above the existing knot, using a sliding knot, I forget what its called, I think its the uni knot, somebody on here will know it. Tight lines sir.

      • Thanks, man. I’ll be on the lookout for that crooked sighter. 🙂

        • I forgot to mention refraction, it can trick you sometimes as it makes the line look bent-another little joke the stream goblins like to tease us with, but refraction usually causes a sharp angle, and most times aint a problem, if you use a a wading staff, you see refraction at work quite a lot.

    • Hi Tomas,

      Yes, you have that right. You can clip off the top fly. Just leave the tag there empty. It doesn’t spook fish or affect the drift.

      As far as knowing if your rig is drifting correctly, just let the fish tell you. If you aren’t catching trout, but your drifts are good, then change something.

      There are plenty of times that two flies work just fine in swirling, mixed currents. Sometimes drifting perfectly is not the answer, so let the fish decide.

      Regarding the sighter pointing that “gaa” mentions, I don’t actually see the sighter point anywhere when I dip the sighter and give it slack. In fact, under no tension, the sighter just kind of goes limp. The only way to reliably determine direction via the sighter is if it’s in contact with the flies.



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