Fly Fishing in the Winter — The Secondary Nymphing Rig

by | Feb 18, 2019 | 13 comments

** NOTE: This is Part Six of a Troutbitten series on fly fishing for trout through the winter months. This will all read a little better if you back up and find Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five. **

Every winter our rivers go through changes, and the trout follow suit. Regardless of how much water flows between the banks, I encounter a predictable slowdown in trout response at some point. Call it a lack of trout enthusiasm. Or call it hunkering down and waiting for warmer water. However you look at it, the trout just don’t move as far to eat a fly.

For some, the solution is a streamer — to go bigger. Get the trout’s attention and add some motivation to peel itself from the river bed and move to a fly. It works — sometimes. (everything works sometimes.) But just as often you’re left with an empty net and more questions than answers. I do love fishing streamers in the winter though. I use it as a chance to build body heat, to warm up by walking and covering more water. But my standard approach is a highly targeted pair of nymphs, right in the trout’s window. Served up just right, you can almost force-feed a trout that didn’t even know he was hungry.

In the last article of this Fly Fishing in the Winter series, I showed my preferred winter rig — an egg with a nymph mounted on a tag above. The details about distance and weights in that setup are important. Change much of anything there, and it’s not quite dialed in for winter fishing.

So here, I’ll show you my best change up pitch. And just like a good alternative to the fastball, this secondary rig looks a lot like the primary one. But it gets a little lower and shows something even more natural (and available) to selective trout.

Here it is.

Illustration by Dick Jones

In the illustration above, the trailer is attached via an add-on line.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Strategies — The Add On Line

The Egg — The Trigger Remains

An egg is my staple winter nymph. Whether paired with a bead head on a tag, or with a small and light trailer as shown above, a colorful little pack of protein gets a lot of attention from trout, especially when there’s not much hatching or moving on the bottom of the river. (Hello, winter.)

I’ve already written about a couple of my favorite egg patterns for wild trout and otherwise. Find the Sucker Spawn pattern and video here. The details of that simple pattern matter. And in that previous article I also mentioned the orange nuke egg. I described why I strongly prefer eggs fished unweighted and with split shot. And I gave some theory as to why trout are so turned on by eggs in the first place.

The point is, I like to present winter nymphs as a pair with the egg. Trout that see the egg often take the second fly. They are attracted by one and take the other. See this? Ahhh, now look at that!

The Trailer

The go-to rig from the first article features a beadhead nymph on a tag (about 14-20 inches above the egg.) Factoring angles, tag length and the weight of the beadhead, that tag fly rides most often at the top of the strike zone — that’s the slower moving water near the river bed where trout hold.

But this secondary rig takes the nymph even lower. It shows the paired nymph at the same level as the egg, bouncing along in the strike zone, right in front of a trout.

I keep the trailer very small and only lightly weighted or unweighted. I fish #18’s and #20’s, often on short-shanked scud hooks or similar. Larger flies catch the currents and pull the egg off course, so they dictate the direction of the drift too much. Instead, I want a trailer nymph that’s simply along for the ride. Likewise, heavier flies touch the bottom too often — again affecting the drift of the egg.

I also keep the trailer no further away than fourteen inches. Remember, for the angler to register a take, the trout must move the egg and the split shot in this rig. So minimizing the chances for slack is key.

Therefore, I keep the split shot as close as I dare — to keep slack out of the system. I want the ability to target trout holding lies with precision. I want to put the egg exactly in the lane I choose and keep it there.

READ: Troutbitten | Split Shot vs Weighted Flies

Photo by Josh Stewart

Troubles and Solutions

The main issue here is the occasional tangling of the trailer. I tend to use a forceful tuck cast as my default method of delivering nymphs. But with much of a tuck cast at all, the light trailer lags behind the weight and the egg. The yarn composition of the egg doesn’t help in this matter. When the hook of the nymph grazes the egg during the cast, it tends to stick in the yarn instead of bouncing off, as it might against a Perdigon, for example.

There are a few different ways to deal with the tangle troubles:

First, you can solve it all in the cast. By taking the tuck completely out of the cast, the trailer will rarely tangle. This is alright for shallow water, but is not my preference in most situations.

Second, unweighted trailers tangle more than lightly weighted ones. So if you have tangles, use a trailer with a brass bead or a few wraps of lead. The extra bit of weight helps straighten the line during the cast, creating separation from the egg. And it makes all the difference.

Third, a stiffer material is often better for the tag. In the illustration above, I purposely do not list tippet diameters, because it’s a situational and personal choice. But I can tell you that thinner diameters used for the trailer tangle more. Extra-supple materials also tangle more. I most often use 5X or 6X fluorocarbon for the small trailer fly.

How To

Just like the go-to rig, I prefer to fish this secondary setup on a Mono Rig. I either tight line the nymphs, or I add an indicator below the sighter and use a tightline-to-the-indicator method.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing with an Indicator — A Mono Rig Variant

I’ll mention one last thing here. As much as winter eggs are my staple flies, sometimes the other nymphs need a different partner. At times, trout simply do not eat the egg. So try a small bugger in place of the egg, or a stonefly. Again, use the idea to get the trout’s attention with one thing, and seal the deal with another. It’s a bait and switch. And plenty of times they take the bait before they ever get to the switch.

Photo by Bill Dell

There’s much more to come in this winter fly fishing series.

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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. More good stuff, Dom. Thanks.

    Of course, you could combine both versions of your winter rig and fish a tag and a trailer. Naturally, that would make tangles more likely, and there would be competing weights (the split shot and the fly on the tag) but I like the idea of having your cake and eating it too.

  2. Consistently one of the best sites with timely and relevant content. For me it’s a daily stop and read. Please keep the good stuff coming.

  3. Great article to fill in my knowledge of winter fishing! I just went on a guided 1/2 day in NJ and caught a 21 inch brown on a sucker spawn pattern! Biggest fish of my short fly fishing career. I love winter fishing now!

    • I just might tie some flies tonight and listen to that one.

  4. Nice. Do you find it tangles less with the trailer tied to the bend of the egg hook rather than above the egg hook? Seems like it would tangle less especially if you are fishing a nuke egg with a yarn veil.

  5. Dom – great series and this level of quality, detailed thinking is what moves our sport forward. Quick question, have you evaluated the drop-shot rig with say two tags, the nymph higher in the water column and the egg lower nearer the shot? I prefer shorter tags with 6X and the drop-shot rig might achieve a more direct connection while still allowing the flies to stay in the lower strike zone (depending on the spacing & length of tags).

    Really appreciate your great articles!

    • Hi Karl. Thank for the kind words. I think what makes fly fishing so enjoyable for most of us is the detail we can go into with variations. And adapting rigs and presentations to suit OUR river situations is what makes us successful.

      So I’m sure that over time you’ll make your own determination about drop shot rigs with eggs. And I almost hate to give you my own experience because I don’t want to color your opinions too much. Then again, I guess that’s what I’m doing with all these articles, right?

      SO . . . I don’t do as well with eggs when they’re in a drop shot rig. I did it a lot in the last two winters, and it works. But it just doesn’t work as well for me. It might be the way I fish, somehow, but drop shotting never produces quite as well as a standard shot arrangement, with eggs.


  6. Have you ever tried using 3 flies? So a big nymph in place of the split shot?


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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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