Nymphing: The Top Down Approach

by | Dec 8, 2019 | 33 comments

One of the biggest misconception in nymphing is that our flies must bump along the bottom. Get it down where the trout are, they say. Bounce the nymph along the riverbed, because that’s the only way to catch trout. We’re told to feel the nymph tick, tick, tick across the rocks, and then set the hook when a trout eats. With apologies to all who have uttered these sentiments and given them ink, it’s just not true.

Effective nymphing is largely about not touching the bottom. Real nymphs aren’t down there banging their heads against rocks and bouncing up and down. No, they’re not. With neutral buoyancy and generally poor propulsion systems, dislodged nymphs are gliding through the strike zone. And mimicking that drift is our most effective goal.

READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone

Bad Things

Three things happen when we touch bottom, and none of them are good.

1. The nymph touches rocks covered with algae or moss, picking up one or the other or both. But trout don’t eat nymphs with a side salad. So we clean the fly or fish without noticing the added vegetables on the hook for a while, making multiple fruitless casts while trout reject our fly.

2. The nymph pauses and stutters as it touches rocks, looking altogether unnatural while dramatically speeding up and slowing down. And again, wise trout reject our fly.

3. The nymph finds a snag. If it hangs on a rock, you might get it back by tugging in the opposite direction, but you’ll spook any fish sitting nearby. If the hook is embedded into wood, you won’t retrieve it without walking over and spoiling the spot or breaking off the fly. Don’t forget that the latter also spooks fish.

There is No Sixth Sense

There’s one more thing that happens when we touch bottom. If  we do it often enough, we start guessing about whether the next tick is a trout-take or the riverbed.

Bump, bump. Nope.

Bump, tick, tick. SET!


“Was that a fish?”

“I don’t know, but that felt like a fish.” (Hank Patterson)

Forget that! Forget all of it. There is no way to reliably determine if a trout ate your nymph or the fly touched a rock. None. Trout don’t grab nymphs, they just slide over or tilt up and intercept them, stopping their progress downstream (usually). So most takes are as subtle as . . . well, they’re as subtle as your nymph grazing a rock on the bottom.

No one can reliably determine a trout-eat vs contact with a rock. And any idea that there’s a sixth sense for such a thing is just hocus pocus.

In fact, touching bottom too much deadens our senses. Repeated contact with the riverbed forces the angler into a guessing game. And because fishing is fishing, we usually guess the wrong way at the wrong time.

Instead . . .

Glide nymphs through the strike zone and try not to touch the bottom. Yes, I’ve written about this at length. And it’s one of the key points to good nymphing. I focus on it every time I’m out there.

The Top Down Approach

A good cast sets up a quality dead drift for the nymph. And depending on our nymphing method (tight line vs suspension) there are either limitless or limited adjustments to be made throughout the drift.

But regardless of the nymphing method used, the angler does better to avoid the bottom, especially the first time through a specific lane. Then ride the fly deeper on consecutive drifts, after learning something about the current’s depth and speed.

I repeat, bad things happen by touching the riverbed, so avoid it. Try to keep the nymphs off the bottom.

I call this a top down approach.

By “top,” I don’t mean the water’s surface. Instead, I’m targeting the top of the strike zone. And the first time through a chosen drift lane, I try to barely ride into that cushion of slower water. In doing so, I often find exactly what I was looking for. On the first few drifts, I usually locate the zone by reading the sighter or suspender. Then I spend the next handful of drifts refining one single lane and getting as deep into the strike zone as I dare. In the best spots, I may purposely touch the bottom on my last couple drifts, just to be sure I get down to the lowest part of the strike zone while presenting my nymph to the trout.

That’s the top down approach, where the first few drifts are higher and the last few are low enough to be sure.

READ: Troutbitten | The Water Column — And the All-Important Strike Zone

That’s a big flipper. Photo by Bill Dell

Here’s what it looks like in practice

It’s been a good morning. The trout are active enough to provide the rewards for hard work, and they’re discriminating enough to teach the right things.

Nobody’s home behind this large chunk of limestone, so I’ll test the seam to the left. It’s a two-foot wide channel, about twenty-four inches deep, and I can effectively drift through about ten feet of it before the shelf of rocks extending to my right ends the productive lane. The seam is deeper and greener than the water next to it, and wild trout have been eating in this type of water all morning long.

I wade three steps forward and a half step to my left, putting myself in perfect range for a cast that is twenty feet above me and ten feet over. I’m on a tight line nymphing rig, so I’ll guide the flies down one seam with my rod tip.

Because I can’t see the bottom, I really have no understanding of what the riverbed looks like. But I can make a good guess. My sight angle is decent, because the sun is behind me. And I can judge the water depth by its color alone.

On the first cast, I place a single beadhead stonefly into the lane with a shallow tuck cast. I deliberately try not to touch anything on this first ride, but I get my fly below what I think is mid-column and look for the strike zone. When the nymph is just beside the rock, the sighter slows down a bit, and I set the hook. I touch no rocks and no tree parts, so I know I found the top of the strike zone — that’s what created the hesitation in the sighter. Nice. The hook set becomes my backcast and I’m right back into the same seam.

On the second drift, I tuck cast a little steeper and lift a couple seconds before leading, creating a more vertical angle on the sighter. Both adjustments allow me to get deeper quicker. And by no surprise, my nymph finds the strike zone before approaching the side of the rock. I set on a hesitation again. Yup. That’s the strike zone. Backcast, and I’m right back into the same seam.

I spend the next few drifts deliberately guiding my flies through the strike zone. I easily find the necessary depth each time, and I do my best to influence the nymphs only enough to keep them moving along, so they neither sink to the bottom nor drag downstream unnaturally.

By the seventh or eighth drift, I have an excellent understanding of the currents and the riverbed below. I’ve used the nymphs as a probe to gather a mental image of what lies beneath. Each drift gets better, until one of them is just right. The adjustments I’ve made — the tuck cast, the leading angle, the speed, the depth — all allow for the perfect presentation, and a trout eats the fly. Set the hook. Fish on. Net. Release. Thank you, river. Cast again.

And never once did I touch the bottom.

The action remains this way all day long. The trout are picky, but it’s a fair game. And when I get a drift close enough to perfect, they eat the fly.

I work upstream, alternating between tight line and suspender presentations. I read the indy for the strike zone, just the same as I read the sighter. And at every new lane, I start with a top down approach, avoiding the river bottom as much as possible, and riding a little deeper with each cast until I find the strike zone.


The top down approach works. Fishing this way allows me to get into a rhythm. I’m rarely interrupted by snagging the bottom, cleaning flies, breaking off or tying knots. I’m fishing. And I’m refining — not guessing or hoping.

And I’m catching trout with a top down approach.

Fish hard, friends.

**NOTE** Because everything works sometimes, and because fishing is fishing, a good bottom bounce is also a great way to do things out there. But doing this with some forethought and intention pays big dividends. When I decide to touch bottom and slow the drift, I strongly prefer to do it with a drop shot rig or even split shot paired with unweighted flies. Here’s more on all of that . . .

READ: Troutbitten | When Drifting Low Isn’t Low Enough
READ: Troutbitten | Series | Drop Shot Nymphing
READ: Troutbitten | Three Ways to Dead Drift: Bottom Bounce, Strike Zone, Tracking


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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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What do you think?

Be part of the Troutbitten community of ideas.
Be helpful. And be nice.


  1. I was going to congratulate you on an excellent post before I read it, so sure was I that it would be incredibly informative. I didn’t do it, but I could have, because I was right.

    • Ha. I thought you were disagreeable there for a second.


  2. Again a well-written article gives me something new to think about. I suspect I’ve been moving in this direction for some time, having started tight line nymphing years ago with relatively heavy nymphs in all waters, moving to lighter and lighter nymphs over the years, now using the minimum of weight I need to get down. But I’ve still sought to tick, tick, tick the bottom in many circumstances, possibly finding the glide by luck or growing instinct. If so, I was not as aware of the process as I needed to be to keep refining it. This will really help. Thanks again, Dom. I thoroughly enjoyed the day we spent fishing, and would encourage any readers who are finding Dom’s posts instructive to fish with him. He is a superb guide who will show you new approaches and help you refine technique. Tight lines all!

    • Thanks, Louis. I appreciate the support.


  3. Thank you, Domenick, for a great article and the informative how-to on your approach to nymphing. You described all the the thinks I was doing wrong… Dragging bottom, catching algae, snagging wood. I’m still new to the nymphing techniques and your thoughts and comments will help refine my approach. Again, thanks!

    • Right on. It’ll definitely help.

      Fish hard.


  4. I agree with your approach, but come at it little different. I will start with one shot (#6) about 10 inches or so above the nymph or fly. One at a time I had shot until I touch bottom, then remove one. I will still occasionally touch bottom, but am always in that cushion of water where the trout are. Depending on flow and depth, I may have any number of shot on the leader, but like you, stay in the boundary layer where the fish are. Good articles.

  5. Domenick, thank you! Again, this is awesome. I’ve been practicing “not ticking” for a while now, based on your previous post, and I’m catching well. In addition, I am: 1) losing far fewer flies, and 2) staying safer not risking “over confidently” wading into a deep pool and reaching down to try releasing snagged flies. Happy Holidays!

    • Cheers.


  6. Yep, I get it. Makes perfect sense. Thanks to you, I catch alot more fish. MERRY CHRISTMAS my friend. And remember what Dizzy Dean once said: “If you can do it-it ain’t braggin'”

    • Merry Christmas, Keith.


  7. I applaud you for being so candid in your opening paragraph. I always laugh to myself when I hear those words “get it down.”
    Once again Domenic, another great article and always informative.
    Tightlines always my friend.

    • Ha! Yeah, I suppose “candid” is one way to put it. That’s argumentative writing 101.



  8. As usual another great article with tips for becoming a better fisherman. Thanks Dom, and Merry Christmas.

    • Thanks, James. Merry Christmas.


  9. I love reading your articles and this one is no exception! They make sense and you do a terrific job of explaining the “how” and “why” so it does. I appreciate your ability to experiment with both equipment and tactics (and give us license to do the same) so we can try it for ourselves and find out what works for us. On the river, I now find myself experimenting more, rather than following a hard and fast “this is the only way it’s supposed to be done” thought process. The bottom line is I don’t limit myself as much and I really think more about what I do when I’m fishing…I fish deliberately and this really has made this process fun for me. I really have learned a lot from reading this site and wanted to say thank you and I wish you a wonderful holiday season!

    • Thanks for the support, Dan.


  10. I am always amazed at the quality of your information, writing, & teaching. I have fly fished and studied the sport for over 40 years. I consider the current Guru’s of the sport to be Lance Egan, Devin Olsen, George Daniel, Kelly Galloup, Pat Dorsey & a few others. Of course the old legends are George Harvey, Joe Humphreys and possibly my all time favorite, Charlie Brooks.
    You have written your way into a class with these gentlemen in my opinion. At 55, and as a life long student of the sport, I am learning at a more rapid pace and enjoying the game more than ever before, thanks to guys like you.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Cory! That’s very kind. And I appreciate the support. I love the writing. I love the creativity of web design,of photography and even choosing how to communicate ideas during a speaking engagement. All of it is a creative outlet.

      I’ve chosen to self-publish everything here on Troutbitten, because I like having full control of my own material. And because, going forward I can group any of these articles, ideas, photos, etc. into whatever form I choose. I like that. I also like the fact that I reach more anglers by writing here and making all of it freely available.

      That choice to self-publish keeps Troutbitten under the radar a bit, slightly out of the mainstream, and I like that too.

      I hope you’ll keep reading.



  11. Center-pinning accomplishes the goal of drifting through the strike zone, above the bottom, with floats and intricate shot patterns. Those suspended egg sacs are deadly on steelhead. (Their hero drifts however are ridiculous and rude). Do you ever suspend your nymphs in a similar way? I have met a few guys on the Delaware who centerpin with nymphs for wild browns and bows. They tell me its very effective.

    • Hi Rick,

      So, center-pinning is very productive. But it relies on covering a lot of water in one drift rather than (necessarily) being in the strike zone the whole way through. What I’m mostly referring to in the article above, and throughout most of the nymphing articles here, is focusing on getting short drifts that perfectly glide through the strike zone as long as possible. Now, on most trout rivers, the bottom is quite varied within a fifteen foot drift. And that’s one of the reasons tight lining is such a great choice — because we can adjust for depth and speed during the drift.

      More to your question: Yes, I do use a similar concept close to center-pinning when I choose a tight-line-to-the-indicator approach on the Mono Rig.


      Especially when I choose a hard indy over yarn, I can get very long drifts at various angles. BUT, like I mentioned above, those long drifts may not perfectly be in the strike zone.

      Make sense?


  12. Dom
    With this top to bottom approach you can define the beginning of the strike zone and eventually land near or close to the bottom using a single fly. In a past article you talk about getting to the bottom with a point fly and using a tag to negotiate and maybe define the upper strike zones. Why not use two nymphs and kill two birds with one stone!!

    • Hi John.

      I get what you are saying.

      I guess I did describe only a single fly above, but it is not my intention to describe this as a one fly tactic. It doesn’t really matter to me how many nymphs I have on, this top down approach is my standard way to approach the water.

      My ultimate goal is to ride nice and low in the strike zone with my parent fly (the heaviest fly — the one I’m most in control of — my contact point). But if I go straight into a lane trying to immediately get to the bottom, then all of those bad things described above happen to often. Instead I start high for a few drifts and then work my way to the bottom. Again, it doesn’t matter to me how many flies I have on.

      Also, in trying to ride a little high on the first drift I VERY often find the top of the strike zone anyway.

      I hope that helps describe my point. It’s very hard to cover everything in 1200 words, really. So, much ends up unsaid.



      • Dom
        Understand completely….
        Thanks..Have a great Christmas!

  13. Hi Dom,

    What exactly causes the leader to hesitate when the nymph reaches the strike zone? Is the hesitation caused by the cushion of slower water in the strike zone?

    Thanks for your articles!

  14. Hi Dom, please disregard my previous post/question. I carefully reread your article, and found the answer. The leader moves slower than the top current when the nymphs reach the strike zone.

  15. Very useful. I was definitely testing the bottoms of the river by feeling them. I’m gonna take this approach next time. Excellent article as always.

  16. Thanks Dom,
    I couldn’t agree with you more about keeping nymphs off the bottom. Getting flies in the strike zone allows for more time catching fish and less time re-tying or cleaning flies every few cast. Great article, keep em coming.

  17. ” …tick, tick, tick across the rocks…With apologies to all who have uttered these sentiments and given them useless ink, that is pure bullshit.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I feel free.

  18. Nice post Dom. Here a couple related details that may be useful to some folks:

    In this post Dom not only talks about why to work talk to bottom he also describes how to do so (and links to a whole article on the topic). I would add the when you intentionally work top to bottom it forces you to practice and refine the way you cast, retrieve and change flies, tippet etc. This makes you better at fishing. It makes you more adaptable. And it lets you be more intentional in your drifts even when you have a reason for not working top to bottom.

    One thing I would add is that working top to bottom can also include starting with a dry dropper and /or euro dry dropper. This isn’t applicable to all water, but when I look at certain pools I immediately know I’m going start with a euro dry dropper that lets me cast from a bit farther away and get good drifts in slower, shallower areas (in uniform, slowish, shallow water I may float my sighter to similar effect). As I move to progressively deeper, faster parts of the pool and stop getting the drifts I want I’ll replace the dry on the tag with a nymph and work on getting my flies deeper. Often this involves switching to a fly with a bigger bead as I get near the deeper, more turbulent head of the pool. This doesn’t work the other way around. If you target the fish in deeper water first you already spooked the fish along the edges.

    I guess what I’m saying is that a top to bottom approach can be beneficial when casting to a small area, but also over a larger one.


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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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