Why do we miss trout on a nymph?

by | May 31, 2020 | 2 comments

Missed ‘em. How many thousands of times have we said that? And why do we miss so many hits, takes or eats on our nymphs?

Late hook sets are a problem, as is guessing about whether we should set the hook in the first place. But I believe, more times than not, when we miss a trout, the fish actually misses the fly. However, that doesn’t let us off the hook either. It’s probably still our fault. And here’s why . . .

Out of Touch

Under a conventional nymphing setup, let’s say, with flies hanging below a bobber while the fly line and leader lay on top, there’s a lot of slack in the system. Mending line to free the bobber from the effects of drag deliberately introduces slack. And I’ve seen some anglers purposely feed more slack to the nymph trying to allow for a deeper ride.

The conventional nymphing system is flawed, in my view. But that’s another discussion. Point is, it’s a method with a mess of slack and a loss of contact. So of course we are going to miss strikes while fishing. When a trout eats, we might have no indication until the fish is already letting go. We set the hook by picking up all the slack to get tight, and more precious milliseconds are wasted. By the time we’re tight and snapping the hookset, the trout is ejecting the fly.

Missed ‘em.

In that case, it’s probably true.

Photo by Bill Dell

But what about our contact methods of nymphing? What about tight line, euro nymphing and all of the in-touch, contact stuff? How can we be missing strikes then? Why is it that even the best tight line nymphing anglers still miss fifteen to twenty percent of the fish? (Ask around, they’ll admit it.) If we’re in touch, how do we miss the take?

READ: Troutbitten | Euro Nymphing and the Mono Rig

I think we don’t. Instead, I believe two other things are far more common. And here they are . . .


Think back to the last time you stripped streamers for a few hours with decent action. Maybe it was just yesterday. I’d bet my best fly box that you had a trout chase, swipe, tap or swirl, but he didn’t take. Right?

It’s expected. Refusals are part of the streamer game.

We see the same thing on top. Trout track our dry as it’s drifting beautifully down the seam. They tilt back and rise with the current against their belly, lifting them to the surface to meet the dry at the perfect time, and . . . they turn away. In softer water, the toughest trout even bump and nudge our dries before deciding not to eat them. Refusals are part of the dry fly game too.

So why would the nymphing game be any different?

We rarely get chances to sight fish in my limestone region. So I cannot say that I’ve seen many trout refuse the nymphs. But of course they do. They slide over to the fly and inspect or eat it, and they refuse the fly at the last instant. Maybe they even bump it while turning away.

Surely this tendency explains some of the accidental foul hookings too. Trout are picky. And when something about the fly turns them off, they may have already bumped our line. Remember, the leader is tight. So we see the sighter move and the tippet hesitate, or we feel the strike.

Hook set!

Missed ‘em.

He didn’t miss this one. Photo by Bill Dell

Bad Drifts

Another thing the best tight line anglers will admit after a few beers is that over half their drifts are bad. Most of the time, we fish them out anyway. Because we’ve learned that trout are full of surprises, and a line in the water catches more trout than a line in the air.

So in our struggle for perfection, we deliver a lot of imperfect casts and unnatural drifts. Sometimes, the drift of the nymph is so close to natural that the trout buys it. And maybe he goes all in and tries to eat the fly. He slides over to the south bank seam to intercept our offering. Having seen ten-thousand nymphs and other things drifting naturally in that south bank current, this trout has some expectations. And when our imperfect drift approaches the trout, the nymph may slide away from him ever so slightly. It’s just enough for the trout to touch our line but not get the fly. Or he gets a half bite instead of a full one.

Missed ‘em.

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. Hey Domenic, I just finished reading your recent essay (Why do we miss trout on a nymph?) and a question came to mind. Here it is. With all of the underwater studies and videos of Trout eating available today, has anyone timed the true/reliable “expulsion lag.” That is the time a morsel is intercepted and enters the trouts mouth through to the time the trout expels that morsel. I’d love to know what I’m up against.
    BTW. Tell Bill Dell that I like his picture but I usually get upset when my fly gets stuck in a tree. He got his rod ‘n reel stuck. Wow…Some cast!

  2. A related incident of an undetected fish rejection.
    A friend and I sometimes bring a spinning rod along with our golf clubs to fish some ponds on the course. I was standing on an elevated slope watching the action of Al’s spinner as he retrieved it in clear water when a bass inhaled the lure and spit it out without Al feeling anything. Did the bass not close its mouth, can a fish reject it that fast without causing a pause in the lure, or ???. Wonder if trout can sense a fly as non-food and reject it before it closes its mouth. Another missed fish. Something to consider.


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