Are Light Nymphs More Effective? Is Less Weight More Natural?

by | Aug 17, 2022 | 5 comments

Here are two great things about nymph fishing: One, good drifts with a nymph catch trout in almost any river scenario. And two, there’s an endless set of variables to play with.

The other fly styles — dry, streamer and wet fly, are easier to master. Dries, being surface located, challenge the angler in one plane, and the flies are most often visible. Likewise, trout seem a bit more forgiving on streamers and wets, because drag — or tension to the fly — can be part of the presentation.

For a nymph, as with dry flies, a dead drift is our most common objective. It’s the baseline presentation from where deviations separate. And yet, fishing the unseen nymph, positioned in three dimensional currents, requires imagination, patience and a certain confidence that derives only from experience. Lots of it.

What’s the nymph really doing under there? How is it affected by the currents? And is the attached tippet dragging the fly unnaturally across, over, up or out of the natural, one-seam drift that our picky trout are waiting for?

The challenge of nymphing is mercifully balanced by the frequency at which trout feed on these bottom dwelling food forms. So even if we get one in ten drifts just right, the rate at which we might fool fish makes this maddening quest for perfection more than worth it.

Simply put, nymphing is fun because it works — and because there’s always a way to make it work even better.

Our nymphs require weight to get under the surface and down to the trout. And “how much weight” is a fundamental consideration — perhaps the primary factor — toward the goal of drifting nymphs naturally.

READ: Troutbitten | Over or Under — Your Best Bet On Weight

These Days . . .

If you’re into anything long enough, you’ll notice the trends. And you can watch dogged convictions shift, en masse. In an industry as niche as fly fishing for trout, the opinions of just a few influential anglers often shape the next metamorphosis.

So it is with the nymphing game, as the current trend for lighter flies and lighter tackle has taken a strong foothold. But just a few years ago, the concept of anchor flies was driving weighty considerations in the opposite direction. (Just as many trout found the net, by the way.)

As with most things, real success with nymphs lies somewhere toward the middle of these extremes, and persistent success comes from a combination of both.

READ: Troutbitten | Fishing Light

Photo by Austin Dando

Yea or Nay?

So, are lighter nymphs more effective? Does using less weight allow a fly to look more natural?

Sure, sometimes. And at other times . . . no, not at all. The Troutbitten mantra of versatility on the water applies yet again. Because nymphing with lighter weight is just as often a liability as it is an advantage.

PODCAST: Troutbitten | The Versatile Angler

I’m on the water often enough to try everything. I’ve made enough casts and have caught so many trout that what keeps me interested more than anything is real, unbiased testing. So when I hit a strong bite, or I finally find the code on a tough day, I like to change some element. Just as soon as I’m sure I have things going — when trout are coming to hand expectantly — I look to alter my method and test against that success. It could be my rig, my approach or a water type, but most often I change just one thing at a time.

While nymphing, that alteration is often a variation of weight. Sometimes, the change is extreme, and sometimes it’s moderate. But I’ll remove or add enough weight to the system, through split shot or by changing the weighted fly itself.

And does that change my success? More often than not . . . no, my catch rate does not change much.

But keep in mind, success always starts with how we fish the rig.

Maybe you’re better at fishing lighter than you are at fishing heavier setups, so more trout are fooled with a light rig in your hand. But be careful with conclusions. Because most often, it’s how you fish the rig that makes all the difference.

How Much Does a Real Nymph Weigh?

While this seems like a fair question, it’s not a good basis for nymph design or split shot selection. Because the attached tippet, regardless of its diameter, presents a challenge. Our goal of dropping the nymph near the bottom and drifting it through the strike zone is at odds with the concept of tying our nymphs to match the weight of the real food forms.

READ: Troutbitten | Split Shot vs Weighted Flies

Weight is often necessary to stabilize a nymph in heavy or complex currents, to fight the battle against dragging tippet or to punch through the first two-thirds of the water column in a reasonable time, following the cast. And though we may not want excessive weight that restricts the nymph’s freedom to move with the flow, we also don’t want the nymph tossed and pulled unnaturally by the attached leader.

In short, weight is necessary. And sometimes the required weight might be a lot more than you think.

Everything in this game is river conditional, so broad assertions are unwise. Don’t assume that a successful rig in the headwaters will convert to water twice as deep and three times as fast.

Photo by Austin Dando

Is Nymphing Light More Advanced?

Here’s another misconception I’d like to dispel. It does not take more skill to drift light nymphs. In fact, I believe it takes more skill to drift heavier.

The casting, however, can be easier with heavier nymphs.

Let’s assume we’re on a tight line or euro nymphing rig, although most of this discussion applies under an indicator as well.

Casting can seem easier with more of a load on the rod tip. Because we feel the flex — we feel the direction and have more control over the course of the flies to the target.

So too, that weight provides more feedback once the flies are underneath, and drifting with enough weight to flex the rod, just a bit, or to tick the bottom once in a while, provides a reference — an aid — to the angler about what the nymph is really doing out of sight and in complex currents.

With more weight, comes more control. That sounds easier, right?

However . . . the angler must do the right things with that control. With greater contact and control, we are fully in charge over the course of the flies. It’s a big responsibility. And it’s up to us to simulate a natural drift. The angler, then, makes the decisions about depth, speed and the action of the nymph. And we damn well better make it look right, or the trout will refuse it all day long.

By contrast, lighter weighted rigs allow for the currents to make more of the decisions for the course of the nymph. The angler has less control, makes fewer choices and focuses on simply trying to keep excess slack out of the system.

For years, I’ve referred to these two concepts as leading the flies versus tracking the flies, and I’ve written a full series covering what I see as the cardinal choice for every nymphing angler. More weight or less? It sets up everything else.

READ: Troutbitten | Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding the Flies

No, fishing lighter does not require more skill. But does it look more natural? That’s up to you . . .

Sell It

Presenting natural, convincing or looks-like-real-food drifts is the responsibility of every angler. And thank God for that.

Whether the flies are light or heavy, whether we’re drifting weighted flies, drop shot or split shot, it’s our ability to adjust, to refine and endlessly improve that keeps us wading into a river anew with each trip.

It’s why we love the nymphing game.

Fish hard, friends.


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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. Greqt article addressing a subject i deal with daily.

  2. For what it’s worth,ever since started nymph fishing have always run the heavier fly on top,usually a small bugger,or larger nymph,then drop down the tippet for bottom,smaller fly. And 90% of fish caught on the bottom nymph. And most times this will be 16 or smaller,just seems that big fish love smaller offerings.

  3. Great article. Most of the streams I fish are single nymph waters, so it is easier to get it right- or get it wrong- but in general because the cast needs a weightier nymph, I rarely use less than a 2.8mm tungsten bead.

  4. Hi Dom:

    I’m learning a lot through reading your articles. You think of everything! Ihave a request, however. I’m 70, and mainly a standard dry fly fisherman. I used to nymph with indicators and split shot, and caught many that way. Then I abandoned it for soft-hackling. But I know, from checking out the euro-nymphers, that they’re vaccuuming more trout than I can imagine. So, do you have any wrinkles for successful nymphing for guys with standard nine-footers and flyline? I would like to get back to taking fish on nymphs, and believe much innovation has happened in the interim. What could a standard, old time fly fishing do that utilizes some of the new tactics?


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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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