Nymph Fishing, There’s Nothing Wrong With It

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My good friend Dan Flynn nymphs a run, because it’s the right method for the conditions. Photo By: Louis Cahill

By Kent Klewein

It seems like every where I look, I see blog posts all over the place chastising and bad mouthing nymph fishing.

I hear comments claiming nymph fishing is nothing more than mindless fly fishing. That watching indicators floating down the river all day is boring. So let me ask you this, does it make since to instead fish a dry fly if your chances of catching fish are slim to none? To me, that’s what’s boring and ridiculous. My objective on the water is always to decipher what the fish are predominantly feeding on, and then fish the appropriate rig and fly that allows me to imitate it to my best ability. Whether or not the fly pattern is a wet or dry fly has no bearing to me at all. All that matters is that it’s the right choice for the moment. To frown upon nymph fishing and purposely avoid it, even when it’s obvious it’s an anglers best bet for success, is like a golfer choosing to putt with a driver instead of a putter. It will work but it’s obviously not the best gear choice.

We don’t go through life purposely choosing to take the most difficult path in the off chance we’ll find success. Just as in fly fishing, it doesn’t make any sense to fish one method of fly fishing over another just because it feels more pleasing to the soul. I can stomach doing it every now and then, but to ignore fish behavior and throw away my adaptive fishing tactics, just because I dislike nymph fishing or any other method, seems to go against all the teachings that our fly fishing pioneers have worked so hard to pass down to all of us.

It doesn’t matter what type of fly pattern your fishing, whether it sinks or floats, they are all predominantly designed to imitate various stages of aquatic insects or other food that’s preyed upon by fish in the ecosystem. Nine times out of ten, fish will prefer to forage on the easiest and most abundant food source available to them at any given time. Fish aren’t prejudice towards their food or flies we throw at them. All they care about is eating enough for survival and reproducing. I believe all forms of fly fishing and fly patterns are created equal.

Here’s another thing about nymph fishing that I find hilarious about the critics. A nymph rig, specifically a tandem nymph rig, is much harder to cast than a single dry fly or streamer rig. It takes more casting skills to pull off presentations without getting tangles. For anyone that wants to argue with me on this, hand a first-time fly fisherman a dry fly rig, and a nymph rig, and see which one they cast more efficiently. And if nymph fishing isn’t harder and more technical, than why is it that more often than not, nymph fishing is the last fly fishing method novice fly fisherman learn? And if trout feed below the surface on average 75% of the time, then why shouldn’t we be fishing subsurface for them?

There’s nothing wrong with having a favorite way to fly fish and catch fish, just don’t claim one way is purer or more worthy over the other. All flies are created equal, and they all begin with a hook.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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25 thoughts on “Nymph Fishing, There’s Nothing Wrong With It

  1. Could not agree more and to take it a step further. There is so much hate on certain nymph patterns, squirmy wormys, eggs and mop flies seem to be at the top of the list. We fish with rods, reels and lines made of space age modern materials. We tie flies with nylon thread and dacron dubbing and all kinds of modern man made materials, but I constantly hear eltitest fly fisherman claim to only fish fur and feathers. In my humble opinion, fish whatever you like and enjoy and respect others that do the same.

  2. Well, nymph fishing wasn’t always about watching a bobber. Mending and recognizing the slightest twitch of the line were the skills needed, not the eyesight to notice that your bobber was underwater. If you really think casting two flies rather than one is a measure of skill, to use your golf analogy, just tie a golf ball on your tippet and have a go at “real” casting. Wet or dry doesn’t matter, using a bobber as a substitute for skill does. A crunch will always be called a crutch no matter how much lipstick you put on it.

    • Nymphing wasn’t about watching a bobber because they didn’t _have_ bobbers to watch–the fly line was the only option for a while, then eventually people figured out that things like a piece of string with floatant worked, and tufts of yarn/wool, small balloons, etc. There was an ‘evolution’ of the indicator over the years. People figured out it was a better/easier/more effective than watching a fly line that doesn’t float well, or suspend (heavily weighted) nymphs well.

      Are bobbers a crutch? If you say so–I see it as another tool in my bag to help me present flies. It’s not the only method I use–I bobber/indicator nymph, swing wets, Euro, dry, dry-dropper, etc. Yes, it can be the go-to method for newbies (because it works). As people learn more, they’ll learn more techniques and choose one that works for the situation. What’s wrong with using a method that works?

      Should we go back to bamboo rods, non-tapered lines, etc to make up for our lack of casting skills because these new rods cast farther and more accurately? Are they crutches too?

      Better cover your entire rod in lipstick man…

      • Your point about help watching for line movement, especially to old eyes like mine, is valid. However, I would bet that 95% of the folks I see using bobbers are just casting and waiting for the crutch to go under….nothing more. And, they don’t have to worry about fly depth either.

        • I’m sorry Fred, but you’re beating a dead horse with your argument. If you’re using a bobber/indicator of course you have to worry about fly depth. It’s important that your float is set up appropriately on your tippet. If it’s too low your nymphs will not reach the bottom of the water column where the fish might be. If it’s too high your nymphs might end up drifting away in different currents away from the area you are trying to fish. Yes, people will cast aimlessly, but that’s valid for most types of presentations. However, we all have to consider depth even if we are using a bobber.

  3. The Universal Hierarchy of Fly Fishing “Purity”

    1) Dry fly, natural materials, self-tied
    2) Dry fly, some foam, self-tied
    3) Dry fly, all foam, self tied
    4) Emerger, self-tied
    (#1 to #4): Drop one slot if store bought
    5) Dry-dropper (if caught on the dry)
    6) Unweighted nymph, no lead, no indicator
    7) Unweighted nymph w/lead shot, no indicator
    8) Dry-dropper (if caught on the nymph)
    9) Unweighted nymph w/lead + indicator
    10) Weighted nymph, no lead + indicator
    11) Heavily weighted nymph, no indicator, high sticking (Czech)
    12) Heavily weighted nymph, w/lead + indicator
    (#9 – #12): drop down one slot if one nymph added
    drop down two slots if 2 nymphs added
    13) Streamer 1″ – 4″
    14) Streamer 5″ – 7″
    15) Articulated (2-hooks) streamer 8″ – 12″
    16) Beads

    Drop two slots if using barbed hooks

  4. I don’t have anything against nymph fishing, but I do take exception to one thing you wrote:

    “We don’t go through life purposely choosing to take the most difficult path in the off chance we’ll find success.”

    I think you could pretty easily argue that choosing to fly fish instead of using bait or gear is exactly “choosing [a more] difficult path.” Obviously we’ve all made that choice or we wouldn’t be here. But I fly fish precisely because it’s “more pleasing to the soul” than other methods of fishing.

  5. With a bobber I am reminded of hearing guides, on the Madison or Bighorn in my case, tell the tourists in the boat, “it stopped, hit it.” Or, on Hebgen Lake (West Yellowstone), where a dry fly substitutes for a bobber, “your fly went under, hit it.”

  6. Mastering sub-surface presentations takes skill and practice. You can’t see your fly or a fish’s reaction. There is no tell-tale rise to show you where to cast and you can’t easily see the bugs on the water that the fish is responding to.

    It’s easy to think other fishing methods are easier or more effective than what you’re doing. I remember fly fishing a river one day and having no luck and my buddy saying “if I had a spinning rod, I would be catching fish!” Well, I happened to have a little spin outfit in my drift-boat storage tank so I pulled it out and gave it to him to try. An hour later, he still hadn’t caught a fish.

    I’ve been learning tight-line nymphing techniques lately which has been fun, but takes extreme concentration. It’s not “easy” by any means, but is a very effective method to detect light takes (takes that you would SEE if you were fishing a dry fly, by-the-way).

  7. The tipping point is being judgemental on how others fly fish (spin fishers too). If the angler is being ethical and respecting the fish and the stream and other fisherman who’s to say they are fishing the right or wrong way. Sometimes I will limit myself on a certain streams or to specific flies or methods to amplify the challenge but have to admit if I spot a hog I can’t get to move then its anything in the fly box and tool kit at that point…

  8. I have some jackass buddies that are dry fly purists. With nothing hatching they will cast dry flies blindly for 8 hours. That’s why I call them jackasses. If the fish are feeding underneath what kind of idiot fishes on top? I remind them that the definition of an idiot is someone who does the same thing over and over and expects a different result. To each his own, but they consider my nymphing is akin to fishing live bait. If they want to throw dry flies for no reason that’s their business, but don’t look down on me because I fish nymphs. Of course I take the opportunity to piss them off by reminding them that the reason they don’t fish nymphs is because it’s too hard for them.

  9. Louis… you hit a nerve. Amen brother.But even more, you pointed out why other very skilled fishermen call our fly-fishing ranks snobs,elitist and egomaniacs. The “purists” in our sport need to be banished. I don’t take this statement lightly. I mean it whole-heartily! They are slowly killing our sport that we all love and are keeping our numbers from growing and being all we can be. In turn, they hurt our conservation ethics by shunning people in their condescending tones how others choose to fly-fishing. How are we to have a strong unified voice for conservation and our sport with these holier than thou dry -fly purist among us?They only drive honest good hearted people away from our sport in the name of stroking their egos. Wish they would all just pick up the sport of golf and stay on the golf course!

    • I don’t get why the “snob” has to be using a dry fly. Most of the folks I fish with use a dry if the fish are showing, but go to a nymph if fish are not evident. In fact, what I see more often is that someone nymphing continues to nymph all day no matter what. To each his/her own.

  10. It’s a good thing none of the ‘selective’ types fish in salt. Don’t tell anyone but last time I caught a bonefish it was under the surface …

  11. Nymphing is only another way to fly fish. If you tie your own flies or even buy them you’re still not using live bait and are imitating a bug that is hatching or native to that environment. Using a bobber or some call it indicator is only another part of some fly fisherman’s set up. Whether they chose to use one or not most of us all have one agreement and to take initiative to respect the fish and it’s natural habitat. Fly fishing to me is more than just catching fish. It’s about us guys and gals conserving that special place where we catch these beauties and trying to keep it special to ourselves and future to come. It’s not about if we use an indicator and how purist we are to the sport.

  12. Man, I don’t care what people think because there will always be a certain proportion of folks with their heads up their buckets.

    What I do care about is whether or not my time off and the right conditions will converge and produce everlasting harmony. I’ll fish whatever seems right at the end of the line and just be glad I’m in the creek, ocean, lake…

  13. If you think this conversation is bad now you should have been around 30 to 50 years ago. Dave Whitlock was one of the first to write about using strike indicators and Dave told me that Joe Brooks would hardly talk to him as he said it was nothing but a dam bobber.
    The reason you will often see someone only fish nymphs is that the process is so much about getting in tune with the feel and learning to sense the take. A great nympher is someone that has dedicated a lot of time to acquiring this skill.

  14. LOL. Where in the hierarchy of fishing do worms, power bait, and cheese balls fall?

    I have to agree with Harry. Get outdoors, be observant, be respectful of the environment and enjoy yourself.

    Some of my earliest fishing experiences as a kid were on party boats fishing for flounder and cod. There were “regulars” who always outfished the occasional fisherman. Same spot in the ocean, same bait, essentially the same tackle. The difference? Skill. So even bait fishing requires more skill than just drowning a worm.

    If someone likes fishing dry flies exclusively, I say great. It’s akin to a golfer who always go out to the driving range and rarely onto a course. If that’s what they enjoy, great. If someone likes nymph fishing with or without indicators (ie bobbers), I say great. I would be hard pressed to say there’s no skill involved in catching fish on a #24 midge.

    At the end of the day, so long as fishing etiquette and regulations are followed why should anyone care about how someone else chooses to fish?? Just enjoy yourself. Tight lines to all…

  15. Hey Guys
    Looks like you hit a nerve with this one! I guess you did with me too as I have silently read your articles for years but never made a comment until now. With five decades of fly fishing and with my share of teaching the skills of fly fishing I think that many folks fish only dry flies because they lack confidence in their ability to nymph fish or even using a streamer. I know everyone certainly does not fall into this category however, I think that most find theirselves having difficulty getting action and revert to dry fly fishing where they can be, in their own mind, more confident and successful. Getting a good drift can be pretty difficult especially where several currents converge and what depth should I fish?? I am certain we could think of more skills to be learned when fishing subsurface.

    My point is that it can be all about “confidence”! Good teaching, patience, and learning is one answer to this question!

  16. A buddy taught me to tight-line nymph a couple years ago on the Owens River in CA.

    A few months later I was fishing there with a couple of friends and one asked over breakfast how we intended to fish that day.

    I said I’d “Tight-line nymph,” my other buddy said “Dry fly,” and the questioner said “Streamers, because I want to catch big fish.”

    Well, at the end of the day the questioner had caught around 5 trout, and he said the biggest was around 17″. My other buddy had caught about the same, all on a bead-head French nymph I gave him at lunch.

    I had landed over 35 trout, with 6 over 20″ per my measure net. I caught 5 while my buddy sat next to me on the bank tying on the Frenchie I had given him.

    The fish were clearly keying on nymphs, it was the right tool for the conditions that day.

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