Nymphing For Trout: Guide Tips And Tactics

An angler in the river nymphing for trout.
This is one of my client’s nymph fishing a good spot for trout, using the tight line method.

I still remember the first trout I ever caught fly fishing. I was nymphing for trout all day, and after numerous tangles, flies in trees, wind knots, and frustration, I finally got a 9-inch brown trout to eat my Gold Ribbed Hares Ear Nymph.

That was over 37 years ago, and since then, I have become one of the top fly fishing guides in my area and now land 30 or 40 trout each day, including some big trout over 20 inches in that same spot.

Nymphing is a fly fishing method where the angler imitates subsurface aquatic insects known as nymphs, or other food sources like fish eggs, leaches, or baitfish. Since trout feed below the surface over 90% of the time, nymphing is often the most effective method. (1)

8 Key Elements To Effective Nymphing For Trout

An angler fishing for trout.
This is one of my client’s nymph fishing for trout. This spot holds a large trout over 18 inches that is routinely caught if my clients nymph the spot well. If it is poorly nymphing we only catch little trout here.
  1. Gear: Waders help you get in positions, long rods help with mending, line control, and better presentation, as well as act like a shock absorber to protect light leaders.
  2. Leader Setup: Whether you are an indicator nymphing or you tight-line nymph, a proper leader setup is critical.
  3. Method: There are three good methods of nymphing. Knowing how to do all of them and then knowing when one is most effective based on the river conditions helps a lot.
  4. Reading The Water: Knowing where the trout should be holding and feeding is important.
  5. Approach: Knowing how to approach a spot so you don’t spook the trout is critical to catching the most trout possible.
  6. Presentation: If you can make your nymph drift as naturally as possible, it is much more likely to get eaten by feeding trout.
  7. Flies: I left this for last. New anglers think catching more trout is all about having better flies, but they are wrong. Even a great fly fished poorly still won’t catch any fish.
  8. All Or None Mentality: I teach my students that you MUST do it all correctly, or you will struggle to catch fish. If you do a few things well, but one or two things are not good, those one or two wrong things will prevent you from catching fish. Trust me, I see this happen all the time.

I will expand on all of this below.

Why Nymph For Trout

This is John from SBS Outdoors and Get Bent Guide Service with a nice wild brown trout. Trout of this size only get caught if you fish them properly.

Trout spend more than 90% of the time eating below the surface, so if an angler is good at presenting their fly below the surface and deep enough, they have a greater chance of catching fish at all times of the year.

There are also times, like in winter, when trout will ONLY feed below the surface.

When and Where to Fish Nymphs

An angler Nymphing for trout behind a rock
One of my clients, who was visiting from Germany, who was already a very good nymph angler, is tight-line nymphing behind a rock, which is often a great holding spot for trout.

You should know when to use nymphs, and my rule is “anytime is good for nymph fly fishing.”

Honestly, I tell my clients and students to be observant and see what is going on at the river.

This means if the fish are feeding on the surface, try dry fly fishing. If the fish are chasing minnows or other baitfish, then try streamers. If you see nothing or are not sure, try using a good nymphing method for trout.

Nymphing is often best done in medium to fast current speeds, and it excels in pocket water, shallow riffles, and pools.

What Is A Nymph?

A real nymph and one of my favorite nymph flies
A real mayfly nymph and one of my favorite nymph flies. Even though this fly has a bead and doesn’t look exactly like the real fly it still works great.

Nymphs are immature aquatic insects before they emerge, grow wings, and fly off as winged adults. (2)

Nymphs could also be fish eggs, crustaceans, minnows, or leeches. Common nymphs are Mayfly Larvae, Stoneflies, and Caddis.

Best Nymphs For Trout

Weighted nymphs for Nymphing for trout
These are some of my weighted nymphs I use for tight-line nymphing.

There are thousands of good nymph patterns, and often, the best nymphs to use will depend on what is prevalent or what is hatching in the river you fish.

You should consider looking over the hatch charts for your area to see the types and sizes of prevalent mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies for your area.

There are some great nymph fly patterns that tend to work almost everywhere, and you will see these types of nymphs in the boxes of guides and competition fly anglers.

My best stonefly pattern for steelhead in 2020
Stonefly and Mayfly nymphs are very effective for trout.

Many anglers and guides will have favorite nymphs and a range of sizes from small size 24 midges to large size two stonefly nymphs.

These are my favorite nymphs for trout are:

  • Pheasant Tail Nymph: Whether bead head or non-bead head, the pheasant tail nymph imitates nymphs of many species. Have this nymph in multiple sizes and in light brown, dark brown, and black.
  • Frenchie Nymph: A variation of the pheasant tail nymph used in competitions but super effective anywhere.
  • Polish Pheasant Tail Nymph: Another deadly good variation of the Pheasant tail nymph is usually used with tight line nymphing.
  • Hares Ear Nymph: A great nymph pattern that looks buggy and imitates nymphs well. Also, variations like the Hare’s Ear Tag Nymph are excellent
  • Prince Nymph
  • Zebra Midge
  • Copper John
  • Walts Worm and Sext Walts Worm: This is a unique fly that could imitate nymphs or cased caddis. Either way, trout love this fly pattern.
  • Caddis Larvae: Many streams will have caddis so a good caddis pattern will catch fish. The Euro nymphing version and one of my favorites are the green and tan Czech Nymph.
  • Micro Bugger: This fly is just like the Woolly Bugger, but this one is half an inch to an inch long. It’s best in black, olive, white, tan, and brown.
  • San Juan Worm: every angler should have a good worm pattern in brown, red, and pink in their box.
  • Egg Fly: Eggs can be very good nymph patterns, especially if there are spawning fish in the area.

Bead Head VS Non-Bead Head Nymphs

This Polish Pheasant Tail Nymph is a great nymphing pattern for trout.
The Polish Pheasant Tail Nymph is a great nymphing pattern for trout. I tie it with gold, silver and copper beads for attracting aggressive trout, and with a black bead when trout are more cautious.

Metallic bead head nymphs tend to work better than nymphs with no beads.

If you look in the fly boxes of guides and top competition fly anglers, I’d bet over 75% of their nymphs will have bead heads.

Fly Fishing Gear For Nymphing

Use the appropriate fly fishing gear for better results.

Fly Rods

Nymph fishing for trout with a 10 to 11 foot fly rod allows for better line control and better drifts
Nymph fishing for trout with a 10 to 11 foot fly rod allows for better line control and better drifts

You could use any fly rod for nymphing, but most anglers prefer a longer fly rod of 10-foot or even an 11-feet long.

The rod weight should be four weight to six weight for medium to large waters or for bigger trout between four and eight pounds. I use a two to three-weight fly rod for small to medium rivers under 60 feet wide or for smaller trout under four pounds.

The Fly Reel

A good fly reel with an enclosed disc drag system that is smooth is best for most anglers and is best for beginners. If you are a beginner, avoid click-and-pawl reels.

Fly Line

Any general-purpose weight-forward fly line will be good for nymphing. There are specialty nymphing lines available, which are good options if you are putting it on a dedicated nymphing rod.


A standard tapered leader of nine feet and usually 2x to 5x will work for nymph fishing. For some of the specialty nymphing methods below you will need to make your own leader.


This is the most important section of your setup. For small trout, go with as light a tippet as possible, which is usually 6X.

For bigger trout, I still go with the lightest tippet possible without breaking off regularly. Thinner tippets have a lot of advantages.

Thinner tippets allow the fly to sink faster, they don’t get pushed or dragged by the current as much so your fly moves at a more natural speed. Lighter tippets are also seen less by the trout. All of this means more trout will bite.


An assortement of the Best Indicators for fly fishing

Indicators are basically mini bobbers, and they help the angler detect the bite of the trout.

Advanced anglers will also use them to control the speed of the fly and the angle of the leader for a better presentation.

I prefer and discuss the football-shaped bi-color indicators or the yarn indicators in my article The Best Indicators For Fly Fishing.

Other Gear

Other river fishing gear you should have to make catching, landing, and releasing trout are:

  • Waders
  • Vest Or Packs
  • Forceps
  • Nippers
  • Thermometer
  • Net
  • Polarized glasses: I would catch far fewer trout without polarized glasses, and I believe they are an essential tool for river fishing.

Polarized Glasses

Polarized glasses are a must for nymph fishing for trout. They will make you more productive by cutting the glare on the surface, which allows you to see underwater holding spots, bottom contours, rocks, and snags like branches or logs.

They might even enable you to see big fish holding or feeding. I have guided my clients to many big trout simply because I was able to see the fish.

They also make it easier for you when looking into the water for immature insects.

Techniques For Nymphing

An angler Euro nymphing for trout on shallow water
One of my client’s Euro nymphing for brook trout in a shallow water section, which is often the best nymphing method in this type of water.

The seven nymphing techniques I teach in my advanced nymphing class are listed below. However, you only need two methods to be consistently successful fishing for trout on the river, and those two techniques are Indicator Fishing and Tight-line Nymphing, which is also known as Euro Nymphing, or Modern Nymphing.

The 7 Nymphing Techniques Are:

  1. Indicator Nymphing
  2. High Sticking or High Stick Nymphing
  3. Bounce Nymphing
  4. Czech Nymphing
  5. Polish Nymphing
  6. Spanish Nymphing
  7. French Nymphing

Indicator Nymphing

An angler indicator nymphing in fast water with a high rod tip position for better control.
My client is nymphing in fast water with a high rod tip for better control. By lifting all of his line off the water, he can slow down the speed of the indicator and fly, which can result in more trout.

With indicator nymphing, you are drifting your nymph below what is known as a strike indicator, which floats on the surface and enables you to detect bites.

Indicator fishing is the most popular of all nymph fishing techniques and has been used for decades. However, although it is a good method of nymph fly fishing, it is not always the best method.

A Standard Nymphing Leader Setup
This is what a standard nymphing leader setup for trout would look like in the water.

Indicator fishing is often the best nymphing technique for slow currents, deeper water areas, or big spots. It is also the best method in heavy winds and when fishing long distances.

More advanced anglers will use tight line methods I mention below if the conditions are best for it.

An angler slow water Nymph fishing for trout
One of my clients in slow water nymph fishing for trout.

I discuss beginner to advanced indicator nymphing techniques and the best indicators to use in my article Indicator Fishing: How Guides Do It.

Tight Line Nymphing

Me doing Euro Nymphing training with George Daniel
This is me learning a Euro Nymphing version taught by a famous author, fly coach, guide, and competition angler, George Daniel.

Tight-line fishing does not use floating indicators, but it still allows the fly angler to get a dead drift and is better in shallow water where an indicator might spook fish.

There are a few variations of this.

Traditional High Stick Nymphing

An angler fishing a 10 foot nymphing rod on a small river
One of my buddies is using a 10-foot nymphing rod with no problems on a river of this size or bigger.

High stick nymphing, also known as high sticking, is a tight line method where you use a short cast or you flip your fly out and up the river with a short amount of fly line and leader, (less than 10 feet and as little as 1 foot of fly line), and you allow your fly to sink while you keep your rod tip high and your leader fairly tight.

You use one or two non-weighted flies, and add some spit shot weights about 12 to 24 inches up the line to get the flies down.

It’s a fairly simple method to use, but bite detection is difficult, which is why most anglers and guides prefer using an indicator nymph.

I do not recommend this method since more modern variations of this method are much more effective.

Euro Nymphing

Good water to Euro Nymph Steelhead
This is the type of water that is perfect for Euro Nymphing.

Euro nymphing is likely the newest of the trout nymphing methods. It is arguably the most effective method of nymphing.

The idea behind Euro nymphing was to fish similar to traditional high stick nymphing with a high rod and short line and primarily using just the leader.

2 Fly Setup Euro Nymphing Rig
This two fly rig should work well on most trout rivers. These flies are weighted, so no extra weights are required.

The difference is you use a 12 to 24-inch colored piece of mono line added about four to six feet up from the flies and situated in the mid-section of the leader.

You also use weighted flies and no additional weights or split shots on the line.

The added colored line is called the “Sighter,” and it provides the angler the advantage of controlling depth of the flies better, controlling the speed of the flies better, and detecting subtle strikes far better.

The addition of the weighted flies gets your flies deeper, but it also keeps the line tight from the fly to the sighter and to the tip of the rod, which greatly improves strike detection.

Modern Nymphing or Tight Line Nymphing

Training with George Daniel who is an expert at nymph fishing for trout
Training with George Daniel who is an expert at nymph fishing for trout.

Some anglers and guides will mix these methods to create their own versions of Euro Nymphing that work best for them on their local rivers.

They call this Modern Nymphing or Tight Line Nymphing.

I actually trained with five times World Fly Fishing Champion David Arcay, and with Multi-medal winning competition angler and Team USA coach George Daniel. I had them show me their variations of Euro and modern nymphing.

Upstream With No Indicators

Euro Nymphing Leader For Non-Weighted Flies
This is the best Euro Nymphing leader setup when you want to use non-weighted flies.

These Euro and Modern Nymphing methods are usually an upstream with no indicators approach.

There are no indicators to drag your fly faster than it should or to spook trout.

The Spanish and French nymphing methods do this the best, which is partially why they are so effective.

The Spanish Nymphing method is generally an upstream and slightly across method with the possibility of letting your fly drift past you and downriver.

Direct Upstream Approach

An angler Polish nymphing some faster deep water
One of my clients using the Polish Nymphing method in this deep fast water with great success. He caught about 20 rainbow trout in this spot.

Polish nymphing and Czech Nymphing are great for deeper and faster water and upriver fishing.

The idea is the angler is standing directly behind the trout at all times so they don’t see you.

With this approach, all fishing is directly above you, and since the French have won many world championships, this proves the effectiveness of this upstream approach.

One Or two Flies?

If allowed by law in your area, I highly recommend using two flies when nymphing. I always use a two-fly setup if I am allowed.

I tend to always put my confidence fly at the bottom. “Confidence fly” means the one I believe the trout will want the most.

If you are using two flies that are weighted, normally the bottom fly should be the heavier fly unless you are fishing shallow water.

Two flies allow you to cover two levels of the water column.

Three flies should only be used by advanced anglers since one small mistake in setting the hook, or when casting can turn your leader rig into a giant tangled-up mess.

Positioning and Angles

This angler fishing for trout is making a big mistake by standing too close
This is my client fishing for trout. He has the right fly, the right leader setup, and a good rod and reel, but he won’t catch any big trout in this spot because of one big mistake. He is standing in the wrong spot, and all the big trout are down below him, and they can see him coming.

The best approach when entering a spot is to enter the spot from downriver and work your way up the spot.

Even if I’m walking downstream, I will often make a wide path around the spot I plan to fish, I will stay low, and enter the pool from below. I generally cast upriver or up and across and fish downriver towards me.

The reason for this is to not let the trout see me so I do not spook them.


I honestly believe the reason many anglers don’t catch many fish is simply that they spook the fish before they even make their first cast.

I move very slowly and tread lightly so I am not heard and I stay behind or out of the trout sight.


I tell my clients that their goal for effective nymph fishing for trout is this: “Get your fly down and into the strike zone as fast as possible, keep it there for as long as possible, and control the speed of your fly when it’s in the strike zone”.

If you do this after you have entered the pool stealthily, and your leader setup and flies are good, you will catch more fish than other anglers.


Since most trout hold near the bottom, it’s often best to get your flies down deep. But let’s get one thing straight first. “Deep” and “to the bottom” does not mean dragging your fly along the rocks. You need to get your fly down but still keep it 6 to 16 inches off the bottom.

My rule is to get your fly as close to the fish as possible but always keep it over their heads.

Fish Deeper With Heavier Flies

You can fish deeper with heavier flies, or you can add more weight if needed.

Time To Sink

It can take a few seconds or more for the fly to sink deep enough to be in the trout’s feeding zone. A few seconds could mean your indicator may have traveled 5 to 10 feet downriver which means that 5 to 10 feet of the drift is wasted. This is why I say get your fly down fast.

Thinner Tippets

Your tippet should be as light as possible but heavy enough that you are not constantly breaking off fish. When guiding, I mostly use 5X, but when I am fishing for myself, I use 6x tippet, which is enough to land 26-inch trout (most of the time).

Why so light? Competition anglers understand that the lighter and thinner the tippet, the less water resistance it has, and therefore your flies will sink much quicker, and they will not be pushed too fast by the current.

Adding Weights

Adding weights to the leader or tippet is another way to get your fly down faster if you are not using flies that are already weighted.


I strongly believe that the speed of your fly is one of the most critical factors for catching fish.

The current at the bottom of the river, especially in water three feet deep or more, is almost always slower than the surface current. So you need to match the speed of the bottom current, not the surface current or the bubbles.

So control your speed by doing these things.

  • Slack: Keep slack in the fly line on the water when using an indicator so it does not pull or drag the flies.
  • Mending: Mending the line (usually upriver) to reposition the line is so it doesn’t get caught in the current and then pull the line, or indicator and fly, and cause it all to drag your fly too fast past the trout.
  • Thin Tippet: Thin tippets will be pushed less by the surface current, which enables your fly to move at a more natural and slower speed.
  • Don’t Use An Indicator: One of the biggest benefits to tight line nymphing is there is no indicator pulling your fly along at the speed of the surface current.
  • Trott The Indicator: Trotting simply means holding the indicator back and slowing it down slower than the surface current. This is an advanced skill but it can work very well and increase the amount of trout you catch.

Covering The Water

This image shows you how to cover the water on a trout stream
When covering the water, I look for any areas that are slightly deeper, and I look for any type of structure that fish can hold near.

Many anglers see the bubble line, which is often a good feeding lane, and then they fish the crap out of it. But then they forget the rest of the spot, and they miss a lot of fish.

I systematically cover the water in lines and cover just about every foot of the river in spots where trout could be holding.

Competition anglers do this very well which is why they pull fish out of water that other anglers would have never fished.

How to Detect Nymph Strikes?

Detecting a strike is a bit of an art or skill. In fact, I will see a bite two or three times in a single drift that my clients often miss.

So, to improve your ability to detect bites, try this:

  • Use an Indicator to detect strikes, but only when tight line nymphing is not an option.
  • Use a sighter and maintain light tension to detect even the most subtle bites.
  • Know What To Look For: any slow down of the line or indicator, any twitching or bouncing, any pull or sinking, set the hook.
  • Keep the leader line tight: Slack in the leader or tippet will prevent you from detecting a bite, so keep the leader tight with slight tension without pulling.

Setting The Hook

Setting the hook is something anglers never read about or discuss, but as a guide, I know this is something you should work on.

  • Set the hook quickly.
  • set on everything.
  • Set often, and don’t hesitate.

See HowTo Set The Hook.

Fighting and Landing Fish

When fighting fish, especially big fish, do these things:

  • Take your time, relax, and play them gently.
  • Be sure your drag is set properly.
  • A lower rod tip is often better at leveraging and landing your fish faster.
  • Use a net.

Tips for Nymph Fishing Success

  • Fish Deeper with Heavier Flies
  • Use Tandem Nymph Rigs
  • Focus on the Water Column
  • Switch Up Your Flies
  • Practice, Practice, Practice

How to Cast a Nymph Rig

Casting a nymphing rig is different than casting dry flies or streamer flies, especially if you are using an indicator or two nymphs.

Short casts are almost always a must.

The best casts for nymphing indicators are a drag and flip cast where you literally flip the leader and a short section of line up and over your head.

Understanding The Water

80% of the fish hold in 20% of the water, this image shows you where the fish should be.
On trout and steelhead rivers, it’s not uncommon for 80% of the fish to hold in 20% of the water. Reading the water and knowing where to fish gives you a better chance for more fish.

Reading the water will greatly increase your ability to catch trout.

This means locating deeper sections in the river, feeding lanes, and structures such as rocks and logs that trout will use as cover and protection.

Reading the water will help you assess the type of water so you know which method of nymphing to use based on the water type.

I hope you enjoyed the revised and shortened article. If you would like to read the full article which goes more in-depth and covers more topics on nymphing, check it out HERE.

If you have any questions, tips, or advice about nymphing for trout, let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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