Learn how to improve your technique for upstream nymphing which will in turn improve your understanding of watercraft, your presentation, stealth and approach.
Up to 90% of a trouts diet is subsurface so it’s no surprise why fishing with nymphs is such a successful method. And often the bigger trout will mostly be feeding on nymphs.
Most modern anglers often only fish nymphs when the conditions are not suited for dry fly fishing. And some even dismiss it as a chuck it and chance way of fishing with very little skill which really couldn’t be further from the truth. To be consistently good at catching trout on nymphs takes a lot of skill.
Nymphing is getting very popular in recent years which has really given the tackle industry the kick up the arse it needed to produce more suitable tackle for upstream nymphing such as dedicated nymphing rods and proper suitable nymphing leaders. I’m not going to get in-depth into the rods and tackle needed for upstream nymphing other than to say that you are going to want a good long 10 or 11 foot rod in the 2 or 3wt class and a lightweight reel to accompany it. Essentially you are looking for something that is long and sensitive enough to give you more control of your drift and keep you in touch with your flies at all times and it has to be light enough to not cramp your arms from holding it up all day. Soft rods are essential for the sensitivity needed for upstream nymphing.
Why Upstream? – There’s quiet a few reasons why we fish upstream. Fishing upstream will always give us an advantage and at times we can even selectively target the better fish by singling out and presenting our nymphs to the better fish which with close attention to detail can be observed feeding on nymphs.
Stealth – A stealthy approach is necessary for all types of fly fishing but even more so for nymphing. By choosing to fish upstream we already have an advantage when it comes to stealth, trout have a 30 degrees blindspot to the rear so as long as we are careful and stealthy in our approach we can get very close to a trout without them being able to see us.
While wading if we are wading upstream the gravel, mud and debris is washed downstream well away from the fish we are trying to catch. Take good care to wade slowly and quietly and in shallow clear water crouch down and even kneel in the water if necessary.
Watercraft – Without a doubt watercraft is the single most important thing to learn to become successful at catching trout and it’s something we probably never stop learning no matter how long we’ve been fishing. As important as watercraft is for all fly fishing methods it is even more important for fishing subsurface as we can’t always see where the fish are feeding so we are going to need to learn how to read the water and to identify fish holding areas because simply put if they are not there we can’t catch them. And we can easily scare away the fish by wading through prime fish holding spots to cast to areas that will not hold any fish. While this is an ongoing learning curve for all anglers the upstream nymphing angler will develop a good understanding watercraft much quicker than any other fly fishing method simply because they have to! With no rising fish to give their location away it is more difficult at first glance but over time you will build up a better picture of what to look for to identify fish holding areas.
Presentation – Underwater presentation is a much different affair than fishing above the surface. There’s a lot more involved and a lot more to consider such as water depths, desired depth, sink rates, river bed contours, structure, speed of flow, water clarity etc.
The key to success is to cast your nymphs to the most likely looking spots but it’s not as simple as that. You will also need to make sure your nymph is at the required depth when it passes the likely looking holding spot. Another factor to take into consideration is the weight of your nymph and how quickly it will sink. You want it to get down to the trout. Touching bottom now and then is ideal whereas dredging the bottom is no good because you will just keep getting snagged on the bottom. I’m the summer or months or just before a good hatch an unweighted nymph fished higher in the water is also very successful.
Light tippets will allow your nymphs to sink quicker whereas thicker diameter tippets will offer resistance to the water tension and make your nymphs sink slower. But if you go too fine you will risk losing a lot of your flies in snags and possibly some fish if they take aggressively which sometimes can be the case .
When the rivers are high or flooded or when you are fishing deeper runs extra weight can be necessary to get your get your nymphs down to the fish. This can be done by adding splitshot to your leader but it is not necessary because by selecting a heavy weight nymph such as Perdigones or any nymphs that are heavily weighted with lead wire on the underbody you should be able to get your nymphs down to where you want them.
Opportunistic Feeders – While it is true that trout are opportunistic feeders that does not mean that they will swim around all day looking for food and take anything put in front of them. What it really means is that they will take up station in a lie that will naturally present great opportunities for drifting food morsels and afford them sanctuary from predators. They always lie facing into the current and often the best lies will be in between weed beds, behind rocks or boulders , in deep depressions or holes in otherwise shallow water, around bridges, and other natural or man made structure. It’s no coincidence that the biggest trout will always inhabit the best spots.
These features will offer the trout a few advantages. Safety from predators, respite from strong currents and most important of all it provides them a comfortable place to hold up in and to wait for the current to deliver their food like a conveyer belt without having to waste energy battling the current or without having to keep fleeing due to being visible to predators. Their only concern is survival. And to survive it needs to conserve energy as much as possible. A nymph drifting downstream towards the fish with the current is an easy meal that will require very little energy for the fish to catch.
Sight Fishing – When the river or stream is clear or low we can often clearly see the trout feeding in between the weed beds or in other trout holding areas. It can be a great method during the summer months when the trout are reluctant to rise to the surface on warm sunny days but they will often take a small suggestive nymph delicately cast to upstream of their lie and allowed to drift down to them . Small size 18 or 20 pheasant tail nymphs are ideal for this kind of situation.
Polarised sunglasses should be worn for any kind of fly fishing really but they really are essential for upstream nymphing. They cut out the surface glare and allow you to see into the water much clearer than what the naked eye can see.
Sometimes you will be able to see the whole drift and the take depending on water clarity but often you will just see the white of its mouth opening to take the fly.
This type of upstream nymphing is every bit as satisfying as dry fly fishing and every bit as skillful too.
The Drift – As with any other method of fly fishing the drift is of utmost importance as it is how the fly drifts that determines wether a fish will eat it or refuse it and in the case of fishing with nymphs even be able to see our nymphs .
We need to track our nymphs downstream with our rod tip and make sure our rod tip is always downstream of our nymphs as they drift downstream and that we always maintain a taut line to our nymphs throughout the drift.
Indicators – Throw them in the bin!!! Seriously, indicators will only prevent you from becoming a better nympher. They will cause your nymphs to drift at the speed of the surface which is faster than the current on the river bed thereby hindering your presentation. Also they won’t help you in the long run when it comes to being able to detect takes and they can also slow down your ability to learn watercraft and become a better nympher.
By indicators I am taking about those bobber style indicators and not the indicator line used for euro nymphing, French Nymphing, Czech nymphing etc. Those indicator lines are a different story as they don’t hinder your presentation and you don’t become reliant on them to be able to detect takes.
The Take – Unlike fishing with dry flies we can’t always see the take with nymphs so we need to be in tune with our other senses. By touch we can feel the take and this is the essence of upstream nymphing. To be able to do that we need to keep in contact with our flies at all times. This is another reason why we make sure our rod tip is always downstream of our nymphs as they drift downstream and that we maintain a taut line to our nymphs throughout the drift.
Sometimes takes can be very aggressive, sometimes they can be explosive splashed on the surface as the fish takes the nymphs but more often than not they are very subtle and usually you will just feel a slight pluck and other times you will only see a slight hesitation on the leader or fly line on the surface. When upstream nymphing always strike at anything out of the ordinary no matter how subtle. A good upstream nympher will have what can only be described as a sixth sense. Someone watching might be wondering what they are striking at and how they knew there was a take but somehow they just knew . It’s impossible to explain but in time most successful nymphers develop this skill.
Matching The Hatch – When we talk about matching the hatch most anglers only think about dry fly fishing or to some extent wet fly fishing but it can be equally as important with nymph fishing. There’s certainly times when trout are selectively feeding on a specific species of nymphs.
Size Matters – The size of your fly is always of the utmost importance and it’s no different with fishing nymphs. For early and late season the majority of nymphs will be on the large side , size 14 and 16. Mid season and high summer the majority of nymphs will be very small , size 18 and 20 and sometimes even smaller! Naturally there’s going to be a few exceptions such as caddis nymphs and especially the cased caddis which is generally around a size 8 or 10 . And the Mayfly (ephemera danica) nymph which again is usually around a size 8 or 10 .
Fly Selection – Nymphs generally fall into 3 categories: realistic, suggestive or attractors. Realistic nymphs are to exactly imitate a particular nymph species. Suggestive nymphs are ones that are suggestive of a wide range of natural nymphs such as the well known classic Pheasant Tail nymph or Hare’s Ear Nymph. They will have characteristics of a few different types of nymphs but without exactly matching any one in particular. Attractor nymphs are usually bright flashy nymphs such as Perdigones and are often more designed to sink quicker rather than to imitate any kind of natural nymphs although sometimes they can loosely do so.
In recent years due to water pollution, pesticides from farms, siltation of the rivers and other factors, the fly hatches aren’t what they once were and often dry fly fishing and the evening rise can be very hit and miss. This is a big part of why upstream nymphing is becoming more popular. And at the rate the fly hatches seem to be deteriorating it is highly likely that the future of fly fishing in our rivers and streams will be more nymph fishing than anything else. The competition scene is already dominated by nymphing these days and the reason for that is simple, upstream nymphing gets the results.
Some suggestions for nymphs:
Mayfly (ephemera danica):