How to fish nymphs for stillwater trout

Nymphs are a major source of food for stillwater trout and there are loads of trout flies designed to imitate them. Here are some stillwater fly fishing secrets on how to fish nymphs for trout on stillwater trout fisheries.

How to fish nymphs for stillwater trout
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
How to fish nymphs for stillwater trout
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
How to fish nymphs for stillwater trout
Estimated reading time 10 - 16 minutes

What are nymphs?

Nymphs are juvenile aquatic insects. Many aquatic insects have a nymph stage in their life cycle and as they can be abundant and relatively meaty, they represent a major food source for trout, in both running and still water.

For some of their life, nymphs live among the rocks, stones and debris of the lake bed, but at times they'll go on the move and when they're emerging they'll swim in open water on their way to the surface. Trout will eat them whenever they can catch them.

What forms do nymph flies take?

There are two main types of trout fly designed to resemble nymphs: imitative nymph patterns and suggestive nymph patterns.

The imitative nymph patterns, as the name suggests, are tied to be a pretty close match for the real thing and can work really well. The suggestive patterns are often more lure-like, but have the shape, colour and wiggling movement of a nymph.

If you're fishing a pressured stillwater where lots of fly fishers fish every day, then going imitative can be a useful way to get to the overwintered fish that have managed to evade all of the brightly coloured lures zooming past them.

Nymphs are effective all year round for brown and rainbow trout.

How should I fish nymphs for stillwater trout?

Nymphs can be fished in a number of ways, but the key to all of them is to pick a pattern that resembles something the trout are feeding upon, or which attracts their attention, and to fish it in a manner that makes it move in a convincing manner and at a depth at which the trout are feeding.

What type of fly line should I use for fishing nymphs?

While you could arguably fish nymphs on any kind of fly line, they're generally fished on a floating line.

A floating line is the most versatile fly line for nymphing because you can use a variety of weighted and unweighted nymphs and fish them at a range of depths.

A floating line also means you can fish your nymphs much more slowly than on an intermediate or sinking fly line without the risk of the nymphs catching bottom.

What sort of retrieve speed is best when fishing nymphs?

Since nymphs are inherently slow moving creatures, the speed of retrieve is crucial and should generally be very slow. However, there are times when a faster retrieve can generate takes - especially if you're fishing a more lure-like suggestive pattern with a wiggling marabou tail.

For most nymph patterns, especially the imitative ones, the usual retrieve speed is somewhere between static and an extremely slow figure of eight. Nymphs are small creatures and don't swim quickly, so your retrieve needs to mimic this.

Some nymphs such as sedge and caddis nymphs barely move at all, so just letting your nymphs move around in the current while maintaining contact by remove slack with a figure of eight retrieve is the best route to success.

Slow six inch pulls interspersed with jerks and figure of eights are also great, especially for long tailed marabou damsels and the like, as the movement really gets the tail wiggling and entices the trout to follow the flies.

Larger nymphs such as damsel and dragon fly larvae are more mobile and swim a bit more quickly, so a faster figure of eight often works for these.

What length leader should I use?

For many nymph fishing applications on stillwater trout fisheries longer leaders are the norm. The usual rule of thumb is that your leader shouldn't be any shorter than the length of your fly rod, but for stillwater nymphing much longer leaders are typically used.

A longer leader means your flies will be further from the tip of the fly line, so the line is less likely to spook fish. It also means you can fish your nymphs in deeper waters and if you're using a number of nymphs on your cast it helps space them out a bit more.

Turning over a longer leader - that is, getting the flies to land in front of the fly line rather than in a pile at the end of the cast - gets harder the longer the leader becomes. If your casting skills are more limited, you might want to try gradually increasing your leader length as you become more proficient.

Really good casters can turn over leaders of 20-25' with two or three droppers, but if you're new to fly fishing then 10-14' is probably a sensible length to start off with.

Nymphs, especially natural imitations, can often help you locate resident browns.

How many nymphs should I fish at once?

If you can handle it, and your fishery rules allow, then it's most common to fish three nymphs, just as you would when fishing buzzers. Casting several flies is harder, especially when windy, so you might want to work up to this as your fly casting skills improve.

Depending on the length of your leader, you'd normally space your flies anywhere from 4-8' apart. If you want to get down deep and cover fish at three different depths then add a weighted nymph to your point (the end of the leader) and put two unweighted nymphs on the droppers. If you put weighted flies on the droppers you're quite likely to get a tangle, especially if the leader is long.

How can I minimise tangles when fishing nymphs on droppers?

If it's really windy then you're probably better off fishing a single fly on a shorter leader, as multiple flies on a long leader on a windy day are a recipe for disaster and you're likely to spend most of your time untangling droppers.

In terms of casting, the best method for reducing tangles is to open your loop. You may already have a fairly open loop if you're new to fly fishing, but you can make your loop even bigger by dropping the rod slightly when you back cast. This increases the amount of space for the leader, which means the droppers are less likely to hook each other.

A quick tug on the line as you lay your rod down on the final forward cast can also help the flies turn over, which stops the droppers crashing into each other and landing in a knotted heap.

Shorter droppers and stiffer or heavier line can also help. I tie my droppers onto Riverge leader rings which helps them stand out well. It's also easy to chop them off if it gets too windy to handle droppers or if they tangle. It's well worth using these if you're using multiple flies.

What should I do once my nymphs land?

Once you've made your cast and your nymphs have landed on the surface, give the line a slow and steady pull to take out any slack. This will straighten the line before the nymphs start to sink and will help you detect any bites that come as the nymphs are dropping through the water.

If the leader landed in a heap and you think it might be tangled, you may as well gently retrieve the line and check it before re-casting, as you're unlikely to catch if everything is tangled together.

If there's a bow in the line, you might want to "mend" the line by lifting the rod and flicking the line straight. This can help prevent the wind or waves catching the bow of line and pulling the nymphs along through the water at speed. As nymphs tend to move slowly, you want them to drop through the water and retrieve them yourself.

Once the flies are dropping, countdown to say 30 seconds and start retrieving with the slowest figure of eight retrieve you can manage and wait for a pull. On the next cast, count to a different number (perhaps 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 etc) until you find the depth at which the fish are feeding.

You'll be surprised at how effective this countdown method is when you find the fish. I've had days at Llyn Brenig when I couldn't get a bite, yet when I counted to 20 and let my nymphs sink the link would almost tighten immediately, cast after cast.

How should I detect bites when fishing nymphs?

More often than not you'll feel the trout taking off with your flies before you see the bite. Some trout simply grab the flies and then shoot off, so the rod will almost be pulled from your hands. Others will just swim off slowly and you'll feel the line slowly tightening.

There are a few techniques you can use to help you improve bite detection. Watching the fly line is effective, if you have good eyesight and if visibility isn't hampered by light or surface ripple. When a trout takes, you'll see it straighten, but you'll generally also feels that too.

You can also lift the rod so the tip is a foot or two above the water surface and leave a bend of line beneath. If a trout takes a nymph you'll see the bend of line being pulled forward from the tip, allowing you to set the hooks.

The other common and very easy way to detect bites is to use some kind of strike indicator. This attaches to the leader just above the top dropper and will be pulled under if a fish takes the flies.

What should I do at the end of the cast?

As your flies begin to near the bank (or the boat) leave about 10' of fly line outside the rod tip and move the rod around to the side to keep the flies moving towards the bank.

As the flies come in, wait a few seconds before re-casting and let the flies sink. Slowly retrieved nymphs often entice trout to follow and the sinking action of the flies at the end of the cast often triggers them to grab them and shoot off - so be prepared to lift the rod and strike into the fish.

Buzzers are essentially the nymphs of midge flies or chironomids and form the bulk of a trout's diet.

How should I pick the right nymphs to use?

The fly pattern and the size of fly you need to use will obviously depend on what the trout are feeding upon at the time you are fishing. The suggestive nymph patterns, like the long marabou tailed damsels, generally work all year round because they're arguably more lure than imitation.

For the other nymph patterns, it's probably best if you just try a few and see what works on the day. Most of them are general imitations of generic nymphs so the exact pattern doesn't always make that much difference.

What nymph patterns do you recommend?

Blue flash damsel: The Blue flash damsel is probably the most consistent catcher of trout. This suggestive lure-like pattern is designed to resemble a damselfly nymph and consists of a simple olive marabou pattern with a brass bead head and some strands of blue tinsel. Fish it slowly with the odd quick pull to get the tail moving.

Hot head damsel: The Hot head damsel is really similar to the Blue flash damsel, minus the blue flash. It generally has a silver wire rib and a brightly coloured fluorescent orange or green bead head. On the right day it's a brilliant fly and should get you some pulls.

Pheasant tail nymph: The Pheasant tail nymph is an ancient and classic nymph pattern and about as imitative as they get. It resembles a wide range of nymphs and can work well throughout the year.

Crunchers: Crunchers are a more modern imitative nymph commonly used by competition fly fishers. There are dozens of variants of the cruncher and they're all very effective. They're a great pattern for the top and middle dropper and are often used alongside blobs and boobies when trout are feeding higher in the water.

Diawl bach: The Diawl bach (Welsh for Little Devil) is another more modern nymph pattern and works brilliantly on stillwaters. Not only does it look like a wide range of nymphs, it also takes fish when they're feeding upon buzzers. It's unweighted so is another great pattern for the droppers.

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