By Rick Hafele (With updates by: Mark Bachmann)
If this sounds like a sales pitch for spending more money on fishing gear, you’re absolutely right. Sure, you can use just about any rod and line combination for fishing nymphs, but – and I do mean but – just like there is no perfect boat for all situations, or car that fits every need, or spouse (oops, I better not go there!). Well, you get the picture: different equipment will work better for some things than others. So if you want to set yourself up to really fish nymphs effectively read on.
The logical place to start is with the rod. There are three primary factors to consider when selecting a rod for any use, not just for nymphing: line weight, length, and action.
Line weight: I’ve used rods from 3-weights to 8-weights for fishing nymphs, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the experience with all of them. I consider a 4-weight rod the minimum for any serious nymph fishing, and even then it will be limited if the wind starts blowing or you decide to start throwing some large nymphs. A better choice is a 5-weight or 6-weight rod. These are my go-to line weights for nymphing, and if I had to pick just one it would be the 6-weight. It offers the greatest range of versatility plus ease of fishing. What about heavier rods? Personal preference always plays a part in equipment, and for me I find heavier rod weights a little overboard for fishing for trout in all but a few situations. For example, I was once fishing on a big river (happened to be in Chile, but that’s another story) when the only way to get down to the trout was with a 240 grain shooting head, plus the wind was blowing and we were casting large stonefly-like flies. Believe me, an 8-weight was the only way to go that day. But unless you are faced with some extreme conditions, I find a 5-weight or 6-weight rod the way to go.
Rod length: If I’m fishing a small stream with lots of trees and brush I want a short rod, say 7 to 7 ½ feet long. But trout streams in Oregon, and the West in general, tend to be medium to large in size, and in these types of streams and rivers a longer rod will be more effective. Given today’s high-tech materials even long rods are light and a pleasure to cast, and a 9 or 9 ½ foot rod will work extremely well. Some even recommend a 10 foot rod (or even longer) for nymphing, but I find these best for more specific situations (Czech nymphing for example) rather than all-around use.
Rod action: You’ll find some strong, and differing, opinions about the best rod action for nymphing. I believe the best nymph rods should have a medium action or even medium/slow action, and my reason is ease of casting with fewer leader tangles when using multiple flies, indicator, split shot, etc. Fast action rods promote tight loops. That’s great when you’re false casting dry flies to dry them out and need to make an accurate presentation. But when fishing nymphs you should minimize false casts and cast with more open loops to avoid tangles. You should also be making short casts when nymphing, typically no more than 30 or 40 feet. I have found slower action rods do these things better than faster action rods. Those who argue for fast actions rods generally say they are more sensitive to feeling strikes and quicker to set the hook. Maybe. But I think all modern rods are pretty darn sensitive, and the benefits of a medium action rod outweigh the little, if any, advantage of a faster rod’s feel.
So, for the most versatile rod for nymph fishing, I’d recommend a medium action, 5 or 6-weight rod, nine feet long.
To round out the rest of your gear, let’s take a quick look at lines, leaders, and indicators.
For fishing nymphs in streams and rivers, 99% of the time I use a floating line with a weight-forward taper. Only occasionally (like that big river in Chile) do I find a sinking line necessary or an advantage. Lake fishing is a different animal however, and there you will find slow-sinking, fast-sinking, as well as sink-tip lines all come into play.
If you are fishing a medium to large stream with a floating line, a leader 9 to 11 feet long will be a good choice. I also use tapered leaders, either knotless or knotted, most of the time. However, a non-tapered leader, which is just a straight piece of say 3x or 4x leader material, can be a good alternative to the typical tapered leader for nymphing. That’s because a straight, non-tapered leader will sink faster than a tapered one, and getting nymphs down quickly is almost always a good thing. If you’re using sinking or sink-tip lines, then a straight piece of leader only three or four feet long will be best.
Yes, strike indicators are a routine part of my nymph fishing equipment. I have found over the years that I detect many more strikes and catch a lot more fish when I use one than when I don’t. Maybe that’s just me, but I do know they work and help most anglers catch more trout nymphing. They must work because there are literally dozens of different types, colors, and sizes of strike indicators on the market, and I really can’t tell you which is best. I can tell you I prefer a small (about ½ inch size) red, corkie type of indicator. Try a bunch of different kinds of indicators and decide for yourself what works best for you. Ideally a good indicator won’t interfere with casting, can be moved up and down the leader quickly when needed, and can be seen easily on the water. As a general guide I place the indicator about twice the depth of the water away from my nymph, but this distance should be adjusted depending on speed of the water and weight of the nymphs you’re fishing.
One last comment: Don’t think that a good outfit for nymph fishing is only good for fishing nymphs. It will also be a fine rig for fishing dry flies, emergers, and even streamers, if needed. Once you have the right equipment, what you need to do next is practice. So go fishing! - Rich Hafele
Comments by Mark Bachmann
Rick Hafele is a deadly trout fisherman. His knowledge of aquatic invertebrates and their preferred habitats is astounding, and this enables him to fish flies that resemble the ones in any stretch of water he is fishing. In other words, if March Brown Nymphs are normally found in certain areas of the river, it probably makes sense that you should be fishing with a fly that looks like one. There is no substitute for a kick screen as a tool of scientific investigations. If you take time to find out what lives on the bottom of a river that you are fishing, you will be more effective.
For fishing larger rivers such as the Deschutes, or even rivers half that wide, I like longer rods than Rick has suggested in the article above. I just think that longer rods, such as the Echo Shadow II series gives an angler the advantage of staying a little farther away from the fish, and also allows better control over longer drifts. Trout in heavily trafficked areas become extremely suspicious of any fly that is not moving naturally in the water. Flies that are dragging against the current or moving too fast down stream, rarely get eaten. A long rod helps to control drag. My favorite is the Echo Shadow II 10'6" - 4-weight. Normally I stretch it out to 11' 6" with the addition of the Competition Kit. With the addition of the counter balance rings from the kit, this rod balances well with average size trout reels. My favorite line for this rod is a #5 Royal Wulff Ambush line. You can lob a heavy payload of flies and split shot with this outfit.
The new Air-Lock Strike Indicators are the easiest to use.
There are many ways to rig for nymph fishing for trout. The drawing above lists many of the options that are available. All of these options can be used in your leader or not. For instance, you won't need split shot in shallow calm water, but they might be the best option in deep fast water. Multiple flies give you more chances of matching what trout are eating, but unless you are a smooth caster these extra flies can result in tangles.
Strike indicators are also optional. The latest fad on local rivers is the Dry 'n Dropper Rig where a two to three foot piece of fine tippet is attached to the hook bend of a large, buoyant dry fly. Then a small bead-head nymph is attached to the end of the leader. The two-fly set-up is fished upstream in traditional dry fly fashion. Often the small nymph is taken and the dry fly acts as a strike indicator. The dry fly is also occasionally taken. This approach is very effective during caddis hatches.
One day, I watched several large trout working over the top of a submerged weed bed. It was obvious they were feeding, and after several minutes of observation with polarized glasses combined with a pair of binoculars, it was determined that they were intercepting PMD nymphs emerging from the weeds. Slick shallow water covering the weeds left the fish extremely exposed and spooky. The plop of a strike indicator would have sent them into hiding. A #16 unweighted Pheasant Tail nymph presented broadside on a long fine leader was the answer for one nice fish before the commotion sent the rest into deep water. It pays to be observant and adaptable.