Rethinking Nymph Fishing

Stewart describes something of a revolution in nymphing.

Given the global impact of modern flyfishing techniques, we’ve been fortunate in the past decade to have some of the world’s best anglers come to Australia and pass on their skills. We’ve been introduced to the French style: a long, tapered leader and dead drifted flies, which revolutionised our competition scene overnight for both nymph and dry fly fishing. And of course there have been the Czech techniques: a straight, thin leader right from the fly line, which again took our nymphing to the next level.

One interesting by-product of this education has been a shift in the mindset of Australian competition flyfishers. We’ve historically viewed ourselves as lake anglers who struggle on rivers. However in recent years, this has changed and we are now not only pushing the rest of the world on rivers, but at times leading them.

Slower water on the Mersey River, Tasmania.

Slower water on the Mersey River, Tasmania, shouldn’t be discounted as nymph water.


Following the first French master course in Australia, everyone went away and started copying the teacher, Yannick Riviere. This was understandable, although inevitably, we weren’t going to match him. Instead, we became a small army of French nymphers with a very similar skill set.

However, there was one angler who took what he liked from the course and discarded the things he didn’t. Inevitably this angler became the best by a margin for a few years. This stagnated the competition scene for a while as we all tried to beat each other doing the exact same thing. That is, until a Czech guy, Martin Droz came over and with his famous line, ‘Why not?’, changed everything.

‘Can I do this?’ we would ask. ‘Why not?’ he would reply. So we began trying everything and anything… and it all started working. This was a game changer. We began pulling nymphs across the current while they were upstream of us; letting nymphs slide down the back of big rocks to catch the fish sitting underneath; lowering nymphs into submerged timber 2ft from the rod tip; stripping nymphs across the stream aggressively… the list goes on. It all worked and we started catching more trout.

A nice rainbow pulled from an Ovens River logjam, using the 'Why not?' approach.

A nice rainbow pulled from an Ovens River logjam, thanks to the ‘Why not?’ approach.

Slow Down

Now, a few years on from all these creative approaches to nymphing and experimentation, there appears to be one common theme: slowing the nymphs down. This has led to a lot more across and downstream nymphing than previously. While everyone is now able to upstream nymph and dead drift flies with relative skill in quick water, very few people are slowing the nymphs down or fishing them well in slow water. This is true for both European-style and indicator nymphing.

Nymphing Slower Water

Classically, we view good nymphing water as beautiful gurgling ripples with a bubble line, so we focus on this water. No wonder – we all catch fish from these stretches. However, it’s often the slower water nearby – for example just as the run deepens below, or where the current just starts to pick up towards the pool tail – which holds the largest number of fish.

We're finding that the deeper, slower water down towards the tail end of the pool, can produce numbers of good trout to a nymph fished correctly.

We’re finding that the deeper, slower water down towards the tail of the pool, can produce numbers of good trout to a nymph fished correctly. (Pic. Garth Jackson)

In this slower water, the balance between staying in touch with the flies and dragging them too quickly, becomes more challenging. As a result, most anglers don’t view this slower water as nymphing water; in fact, unless trout are rising in it they don’t view it as fishable water at all. Yet as with so many forms of flyfishing, striking the ‘in touch but not dragging’ balance, is simply a matter of understanding what to do, then practicing it.

Adventurous anglers may swing dry flies, larger wets or nymphs through this type of water. However, rarely are double nymphs used; yet interestingly, double nymphing this water has been the difference in recent competitions. There’s no doubt regular anglers could really boost their catch by fishing the same way.

The Slow Water

The first of these techniques is for the slower water that is still moving but no longer rippling. The nymphs are lobbed somewhere from directly across the stream to 45 degrees upstream, then left to sink. Once the flies are down deep, you simply come up tight on them, with the rod tip high and side-on, to start a slow swing. Do not move the rod tip once the nymphs start to swing: this increases your control and feel. Trout holding deep in the stream will see the nymphs and often respond well. The key here is depth and the fish will often eat soon after the flies start to swing, meaning you hook them from side-on, which results in a fantastic hook-up rate.

This is unlike classically swung flies which are normally eaten under more tension due to more line in the water, and are often much higher in the water column and at the end of the swing. This combination of tension, less depth and the line facing straight down towards the fish, results in fewer eats, more bumps and fewer hook ups than the slow, side-on swing at depth.

The Slowest Water

Moving further downstream, we reach the section of the pool where there is almost no flow. Here, you could choose to simply lighten the nymphs and employ the same technique described above. However, this can also be where the Czech techniques come in to play. As you cast to the edge of timber, willows or an eroded bank, the nymphs are left to sink until they’re deep. You can then pull them back towards you any way you like.

This Buffalo River rainbow came from a deep, almosty dead still pool.

A Buffalo River rainbow from a deep, almost dead-still pool.

My favourite retrieve at the moment is a slow figure-8. You can use this presentation casting downstream, directly across, on or even upstream. Throw in the occasional quick strip and you’ll soon be pulling trout from water you previously walked past. The key is depth to put the flies nearer the fish, and moving them slowly so the trout get a good look at them.

Slow Examples

These tactics apply to just about any water on any stream; however let’s imagine we are fishing a nice long, riffly run. Picture the Mersey/Meander in Tasmania, the Goulburn/ Mitta Mitta in Victoria or the Tumut/Murrumbidgee in NSW. The first thing is to still fish the water by casting upstream initially. If you start by fishing downstream to where most of the trout are, you end up catching the fish at the head of the pod first, which can spook others.

By fishing up from below the fish, we try to pick a few off as we move up through the pod. As we find where the trout are sitting, we start throwing in a few casts which we pull sideways while still casting upstream. As we are pulling the flies across the current, we are imparting artificial movement that catches the trout’s attention, but without pulling the flies faster down past the fish. This actually has the effect of slowing the flies down ever so slightly, while maintaining perfect contact. Then, as we get alongside the fish, we can use the slow swing technique described above.

Expert angler Jonathon Stagg carefully nymphing a slow stretch of the St Patricks River, Tasmania.

Expert competition angler Jonathon Stagg carefully nymphing a slow stretch of the St Patricks River, Tasmania. (Pic. Garth Jackson)

We eventually get above the trout, and this is where the magic happens. These fish have now seen dead-drifted subtle presentations first, and slightly more aggressive presentations next using the artificial movement of the slow swing. However, you know there are more fish present that haven’t taken the fly. So the next step is to go above the likely water, swing the nymphs down to where the fish should be, and just hold them there. No jiggle, no lift; just let them sway around in the current, looking enticing.

Not very exhilarating fishing, right? Well, believe me, when this technique starts catching trout in water you have just fished for nothing, it gets exhilarating quickly! And don’t just let the nymphs sit there for 5 seconds (about the usual limit for even the most patient angler); wait for up to a minute.

Why so Slow?

I couldn’t believe it when this technique started working after leaving my flies stationary for such a long time. So why are the fish waiting so long to eat these flies? A few situations over the coming seasons shed some light on this.
The first occurred on the Meander River in a crystal-clear plunge pool. The nymph went into the pool, I held it quite close to the surface, and a little brown trout swam up off the bottom like a 6lb Western Lakes brown with all the time in the world. When it got to the fly, the trout ate it without a break in its leisurely stride, before slowly turning back down. There was no urgent flash at the fly, no quick slash; just a slow, confident take like this fish had done it a thousand times before. The lesson was, trout aren’t always rushing to eat the fly – a common misconception given the tap-tap nature of a downstream take.

A brownie on the nymph from the middle of a deep, almost flowless pool on the upper Mitta Mitta River.

A brownie from the middle of a deep, almost flowless pool on the upper Mitta Mitta River.

Another factor which could explain a trout’s slow response, is simply its decision whether or not to actually eat the fly. Will I or won’t I? Perhaps it’s like us going into a fast food shop when we’re not that hungry. At first you don’t want anything even though it’s right there. But then that bloody smell gets you, and you end up eating fries and a burger you didn’t really want. I’ve convinced myself it’s the same for these fish. They see the fly there and after a while it just plays on their tiny minds. Then eventually, they eat it. And in common with a weak moment with greasy food, they soon regret it!

When using this technique, it’s surprising just how much even really heavy flies move around when held stationary in flowing water. Test this for yourself – you will be pleasantly surprised.

On the Goulburn

A good example of this technique occurred recently below Gilmores Bridge on the Goulburn River in Victoria. Every Victorian angler knows how much of a flogging this water gets, especially late last season. A friend and I were fishing good-looking water just below the bridge. We both fished up the same run without touching anything. Once we got to the top, we stood there chatting about how we hadn’t caught a single fish from this beautiful water. As we were talking, I started letting line out, lowering my flies back into the best-looking part of the run. After 30 seconds, there was a tap-tap and a fish was on. This technique ended up pulling three trout from the same run that hadn’t produced a touch when we fished it upstream just minutes earlier.

The run at ythe top of the picture, on the Goulburn River below Gilmours Bridge, must be one of the most heavily fished pieces of water in Victoria, yet it still produced three nice trout to the slow nymph.

The run at the top of the picture, on the Goulburn River below Gilmours Bridge, must be one of the most heavily fished pieces of water in Victoria. However, it still produced three nice trout to the slow nymph. (Pic. John Douglas)

Craig Coltman described the correct way to strike these fish (or rather, not to strike them) in his recent article on swinging. (See FlyStream Magazine, Winter 2017 issue.) The hookset is very similar with slow nymphing. Have the rod tip pointing straight downstream, but lifted far enough to keep most of the fly line off the water. This helps create a bit of slack in the rig, allowing the fish to engulf the fly easily. The strike is a simple lift; not fast, just a slow, steady lift of the rod tip. When done properly, the trout’s weight will stay on more often than not.

Fishing the ‘Bad’ Water

As we skip what we consider the bad water and focus on the classic runs and riffles, we also skip learning new things. This stagnation in flyfishing development is something I regularly come across when guiding; and I’ve gone through it as well. This repetition – fishing the same styles and places year after year – can lead not only to reduced catch rates, but to flyfishing losing some of its shine.

Fortunately, each season I also see anglers who’ve learnt new skills, and who then catch fish they previously wouldn’t have caught. This reinvigorates them and that look on their face is one of the best things in guiding. The techniques described above are not only deadly, they also open up water we often avoid.