How to Tie a Nymph Rig

Published on 05/04/2021 · 7 min readA nymph rig is the most effective way to catch trout. Fly Fishing expert Andy Sparhawk walks you through setting up the perfect nymph rig.
Andy Sparhawk, Fly Fishing Expert
By Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk

Photo by Josh Frenette

Blame it on Hollywood.

We've all seen the film A River Runs Through It, complete with a stunning landscape and—quite literally—a river running through it. The scene frames a captivating way to experience nature that is as beautiful and artistic as the views. It's no wonder why fly fishing has become so popular over the past few decades.

But it's all a façade.


Like most things on the silver screen, reality isn't quite that idyllic. It has been said that trout only rise about 10% of the time. That means that the vast majority of trout feeding is going on under the surface of the water. If you're like me, the opportunity to hook a fish is more of a draw than performing my best pre-Gwen, Jen, or Brangelina Pitt impression. How are fish being caught if nine out of ten times the fish aren't looking up?

What is a Nymph Rig?

Most of the time, fish take a nymph pattern. A nymph rig is the most effective way to catch trout in most situations, year-round. The rig is a subsurface setup that presents imitations of aquatic insects, known as nymphs, which become detached from the riverbed and swept up by the current. Feeding trout hold in that current, looking upstream, waiting for an easy snack like a midge, caddis, or stonefly nymph to float within striking distance.

The traditional nymphing rig is a fly fishing setup with floating line and tapered leader. Attached to the line are nymph patterns. In some states, like Colorado, anglers can attach up to three flies to the line. Consult your local fishing regulations to identify if multi-fly rigs are allowed in your state. In addition to the nymph fly patterns, a traditional nymph rig will include a strike indicator—a fancy fly fishing term for a float or bobber—and weight, like split-shot or tungsten putty to quickly sink your nymphs near the bottom of the river.

Photo by Morgan McDonald

Nymphing Rig: What You Need

  • Fly Rod (3-6 weight, medium action)
  • Fly Reel (loaded with floating fly line)
  • Tapered Leader and Tippet Material (5X - 6X tippet depending on the fly size)
  • Subsurface nymph imitating flies
  • Strike Indicator
  • Weight
  • Tippet Ring (Optional)

How Do You Set Up a Nymph Rig?

A nymph rig is easy to set up and becomes easier with repetition. With a rod and reel loaded with backing and a weight-forward fly line, attach a tapered leader. The leader is likely to be secured with a loop-to-loop connection. If your fly line and leader both have a loops at their ends, you can easily connect them without following knot instructions. The leader packaging will provide instructions on how to join the lines.

Your leader should be as long as your rod. For instance, if you have a nine-foot rod, you should choose a nine-foot leader. You can tie a nymph with an improved clinch knot or uni-knot at the end of the leader. Once done, add a strike indicator. The indicator should be positioned 1.5 times to two times the depth of the water. For example, if the water you are fishing is approximately 3ft deep, place your indicator 4.5ft to 6ft up the leader. As you fish, adjust the length of the indicator as depth and water speeds change.

Adding Weight

A common saying in fly fishing that rings true goes something like, "the difference between a good day fishing and a great day fishing is one split-shot."

Nymphing rigs should have enough weight to get the lead fly near the bottom of the river. Anglers commonly point out their indicator bobbing along, suggesting that their weight is "ticking" the bottom. If you feel like your rig is not reaching the bottom, add more split-shot. If the nymph is hanging up and not ticking along, remove some weight.

Weight can be positioned in a variety of places along the leader. I suggest adding a split-shot 6 to 8 inches above your first lead fly. I like to spread out the split-shots a bit. I feel that by separating them, the line rolls along the riverbed more efficiently. The same area can take tungsten putty if you choose to use it as your weight.

TIP: Tippet rings are a great way to keep your split shot from sliding down towards your fly. These tiny rings connect the leader to the tippet. Tippet rings also offer ease of line connections and the potential for advanced nymphing rig applications like a drop-shot rig.

Multi-fly Nymph Rigs

While this post describes the simplest of nymph rigs, it is worth knowing that you can fish multiple files at once, where allowed. The system extends from the first fly connecting 8in to 16in of tippet to the end of the hook and tying a second fly to the end. An angler can choose to repeat the process by adding a trailing bottom fly with an additional 8in to 10in of tippet attached to the middle fly's end.

When choosing the order of your multiple fly rigs, it helps with casting to consider the flies' size. Most often, the lead or top fly will be the largest of your trio of nymphs. The weight of this fly often doubles as the weight for the rig. It often can be a flashy, attractor pattern. These flies include eggs and worm patterns, and are highly visible, especially in off-colored water, and are exceptional at capturing trout's attention.

The second or middle fly is smaller than the lead fly. The trailing fly is the smallest and lightest. Since the second and third flies are more lightweight, they will remain higher in the water column as they float by. This is to an angler's advantage as the rig can fish multiple depths in the water column, helping to decipher where the fish are eating.

Fishing a Nymph Rig

Position yourself perpendicular to the area you'd like to fish. Cast enough line upriver to cover a portion of the water. Focus casts along seams, where fast water meets slower water. An excellent way to identify areas that hold feeding trout is to look for lines of bubbles.

As your line floats downstream, try to keep as much line off the water as possible, along with mending your line helps to ensure a drag-free drift. To mend, pick the line up by raising your rod. Then act as if you're making a bedsheet and laying it flat, moving the excess line upstream to dead drift along with the strike indicator in an overhand motion. As the line crosses your path, continue to maintain a natural drift until you reach the end of your line. Be ready for a strike. As the flies swing around, they rise in the water column triggering trout to bite.

Repeat the process with a tension cast and start again.

Hook Sets Are Free!!!

If you see your strike indicator dip or pause at any time during the drift, set the hook! Fish takes can be subtle, and it always helps to set the hook. Setting the hook can reward an angler for their proactivity. Set the hook by controlling the line in the hand that doesn't hold the rod and firmly pulling the rod so that the rod tip is pointing downstream.

Lights, Camera, Action!

It may not be like the movies, but a simple nymph rig is one of the most effective ways to catch trout on the river. There are plenty of variations that fly fishers can learn, but becoming comfortable with the setup will prove invaluable in fly fishing. After all, Brad Pitt can have the glitz and glamor.

You're out for the 'bows and browns.

Please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing experts here on Curated if you have any questions about tying or fishing a nymph rig or if you need any help finding the right gear for your needs.

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