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Tips for Successful Nymph Fishing

By Charlies P. Graham 11/26/2015

When nymph fishing, all you need to do is throw out a bobber with a prince and you're set - right? Well, sometimes, but in my experience, there are a few things that will help your nymphing game when the fish aren't  jumping in the boat. My checklist for nymphing includes:

    • Indicator vs. Split Shot -
      The first thing to understand is the difference between moving your indicator and adding/removing split shot. Your indicator controls the depth your flies will sink to, while split shot controls how fast your flies sink to the distance set by your indicator.

    • Move Indicator when Appropriate -
      The general rule is to set your indicator at 1.5 times the depth of water you're fishing, i.e. if your fishing a 4 ft deep hole, set your indicator 6 ft. above your top fly. This will apply to most situations, but if you are fishing water with inconsistent depth or speeds, try playing with your indicator/split shot setup to adapt to the changing water conditions. I have had very good results using this strategy.

    • Start Light -
      Remember that fish aren't always on the bottom. Start without split and slowly add until you start catching. You'll notice that after you poke a few fish, you can add a little more weight and catch another "layer" of trout.

    • Long Drifts -
      The longer your fly is in the water, the better your chance of catching fish. It's as easy as that. A fly floated for a long distance will look much more realistic than one that is not. This is especially true with nymphs, where it takes a while for your fly to sink into the "strike zone." If you are continually casting and messing with your line, chances are your fly will never reach this zone. This is where float fishing has the upper hand. You cover much more water and are able to float with the boat for very long drifts.

    • Persistence -
      Fish aren't always going to bite even with a long drift. Sometimes they need to see a drift 100 times with 100 different flies before you start catching. Here is where wade fishing has the advantage. You can stand in a big beautiful hole, changing flies, adjusting your split shot and indicator and catching fish, while the guys in boats only get one drift "with one setup".

    • Fish the Right Bugs -
      A basic understanding of entomology will dramatically increase your chances of catching fish. For instance, when stonefly nymphs crawl to the bank to hatch, they should guide your girdle bug a little closer to the bank. Did you know that mayfly nymphs prefer shallower riffles? Throw your Pheasant Tail in that mid-depth seam and see what happens.

    • Attractor Nymph to Small Nymph
      Feed 'em, don't fool 'em or fool 'em, don't feed 'em. I've heard people say both but which one is right? In my opinion, both are correct. Although I prefer more of a "lead and feed" approach. Try tying on a large attractor nymph (girdle bug, big prince, etc.) and then tie on a more realistic dropper (caddis emerger, P.M.D. nymph, etc.) 18-24 inches below your larger attractor nymph. Fish will see the larger attractor fly, will be drawn in, and will eat your smaller, more realistic pattern.

    • No Indicator Tight Line
       Fish don't always want those nymphs floated perfectly to them under a pink balloon. It may be because they are currently eating emergers and they fancy the chase. Or their mouths are sore and they have learned to eat lightly to prevent moving an indicator. Whatever the reason, tight line nymphing can be a lot of fun and very productive. Cast your line directly off the side of the boat, put in a mend, strip in your line until it is tight and then keep it that way. Maintain your reel at waist level and have your tip pointed up just a little, keeping approximately 2-3 of tight line on the water. When that line moves or when you feel the slightest bump, set the hook!

    • Nymph a Streamer

      There are a few ways (with or without an indicator) that you can do this. One way is to fish it exactly like a nymph rig, with an upstream cast and continuing mends, imitating a dying or dead baitfish. Another way to fish this rig is a half-dead drift/half-tight line with an indicator. After bringing your line tight, alternate small mends and a tight line. When doing this, set the hook every time you see or feel anything. Take that indicator off and tight line the streamer to a nymph rig, similar to tight lining a normal nymph rig with the same results. When tight lining a streamer, try giving your rig a few, short strips every now and again. This small action may be just enough to turn a fish's head.

    • High Stick Nymphing
      Ever see a big long rock slick and know a fish is lurking there? You cast your flies and they land right in that slick, but your floating line lands in faster water and pulls your fly away from the fish. What should you do? I suggest this is the time to high stick. Keep your line short and when your flies land in the slower water, lift your tip so you have little or no line left on the water. This way, there is nothing dragging your fly out of that fish's living room. 

For great results, keep these tips in mind next time you're nymphing.  Knowing what to do under specific conditions is certain to improve your results.


Read More Top Locations Near Ennis for a Couple of Hours of Fly Fishing

This is a small town with a big heart, a veritable fisherman’s paradise. Located near the fish-filled Madison River, and surrounded by the waters of Ennis Lake, the Ruby River, Hebgen ... moreLake, Quake Lake, Henry’s Lake, the Big Hole River and scores of smaller streams, the town boasts what many consider the best trout fishing in the world. As well known for its wranglers as its anglers, Ennis has succeeded in maintaining the look and feel of its original, gold town roots. Warm and hospitable, the area offers a wide variety of accommodations ranging from simple campsites, rustic motels and gracious hotels, to full-service, luxury resorts. Fly shops are numerous, stocked by local experts ready to advise and assist, while guides can be booked for trips throughout the area.

Boredom is the only thing unavailable in Ennis. Throughout the summer season the city hosts a series of events, including its renowned 4th of July Celebration Parade and a genuine, old-fashioned rodeo. In August, fly-fishing luminaries from around the US, flock to Montana to compete in the Madison Fly Fishing Festival. Athletes also find their way to Ennis to compete in the city’s Madison Trifecta, two shorter races followed by a full Marathon at 9000 feet, the highest elevation run in America. For the true sportsman, October falls in with the annual Hunter’s Feed. What’s caught, typically elk, moose deer, pheasant and bobcat, gets cooked on the streets and served up to hungry spectators.

Flanked by three grand mountain ranges, The Tobacco Root, Gravelly and Madison, Ennis is scenic and entertaining – truly an authentic, fly fisher’s haven.
Fishing Waters
The Madison River is arguably one of the best trout fishing rivers in all of southwest Montana, if not the entire world! It’s certainly the most talked over, written up and frequented ... morein the state of Montana – which is considered by some the capital of fly fishing. Anglers will find plenty of great access sites to wade or float along the Madison’s banks and reservoirs (including Hebgen Lake and Ennis Lake). Rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and more abound in this majestic fishing stream.

The Madison begins its course almost twenty miles into Yellowstone National Park. Within the Park, fishing rules apply: no live bait and catch and release only. Once outside the Park the river meanders past working ranches, stately conifer forests and cottonwood lined banks, interrupted by riffles and quiet runs that contain large rainbow and trophy brown trout. Flowing alongside Yellowstone’s West entrance road, the river enters Hebgen Lake, created by Hebgen dam, until it reaches Quake Lake, a bit downstream from the dam. At this point the river is commonly called either the Upper Madison or the Lower Madison, although in fact, they are one and the same.

Upper Madison – Quake Lake to Ennis Lake
Directly below Quake Lake the river roars into 5 long miles of Class V whitewater with steep gradients and large boulders along the way. As the rapids decline, the magic begins. For the next 53 miles, often referred to as the 50 Mile Riffle, the cold river runs north and the fish jump high. Annual runs of spawning trout make their way from Hebgen Lake, rainbows in the spring and browns in the fall. Known the world over for its “hard fighting” trout, it’s not unusual to pull a 25” brown from these upper waters. In deference to the purists and fly-fishing enthusiasts, it’s wading only from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge. Boats may be used to access the river, but if you’re going to fish, your feet must be on the riverbed. Fortunately, the Hebgen Dam releases water throughout the year, leveling its flows and relieving it of spring runoff issues and summer shrinkage.

Lower Madison – Ennis Lakes to Three Forks
A short section of the river between Ennis Dam and the power station maintains relatively low water levels and provides wonderful opportunities for wading. Past the power station the river regains its muscle and for 7 miles winds through Bear Trap Canyon. Hiking trails offer the only entry, great for those that like to walk and seek the solitude of a designated wilderness area. Floating is permitted but requires a lengthy shuttle and the ability to work through Class III-IV whitewater. Once out of the canyon the river flows in shallow riffles until it reaches Three Forks and joins the Missouri. From Warm Springs to Greycliff, the river is easily accessible for drifters and wading.
/ Boat
1 - 2 anglers
1 day
Are you sick of throwing bobbers and wanna try something new? Already throw dry flies but would like to hone your skills? Pretty darn good just want to be pointed in the right direction ... moreand given some bug recommendations but also there with a net when you need it? We can accommodate all skill levels on our dry fly only trips. We can explain how, what and where to fish something that doesn't look like a dodgeball at the top of your leader :) *The location of this trip will be decided by the guide based on the quality of dry fly fishing on his last few trips. Montana fishing at its finest.
/ Boat
1 - 2 anglers
3 days
Experience the Madison River Like Never Before Learn the best spots on the Madison River with 3 great fishing days with Red Mountain Adventures. Eric Shores, with over 35 years of ... moreexperiencing guiding on the Madison River will take you down a journey of the best places to fish.

The journey starts on the Upper Madison River on a guided float trip covering about 8-11 miles of premier fly fishing water. The following day includes a recipe (location flies, and technique) on a do it yourself wade location near the fly fishing town of Ennis. The third day moves you on to where the Madison River dumps into Ennis Lake for a full float day stalking the giants.

Note: The order or location may change based on where the best spots are at the time.
/ Boat
2 anglers
4 hours - 1 day
The Madison River is our home stream, so we specialize in guiding on this great river. We cater to anglers of all skill levels, from beginner fly fishermen looking to catch that first ... moretrout on a fly, to the seasoned angler seeking a veteran Montana fishing guide who knows these waters like the back of their hand. Our experienced guides will work hard to help you have a first-rate Montana fly fishing experience.
What do you think of when you hear "Montana?" Small towns? Cowboys? Cows? BIG TROUT?! The answer is D, "All of the above"! Montana is still the place it was 80 years ago, where a man's ... morehandshake means something and big trout thrive. Located in the "Trout Mecca" of Southwestern Montana, our location and our guide's experience allow us to guide on a number of world class rivers; the Madison, Jefferson, Ruby and Yellowstone rivers are arguably the best trout streams in the lower 48.

Whether you have never held a fishing pole in your life or if you've been fishing since you could walk, the versatile, select guides we employee at MFFT all live on, and spend all they're free time on, these select rivers. They know how satisfy ALL of our clients, from novice to pro.

But Montana is so much more than just a trout haven. With picturesque mountains, abundant wildlife and under a million people, you actually have to try to not enjoy our beautiful state. As longtime client and friend Don Patton once wrote me after a trip, "fish count is only one criteria, there are many more markers for success. We hit them all." Here at MFFT we strive to give our clients much more than just a fishing trip, we want to share our passion for fishing and our love of Montana with all of our guests and new friends.

Charles P. Graham

Owner-Montana Fly Fishing Trips

Montana Fishing Outfitter#10349


Charlies P. Graham

As owner of Montana Fly Fishing Trips, I feel honored to be an Outfitter in Southwestern Montana and a member of the Ennis community. I was born in Billings, Mt and had a rod in my hand, literally, as soon as I was born. I started fishing around the age of 13 in Colorado and moved back to Montana as soon as I learned to row a boat. I enrolled at Montana State and was lucky enough to be given a guiding position as soon as I arrived. When I first started out, I worked and rowed as hard as I could to make a name for myself. I do the same thing 15 years later, no longer to make a name for myself but to give my clients the trip that they deserve.
Everyone has different expectations for their special float trip and I will do my best to ensure that we succeed in either meeting or exceeding those expectations...However, any day you can be floating down the river instead of sitting behind a desk is a successful day!


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