Nymphing versus dry fly fishing on the Roaring Fork River

Many beginner anglers have a romantic notion of fly fishing that involves whipping your flies around above your head and delicately dropping a dry fly in front of a fish feeding on the top of the water. Whether you’ve watched A River Runs Through It or any other of the countless depictions of fly fishing in cinema, it’s easy to understand why. But the reality for most beginner anglers is that fly fishing takes on a slightly different form for a variety of reasons. I’ll talk through why that is and the basics of the most common type of fly fishing guides utilize with beginner clients on the Roaring Fork.


“Nymphing” versus dry fly fishing

matt-andrew-nymphingBefore I jump into the basics of nymph fishing, it probably makes sense to explain the difference between these two types of fly fishing and why each serve an important role in the sport. To do so, it’s important to understand the life cycle of most bugs within a river. Most bugs spend the overwhelming majority of their life under water, in what we commonly refer to as their larva and then pupa phase. In most instances, these bugs attach themselves to rocks, sticks and other debris under the water, where they anchor until it’s time for them to begin their pupa phase of life where they begin to ascend the water in order to reach the top. During this larva phase, however, the water current and other disturbances (like anglers walking through the river), cause the bugs to get loose and start tumbling down the river. Trout position themselves facing up river, constantly on a look out for these tiny bugs making their way down the river, moving as little as possible to gobble up these healthy snacks. I often try to take beginner anglers to places where you can actually watch this unfold. Many places on the Roaring Fork don’t allow for sight fishing, or the ability to actually see the fish you are casting to. But when wading in areas where fish are visible, I always encourage people to watch the fish so you can observe what they are doing. For me, it helps connect the hows and whys in a way that makes fishing both more productive and more fun.

So when we are talking about ‘nymph’ fishing, what we’re doing is emulating the sub-surface food sources that are present for trout all year long. The dry fly fishing you’re probably accustomed to is mimicking that next phase in a bug’s life, where it reaches the water’s surface and dries out its wings before completing its life cycle by procreating and then perishing.


Why is nymphing so prevalent on the Roaring Fork amongst guides?

There’s a couple of reasons that 90+% of guides have their clients nymphing instead of dry fly fishing (or streamer fishing). First and foremost is that it’s highly effective. One of the reasons the Roaring Fork River is such a popular fly fishing destination is the extremely healthy population of trout the river supports. That’s only possible because of the massive amount of food present in the river. So for our trout, they spend the majority of their time feeding sub-surface. So it make sense that you want to imitate the most common food source our trout are gorging on.


But the second reason is that teaching someone to nymph is easier than teaching someone how to effectively dry fly fish. Nymphing allows you to break down the actual casting part of fly fishing into some very simple actions that minimize the complexity of getting your flies in front of fish, which when you boil everything down is the key challenge with fly fishing. Instead of wildly swinging line and flies above your head, where the chances for tangling your line increase with each cast and wind gust, nymphing allows you to keep your flies in the water and gently place the line in front of the fish. That’s not to say you won’t deal with some tangled lines and lost flies…you will. But by breaking things down into a couple of easy steps, a guide is much more likely to put a beginner angler on fish, allowing the client to enjoy a day of fishing on the Roaring Fork River.


So what does nymph fishing entail?

I’ll go into the basics of nymph fishing in another post, but for the purposes of at least giving you an idea of what to expect, here’s what your set-up for nymph fly fishing will look something like:


(image courtesy of https://troutsflyfishing.com/info/blog/post/how-to-build-a-rocky-mountain-nymph-rig)

Looking at the diagram above, essentially you’ll have a bobber (but in fly fishing, we’re snobs so we call it an ‘indicator’), then a few feet of line, then you’ll place some split shot (tiny weight) on your line, then below that your first nymph fly, then run additional tippet (fly fishing line) to your next nymph fly.

The idea here is to make sure you have enough weight on your line such that the flies are able to quickly get down to where the fish are feeding (but not too much weight to where they are constantly getting stuck on the bottom), then give the fish a couple of different food sources to look at. Once you’ve made your cast, your flies will sink down below the surface of the water and your indicator will be drifting along the surface. Should your indicator go under water, you’ve either got a fish on one of your flies or you’re snagged on a rock or stick on the bottom of the river. You’ll know pretty quickly which is the case, as you’ll see the fish flash in the water as it realizes it’s got something sharp in its lip (at which point your heart rate will skyrocket and you’ll experience the adrenaline rush so many of us seek on the water!).