Recently, I received a comment on RiverKeeper Flies asking my opinion about how to fish unweighted nymphs. “How do I keep these small flies on the bottom?” I thought it was a great question and guess what…it turned into today’s post!

I’m in Maui writing my post today and thought it was appropriate to add a picture of a fish outside my door. No, it isn’t one of the Humpback whales jumping out of the water…

Koi |

I fish nymphs when I don’t see fish actively rising. Most of the time, that means the fish are close to the bottom feeding on anything in the “drift”…insects floating with the current.

In order to have any chance at all of hooking and landing fish, the fly fisher must present flies in the fish’s feeding lane. This is when nymph fishing is effective and perhaps the only method of catching fish that day.

I usually have only one fly rod with me and have it rigged with a long tapered leader to fish dry flies. (See my post – How to Make Your Fly Fishing Leader Last Longer)

There are several methods to effectively get your small nymphs close to the bottom and into the trout’s feeding lane.

The method I use most of the time is to tie on a heavy nymph on the end of my dry leader and attach an 18″ piece of leader with an improved clinch knot to the hook bend and then add a smaller fly. The reason to use this method is I’m able to easily change the smaller fly several times to find a small nymph that works. The con is the bottom fly is lighter and there is a tendency for some slack in the line and perhaps miss a few fish.

The technique described above works well for me because I can remove my dry fly and quickly add a two-nymph rig. (Manage Two Nymph Rigs)

Reverse the flies and the heavier nymph can bounce along the bottom while the lighter fly is higher in the water column. Just switching the flies can work, but if you’re fishing very small nymphs, it’s difficult to attach leader to the hook bend of a size 20 fly! An effective way to rig this method is to use a tippet ring at the end of your leader. Then tie your 18″ leader with the heavier nymph to the tippet ring. Lastly, use a 6 – 8″ leader tied to the tippet ring with a small nymph. This method allows very little slack and you’ll be able to feel the fish much better.

The Drop-Shot method is the last one I’ll discuss today. I don’t use it when cutting off my dry fly to attach some nymphs. This method works well if the main fly rod is set-up to fish nymphs…period. Or if you happen to take two fly rods with you – one rod with a dry fly ready to match the hatch and the other fly rod rigged for nymph fishing.

Here’s how it works.

Start with tapered leader, perhaps a Rio Indicator leader with a short orange butt, a level tippet to allow faster sink rate, and a heavy butt to help turn over an indicator. 

  • Cut off 24″ of the tippet end and immediately re-attach using a double or triple surgeon’s knot. Be sure to leave at least a 6 – 8″ tag on one end. Attach a fly to the tag.
  • You should have at least 20″ of tippet remaining. Tie on your other nymph and leave 6 – 8″ tag. Tie a couple of overhand knots at the bottom and attach one or two split shots. These weights bounce along the bottom.
  • If you change flies a lot, perhaps add a tippet ring when cutting off the first 24″. Use the tag or tie in another 6 – 8″ section for the first fly. Then attach the 20″ tippet like mentioned in the bullet above.

Regardless, you will be tying several knots each day when trying to find a fly the fish consistently eat!

These are the methods I use for how to fish unweighted nymphs. Do you have any other ideas?

Aloha…go fish!

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  1. I use the drop shot method quite a lot. However, I’m having a hard time keeping my dropper tags from twisting around the main leader when I use small, unweighted flies. With weighted flies, or even larger, unweighted flies, there’s not much of a problem. It’s when the fly has practically no weight. Is there a way to solve this problem?

    1. Thanks for leaving a Comment Alex.

      No, I haven’t found a way to solve that issue. It happens to me as well. Have you tried one size larger tippet for the tag?


  2. John,

    Not a reply/comment but a question. My wife is a recent breast cancer survivor and I was wondering if you are still conducting your survivor fly fishing workshops?

    Enjoy Maui; what a change from Sisters.



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