Al Campbell, Field Editor

February 11th, 2002

Discover Nymphs the Easy Way
By Al Campbell

I'm confused. My wife says that's a permanent thing with me, but she always says things like that. However, this one has nagged at me for a long time (the problem, not the wife). My problem or source of confusion is the apparent fear of water a lot of fly fishers have. Or, maybe it's a fear of insects? You be the judge.

The fastest way I know to determine what the fish are feeding on is to investigate their dinner plate. By that I mean, what types of food are floating past the fish. If you don't know what the fish are seeing, you won't have a clue about what flies they might be feeding on. Of course, you could just change flies until you find something that works, but that's like shooting blindly into the forest in hopes that you'll eventually fill your deer tag. The results are far from superior.

Last week a customer asked what size the stonefly nymphs were running in a local stream. He went on to ask what color they were and if there were other nymphs he should be aware of. I suggested he try netting some of the nymphs when he went to the stream so he could match the naturals with a close imitation. You should have seen the look of horror on his face. You'd think I had asked him to sell his grandmother into slavery.

Friends, the best way to match the hatch is to catch one of those insects/nymphs and find a close match in your fly box. Using somebody's published hatch charts, asking the guy at the fly shop, or asking somebody who just had a poor fishing day what to use are poor ways to select the right fly for your fishing activities. Sure, they are better than blindly casting your offerings to the wind, but there is a much better way to get the job done.

There is a little used, almost unheard of, powerful tool called a nymph net. People are deathly afraid of those things. If you actually tell some fishermen that you use one of those tools, you'll get looks similar to the looks you get when you tell them you tip your nymphs with a piece of worm or marshmallow. I don't know what it is that creates that reaction, but those people are missing one of the greatest tools a fly fisher could possible have.

Running a nymph net is one of the easiest activities you'll ever participate in while gearing up for a fine day on the water. It only takes a few minutes to do, especially if you have a partner, and the critters you discover in that net will make fly selection a breeze. More important than that, about 50% of the time, you'll select killer flies that aren't on any hatch charts or lists supplied by the local fly shop. Even better, there will be times when you'll be clobbering the fish and the rest of the fishermen will be wondering what your secret is.

If you want some entertainment the next time you're on the water, try this little experiment. When some nosey guy approaches you and asks what fly you're using, hand him a nymph net and tell him you're using the fly that matches what you found in the net when you checked earlier that day. If he doesn't kill himself when he drops the net and backs away from you in a hurry, the look in his eyes will tell you that he's very frightened by your actions. As far as he's concerned, you just told him you believe in Santa Clause and are close personal friends with the guy. At least he won't bother you with any more questions; ever!

The story a nymph net tells you is a simple one. If you're a nymph fisherman, you'll quickly notice which nymphs are the most abundant and then you'll be able to match them with a close imitation from your fly box. If you fish dry flies exclusively, discovering the most abundant nymph will clue you in on the next hatch and give you some clues as to the size, species and shade of the adult. Even if your insect knowledge is near zero, you'll be better at selecting the right dry fly if you know whether the nymphs are light or dark, and you can determine the approximate size that the adult will be. An insect guide like the pocket sized streamside guide from Orvis is helpful since it shows color pictures of the nymph and the corresponding adult with size suggestions. Just match the nymph to the picture and select your flies accordingly.

The guys who manufacture nymph nets also sell another nice tool. Little bottles you can place your captured insects in for observation and maybe preservation for later use are available wherever nymph nets are sold. If you want to preserve the insect for later use, just fill the bottle with rubbing alcohol. I have a fairly extensive collection of those filled bottles next to my fly tying bench. I believe I tie better flies because of it.

Although the instructions for using a nymph net are complex, I'm going to take the time to list them here. Here goes:

    1. Place the net in the water so that anything drifting in the water can be caught by the net.

    2. Wait for a while.

    3. If you have a partner, you might ask your partner to sift the bottom a little with their feet (upstream from the net, of course). Called the 'San Juan' shuffle, it is not allowed in some places. As always check local regulations when fishing anywhere.

    4. Remove the net from the water.

    5. Look to see what's in the net.

    6. Match the "hatch" with something in your fly box.

Quick Seine
You can buy a nymph net commercially, or you can build your own. If you elect to buy your own, JW Outfitters (a sponsor here) and a company called Wind River sell complete aquatic bug collecting supplies. You can contact JW Outfitters through the sponsor's section. You can buy Wind River supplies at this web site: If you want to make your own, simply staple some window screen between two heavy wooden dowels. Small nets which attach to your landing net are also available, check a Product Review here for Quick-Seine.

Considering the response I've had when I used my nymph net in public, you might want to buy a ski mast to hide your identity. Do nymphs really exist, or are they just a fable designed to trick new fly-fishers into performing strange acts in the water? ( I guess that would be like snipe hunting?) Yes, my friends, there are nymphs in the water; and they can be observed by using a nymph net the next time you visit the water. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns
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