what makes nymph patterns effective
Trout Flies

What Makes Nymph Patterns Effective?

Over the years (? centuries), what makes nymph patterns effective has been a moving target in the minds of anglers. G.E.M. Skues, generally regarded as the “father of nymphing”, incorporated the elements of dry fly imitations in his initial patterns. In his 1921 book, “The Way of a Trout With a Fly“, he described the size and shape of the hook, a non-Limerick, and tied an abdomen that was thin and translucent. The thorax was thick, buttressing a soft hackle imitation of legs. Thus the elements of size, shape, and color were all incorporated in his patterns to imitate or resemble the natural nymphs. Below is a picture of one of his nymph patterns.

what makes nymph patterns effective
the Skues nymph, taken from “The Way of a Trout With a Fly”

Over the next several decades, there was very little change in the approach to nymph patterns. In his 1958 book, “Nymphs and the Trout“, famous English ghillie Frank Sawyer described how to tie and fish the Sawyer Nymph, better known today as the pheasant tail nymph. He began to add a bit of weight, using wire wraps, and fished it deeper in the water column. Skues, fishing unweighted nymphs, was actually fishing the film, imitating emerging nymphs during a hatch. Sawyer attributed the effectiveness of his nymph to the fact that it resembled a number of different mayfly nymphs found in the English chalk streams. Thus the emphasis on imitation continued.

what makes nymph patterns effective
the Sawyer Nymph, taken from “Nymphs and the Trout”

In 1993, Coloradan John Barr introduced the Copper John. He used 2 goose biots for the tail, and wrapped copper wire over the hook shank up to a bead head. The thorax was finished with peacock herl. The Copper John and its many variations consistently catch trout yet today. But Barr, deviating from previous innovators, attributed his fly’s effectiveness to its ability to get down in the water column to where trout mostly feed. My variant of the Copper John, seen below, is my favorite nymph pattern.

Tying the SB Beadhead Nymph
SB Beadhead Nymph

In recent years, Barr’s concept has been carried even further in the perdigon nymph patterns used by most international competitors. This pattern sinks like a piece of lead, actually tungsten. But in my view, it lacks any semblance to a real nymph, with no moving parts to imitate gills or legs. Nonetheless, it is an extremely effective pattern.

what makes nymph patterns effective
a perdigon

Many perdigon patterns use a bit of orange or pink just behind the head. Does this bit of color trigger strikes? Some skeptics of the perdigon have gone so far as to fish with nothing but a hook and a colored beadhead. Even this catches fish, but why?

When I watch fish in aquariums, they pick up many nonfood items off the gravel bottom. They roll them about in their mouths for a second, and then spit them out. It seems that they are unable to identify food on a streamed by visual inspection alone, quite different from when they feed on the surface. Rather, they rely on their senses of touch and taste to differentiate food from nonfood. But why do they pick up detritus in the first place? Is it their innate curiosity? In the world of catch and release fishing, we have all had the experience of a new fly pattern being “the one”. But after a few seasons, it seems to lose some of its effectiveness. Has their curiosity been supplanted by experience?

So then, back to my original question, what makes nymph patterns effective? Rather than the fly itself, I suspect that it is most important to put the fly where the fish  feed, and to present it as naturally as possible. Beyond that, effective nymph patterns may require only a bit of flash or color to trigger a trout’s curiosity, which seems to then seal the deal!

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written by Al Simpson, 02/2024.

6 thoughts on “What Makes Nymph Patterns Effective?

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