Setting the Hook for Nymph Fishing

What is the best way to set the hook when fly fishing nymphs? I have been an advocate of the “side pull” approach. A Montana fly fishing guide first suggested it to me. He pointed out that lifting my fly rod — pulling it straight up — could yank the nymph out of the trout’s mouth. Better to do a “side pull” in the direction of the current.

Since trout are facing the current, pulling the rod to the side in a downstream direction take the nymph into the trout’s mouth. He was right. Some of the time.

Surface Tension

The “side pull” approach makes perfect sense. But it has one big problem: surface tension.

Suppose you get a nice long drift so that your strike indicator bobs when it is twenty feet downstream. Try yanking your rod to the downstream side. Since your fly line will be floating on the surface, pulling it to the side requires it to fight through surface tension. If you’ve ever tried running through three feet of water, you can appreciate what your fly line faces as it skims through the surface or even the film.

There is too much resistance for a quick, effective hook set.

The Quick Lift

The solution is to go with “the quick lift.” Simply lift your rod tip. That is, go with your instincts and pull up on your rod.

When you do this, it’s remarkable how quickly the rod will lift your line off of the surface of the water. Try this sometime when you don’t have a fish trying to ingest your nymph, and you will be amazed at what you see. As soon as your fly line lifts off of the water and the surface tension is gone, your strike indicator will lurch towards you. That gives you an indication what happens when a trout has taken your fly.

You will get a solid hook-set.

I suppose you still might run the risk of pulling the fly out of the trout’s mouth. But the “side pull” method is so slow that your hook set will probably be useless. If the trout has hooked itself, you’re fine. But if not, it can spit out the fly before the gets pulled into the side of the trout’s mouth. Even then, the hook set will lack in force because of the resistance you’re facing from the surface tension. Alright, enough with the physics lesson.

I think you get the idea.

Madison River Monsters

My pod-cast partner, Dave, and I used the “quick lift” technique effectively on a day we recently spent on the Madison River right outside Yellowstone National Park. We were fishing for the big “runners” which come out of Hebgen Lake for fall spawning. Without exception, every trout we hooked was 15-25 feet below us. Rather than fighting the surface tension with a “side pull,” we used a quick lift. I do not have lightning-quick reflexes at age 55, but most strikes resulted in hooking fish.

The Exception for Setting the Hook

There is a situation when I still use the “side pull” approach when fly fishing nymphs. It works under two conditions:

First, the strike has to take place above me (upstream) or right in front of me.

Second, the run I’m fishing has to be less than twelve feet in front of me. This enables me to keep little or no line on the surface as long as I keep my rod tip high. Without any resistance, a pull to the side in a downstream direction works quite well.

Once your indicator gets past you, though, forget the sideways pull when you get a strike. It’s too awkward, and there will be too much drag. Instead, go for the quick lift.

You’ll be pleased with the results.

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3 thoughts on “Setting the Hook for Nymph Fishing

  1. I’m probably not the best person to give advice on how to set the hook when nymph fishing but I’ll say the slow lift method worked for me . Early in the season that is a bit hard for me to do . I usually get to excited when I feel the hit and pull back to fast and hard breaking my tippet . As the season goes on I learn to correct my mistake and control my excitement.

    • Thanks, David. All I can say about breaking your tippet is … been there, done that! You’re right, slowing things down can be beneficial. The trout that slowly take a nymph don’t seem to be in too big a hurry to spit it out if it doesn’t “taste” right immediately. At least that’s been my experience.

  2. I’d never heard of it as “side pull”. I’ve always heard it called “setting downstream”. I’m glad you threw in the last paragraph, but I think that describes the exact circumstance where this method was intended — Casting upstream, keeping rod tip high, and then retrieve and re-casting when the line gets about parallel to you in the river. You can only “set downstream” when you are downstream from the fish. The other thing is each time you do your retrieve, practice “setting downstream” as if you are setting the hook. Great practice, and builds muscle memory.