Written by: Rowan Nyman
Rowan Nyman is a guide at Firehole Ranch in West Yellowstone, Montana. Known for spending over 280 days a year fishing and tying an average of 2,000 flies a winter, he’s been dedicated to fly fishing the waters of Yellowstone Country for more than 20 years. So when he suggests a fly, you listen. Below are Rowan’s choices for the Top 10 nymphs you’ll need for a visit to the region. If you’re planning a trip to the waters of northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana, or eastern Idaho this summer, don’t leave home without these patterns.
Nymphing the rivers of the Yellowstone region is a fantastic way to stay productive, regardless of weather, water conditions, or time of year. Since trout spend most of their lives feeding on bugs (and other assorted aquatic creatures) near the bottom of the river, it only makes sense to take advantage of this fact. A savvy angler will spend a fair amount of time going subsurface and getting nymph imitations on the bottom, free-rolling them in the current to waiting trout. Here are the Top 10 nymphs I would be tying right now:
10. Rubber-Leg Stonefly Nymph, sizes 8 or 10. This simple yet deadly nymph goes by a variety of names, but the basic guts of this fly are the same. I would tie this fly in black, with black rubber legs. Simple, straightforward, and amazingly accurate to way the naturals look in the water. Furthermore, since stoneflies are present in almost all our rivers year round, this is an excellent choice anytime, anywhere. If you wanted a second good color choice, substitute the black chenille body with a brown/orange variegated chenille, and change the legs to brown Silli Legs. It’s a subtle shift, but noticeable, and often that can spell the difference.
9. Pheasant Tail Nymph, size 16 through 18. A slam dunk anywhere, this pattern accurately represents mayfly nymphs, with its slim profile. I love this pattern with a beadhead and a flashback. But the original makeup has proven deadly for decades. Pheasant Tails are excellent representations of pale morning duns, Epeorus, Callibaetis, Heptagenia, mahogany duns, and Flavs. An added bonus to tying the original without a bead is that it can be fished in the surface film to represent an emerging mayfly. There are lots of reasons to have this fly in your box!
8. BBB PT Emerger, size 14. Colorado fishing guide and all-around good guy Billy “Bob” Berger came up with this cross between two other flies on this list to create a magical little nymph. Basically, this is a Pheasant Tail with a gold bead and a wingcase of white synthetic yarn. It’s agreat imitation of both slim mayflies such as PMD’s and slim stoneflies such as yellow sallies.
7. Baetis Thin Mint, size 20. Ouch, talk about tiny. This little nymph can be a game-changer though, and even though it still amazes me, trout often look exclusively for very small offerings. The Baetis thin mint, imitates…uh, well, Baetis. Baetis or Blue Winged Olives predominate in every trout stream in the greater Yellowstone region and are incredibly important from mid-August onwards. As the larger and more flashy glory bugs of summer dwindle away, Baetis come on strong in staggering numbers. Some of the most consistent nymphing I have ever had on the Madison has been on cloudy days in late August and September, with this little fly taking point.
6. Copper John, size 16. Wow, this fly stormed onto the scene over a decade ago and has lost none of its fish catching power. A blend of two classics—the Pheasant Tail and the Brassie—the Copper John has become the Yellowstone nympher’s go-to dropper. There may not be a better nymph to dangle off the back of a dry fly than this little killer.
5. Hare’s Ear Nymph, sizes 14 and 16. The Hare’s Ear catches trout worldwide, so it goes without saying too much that it is standard in the fly box of every nympher who fishes the Yellowstone region. Tied lightly weighted and very sparse, this rough dubbed nymph can be taken for just about anything that a trout might find to eat. Slowly crawl this fly in the shallow margins of Hebgen, Yellowstone, Quake, Grebe, or Trout Lake and prepare to tighten down your drag.
4. Crystal Serendipity, size 16. This fly couldn’t be much simpler, but its effectiveness has been proven without a doubt. Tied on either a curved- or straight-shank hook, the body is composed of pearlescent Krystal Flash, wound thin, along the length of the shank. A quick head/wingcase of deer hair trimmed short, and you are ready to rock ’n’ roll. I add a very thin gold wire rib, reversed wrapped over the crystal flash. Why? For no other reason than this fly’s durability is its only weakness, and the wire will last a few more fish than it would without it.
3. San Juan Worm, size 10. Ouch! Talk about a fly that is embroiled in useless controversy. Whether you fish this pattern or not, it is without dispute that this fly simply works. About the only time this fly loses some of its effectiveness is when there is a plethora of insects emerging, taking the fish’s attention away from a high-calorie food source such as worms. Quantity vs. quality! Aquatic worms exist in just about every river system, and the trout know it. The imitation is a slam dunk copy of the naturals that the fish are eating. The classic red color is my go to worm, but I do tie them in brown and pink as well. All hail the SJW.
2. The Shop Vac, size 16. Without a doubt, this fly catches more fish for me year in and year out for almost 20 years now. It would be my number one if we were talking about flies that work in the Yellowstone region year-round, but since we are concentrating on the summer months, it slides to the number two position. That fact does not diminish its effectiveness during the summer, however. Frequently the Shop Vac and the the number 1 fly (below) is a deadly combination for a two-nymph rig that I use all summer long, from the Madison to the Yellowstone and on the Henry’s Fork. I am not quite sure what the Shop Vac represents—a midge pupa, cranefly larva, Baetis nymph, caddisfly larva, or something else that only the fish know. The Shop Vac also makes a fantastic dropper off a dry fly.
1. $3 Bridge Serendipity, size 16. The Madison is famous for many things in the fly-fishing world, but one of the flies made famous in its boulder-strewn riffles was the Serendipity. As with anything of legend, there are as many versions of who, where, when, why, and how the Serendipity came to be, but to fish the Madison without a Serendipity is like eating a hot dog without mustard. Over the years, the pattern has changed form, color, shape, and context, as fly tiers looked for their own unique fly-tying identity in the fly. Some have proven to be winners (such as the Crystal Dip), while others have been relegated to moth-covered plastic cups in the back stock of fly-shop inventory purgatory. This version, from master guide and fly tier Nick Nicklas, turned out to be better than the original, by a long shot! Simple and extremely effective, fishing our Yellowstone region without a stash of these nymphs would be highly unadvisable. I will guarantee that when I am nymph fishing the Madison with a two-fly nymph rig, the $3 Bridge Serendipity is always one of the flies, regardless of what the second might be.