Call it Euro, Czech, Polish, or short-line nymphing—no matter what tag you apply to it, the concepts are the same. Suspension nymphing with a buoyant indicator has an inherent fatal flaw in that the indicator moves at the surface speed, while the “feeding water” near the bottom of the stream flows much more slowly. An indicator drifting at the surface therefore drags the flies unnaturally.
Competition anglers from Poland and the Czech Republic solved this problem by using a short, thin leader and weighted flies. They kept the flies close, and fished them on a tight line using direct contact with the weighted flies to lead the flies through a drift and feel the faintest pickup. This technique is still amazingly successful, although the rigging has been modified as fly fishers continually find new ways to improve the efficiency of the tactics.
While this type of nymphing had its roots in competitive fishing—as did the double haul and beadhead nymphs—the technique has been widely adopted in North America, so much so in fact, that most major fly rod manufacturers have recently introduced specialty rods exclusively for the purpose of Euro nymphing.
Where it Works
Euro nymphing is best in rivers or streams small enough to wade. Anywhere you can get within 40 feet of the fish is ideal. When I first experimented with the technique, I found it only effective on waters where I could get away with large nymphs (#8–12). Now that I have a better understanding of long leaders, and how a well-designed leader can increase contact and the sink rate of the flies, I use Euro techniques everywhere I fish, even on picky tailwater trout with #16-22 flies.
My “breakthrough” rivers were close to home. The Provo and Weber rivers, which are both within an hour of my home, provided the best testing grounds for the techniques. Both rivers are small enough to cross at regular flows. Rivers this size allow you to approach the water from many angles and get close to the best holding water. Euro nymphing is now my go-to technique for subsurface trout in rivers of any size. I’ve used the tactic as far away as New Zealand and Lapland (Finland), and as close to home as the Green, Logan, Ogden, Provo, Weber, South Fork of the Snake, Henry’s Fork, Boise, Big Wood, Gallatin, Madison, Deschutes, Crooked, Metolius, South Platte, Roaring Fork, Fryingpan, Big Thompson, Poudre, Arkansas, White, Blue, Colorado, Eagle, San Juan, Nantahala, Ravens Fork, Tuckasegee, Penns Creek, Spring Creek, Little Juniata . . . you get the picture. It works everywhere.
If you normally use indicators, and want to give Euro nymphing a go, leave the split-shot and indicators home. This forces you to make Euro techniques work. Remember that, like most new techniques, it takes some practice.
Nowadays there are several variations of the original technique. Generally speaking, the biggest differences between the two major styles are leader design and the weight of the flies. Polish- or Czech-style short-line nymphing was the earliest technique. Anglers from France and Spain then adapted these weighted-fly techniques to their relatively shallow, clear streams, and long-line tactics—with dense yet lightly weighted flies—were born. Most fly fishers today use both styles, and decide which setup is most efficient based on current local water conditions. [See George Daniel’s story “Nymphing Skinny Water” in the upcoming Feb-Mar 2012 issue for details on the latter technique. The Editor.]
Euro nymphing is incredibly effective due to several factors. First, the techniques allow you present nymphs at feeding speed. Water near the bottom of a river is moving much slower than the water near the surface because the rocks, logs, and depressions along the bottom all slow the stream flow. This buffer of slow water is a sanctuary for trout where they can use less energy and feed on the drifting subsurface food items passing by.
Trout see drifting nymphs traveling at the slowed current speed of the riverbed all their lives, and are conditioned to see food moving at this pace. When we present flies near the bottom that are being towed by a strike indicator floating on the surface—and are drifting at the speed of surface water—we have created an unnatural drift.
While Euro nymphing, the flies are not influenced as much by the surface currents since the rigging doesn’t include a floating strike indicator. Instead of a floating indicator you use a “sighter,” which is a visual aid you hold above the water. The thin tippet between the sighter and the flies cuts through the surface water, allowing the flies to move naturally along the bottom. You often see the surface current moving twice as fast as your sighter. When this happens, you know your flies are down in the slower layer of water near the bottom, and your flies are moving at the correct feeding speed.
Euro nymphing also significantly improves contact with the flies. When nymphing with split-shot or other weight added to the leader, you are in contact with the weight, but the flies can be up or downstream of the weight, and there is often slack between the flies and the weight, creating poor contact and an inability to detect strikes.
European methods use weighted flies without split-shot, which make the nymphs the densest part of the rig. This puts you in direct contact with the flies, allowing you to feel and see many more strikes.
Euro nymphing casts are usually short, and most of the time you don’t have any fly line contacting the water. Fly line has a lot of mass compared to a leader and tippet. If you have slack fly line on the water, it can tow your flies just as easily as an indicator. Also, slack fly line on the water reduces contact with your flies and your ability to detect strikes.
Keep your rod high, and “walk” those flies through the slow water along the bottom. With a short line and positive contact with your flies, you’ll find it easier to set the hook, since there’s no slack line to take up.
This technique works best at close range. Most casts are within 30 feet, and in some larger rivers you may have to wade a little more than you’re used to. Make your cast and allow the flies to descend to the stream bottom. Maintain contact with the flies by holding your rod high (a 10-foot rod helps with this) and watch your colored sighter to detect strikes, and to let you know how fast to lead the rig with your rod tip. When you detect a strike, a quick flick of the wrist sets the hook on the fish.
It’s worth noting that many takes while indicator nymphing happen near the end of a long drift. This usually means you hook a fish that is downstream, creating the worst possible angle, and accounting for many lost fish.
Euro nymphing produces most of the strikes up- or across-stream which results in a positive angle to fight fish, and more hooked fish make it to the net.
A Euro rig allows you to fish several water types with a quick change of flies. By adapting the weight of the flies you can use the same rig to fish shallow, deep, slow, or fast water. Compare this to the adding or removing of split-shot, and constant adjusting of the strike indicator you must perform while indicator nymphing.
A Euro rig is quicker to adapt and allows you to fish much shallower water than an indicator. The Euro setup doesn’t have a floating indicator, which can scare fish when it lands and drifts in shallow water. Shallow water is easy to fish with a Euro setup. Lighten up the flies and keep contact. Instead we again watch the colored sighter, which is above the water, and much less likely to spook fish.
European nymphing increases your efficiency and makes it easy to adapt to various water types. It’s enjoyable to learn a new technique, and even more fun to hone and perfect it once you’ve mastered the basics. It also adds one more arrow to your quiver of techniques.
Lance Egan lives in Lehi, Utah, and is a nine-time member of Fly Fishing Team USA.