In mid-October longtime British fishing champion and Hardy & Greys Ltd. Category Manager Game, Howard L. Croston demonstrated to 10 expert fly fishers why Europe leads the world in competitive nymph fishing. His techniques and equipment can help American nymph fishermen catch and release more trout. His instructions, offered October 22 at Jonas Price's The Feathered Hook, Ltd. flyshop in Coburn, PA, (on Penns Creek), and demonstrated Oct. 23 on Spring Creek near State College, have already made me a better nymph fisherman, and have set me on a mission to prove that I can more effectively fish flies below the surface, where trout find 90 percent of their food.
Over the past decade America has produced no top-three champions in the European competitive nymph-fishing events, though the American contestants have improved greatly in both their standings and their techniques. It's understandable: Few fly-fishing competitions exist in the U.S. and nymphing, has historically been low on the ladder of priorities (or skills) with American fly fishers, who overwhelmingly preferred dry-fly or streamer fishing in a noncompetitive environment. Thus no expert instruction in nymph fishing existed and true wide-scale and consistent nymphing success did not begin in the U.S. until the strike indicator was introduced to our waters by George Anderson writing in the April 1982 issue of Fly Fisherman. The rapid onset of strike-indicator fishing followed, to the success and joy of many newly arrived fly fishers, but to the chagrin of most experienced nymph fishers. They saw strike-indicator fishing as easy but mind-numbing, devoid of technique and a dead-end cul de sac in learning the many complex arts and techniques of the complete fly fisher.
That's history. Many fly fishers who prefer the ease of strike indicators will continue to enjoy themselves catching many trout. But now that the Europeans have showed the way to perhaps the most highly technical trout nymph-fishing in the world, Americans are finding new challenges that may prove what veteran nymph anglers have said all along: "Nymph fishing requires more skill than dry-fly fishing." The great British nymphing pioneer and master G.E.M Skues (Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, 1910) would agree.
In his teaching Oct. 22 Croston explained that the European youth fishing clubs and competitions are producing very skillful youths (especially in France) who rapidly work their way up to the highest championship levels in the competitions. No highly organized fly-fishing youth affinity-group clubs or competitions exist in North America to our knowledge.
Does competition fit into the American culture of fly fishing? Fly Fisherman magazine has not reported on the world or European competitive events since they began back in the late '80s, simply because fishing competitions were shunned by fly fishers, who generally viewed them as the realm of bass fishers.
Things are changing. The annual One Fly competition in Jackson, Wyoming, which had its birth in the 1980s, thanks in part to Jack Dennis, had as its mission the restoration and conservation of Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the Snake River drainages, particularly through spawning habitat restorations. The competition proved to be so popular (and profitable in a nonprofit way) that other conservations groups and clubs around the U.S. and Canada initiated fund-raising one-fly contests under different names. Competition became more acceptable, albeit in a relaxed social setting.
During the same period ('80s and '90s) Americans and Canadians began attending the European fly-fishing competitions (and regularly getting their clocks cleaned). But with each competition they learned new techniques of nymph and wet-fly fishing on waters from still to freestone, from Czechoslovakia to the British Isles and New Zealand, and they brought them back to North America, where they practiced and wrote about them. Their experience and the wealth of knowledge they brought back to our waters have provided the inspiration for a new generation of American nymph fishers. Czech and French nymphing styles (combined into "Euro Nymphing" technique) is now the standard of nymphing in the world of fly fishing. Younger American fly fishers in particular are finding it the wave of the future, and competitive fly fishing is quickly gaining acceptance in North America. Can youth leagues be far behind?
Howard Croston is the consummate competitive nymph angler, in effect a sharp-eyed, fast-moving pink bunny onstream. His skill at spotting fish in skinny water (the domain of French style nymphing) is astonishing. As he explains it, he cannot afford to waste time since winning in competition means catching (and releasing) as many as 80 small-to-medium size trout per day. His rods and rigs are the ticket to his success. They consist of the right Czech- (10-foot, 4-wgt.) and French-style (11-foot, 3-wgt.) nymphing rods (Hardy, of course), armed with specialty 12- to 16-foot custom-tapered leaders, with tippets to 6X (though he does not us X-ratings as unreliable, preferring diameter measurements in millimeters and his own tested breaking strength--monofilament, not fluorocarbon), with a two-colored "striker" built into the leader below the line/leader connection and with two droppers (where legal) off the leader. (Croston uses the knotless epoxy leader splice favored by Dave Whitlock to join his leader butt into the line to avoid nail-knot snags at the rod tip-top.) He rebalances his nymph rig often to fit each current and depth, one rig with the heaviest nymph on the point and another with the heaviest (anchor) nymph at the top. Each configuration is designed to create the best drag-free drift of the three nymphs along the bottom.
Croston's "slinky", or "curlicue" floating strike indicator is tightly curled for some of his fishing and more openly curled for other fishing conditions. He makes the slinky by wrapping his colored tippet monofilament around slim tubing (secured to needles penetrating each end) then curing it in the freezer overnight to allow the curlicues to set. He greases the curlicue so it floats high on the surface film to provide easily spotted strike detection in shallow-water nymphing. (See also George Randall's curlicue techniques in the Feb/March issue of fly fisherman, on sale Jan. 1.)
Croston always wears soccer shank-length knee pads so he can kneel in approaching trout in shallow water and for deeper-water Czech or combined Czech/French, "Euro nymphing." In French thin-water nymphing he uses hard, slim-profile nymphs tied Czech style (to slice easily through the water column), but with tiny tungsten beads invisible inside the body. He balances and rebalances his three-fly rigs--to get just the right drift balance for each flow speed and depth. The flies are designed to sink quickly to bottom when cast up or a cross-stream in water below knee deep. His casts are upstream or across and slightly upstream and all his drifts are followed at the bottom of the swing with a slight hook-set, since many of his strikes occur there.
Croston's casts in deeper-water Czech and Euro nymphing are across and slightly upstream (not 45 degrees) so that his more heavily weighted nymphs can quickly sink to bottom and drift roughly parallel and without drag (the key to both Czech- and French-style nymphing). He points out that the Czechs and French discovered early on that the current flows much more slowly at the bottom of the water column than at the surface due to friction. A standard strike indicator floats so fast along the surface that it drags the slower-moving nymph below, causing trout refusals. Getting the nymphs to drift without drag is the key to this fly presentation. Greasing the leader and curlicue to make both float properly is also a key to this presentation.
Editor's notes. Croston's leaders are hand-tied using knots (no tiny tippet rings now commonly used by noncompetitive fly fishers) he ties in seconds. His fly boxes are jambed tightly and neatly with hundreds of nymph imitations, ranging from Czech, to French, Polish, and English, a broad international smorgasbord of offerings. Jonas Price says the materials and instructions for tying Croston's leaders will be available shortly at The Feathered Hook (www.thefeatheredhook.com), including tippet rings, curlicues, Czech-style nymphs and as the Hardy Streamflex XF2 line of 17 trout 10- and 11- foot light-line rods. See also www.hardygreys.com, Google Howard L. Croston for his competition achievements. Also read Lance Eagan's "Euro Nymphing" in the FFM 2012 Gear Guide. If you visit The Feathered Hook, make sure you also visit Jim Downes bamboo rod shop directly behind the flyshop, part of Jonas Price's operation (JimDownes@verizon.net). The Feathered Hook will be offering onstream seminars on Euro nymphing next season.