September 29, 2021
This article was originally titled "The Extra 5%" in the Aug-Sept 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Before we get into the bit that matters, namely refining your nymphing approach and setup to put more fish in the net, I think it’s only right to address the elephant in the room: the term “Euro nymphing.” If we’re being honest, that term is inaccurate because it attempts to lump many different techniques under one label. It is most often used to describe the latest refinements in fishing a long leader with a long rod, and maintaining tight fly contact through the drift to register a take, as opposed to relying on a separate suspension-type float to indicate strikes.
I admit that I’m guilty of using the term “Euro nymphing,” and I guess there’s really no harm in that, but I prefer the term “contact nymphing,” purely because it more accurately describes the primary advantage of the style. No doubt some anglers will take issue with that as well, since contact nymphing also accurately describes any number of regional variations, from short- and long-line Czech and Polish styles to long-leader Belgian, French, and Spanish styles. It’s those long-leader styles we will concentrate on here, and they are the most common methods that are branded as Euro nymphing.
The truth is that in the melting pot of European techniques—and I understand that even calling some of them “European” will ruffle feathers on this side of the pond—there has been so much cross-fertilization among small countries that share land borders, and hence similar fishing conditions, that it starts to become very difficult indeed to boil down who did what first. The good news, however, is that the fish do not care in the slightest what you call it, who invented it, or the accent of the person using it. This is fortunate because after recent political events in the U.K., I am technically no longer considered a European.
In competitive fly fishing, I am governed by certain rules that form my approach while contact nymphing, including a maximum leader length of no more than two rod lengths, no split-shot, no indicators, and a minimum distance between flies of 20 inches (50 cm). I also fish under pressure, which means that I need to fish in a way that generates the maximum number of accurate, high-quality, fish-fooling drifts and successfully convert them into measurable fish. I do all this in a timed session on a specific “beat,” often a place where someone else likely attempted to do the same thing earlier that same day.
As you can imagine, the average skill of the fly fishers at a world championship is high, which means the extra 5 percent in your contact nymphing game becomes imperative for success. It’s the difference between getting a medal and not getting a medal. When you are out fishing purely for your own satisfaction, it can make the difference between catching trout and not catching trout. In some instances, that extra 5 percent might earn you the biggest fish in the river.
Love it or hate it, the pressures of competition have forced refinement of every aspect of the nymphing game, and whether you choose to fish in competitions or not, you probably already use some of those refinements as part of your current nymphing strategies. It’s a safe bet that if you absorb one or two additional tactics from the competition world, you’ll continue to improve your onstream success.
How to Think Like a Trout
In evaluating your nymphing strategies, I encourage you to think about your contact nymphing game from the perspective of your target. In other words, concentrate on the factors that make a difference to the trout, and not the ones that make it easier for you as an angler.
Try to think of it like this: Everything that connects you to your fly is effectively a disadvantage. The tippet constrains and drags your fly as the current interacts with it. The weight of a lightly tapered butt section may assist you with casting accuracy, but it still creates sag between the rod tip and the fly that must be countered. Even the much-loved tippet ring is a weight point, and reduces the straight-line contact between you and your fly, but really adds nothing to the end goal other than making it easier for you to replace tippet.
All these minor compromises add up to what I like to think of as interference in your contact nymphing—and interference affects everything, from drift quality to take indication and setting the hook. By working to reduce this interference, you will inevitably improve your success rate. So let’s start at the pointy end and work back.
Euro Nymphing Flies
I have worked hard to boil down my fly choices to a combination of my own personal confidence flies, along with a few specific patterns that match certain hatches and other food items that fish often key on. My fly box likely holds familiar patterns and hook sizes, but I generally carry far more weights per fly pattern than other fly fishers do. Depending on the pattern and hook size, I sometimes have the same fly tied in six or seven different weights—mainly by bead increments, to a maximum of 3.8mm.
In that weight range, I also include unweighted, beadless versions. For many years I limited myself to three or four bead weights. But after spending time with some of the most consistent competitive fly fishers in the world, I realized that refining my drift even further was worth it. As with all things, it takes practice to master the nuances among the different weights, and to know when it’s appropriate to make an adjustment. The critical lesson here is that, at times, the right weight is everything, and the incremental difference between the right weight and the wrong weight is often just milligrams.
How to Choose Tippets
For tippet material, I carry both fluorocarbon and copolymer monofilament in diameters from 0.14mm to 0.08mm (5.5X to 8X) in every rounded increment. I also have a couple of spools of 0.18 and 0.21mm (4X and 3X) tippet stuffed away for heavy work or when I’m targeting large fish on jig streamers.
I always err on the side of caution and base my tippet selection on what I figure I can successfully get away with, based on how picky the fish are and how much stress the fish and the environment will put on my tippet. You don’t win any prizes for being constantly smashed or having to re-rig every few minutes.
This is related directly to the fly weight refinements I mentioned previously—better weight selection results in better drifts, fewer snags, and less wear on a fine tippet. As you learn to refine your rigging and fly weight selection, and balance your tackle, you’ll become more efficient at fishing fine tippets and catching more trout.
How to Choose Leaders
Euro leaders form their own subject area, and one that causes much confusion, Internet arguments, and heated debate. The original “long leader system” was most likely the one used and developed by the French. The original leader used a number of different diameters of monofilament knotted together, often in fairly complex designs, to present light nymphs accurately and delicately to sighted fish.
Over time, this effective setup gave way to a similar leader with a visible “sighter” section of colored monofilament. Anglers frequently used the sighter with heavier flies and an elevated rod. Instead of watching the fish, they watched the sighter for signs of a strike.
Where we are today really is a further refinement, in that the leaders have become much less tapered, and by default lighter and thinner. These thin, light leaders rely more on fly weight to extend them, and require the right rod design to help “cast” them.
Digressing slightly for a second, I read and hear a lot of comments along the lines of “I Euro nymph just fine with my regular 9-foot 5-weight.” No you don’t. Technically, you can Euro nymph “just fine” with a baseball bat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best tool for the job. A well-designed Euro-nymphing rod will cast these weightless leaders better, and help you detect strikes you’d never notice with that baseball bat.
Thin, level leaders give you a lot more latitude if you need to allow the main body of the leader to submerge into a deep slot or pocket. If the base of the leader is thin, you don’t have to alter the actual tippet length to get deeper. The reduced diameter and weight of the leader interfere less with the fly’s drift while you’re fishing with an elevated rod, and in turn let you fish lighter flies at greater range.
My leader is attached to a Euro-style level fly line—partly to adhere to competitive fly-fishing rules, but also to give me something that’s easier to handle. I remove the factory welded loops and replace them with a microcore loop that is whipped and glued. There are neater spliced joints available—however, if they fail streamside they are not quick or easy to replace.
To the loop, I attach one of four primary level or semilevel leaders that vary from a maximum diameter of 0.30mm to a minimum of 0.14mm (0X to 5.5X). All are colored monofilament, with the exception of the thinnest 0.14mm (5.5X) leader, which is constructed from clear monofilament. Colored monofilament is generally weaker than clear monofilament. My often-used 0.12mm clear tippet material can even cause a colored, 0.14mm main leader to fail.
My leaders typically have a number of color breaks in them to give me visual reference points. Those color changes are along the leader’s length, but I resist the temptation to leave tag ends sticking out as visual aids—something that seems to have a following in the U.S. but is not often seen on my side of the pond. Again, if I need to sink a portion of the leader to explore a slightly deeper pocket, those tag ends act to increase the interference I mentioned previously.
For years I relied on a tippet ring at the end of my main leader. More recently, I have adopted the figure-eight knot to attach the tippet directly to my lightest 0.18mm and 0.14mm (4X and 5.5X) leaders. I adopted this after spending time with my good friend Grégoire Juglaret from the super-consistent French fly-fishing team. It’s a minor improvement in overall contact, but I’m always looking for minor improvements to incrementally increase the effectiveness of the whole system. If a tippet re-rigging is required, I simply consume some of the main leader when I re-tie.
So before I leave you with what I believe are the top five things to concentrate on to up your game, I will address one of the major issues that pushes anglers to use heavier sighter material and thicker leaders—and on occasion even contraptions made from braided backing or furled nylon as parts of their Euro-nymphing systems. These are all, in truth, just fancy versions of a suspension device—aids for fly fishers who haven’t mastered the skill of spotting a subtle take using a fine leader and thin sighter material. However, these “super sighters” merely act to add interference and make it more difficult for you to get strikes.
You will find that by fishing fine tippets with exacting and appropriate fly weights, quite often the takes from the trout become more confident and easier to register. The lack of interference in your setup will help to convert those takes better.
If you are having trouble seeing your sighter, there are several methods to increase visibility without adding bulky interference. Fluorescent grease, neon-colored wax, or solidified acrylic paint pens can help you address changing light conditions or situations. And they can be applied to any spot or removed rapidly to accurately customize your leader for changing water types and depths.
Howard Croston is the current individual World Fly Fishing Champion. He won the most recent event in Tasmania in 2019. He was also a member of the 2014 team that won a bronze medal, and of the 2009 team that won the championship gold medal. He has qualified for England’s world championship team 16 times. He is the global fly product developer for Pure Fishing, which includes Hardy, Greys, and numerous other brands.