French Nymphing; Techniques and Equipment
September 21, 2011
[French nymphing was spurred by competition fly fishers on the world championship circuit. Take it or leave it, but there's no denying the French are onto something with this slick "slinky" formula that produces in the field. The Editor.]
Strike detection is the holy grail of nymph fishing, and we often use indicators to help us through the discovery process. Indicator styles run from bright, fluffy yarns to neon-colored corks or balloons. We cast up-and-across the current, mend, and focus on the indicator. If it moves, hesitates, or vibrates, the immediate response is to lift the rod and set.
This method can be deadly . . . sometimes. Other times, fish hit the nymph and drop it before you can react. The indicator floats unfettered.
Czech/Polish nymphing techniques offer effective alternatives to indicators. If the fish and conditions allow, these techniques help you get close to your quarry using a short, tight line, while slightly leading your flies through a run. These nymphing styles were developed to catch the fish that indicators traditionally miss. But they also have limitations—for instance, when the water is clear and skinny.
In these conditions, the plop of an indicator or even the disturbance made by a leader and line touching the water sends fish running for cover. Such situations call for a more sensitive, delicate approach, one French competition anglers have used as their winning nymphing formula.
French fly fishers developed this new nymphing technique during the World Fly Fishing Championship held on their home turf several years ago. The rivers were low and clear, and the fish were skittish.
The answer was ingenious. It required stealth—crawling was mandatory—as well as a long rod, a long and fine leader, and to help discern the take, between the leader and the tippet a dyed, coiled piece of mono called a "slinky" was added.
France has dominated many competitions with this system over the last two decades. And its effectiveness is worth considering,
especially if losing fewer trout to infinitesimally subtle takes is your goal. Using coiled mono (like a spring or Slinky toy) in conjunction with a long leader, the right flies, and great presentations allows you to fish successfully for wary trout that would be missed with indicators, or spooked if you got too close.
French nymphing success hinges on comfortably casting an 18- to 20-foot leader, with little or no fly line. A good tapered leader and the weighted fly (or flies) aid in the cast. Also, since the coil is built into the leader, it casts much easier than wind-catching wads of yarn.
A Belgian cast (backcast to the side, forward cast over the top) works best, with a slight modification: On the forward cast, quickly drop the rod tip down toward the water, then immediately raise the tip to elevate the leader and the coils as the flies make contact with the water. This helps kick the weighted flies into the water without the leader slapping the surface.
The key to French nymphing is contact with the flies, and ultimately the fish. You maintain contact with the flies by extending and elevating your arm and rod at the completion of the cast and never letting the leader touch the water.
Maintain line tension by leading the flies with the rod, keeping the coiled mono section just above the surface. When a fish hits the fly, the coils react by extending. Set the hook. If there's no take, finish the quick-set motion with a backcast. This loads the rod for the next presentation.
Fishing a 9- to 10-foot rod and a 20-foot leader keeps you an effective distance from the targeted fish, with no leader touching the water (besides the submerged tippet).
French nymphing is extremely effective at detecting these induced takes when the "cast and elevate" is done correctly. Since the leader and slinky are elevated, you have a huge advantage over traditional indicator techniques where the line sits on the water. Lifting the line back off the water is often too slow for these quick takes.
While French nymphing, there is no slack in the line, and a minimal distance to move the rod for an immediate set. Furthermore, you can anticipate a trout's instinctive reaction by allowing your flies to sink for 3 to 4 seconds, then lifting slowly to cast again. I liken this method to a series of short Leisenring lifts. Of course, longer drifts are also effective using this technique.
French nymphing is best done directly upstream or with up-and-across casts. It works in a variety of river conditions, but shines in riffles and runs 2 to 5 feet deep. When the technique is executed correctly, missed strikes become a thing of the past.
Longer rods between 91/2 and 10 feet are best. I prefer rods with moderate to soft tips in 2- through 4-weights. The best rods are fast enough to help with casting accuracy, yet soft enough at the tip to fight fish without breaking them off. Strike that balance and you have the perfect rod for French nymphing.
My two favorites are the 9½-foot, 4-weight Sage Z-Axis and the 10-foot, 3-weight Echo Shadow PE. Your reel should be light, properly balanced, and have a smooth drag. The line is insignificant since it rarely goes beyond the rod tip.
The cooking reference is intentional, as you must cook your mono to make it coil. Ingredients include a plastic ballpoint pen, duct tape or rubber bands, and an assortment of different colored mono lines.
Simply wrap 15- to 20-pound-test monofilament tightly around the empty pen tube and tape it at each end (rubber bands work, too). Submerge the wraps into a pot of boiling water for 5 minutes. Remove and place them immediately in the freezer overnight to help set the coiled memory. Your subtle strike detector is now ready to serve . . . or indicate.
Leader. The entire leader is between 18 and 20 feet long and includes three basic parts: tapered leader, slinky (coil), and tippet. The backbone is 10 to 12 feet of a hand-tied leader (a factory knotless leader also works) tapered down to 12 or 15 pound test (0X or 1X).
Attach the coils with a perfection loop. At the other end of the coil, tie a second perfection loop. This allows you to remove the slinky from the leader, or change the terminal tippet without cutting into your indicator.
What you attach from here down depends on the fishing conditions. In general, use a 4- to 6-foot piece of fluorocarbon, tied with a clinch knot to the perfection loop.
Tippet size depends on the fish and the conditions. It typically ranges from 3X to 6X. I often add an additional 3 feet of fluorocarbon with a surgeon's knot, leaving a long tag off the knot to attach my first fly and adding the second fly to the end. Of course, you can also rig your flies truck-and-trailer fashion.
Flies. Use one or two flies with this technique. The flies should be weighted, slim, and designed to sink fast. I use a fly with a single tungsten bead called Napoleon's Dynamite.
Like many innovations in the sporting world, French nymphing spawned from competition. It is partially the result of strict international rules that outlaw adding anything but flies to the leader, including traditional "bobber-style" indicators and lead.
This technique and rig is a relatively new approach to an old problem—spooky fish. The more you fish with it, the more you will see its potential. Also, the coiled leader system is not just for French nymphing. Experiment and have fun. That's what fishing is all about.
Fly Fishing Team USA member Bret Bishop grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he guides during the summer for Silver Creek Outfitters (silver-creek.com).
French Nymphing Fine Points
- Be careful when using a gas burner— monofilament melts easily.
- Wrap each coil as tightly as possible around the pen, one after another.
- Leave several inches of straight monofilament off each end to make connecting it to your leader and tippet easier.
- If you use duct tape, fold over the end pieces to create a tab. This makes it easier to remove and unravel. If you use rubber bands, find the small ones made for orthodontics.
- You can create multiple setups on one pen and keep them in your vest, or cut the pen into individual pieces.
- In most conditions, the coil is highly visible, but experiment with different colors to see what works best in your area, and with your tint of polarized glasses. You can use one color of mono or a mix of colors. Try Stren High-Vis yellow or Berkley Solar Collector green as a starting point (10- to 15-pound mono holds the coils longest).
- When you are moving with your rod strung and your flies hooked to the keeper, don't tighten your line and stretch out the coils. When you're finished fishing, use the puck-shaped plastic containers that fly shops give out to store the Slinky.
- As a general rule, position yourself as close to the fish as possible. The nice thing about the long leader is it can be fished short (Polish/Czech style) or using the entire leader—French nymphing style.
- Always carry fly floatant. Greasing the spring-like coils helps it float as an indicator in slower, deeper water, where you can't French-nymph effectively.
Building a French-nymphing leader is simple and there are unlimited variations in color, length, and test. For instance, all members of Fly Fishing Team USA have unique formulas, depending on what works best for them in the field.