This story was originally titled “Thin to Win: Tools and methods to heighten your nymphing game.” It appeared in the August-September 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Hall of Fame NCAA basketball coach John Wooden said: “Although there is no progress without change, not all change is progress.” I continue to hear how contact nymphing (commonly known as “Euro nymphing”) is a fad. I also get emails claiming I’m trying to “reinvent the wheel.” I agree that contact nymphing principles (casting, line control, and reading the drift) are the same as traditional tight-line tactics. However, advancements in equipment and techniques have brought the nymphing game to the next level—thankfully an easier and more effective level. I’m not trying to reinvent nymphing, but I am seeking progress. If Coach Wooden fly fished today, I’m positive he would refer to contact nymphing as a progression. I want to share these small progressions with the intention of improving your nymphing game.
Any fly rod, leader, and line will catch fish using contact nymphing tactics. However, some tools enhance your ability to cast and present light nymphing rigs, and detect soft takes. I use specialized nymphing tools—instead of general all-purpose equipment—because the results speak for themselves.
A current theme in contact nymphing is “thin to win,” which describes how contact nymphing lines, leaders, and even flies continue to get thinner. Contact nymphing requires keeping line and leader off the water with a high rod tip. Traditional tapered fly lines and tapered leaders have greater mass between rod tip and nymph, and with a higher rod tip angle, the line will sag. Sag equates to slack, and it reduces your ability to detect strikes. Thinner, competition-style fly lines and thin, level leaders have less mass, reduce sag, create greater contact with the nymph, and result in quicker strike detection. Trout reject and spit out a fly in a split second, and these small fractions in time pay big dividends in terms of the number of fish you catch.
Contact nymphing is a short-range presentation. The weight of the nymph propels itself to the target, so a tapered leader is rarely necessary to cast weighted nymphs. Lighter nymphing rods allow you to cast a narrow, competition-style fly line and level leader very easily. This is something all tenkara fishermen learn when dealing with these short casts and short lengths of level line.
Thin level leaders help create a straight line between the rod tip and your nymph, which allows immediate strike detection the moment a trout inhales the fly. My leader butt section starts with 12- or 15-pound-test Maxima Chameleon, followed by a short 10-pound-test sighter section, a small tippet ring, and then 3 to 6 feet of level 4X to 6X tippet.
The difference in strike detection between this type of leader and a tapered leader is indisputable. To see for yourself, hang a traditional tapered leader and a thin contact nymphing leader side by side, and then move the fly end of the leader to simulate the kind of obtuse angle you’d encounter while contact nymphing. The heavier tapered leader will sag significantly compared to a thin contact nymphing leader.
Sag also creates unnecessary tension on the nymph, causing the nymph to rise upward. This can create unnatural movement in the water. Anytime sag occurs, I have to add additional weight to my nymphing rig to counteract this type of drag. A thin leader allows me to use lightweight nymphs in faster water because the thin monofilament allows the nymph to fall to the stream bottom with limited tension. The beauty of this approach is the ability to drift the nymph rig naturally in the water column, rather than dragging it. I believe one trait of great nymphers is their ability to fish lightly weighted nymphs in deeper water. Think of drifting your nymphs rather than dragging them through the water. It’s the same as with dry-fly tactics: You don’t want your fly to be pulled in any direction by the leader. You want it to drift naturally.
Staying in contact with a naturally drifting nymph is challenging, since the weight doesn’t create a tight connection. Instead, there’s just enough weight within the rig to drift, so you will see the strike instead of feeling it. Again, think like a dry-fly angler—do you see or feel the take of a trout sipping in the dry fly?
Drifting means focusing more on line control and watching for the sighter to hesitate or pause. Drag occurs when you move the rod tip too fast downstream and end up pulling and moving the nymphs. Slack occurs when you move the rod tip too slowly. The perfect presentation occurs when you move the rod tip in a manner that minimizes slack and maximizes strike detection. Watching for this perfect drift is challenging, and that’s why I leave the tag ends of my knots (aka bunny ears) on the sighter. These blood knot tag ends extend from the leader at 90-degree angles, giving you a larger sighter profile when watching the drift.
Skinny leaders and tippets create a better connection to your nymph, but trying to cast thin leaders and lines with traditional-action fly rods is challenging, since these rods need mass (i.e., thicker fly line) to load the rod. And a traditional fly rod designed to cast 60 feet of fly line is by definition less sensitive because it has more mass and material.
The ideal contact nymphing rod often has a soft tip, and loads with very little mass outside the guides—you only need a tool to cast the mass of a long leader and flies. You can cast long leaders with traditional-action fly rods, but more mass requires more effort. Contact nymphing requires continuous casting, very little line outside the guide, and short drifts. The average contact nymphing drift is 10 seconds long. That’s approximately six drifts per minute and 640 drifts per hour. Rods designed specifically for this technique give you much greater ability to detect strikes, and they reduce casting fatigue.
Because good nymphing rods load with very little effort, the casting stroke is just a flip of the wrist. Contact nymphing is a close-range approach, requiring you to get within approximately 30 feet of your target. This requires stealth, and the last thing I want is a rod that requires excessive hand/body movements. Softer-action rods allow for a stealthier casting stroke.
Thin to win also applies to nymph patterns. Flies with a thin profile sink faster and often have a more realistic contour. I think about how bulky my nymph patterns were a decade ago, especially those tied with lead wire. I thought I needed more weight inside my patterns to sink to the proper depth, so why not pack on the lead wire? However, lead wire adds bulk to the finished fly, and bulkier flies are generally less dense. It’s density, not mass that sinks your fly, and eventually I realized that making my flies thin and dense increases sink their rate. For example, my go-to nymph for central Pennsylvania streams is a size 16 Perdigon-style nymph with a 3⁄32 (2.5mm) tungsten bead.
Perdigons are incredibly easy to tie. They are often nothing more than thread, floss, or tinsel covering the hook shank, with a tungsten bead and a coating of UV resin to add durability and density. These slim-profile patterns quickly reach the bottom due to their thin, dense shapes. This concept can be applied to any of your favorite nymph patterns. Using fewer fibers on your Pheasant-tail Nymph or using smaller-diameter chenille on your Pat’s Rubber Legs results in thinner flies and increases your sink rate. [Visit the Fly Fisherman magazine YouTube channel to see Fly Tier’s Bench columnist Charlie Craven demonstrate his version of the Perdigon. The Editor.]
Reading the Drift
When drifting lighter rigs with thin leaders and thin flies, you see the strikes rather than feel them. Traditional tight-line and early contact nymphing tactics involved dragging heavy weights along the stream bottom. These heavily weighted rigs create greater tension, so you feel the strike due to that tight connection. Using heavy rigs is a good approach when fishing broken or off-colored water, or when the trout aren’t picky about a natural drift.
I believe one of the keys to next-level nymphing is to use just enough weight to get the nymph into the strike zone, but little enough so the current moves it naturally downstream. While those nymphs are drifting, I’m looking to see that sighter stretch and twitch during the presentation, as this indicates the nymphs are drifting naturally along the stream bottom. Softer sighter material allows you to better see these visual cues during the presentation. Set the hook anytime the sighter stops twitching, or if the sighter suddenly jumps upstream.
“Rabbit ears” allow you to see every micro movement during the drift, but a secondary advantage is that each knot is a depth gauge. My sighter consists of three colors (white, red, and yellow), with each 6- to 8-inch section joined with a blood knot. These knotted sections create reference points on how deep or shallow you’re fishing. A high rod tip holds the sighter high off the water in shallow water, and a low rod tip allows the flies to sink deeper.
Seeing these strikes requires what I call “nymphing eyes.” I don’t believe you’re born with a sixth sense for nymphing. You must train your eyes to see the strike. It’s a skill you can develop.
Some of us are lucky enough to live near trout water, and have the opportunity to hone this awareness every day. If you don’t have trout water nearby, you can practice on other species. I discovered this by accident while jigging small nymphs at our farm pond with my six-year-old son. Logan quickly realized the jigging motion creates a continuous twitch in the sighter and knew to set the hook anytime this twitching stopped. Logan has since caught hundreds of sunfish in our pond using his contact nymphing setup, and most of the time he sees the strikes. The repetition of seeing hundreds of sunfish strikes with his nymphing leader has given Logan the “nymphing eyes” you need for trout.
A common error I see people make while contact nymphing is laying the line, leader, and sighter on the water immediately after the cast. Contact nymphing drifts are short, so it’s important to see the sighter the moment the nymphs connect with the water, and to watch the sighter through the entire drift. The sighter should be off the water at the start of the drift, and your rod tip should stop high and stay high. If you bring your rod tip (and line) down at the end of the forward cast, you’ll have to raise it back up again and likely create drag in the process.
Stopping the rod tip high on the forward cast is easier said than done, especially for those who have years of presenting dry-fly, streamer, and suspension-nymphing rigs. One tip I’ve found helpful is to look above the target. It’s natural for your casting hand to aim in the direction you’re looking, so look above the target so the rod tip stops high during the presentation. A high stop with your rod tip keeps the line, leader, and sighter off the water. It creates less drag, and keeps that sighter where you can see it.
Fishing the Drop
Contact nymphing allows you fish the nymph while it’s falling to stream bottom—“fishing the drop” is a tactic all bass anglers understand. It was an eye-opening experience for me when I finally learned how to develop immediate contact with my nymphs after the cast, and started fishing them while they dropped toward the bottom. This “instant fishing mode” is especially helpful in riffles, heads of runs, or pocketwater where trout are actively feeding and often jump on a fly the second it hits the water.
Missed strikes occur when your nymphs enter the water while you have slack line or leader between rod tip and the nymph. This slack usually occurs within the first few seconds of the presentation.
I recall one rainy day when I watched several trout inhale my fluorescent pink Squirmy Wormy without the sighter indicating any strike. They were jumping on the worm the second it hit the water, but because there was excessive slack in the leader, the sighter didn’t move. The slack I created by lowering the rod tip after the cast was enough to hide any trout take. The only reason I knew to strike was because I could see the fluorescent worm disappear as it dropped. It took several more outings, but I eventually began stopping and holding the rod tip high enough to maintain contact with the falling nymphs. This is especially important when fishing periods of high trout activity and heavy hatches. About half my takes occur on the drop.
When you’re fishing broken or off-colored water you can get much closer to the trout and position the sighter directly under the rod tip. Fishing the sighter vertically under the rod tip also reduces tension and allows the nymphs to drift deep and naturally in the water column because a short, vertical length of thin leader has virtually no sag.
Any line and leader positioned downstream of the nymph creates tension. Even a thin 10-foot leader positioned downstream of a nymph contains enough mass to lift a medium-weight nymph off the stream bottom. Often you hear people say to “lead” the nymphs throughout the drift to maintain contact. However, if the rod tip is too far downstream of the fly, tension in the line/leader will drag your nymph.
This vertical sighter position isn’t always possible, especially when contact nymphing at distances greater than a rod length away from the target, but when the water is high, dirty, or turbulent you should take advantage of it. The rod tip acts as a suspension device and holds the nymphs at a desired depth. This reduction in line/leader length allows lightweight nymphs to sink quickly and drift naturally.
Because you create a straight line between your rod tip and nymph, you’ll also be able to detect many more strikes. As the saying goes, “The quickest way between two points is a straight line.”
It’s amazing to see how deadly contact nymphing can be with the right equipment and techniques. I hope implementing these progressive nymphing tactics gets you to the next level, and provides greater enjoyment on the water. True progress means respecting angling tradition but being open to new ideas.
George Daniel is the author of the best-selling Dynamic Nymphing and most recently Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole, 2018). He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and owner of Livin’ on the Fly, an educational/guide company in Pennsylvania. He was a coach for both the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team and Fly Fishing Team USA, and is a two-time U.S. National Fly Fishing Champion.