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An Introduction to European Nymphing: A Fly Fishing Tactic

Thinking of giving Euro Nymphing a try on your next fly fishing trip? Check out this explainer by fly fishing expert Rob F. before you go.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

Published on

A common first question when regarding Euro Nymphing is... Why should I do it? While Euro Nymphing is not for everyone, the main reason that you should at least give it a try is simply because you will catch more fish! Being able to hold precise contact with your flies provides the angler with drastic improvements in sensitivity and strike detection, ultimately providing more fish to hand.

I was introduced to this tactic during my time spent on the United States Youth Fly Fishing Team, where competitions to catch the most and largest fish were mainstays. In order to catch the most fish, my teammates and I were instructed on the ways in which to employ these European Nymphing tactics from some of the best fishermen in the U.S.

In this article, I will pass on this knowledge and tell you everything you need to know about Euro Nymphing so you can get out there and try it for yourself!

Overview

History European Nymphing techniques have made a big splash in the US and across the World in recent times. There are broad categorical terms that have been used to describe this technique, such as Czech Nymphing, French Nymphing, Polish Nymphing, High sticking, Tightline-ing, and other variations of these terms. While each of these technical terms do describe slight differences in presentation and equipment, I believe that there is no better way to describe this than “Contact Nymphing,” a term that serves as a catch-all for describing these European techniques.

What The overarching summary of this European or Contact Nymphing is as follows: using long rods, thin leaders, and heavily weighted flies in order to present the nymphs at the proper depth and speed to imitate a natural aquatic macroinvertebrates floating down the river.

It should be noted that many of today's fly fishermen have caught onto the fact that trout eat subsurface the majority of the time, only rising to the surface when the benefits of eating an adult insect off the top of the water outweighs the cost of vulnerability. The old-school train of thought that trout only eat on the surface is now abandoned and nymphing with dropper flies, indicators, or European techniques are now proving increased success on the water.

A fish gets measured
Photo by Rob F.

Where The style of Contact Nymphing can be used on almost any water type, but excels in faster, more broken water, where accurate drifts place the flies into the “zone” quickly and can hold them at the right depth in the right drift for the longest amount of time. Runs, riffles, and pocket water are the usual suspects for successful Euro Nymphing. With that said, I often fish with this technique over all types of water, but make small adjustments in my presentation and drift to get the flies in the proper zone.

When The glory of European Nymphing is that it can produce fish any day of the year! Since trout feed underwater for the majority of their days, fishing with nymphs can provide you near-guaranteed success in any weather and water conditions.

A man holds a freshly-caught trout while standing on the bank of a river
Photo by Rob F.

Equipment

Rod The rods used for European Nymphing are traditionally in the 10’-11’ in 2wt-4wt. The benefit of using a longer rod is reach and contact across the river. The action of a Euro Nymph rod is typically stiff towards the butt section and progressively softer towards the tip. This allows proper presentation and sensitivity from the soft tip, with plenty of “backbone” in the butt section for fighting fish. A 3wt European Nymphing rod has a butt section similar to that of a 6wt, and a tip section that is more reminiscent of a 2wt moderate action rod. This blend of power and weight within these Euro rods gives you the ability to place flies further from your body, maintain sensitive feel, and fight larger fish!

Reel There are no specific reels for European Nymphing, but some reels are much better suited than others. First off, it is best to use a larger reel for Euro Nymphing than what the weight of the rod suggests. Say you have a 10.5’ 3wt Euro Nymph rod. Common sense would say, “get a reel rated for a 3wt,” when in reality, since the rod is so long, a 3wt reel will not balance the rod out. If you undersize the reel to the rod, the majority of the weight of the setup will be forward, resulting in a sore arm after just a half day of casting.

I would suggest sizing the reel up two line weights in order to get the best balance. So if you have a 3wt reel opt for a 5wt-6wt reel as opposed to a 3wt-4wt. Another thing to consider is getting a reel with tight tolerances, as the thin leader and line can have a tendency to jump outside of the spool of cheaper reels with loose fitting spools.

Line European Nymphing fly line is specifically designed to be thin and lightweight. This line will have significantly less droop out of the rod tip compared to a traditional weight forward or double taper fly line. I like the Competition Braid Core in Double Taper 0.022 from Cortland Line as a do it all Euro Nymph line.

Leader Long leaders are the name of the game in this style of fishing. Rule of thumb is to fish a leader that is 2x the length of your rod. So if you have a 10-foot rod, a leader and tippet system that is around 20 feet would be ideal.

Tying your own leaders for Euro Nymphing is a quick and easy process. The material that I like to use for my leaders is Maxima Chameleon. This monofilament leader material has a great blend of stretch and stiffness that allows heavy nymph rigs to turn over with ease. I start my leader with 6 feet of 20lb Chameleon, 4 feet of 15lb, 3 feet of 10lb, 2 feet of 8lb, and 2 feet of Indicator Mono Leader Material from Cortland Line in 8lb test. At the end of the indicator, or “sighter” material, I attach a tippet ring. Using blood knots to connect the sections of leader material in descending size, a tapered leader with an incorporated strike indicator “sighter” is created. The sighter is simply a highly visible section of colored line that will serve as your strike indicator.

Tippet Due to the supple nature of a Euro Nymph rod’s tip section, you can get away with fishing lighter and smaller tippet material. I typically will fish 6x-7x on rivers with high water clarity and spooky fish, and size up to 4x-5x on larger or muddy rivers.

While these light tippets may seem too small, it is important to understand the influence that tippet diameter and density has on the sink rate of your flies. Larger and more buoyant tippets, say 3x Monofilament, will drastically slow the sink rate of your flies. By providing more friction and drag against the water, this large and buoyant tippet will keep the flies up in the water column and out of the strike zone. I opt to use Fluorocarbon tippet in smaller diameters because Fluorocarbon is more dense than monofilament and the thinner diameter will allow the fly to sink more efficiently. Additionally, Fluorocarbon is less visible to fish in the water than monofilament.

A fish in the water next to a fly fishing rod
Photo by Rob F.

The Drift

Reading the water Whether you are a veteran fly fisherman or just starting out, it is extremely important to take a moment before you cast to read the water. Take your time to understand where you are fishing in the river, and where the fish might lay within that section. If you approach the river and see the main current flowing into a slightly more narrow and fast-moving section or “run,” read over that run and think about where trout might find refuge or feeding lanes within that run.

Beginning with the outside edges of the run, notice that the water is moving slightly slower than in the center of the run. In a trout’s mind, these softer edges provide easier water to swim in, and thus, the fish can conserve energy there. If the weather is cold, or insects (food) for the trout seem to be in short supply, the fish will congregate on the edges of runs in order to conserve energy. If this seems to be the case, try fishing in the outside “seams” of the run first. On the contrary, if you find yourself on the river on a warm, late spring day where water temperatures have come up and fish have plenty of food to eat flowing down the center of the run, fishing in the middle of a run can provide you great success.

While these situations may not always hold true, they serve as a great example as to why reading the water is important. The best way to read the water is to spend time fishing, and focusing on the areas where you caught fish or didn’t catch fish, and critically think about the possible reasons as to why.

Body Position The way in which you position yourself towards your tag in the river is quite possibly the most overlooked aspect of Contact Nymphing. When approaching the river, ALWAYS fish from downstream, casting up-current towards your target. This will provide you the most efficient cast, drift, and presentation of your flies.

I tend to fish at no more than a 30 degree angle away from the bank. This way you can control your drift as the flies come from upstream. Casting upstream from your location allows you to properly utilize the “sighter” as your drift moves along.

A man stands in a river under a bridge holding a fly fishing rod in one hand and a net in another
Photo by Rob F.

Cast Casting a long leader and heavy flies is a dramatic shift from casting a traditional weighted fly line. Instead of the line being used to load the rod and propel the flies, it is the weighted flies themselves that load the rod. At first, it may seem like the cast is more similar to that of conventional spin fishing tackle.

The best way to cast a European Nymph rig is to allow the flies to swing downstream of you, and then, using the tip of the rod, flip/flick the flies upwards to the target area. Using this water load cast allows you to minimize the amount of false casts and place the flies back into the water column efficiently. Since the line and leader are so light, the flies will follow the direction of the rod tip, instead of the line. So, pointing the tip of the rod, at the end of the casting stroke, towards the area where you want your flies will provide you the most accurate cast.

The Tuck Cast is another common cast you will find that proficient Euro Nymphers will use. The idea behind the Tuck Cast is to change the angle that the fly lands on the water from horizontal to vertical, essentially “punching” the flies through the surface while keeping the rod tip high. This helps to sink the flies deeper in the water column without wasting valuable length in your drift, or causing delay in sensitivity.

To achieve the Tuck Cast, begin your casting stroke as usual. Once the flies are in the air on the apex of the forward stroke of the cast, abruptly stop your rod and squeeze the rod handle to provide a change of energy in the casting stroke. This abrupt stop and change in energy will cause the leader to “turn over” and stay high in the air, while your heavy flies will change direction from casting outwards to falling sharply down to the water. Remember to keep your rod tip high, and don’t allow the leader to lay on the water when using a Tuck Cast.

Leading the Drift Once your flies are in the water via either the Tuck Cast or the traditional water load cast, try to gain control of the leader and sighter as quickly as possible. This can be achieved by stripping in line, or by raising the rod tip upwards. Once the sighter is visible and out of the water, you can begin to track your flies down the current with the sighter. Keeping the leader and sighter at a 45 to 85 degree angle downstream and up of the fly, you will begin to move the rod tip down the current following the fly.

The amount of tension you place between the fly and the rod tip will determine the depth of the drift, and the sensitivity that can be detected in the sighter. More tension on the flies will keep them higher in the water column and provide more sensitivity to the rod and sighter. Less tension will allow the flies to sink deeper, but you will lose sensitivity in the drift. Try to find a balance in tension where the flies can sink and move freely in the water, but you maintain enough sensitivity and contact to where you can have ample strike detection.

Flies

Weight and Size The size and weight of flies is very important when fishing European Style! Fly size should remain in the 18-12 size range for most European Nymphing techniques with the weight varying based on the size of tungsten bead used in the fly. Most Euro Nymphs are tied on jig hooks and use a slotted tungsten bead to provide weight to the fly. The larger the bead, the heavier the fly, and the faster it will sink. For most rivers, a fly with a 2.5mm-3.5mm bead will provide plenty of weight to sink the fly to the bottom of the river.

A fly against a yellow background
Photo by Rob F.

Color and Hot Spots Many of the new European-style flies are tied in an array of bead and thread colors. These small differences in color can have major effects on the ability of a fish to detect and eat the fly. Commonly, dull-colored flies in natural dun, olive, brown, and black paired with a shiny gold, copper, or silver bead provide enough profile and contrast to invoke a strike from a trout. In addition to these color and bead combinations, a hotspot of brightly colored thread tied in behind the bead can serve as an additional trigger point. Fluorescent orange, pink, and chartreuse are colors that are commonly used as hotspots. If you tie your own fleis, try incorporating a hotspot to provide extra appeal to your flies.

A fly against a yellow-green background
Photo by Rob F.

Now that you know about the equipment, the drift, and the flies, you’re ready to get out there and try Euro Nymphing for yourself!

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Written By
Throughout my childhood on the East Coast, fishing became a total obsession. The obsession evolved into a deep-seated passion for fly fishing, conservation, and stewardship. Since then I have lived in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana where I have enjoyed fishing many of the rivers and lakes. ​ In my t...

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