By Russell Miller of Umpqua Feather Merchants
This piece was originally published in the 2022 edition of The CURRENT. Check it out in-store & online at Trouts Fly Fishing.
Nearly 15 years ago I started competitive fly fishing while working at a fly shop. A coworker who was on Fly Fishing Team USA wanted to check my shop kid ego. I had become a ‘hot shot’ with an indicator, or so I thought at the time, and he suggested ‘you should come out and see how you do.’ As an ego-driven kid, I agreed to the new rules that I had to play by and registered. Well, I got absolutely destroyed and only through pure luck, I did not finish dead last. These competition guys and their techniques showed me that clearly, I had plenty more to learn about fishing for trout.
It was then I decided to make the commitment to improve this side of my angling and checked my ego. At the time, there was limited specialized tackle, virtually no flies that were commercially available, I had one book, a mentor, and a lot of self-discoveries along the way. I bullishly committed to learning these new techniques knowing that there would be a moment for me, an ‘aha’ kind of moment where the lightbulb would go off. Because for a period of time I didn’t catch any more fish than I normally would and there were days I was sure I caught fewer fish.
After a full year of strictly forcing myself to commit to Euro Nymphing, I had my revelation. Thank goodness, I was starting to question everything. Now, this is just the way I prefer to fish nymphs and find that in many cases it outfishes the once bobber-loving kid of 15 years ago, although that kid still might win some days.
For anglers who have made the jump and bought one of the specialized rods, appropriate leaders, bought or tied Euro-style flies, and are waiting for their moment when the tide turns, read on, and hopefully, you find a few nuggets to help get you to where you want to be in your journey. Learning and understanding the when and how behind these competition techniques will add a few arrows to your quiver and open more opportunities to hook fish.
There are differences between the two styles but, the main ones are how they are rigged and fly choice. A traditional indicator rig has a striker indicator, split shot and is typically built from a tapered leader and rigged in line – either eye to eye or off the bend. This system is what I sometimes call suspension nymphing and works great in many situations - like when fish are holding in slow deep water, in big broad water, when you want to keep your flies as far away from you as possible, or in the wind. With the addition of split shot flies can be weighted or unweighted on the rig depending on what type of presentation you are trying to achieve.
The downside to the indicator rig is that you have ‘dead points.’ In saying ‘dead points’ I mean where it takes energy to move the split shot as well as the indicator in an inline system. If a fish bites the last fly in your rig, a fish has eat so aggressively that it moves the next fly up, the weight, the water tension of a tapered leader, before registering a bite on the indicator. The other major downside to this is the tapered leader and how it creates drag in the water.
Now let’s look at the Euro rig and how we got to the rig that is sold in fly shops today. The difference between the indicator rig and a Euro rig, is that everything is tied inline and it is extremely sensitive since all the weight is removed. Remember it takes mass to move mass and when you remove mass on your leader strike registration goes way up. A Euro leader is a continuous leader, without any breaks, that tapers down finer to your indicator and levels out with very fine tippet to your flies to assist with sink rate because there is far less drag on fine tippet than a tapered leader.
Flies and fly weight become extremely important because tungsten beads and lead are built into the fly and are how you dive down to your preferred depth. This is the same way you would add or subtract weight from your indicator rig. Here is a pro tip – learn how to fish as light as a fly possible, not just grab the bombs. Doing so will teach you how to sink a fly vs creating vertical drag with too heavy a fly. Having a great selection of flies with varying weights will ensure you can fish a variety of water types.
Much of the secret sauce when it comes to fishing these techniques is what type of leader you are putting on the end of your fly line or the level fly line. The leader you pick is more important than the fly line in my opinion. Your leader will need to suit your needs for versatility and sensitivity.
For many years my go to leader was a great all-around leader designed to allow for all styles of fishing to happen. It does nymphs well, larger bushy dry flies, jigged streamers, and most anything else you want to fish. Here is the leader formula:
A micro leader is awesome for times when you know you will strictly be fishing nymphs when drift and strike detection need to be maximized. It is horrible to fish a single dry with or even casting fluffy dry dropper rigs. This one is not easily picked up and fished, but it is a performer for the task. There is virtually zero sag in the line and since the weight has been removed from the “leader” so flies do not get pulled back towards you at distance affecting their drift. Here is the micro leader formula:
I love casting a fly rod and a line, watching a loop unfold is a thing of beauty. While you don’t get to watch tight loops unroll in front of you, you still get the opportunity to haul the line, do aerial mends, and be precise in your casting. All still rewarding and all require a high level of proficiency to achieve the best presentation possible. The mechanics of the cast are like any other single-handed cast; good casters will adapt to casting a level fly line and weighted nymphs. The secret to accuracy is waiting and not rushing the cast. How many times has that been said for any fly cast? Another pro tip is that you have to follow the 180-degree principal, where your forward cast can only go the opposite direction of your back cast. I see people try and defy physics all the time and accuracy just goes out the window.
As with all things casting, your cast sets you up for actual fishing. When we perform a tuck style cast to drive nymphs into the water, we need to have a high rod tip to preform that action. That same high rod tip is what will set you up for depth control as well as strike detection as your nymphs fall through the water column. When your tip is high you can drop it, but when it has already fallen on your forward cast you have to pull line out of the water. This pulls your flies as a result, not something you want to do. A high tip allows you to sink your flies and feel early strikes with a taught line. So often when your flies crash through the surface it gets fish looking and they take a swipe, but far too often I watch strikes go undetected because of poor line/rod management.
Instead of a bobber or a dry fly moving on the surface current, we have what is called a sighter. This piece of colored tippet is our visual cue to know how and where our flies are being fished, I consider the strike detection secondary to what it tells me about fly position. Reading the indicator is key to success it make sure that you are drifting with the water speed that is below the surface, where your flies are, not reading the surface current. Watching a slight belly of the sighter is a mega pro tip. That belly will straighten out when you get a bite, but also tells you if you are pulling your flies too fast (it will appear taught or straight), or if it builds up, it means you are out of contact with your flies.
To read the sighter you watch the belly and the angle of the sighter. In very shallow areas like riffles, I will have a low angle between the surface current and my rod tip, and my sighter will be at a 45-degree angle or less. For slow deep spots, I will keep a very high rod tip creating a slow deep presentation and my sighter will sometimes be dead vertical at 90 degrees. You can go between and blend these angles too. For instance, when fishing a drop off I can keep a low sighter angle as it comes through the riffle and as I hit the drop-off and want to have my nymphs follow the drop I will hold my tip high in place, my sighter becomes vertical, and the nymphs roll down the drop.
I tend to fish a spot in three ways when nymphing before feeling like I have covered the water.
Dead drift // where I just match the speed of the depth of water I am fishing, as you go down through the water it moves slower. Thin tippet helps to cut through the surface tension and not affect the speed of your drift nearly as much, allowing your bugs to behave as naturally as possible.
Active nymphing // is where I will take and bounce my rig gently off the very tip of my rod. The quick rising and falling of the flies can be extremely effective to elicit a reaction to a fly. Often times when the dead drift does not get a bite this technique will.
Invert the sighter // to perform this one I cast and keep my tip high, let my flies begin to drift, and instead of tracking the drift with the rod, I let the sighter start to pendulum and swing-out underneath itself. This inversion of sorts allows the flies to really pause down deep before they start to swing up towards the surface. A completely different presentation once again.
When people ask me about getting into Euro nymphing I ask them a couple of questions.
‘When streamer fishing, do you love to make your fly come to life and put it into fishy spots and swim it out?’
Well, this technique is a combination of those things. You get to fully manipulate your drift and put flies directly into the spots you believe fish to be living and when they jump on the hook, you feel the take into the cork the same way that a swung fly feels. It can be addictive.
Consider this technique as an opportunity to expand your angling horizons. Learning to Euro nymph is a great way to add a rod to the quiver and do something different. Consider this the yin to the yang of casting. I enjoy doing this as much as I like fishing my two-hander for steelhead. For me, as a student of the sport of fly fishing, Euro nymphing has provided the opportunity to better understand trout and the sport of fly fishing by using an approach pioneered and ably practiced by our friends across the pond.
For more from our shop magazine, The CURRENT - Check it out in-store & online at Trouts Fly Fishing.