World of Nymphing Part I:

European Nymphing

by Danie Erasmus

Nymph fishing has evolved from the simple practice of fishing a sunken fly, into a myriad of different nymphing methods from around the world. Today, you are likely to hear about European methods such as Czech, Polish, French and Spanish nymphing, but there is also the New Zealand nymphing rig, and the American methods such as high sticking, Hewitt and Brooks. Many anglers explore and experiment with these methods primarily to catch more fish, but the process of experimenting with these many styles of nymphing is rewarding in itself.


In this two part series on the World of Nymphing, techniques from around the world will be discussed. Part I will cover European methods and Part II will review those from other parts of the world, as well as how to apply them to suit fishing in British Columbia waters.

Origin of nymphing

You cannot talk about nymphing without mentioning G. E. M. Skues (1858-1949). Although many anglers such as the famous George Marryat (1840-1896) experimented with nymphs as early as the 1880s, it is Skues who is regarded as the father of nymphing. Skues promoted nymphing in a number of written pieces that eventually led to the famous debate at the FlyFisher’s Club in London, England, in 1938. Nymphing was so controversial at the time that it warranted a debate between the dry fly purists and those who fished nymphs.

The English Upstream Method (Sawyer Method)

Frank Sawyer (1906-1980) was a famous river keeper on the River Avon in Hamsphire, England, and although he is credited with the English upstream method (upstream method), many anglers before him had already been fishing this method. Sawyer is more known for the venerable Pheasant Tail Nymph, arguably one of the most widely fished flies around the world. I have never met a fly-angler who does not have a few pheasant tail nymphs in their fly box. Sawyer is also credited with the introduction of wire as a fly-tying material. Where Skues used unweighted nymphs, Sawyer used wire weighted flies with his upstream nymphing method.

The upstream nymphing method has a lot in common with upstream dry fly fishing. This method was developed to fish runs on the crystal clear chalk streams like the Avon, Test and Itchen rivers in southern England, where you can often see the fish.

The upstream method consists of casting the nymph upstream and then allowing it to drift, drag-free downstream. At the same time your line-hand picks up the slack line off the water, otherwise the fly-line downstream will cause drag resulting in an unnatural presentation. A strike is signaled by the fish moving sideways or when it opens its mouth to intercept the fly.

The major challenge when fishing the upstream method in British Columbia is that it is not that common to see a fish holding in a run. If you do, most often the fish will dart away long before you can reach it. BC also has much larger and faster flowing rivers where the water is turbulent, deep or too coloured to see any fish. To adjust for these conditions you will need to use heavier flies and look for clues that reveal a fish holding in a run -a flashing fish is a big give away. Flashing is the reflection of sunlight off the side of the fish when it moves sideways to intercept food. Instead of casting directly upstream, cast at an angle upstream that allows you to see flashing when the fish moves to your fly. This combined with any unnatural movement in the leader helps detect fish strikes, and movement may be as subtle as a brief hesitation or be a violent pull sideways.

Czech and Polish Nymphing

The success of the Czech and French in fly-fishing competitions brought a lot of attention to the approach taken by some European anglers. Czech nymphing is probably the most well-known, its infamy stems from the many Czech fisherman winning at the world fly-fishing championships.

Very few know that Czech nymphing actually is an adaptation of Polish nymphing, and that these two nymphing methods are very similar. Both are short line nymphing methods that present flies almost directly below the rod tip using a team of two or three flies. A team of flies consists of a point or anchor fly tied at the end of your leader. Above the point fly are one or two flies tied in as droppers. These droppers are connected to the leader using one of the tag ends of a blood knot or surgeon’s knot. The tag ends should be at least 8-inches long and the flies should be at least 20-inches apart when hanging from the main leader. You can also use a small tippet ring to tie on dropper flies.

The main difference between Czech and Polish nymphing is the placement of the heaviest fly. The Polish prefer to have the heavy fly on the point, but the Czechs like it in the middle as a dropper. Both Czech and Polish flies are designed to sink fast and have the appearance of caddis larvae or scuds, but they are tied in different styles. A Polish nymph has a characteristic woven body, whereas a Czech nymph is tied using dubbing.

Czech nymphing is best suited to situations where you can get to within a rod’s length of the fish without spooking them. It is for this reason that the flies are fished with long rods of nine and a half to 11-feet in two to four weight. The leader does not need to be tapered and it is fairly short, typically not longer than rod.

Focus on sections of river where fast moving water is flowing into a pool, or where fast water is flowing into a deeper section of water or pocket water. Pocket water is a section of river formed by randomly dispersed boulders. The boulders cause breaks in the current with pockets of slow moving water behind rocks. The seams that are formed between the pockets and the fast moving water function as conveyer belts of food for trout holding in the pockets.  Fish your flies along the seams as this is where the fish will be looking for food. 

With no or very little fly-line out of the tip of the rod, the heavy flies are lobbed upstream. With rod arm extended and rod parallel to the water, the leader hangs almost straight down from the rod tip. The flies are then pulled downstream at a pace as fast, or slightly faster, than the current. Doing this allows you to stay in contact with the flies. Any bump or unnatural motion may signal a strike by fish. To set the hook, sweep downstream with a curved motion while lifting the rod tip as you sweep. This will pull the fly into the fish’s mouth, either in the corner or the upper jaw. Avoid setting the hook with a vertical lift, as this will pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth.

In BC there are very few adaptations required to fish the Czech nymphing method. With the exception of switching from a team of flies to only a single point/anchor fly, the same approach can be used with great effect. Czech/Polish nymphing can also be performed with any weighted nymph, not just Czech or Polish nymphs.

Nymph Tapping (Davison Method)

Nymph tapping is a recent adaptation of Czech nymphing by Paul Davison from England. This method evolved as a response to European grayling’s ability to take a fly and let go of it without you feeling the strike or seeing the line move. Paul Davison did two things in response to this. Firstly, he constructed a leader that has no stretch in it to feel what the fly is doing. The non-stretch quality of the leader is provided by 12-feet of braided fishing line to which three-feet of four- to six-pound fluorocarbon is attached. The braided line transmits the smallest of taps as the fly bounces along the bottom. Secondly, Davison wrapped the fly-line around his index finger to feel the taps as the flies bounce along the bottom. When a fish takes the fly the tapping stops.

The Davison method can be fished similar to Czech nymphing, below the rod tip, or you can cast down and across. The key here is to get the fly down so it can tap along the bottom. This method works well where the river bottom is mostly gravel and small rocks. River sections with big football size boulders will not provide the constant tapping that is needed for this method to work consistently. In BC very few places provide the proper depth and current for tapping. Combined with the proper bottom structure, nymph tapping becomes somewhat limited in BC. Look for runs and tail-outs with moderate current and correct bottom structure. In the right circumstances this method can be very effective for mountain whitefish as this species is known for its subtle takes.

Davison’s method may not be as applicable to BC conditions as some of the other methods, but his non-stretch leader and the idea of wrapping the index finger with fly-line can be incorporated into other nymphing methods.

   French and Spanish Nymphing

Trout in France have been targeted so many times over, that the fish albeit often small, have become very wary of anything that does not look natural. As the saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and so French anglers have developed a method to entice these fish. The French found that pulling small flies through shallow water with long leaders and long rods to be most effective.

As the Czech nymph is to Czech nymphing, the long French leader is to French nymphing. This leader is between 16 to 28-feet long and essentially eliminates the use of a fly-line. The leader is made from very stiff monofilament pieces tied together to form a taper. The French prefer a product called Kamoufil, that is very stiff. It needs to be stiff to allow for casting the small nymphs and detecting strikes. The butt end is made from fairly stiff material. Maxima Chameleon works well too. Start the butt section with six-feet of 20-pound and then another six-feet of 15-pound Maxima Chameleon. This is then tied to the sighter, and from the sighter to the fly, fluorocarbon of varying length is used.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the French leader is the style of sighter (strike indicator). The sighter is made from brightly coloured monofilament that is either coiled or straight. The coiled monofilament sighter, called a Curly-Q, signals strikes when the coils are pulled apart. This sighter is very sensitive and can detect subtle strikes very well.

The rods are usually between nine to 11-feet long in two to four weight and are used to cast small nymphs in size 18 or smaller. Cast the small flies tied to the long leader upstream into fairly shallow water, no deeper than three-feet. The flies are presented with short drifts by slowly pulling the small flies downstream to induce strikes.

Spanish nymphing shares some similarities to French nymphing. Some anglers have referred to Spanish nymphing as Czech nymphing done at long distance. You fish upstream with long leaders of 16- to 28-feet using rods around 11-feet long. Strikes are detected using a brightly coloured monofilament sighter. Unlike the small French nymphs, Spanish nymphs are heavier and similar to Czech nymphs, often fish in a team of two or three flies. The anchor/point fly is heavily weighted with the middle and upper flies travelling vertical in the water column.

The heavily weighed flies are cast upstream and allowed to drift drag free downstream. With rod tip high and leader sagging down to the water, the rod tip follows the flies, instead of pulling the flies like in the French method. When the sighter hesitates or moves unnaturally, you set hook with a downstream sweep.

You can easily adapt French and Spanish nymphing for BC conditions by fishing slower moving glides and deeper pools with long tail-outs with slower moving current. Use the same long leader with a single fly. You can use either small traditional French nymphs or tie them as big as a size 10.

If you are going to use larger or heavier flies, use a straight sighter instead of a Curly-Q as the bigger flies will pull the coils of the Curly-Q apart. You can present the fly either by inducing a strike like French nymphing or with a drag free presentation like Spanish nymphing.

Although most European nymphing methods were developed with specialized rods you can use the standard nine-foot five weight rod. There is no need to buy a specialized rod for a specific nymphing technique, but the most appropriate equipment does make a difference. Besides it is also an excellent excuse to buy another rod...

Some of these nymphing methods have been touted as the latest and greatest method for immediate success in almost any fishing situation. The reality is that the different European nymphing methods were developed in their respective parts of the world for specific situations and purposes. For example, to get the fly down to a fish holding in pocket water, or fooling highly selective fish. There is no nymphing method that is a fix-it-all approach. It will take time for you to refine each method, but that is half the fun. Adapt these methods for our local British Columbia waters with a few minor adjustments. Experiment and develop your own style. The big reward is in learning a new method and conquering the challenges that come with it. Mastering a new fishing method may even open up water you ignored before - like that local stream that you never fished before. Suddenly, it becomes a hidden gem in your backyard.

In Part II of this series you can look forward to reading about nymphing methods from other parts of the world.

A set of French nymphs

A mountain whitefish caught Czech nymphing

A set of Czech nymphs

First published in            January/February 2014