Euro Nymphing the Next Level • by Dave Kilhefner
A brown trout taken while Euro nymphing. Note the quick change tippet holder clipped to my lanyard.
I was working my way upstream thru a shallow rock garden when the line stopped and a sizeable trout flashed in the clear water. A quick smooth hook set produced heavy head shakes and a stubborn tug of war battle. Lucky for me, that fish decided to plow its way upstream, giving me a good angle to quickly wear it down and get it to the net.
About 20 minutes and a couple of small whitefish later, I landed a big whitefish from a very shallow riffle. While I wasn’t hooking fish at the championship pace of twenty per hour, I was catching some nice fish from new water. This was not my first time Euro nymphing, but this was the first time I felt I was doing everything right and parts of the stream previously glossed over as unproductive, came alive with possibility.
A couple of years ago I wrote a starter article about euro nymphing. It focused on the simplest presentation, lob casting with heavy flies. This approach is simple and effective but, as I have learned, one-dimensional and extremely limited. This article delves deeper into the subject and the lessons I’ve learned since writing that original article. Hopefully, my suggestions will inspire you to take your Euro Nymphing to the next level. My progression in Euro-nymphing would not have been possible without the assistance of others, such as presenter Devin Olsen, founder of Tactical Fly Fisher, and the outings with my local fishing club. When we fish together, we learn together.
Wading & Covering Water
My first attempts at Euro-nymphing began by fishing tried-and-true indicator spots, Euro-style. How could tiny flies and fine tippets not produce more strikes than my indicator rig? A lot of people start this way by going to what we know. While I caught fish, the technique never lived up to its billing and sometimes fell completely flat.
As a steelheader, I’ve always covered water working my way downstream. It’s a habit so deeply ingrained that I do it on autopilot. That’s how I approached Euro Nymphing. It turns out, just the opposite works better - wading upstream with stealth and then picking apart the stream with short accurate casts.
A nice redside in the net.
It took a couple of trips but I started covering water the way you’re supposed to - moving slowly upstream like a ninja and covering every nook and cranny within reach.
I’ll admit, it took some getting used to but once I was able to slow myself down, wade quietly, and keep cover behind me to avoid skylining myself, I started making some excellent, and I must say, very satisfying catches in shallow riffles. By simply focusing on my wading, and working the water from back to front, then near to far, and then shallow to deep, I advanced my Euro-nymphing techniques to an intermediate level.
Based on the video instructions I watch online, stealth is a top priority for pro-Euro-nymphers. Most anglers approached the river from a kneeling position sporting kneepads and shin guards. This is the point when you get to decide how far you want to take your game. As an intermediate angler, I haven’t made the effort to crawl into a position to remain hidden, but I might if I saw a 20-inch size trout feeding in shallow water.
On the subject of covering water, anglers with decreased mobility might get discouraged, so I’ll offer a few suggestions. Start by using your eyes. The goal is to find spots with plenty of fish that you can target without moving more than you are able. Admittedly, places like this sound too good to be true and it’s not always possible to find the fish, but to quote Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” So, if you keep at it, you will find your spot. I suggest finding a good vantage point above the stream and watching other anglers. Consider using a pair of compact eight-power binoculars steadied on a hiking pole. When you see someone having success, mark that spot and have a go at it after they leave, or come back the next day. Another strategy is to watch anglers fishing in a big pool early in the day. If they are having success, those same fish will migrate up into the riffles to feed later in the day.
Pre-tied 3 fly rigs wrapped around pipe insulation foam from the hardware store.
Quick Change Tippet Rigs
A lot of anglers are fly-pattern focused and will change their fly to improve success rather than consider presentation or changes to terminal tackle. In truth, the fly is only one component of the equation and can be a small one at that. More experienced anglers suggest looking at the whole picture, and most importantly, presentation. These anglers spend more time perfecting the drift and often change fly lines, leaders, tippet, and weight more often than flies.
It is no secret that rigging and re-rigging euro nymphing tippets is slow tedious task, especially with multiple flies. One workaround is to carry pre-tied tippet rigs. When the time comes, clip off the old rig and tie on a new one. Easy! I use a one-knot, quick-change system for quicker rig changes and carry pre-tied rigs wrapped around a short length of pipe insulation foam. My three favorite rigs are the standard heavyweight three-fly rig; a two-fly stealth rig; and a jig-streamer rig. The three-fly rig is constructed with tippet rings because sometimes things go wrong and nothing creates a tangle like three spinning euro nymphs. The tippet rings make untangling and re-rigging much faster. The two-fly stealth rig uses a surgeon’s knot for the dropper and features a tungsten bead anchor fly and a small size #16 or #18 unweighted dropper pattern. The jig streamer rig is a 4- to 5-foot length of 3x to 4x tippet, but since it uses a heavier tippet, it is a separate rig.
Your tippet strength should the based on the fishing conditions you expect to encounter and not just the lightest tippet you feel comfortable using. Match tippet to the target species and river conditions. Most euro nymphs are constructed of heavy wire hooks that will withstand a lot of pressure.
The 20-foot length of mono between the fly line and the tippet should be simple, but with competitive anglers pushing the boundaries, it’s not. The goal is to obtain the perfect drift for the water you are fishing. Experts advise to ‘lighten things up a little once you become comfortable with your basic setup, and then lighten it up a little more.’ Without a lot of experience, this can be difficult advice to implement and takes some time to work through. Where a lot of beginning anglers slip up, myself included, is going too light before we have developed the experience and skills to make it work.
The standard Euro nymphing leader is usually 20 feet of mono with a sighter on the end. Up until quite recently, most of us used 20lb Maxima Chameleon. But with competition pushing the boundaries, my local Euro guru suggested dropping down to 8lb. Competition anglers have dropped the leader size to 7X on clear pressured waters. Define your non-competitive needs and decide how far you want to take your Euro nymphing game.
Putting It All Together
Granted, this is a lot to remember, especially for people like myself who need a strong pair of reading glasses just to rig all this stuff up. For this reason, I carry some cheat sheets in my wader pouch and read them at the start of each day. Most of it is simple advice, “Be stealthy, wade slowly,” “Use lighter flies in skinny water,” and “Don’t forget to try the micro leader on the big flat pool.” As I mentioned earlier, I’m also a die-hard steelheader so I need something to get out of that mindset, shift gears, and keep an open mind to all the changes that make this technique so fun and productive. See you on the water!