By Frank Yaun
European! I ain’t neither, it’s a popsicle in my pocket melting! One of my favorite Little Johnny jokes, and yes, I digress, but many traditional fly fishermen would rather be splashed with urine than catch trout Euro style. I must admit I was hesitant to start learning this style of fly fishing, as I assumed I’d have to wear skinny waders and after a productive day, say <in my Austin Powers voice> “I shagged ‘em, I shagged ‘em rotten baby!”
All Eurotrash jokes aside, European Style Nymphing (ESN), which is the same as contact nymphing, or tight line nymphing, is really the most effective to catch trout when they’re feeding sub surface, which is the overwhelming majority of the time. The trick to getting a trout to eat a nymph is to get it in front of them, where they’re feeding, in a manner that is as natural looking as possible, meaning minimal to no drag, as the natural nymph obviously is not tethered to tippet.
When trout are feeding on nymphs, which is somewhere around 90%+ of the time, they’re usually fairly close to the bottom, where the water current is dramatically slower, due to the aggregate (rocks), and the nymphs live in these rocks, so when they become dislodged, they’re floating downstream in this area, which I call the zone. Also, as the current is slower in the zone, the trout burns significantly less energy than they would if they were higher in the water column. Kinda like laying on the couch having cheeseburgers served to you, conserving energy needed to get up and go to the bathroom, well maybe, kinda, sorta.
You’re probably thinking, cool story bro, but what does this have to do with catching more fish? Let me answer by reiterating that trout will not (normally) eat a nymph that isn’t drifting completely natural. Many novice fly fishermen will use a conventional fly fishing set up, which is a floating fly line, a tapered leader, with a nymph or two attached to the tippet, usually with an indicator (bobber). Not only is the indicator being pulled by the current, but also the thicker diameter section of the leader is catching the current, adding to the drag. Factor in sag from the fly line, and you have a full-fledged drag show going on, which is appealing to Tennessee Vol fans, but not trout, and the percentage of strikes declines dramatically.
Couple that with a lag from when the trout eats the fly to the indicator showing said eat, and your percentage of hook ups from strikes is also dramatically lessened. The Euro Nymphing set up is built to decrease drag, thus increasing strikes, as well as increasing sensitivity to the strike, resulting in more hook ups. Plainly said, you catch more fish. Let’s dive into the how, as the devil is in the details.
Euro rods are usually longer and much more sensitive, increasing reach which helps keep the leader out of the water (reducing drag), as well as the increased sensitivity helping feel a strike. The line and leader is also quite different, with a much smaller diameter fly line, connecting to a long mono leader, which all results in less line/leader sag, thus less drag on the fly. The leader is attached to a small diameter (2x-4x), highly visible multi-color mono “indicator”, which has a tiny metal tippet ring attached to the end, where a very small diameter section of light tippet is attached, with the weighted fly(s) attached to the terminal end of the tippet. It sounds confusing, but your local guide or fly shop can show you much easier than I can put into words as to how to get a rig set up.
The flies used are basically the same conventional nymph patterns, with the exception being they’re tied on jig hooks, so they float hook point up, resulting in less rock trout being caught. They also use much heavier, tungsten beads, which help them rapidly get down to the zone, where the trout are feeding. It’s been said the difference between a good nymph’r and so-so nymph’r is a split shot, meaning it’s critical to quickly get the nymph down to the zone, and the competitive fishing rules do not allow split shot, thus the heavier flies.
Most of the time I fish 2 flies, with a much lighter (often unweighted) fly being tied on a tag 18” or so above the bottom or point fly. This also helps cover a section of the water column where trout maybe feeding on emerging insects. Depending on the velocity of the current and the depth, I will vary the weight of the point fly, where it gets to the zone quickly, yet isn’t so heavy that it continuously gets snagged. The lighter the flow, the lighter the point fly.
The fishing of this set up is also quite different. In conventional fly fishing, the weight of the fly line is what propels the very light fly through the air to the target area. With a Euro set up, that uses a much lighter line and leader, it’s quite hard to cast as you would with heavier fly line. Instead, casting is accomplished using the weight of the fly(s) to get to the target area. To some degree, it’s more of a lob cast, and honestly, much simpler to teach to those new to fly fishing, versus teaching conventional fly casting. Also, you’re not fishing very far out, especially on pocket water that has a good degree of turbulence, so line management becomes simplified, and if you’re like me, simpler is better!
Ideally, I’m fishing a seam in pocket water and cast upstream about a 45 degree angle, using a tuck cast, to 10:00/2:00. Upon the nymph hitting the water, I immediately have my rod tip up, sighter/leader out of the water. With my rod tip slightly ahead of where the tippet meets the water, I aim for keeping the sighter leaning downstream at a 30-45 degree angle. The trick is to keep ahead of the fly, but not to the point where it’s being drug thru the water. I like to have a slight bit of slack in the sighter, as I know it’s free-drifting, plus when the sighter rapidly goes taut, good chance a trout just ate the fly, and if you’re fishing with a high quality Euro set up, good chance you felt it as well.
Hook set is simply a slight wrist flick at a 45 degree angle downstream, if the fly is still upstream; if the fly is below you, angle it upstream. Lots of 45 degree references, maybe we should re-name it 45 degree nymphing, sounds better to this hillbilly than “euro”.
By now, good chance your eyes have glazed over, and you’re daydreaming of fishing in skinny jeans to trout that speak with a British accent, but maybe that’s just me (no, I do not partake in hallucinogens), but have no fear, it’s not that complicated, even a Georgia Bulldog can figure it out (I’ve seen it happen!!), it’s just different.
My advice is to do a lot of YouTube watching on this, or even better, contact your local fly shop and talk to them about this style of nymphing. Shannon Young at Maggie Valley Fly Shop actually teaches a Euro clinic, and most of us guides there can take you on a ½ day trip and coach you up on this incredibly effective nymphing technique, we’ll have you catching fish and having a blast doing it, speaking with a fake Euro accent is optional. Fish well, laugh often, and help others.
Frank Yaun has been chasing trout around WNC, and all over the US for over 30 years, but WNC is home, and his first love. Frank resides in Asheville with his wife and his 12yo son, and when not fishing, he’s usually on the tying vice. He guides exclusively for Maggie Valley Fly Shop, the best damn fly shop in Western NC, bar none.