Excellent article about current developments and own experience with French nymphing.
Most of my countrymen have been very slow in taking to fishing very long leaders for nymph and dry fly fishing on rivers, and still fewer have anything other than suspicion of French Leader techniques. Some of our top competitors have been very quiet of late, however, and I happen to know that there are perhaps half a dozen English (competitive) river anglers who have made the breakthrough and discovered the enormous advantages of fishing without fly line. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of nonsense spoken and even published about this method, voiced by those who simply do not understand it. It has nothing to do with cheating; it is not a panacaea and will not empty our rivers of trout and grayling; it does not make fish capture a simple process and it is barely comparable with the bait fisherman's 'float' fishing. It is difficult to master (see below), while it does offer outstanding presentation possibilities and is the most supremely elegant form of fly fishing ever devised, in this observer's humble opinion.
Since 2005 I have been experimenting with variations on the central theme of very long leader presentation, but it has been comparatively recently that I have become comfortable with this, and gone beyond. Now, I am perfectly happy living without fly line at all, enjoying the incredible sensitivity and compounded advantages that a long leader presentation gives us. For several years, ever since the French river masters came up with their spiral indicator in a leader which was very long and in some cases also avoided the use of any fly line, we have been striving towards finding the right tackle in terms of rod and the leader itself. We simply cannot extrapolate or extend the use of more conventional tackle, though this is what we did for several years, and therefore missed the whole point. We have either had to make do with fairly soft action 10 footers, such as the excellent Greys Streamflex, or explore into the esoteric areas of long, custom-built Hends and French blanks to give us the absolutely essential soft action and light weight at a reasonable length. Some of the Eastern European anglers have taken this to the FIPS-rule-limit of 12', with custom-built tools that have been excellent for presenting nymph, either single or double, out to the all-important 10 metre range, but near useless for anything else. Now, however, Hardy Greys have come up with the definitive, all-round river rod in the design of the Streamflex XF2 11' #3. I claim that this rod is the best river tool ever built, whether using conventional fly line techniques or the modern leader-to-hand approach.
This rod defines the river benchmark of the decade. Without a doubt, it has, along with l-to-h, changed the way I fish. I believe, further, that it has taken us to the cusp of radical change in the river sport.
For some years, most of us viewed French leader as a way of presenting very small nymphs in low, clear flows to wary trout and grayling. For this, the sensitivity of the method was ideal and in this application it has, I think, become something of a mind set. Most do not see any potential beyond such presentation possibilities, and as it does take a huge amount of practice to acquire sufficient skill with this format of l-to-h, the will is often not there to explore further. The arrival of the above-mentioned Streamflex, however, in conjunction with leader constructions that are much better designed, in a utilitarian sense, than hitherto, have considerably expanded the options.
I have been asked many times about the advantages of the l-to-h approach, but it is much easier to describe the limited advantages of using conventional fly line. Of the latter, there are only two of significance. The first, and lesser, is the ability to cut across the wind at slightly increased, up-wind angle than is possible with l-to-h. One learns, however, to compensate for this and more appropriately to choose an angle on a target fish with careful reference to the wind direction. It soon becomes instinctive. Secondly, it is much easier to attain a high degree of accuracy with fly line than it is with l-to-h, which is a direct consequence of a fly line having sufficient mass to load a fly rod and thereby very quickly leading to that fly line following the path of the rod tip. Energy dissipation in an l-to-h rig is rapid and accuracy suffers. Again, though, one learns to improve this (with the prerequisite of a soft rod), and in any case, one of the many and great advantages of l-to-h comes into play here in the form of the extreme delicacy of the long leader and feather-light touch down on the water's surface which almost completely avoids spooking even very wary trout and big grayling. Repeated casting has minimal damaging effect. The result of these features, is that on small streams with overgrown banks, and restricted casting room, a fly line and short leader approach has the edge. In all other circumstances l-to-h is superior, sometimes considerably so, both in terms of presentation and control.
Key advantages of l-to-h include the avoidance of the sag between rod tip and tippet, or indicator section, such that with the long, soft rod you can achieve remarkable control at greater range than is possible with fly line. The sensitivity of the rig is unparalleled. With nymphs the 'hold time' is very long indeed. Fish will hold on to nymphs presented on these relatively drag-free leaders for much longer than when they take against the mass of a drifting fly line. Sometimes one has the impression that a fish picks up your nymph and simply carries on feeding. The indicator drifts away and you merely carry on with the passage of the rod's motion as the leader is tracked downstream, such that the fish seems to grow on the end of the line! This is an extraordinarily common observation while presenting small nymphs on a properly constructed l-to-h rig. The effective range - where presentation and control is as good as is possible - is increased from the 6-10m effective range of conventional fly line presentation: 12m is entirely realistic (all instances of range refer to the distance between the angler's feet and the fly, not the rod tip to the fly). Indeed, when fishing in a downstream wind, and therefore presenting downstream, 15m of drift is possible, and productive. A consequence of the soft rod and lack of heavy mass in the form of fly line is that very few fish are lost. The uninitiated believe that a lively trout must take a long time to the net (or hand), but this is simply not the case. I am convinced that the soft rod and low mass of the leader rig result in fish being dealt with faster and more efficiently. Certainly this is the case in my experience. I have had many big grayling and large wild trout using this method that I know would have shed the hook-hold against a stiffer rod or merely the inertia of fly line in the water.
It is with dry fly and l-to-h, however, that I have experienced one of the biggest revelations in my fishing career. The gentleness of the touch down and lack of drag over a long drift, with silent lift off and therefore the possibility of repeated presentation in the same area, all result in a vast increase in effectiveness. If you add the greater range at which superb presentation can be achieved (largely because of the reduced mass and line sag effects) then we appreciate that l-to-h offers a leap in development in the river craft. One is also much more engaged in the 360° river surrounding the angler, because you can more effectively approach fish lying downstream because of the lack of fly line disturbance on the water, and moving through the air) which so easily spooks fish on such an approach. L-to-h, allows much closer approach of downstream-lying fish (with respect to the angler) than a fly line and short leader - and the long rod further aids this. We no longer need to concentrate on the segments of river upstream or across from one's position, but are liberated into the entire river space, effectively in a dynamic circle of 30m diameter, where the angler is central.
The leader rig is crucial, because if this is wrong, as with the rod, then only frustration ensues. After long experimentation, which included the fairly good Camou French Leaders, I have developed the following: 12m of Greys 30lb copolymer leads to a tapered copolymer leader (I have used FM and Hardy copolymer leaders and they are both excellent - just avoid very shiny copolymer) which is connected via a well tightened, two turn Water knot with the tails cut flush to the knot. It does not matter what diameter or breaking strain the tapered leader is, because one cuts this down at the tippet end so that is corresponds roughly to 10 lb (5kg) b.s. Here we attach a short 9" (20cm) braided nylon section (braided nylon backing of about 20 lb (10kg) b.s. which is looped at each end. Note this section can be dispensed with if you need to conform to FIPS-Mouche rulings and one can use, instead, a spiral indicator (coloured or colourless), to the tapered leader section. I like colourless, braided nylon for this section because it takes Mucilin so well and thus remains buoyant, which is absolutely vital for good presentation with either dry fly or nymph. Spiralled, or even straight, copolymer is reasonably buoyant, however, so long as it is kept well greased. A word of warning: if you use the fashionable fluorescent spirals (or level, uncoiled indicator section), you will undoubtedly spook a lot of fish in low, clear water, and also necessitate an over-long tippet section if you are fishing dry fly. Coloured indicator sections are rarely required in practice, because colourless, greased nylon or copolymer is adequately visible.
The tippet section itself ranges from a metre with single nymph to two metres with double nymph, and up to four metres for dry fly. Overall length of the leader and tippet is thus in the region of 15 metres. With the soft rod and lack of fly line inertia, it is quite feasible to use very fine tippet sections with very small flies. We are frequently down to 0.1 - 0.08 mm tippets and sub-size 21 nymphs and dries, particularly in the challenging low waters of high summer and autumn.
The casting of the described rig is dominated by overhead (or side) casting, using high stop points and very fast rod movement between those stop points. This is one reason why the soft rod is essential (with #2 and #3 being the standard), because the mass of the described rig is actually sufficient to load the rod for a conventional overhead to be accomplished (though because of the slow movement through the air of the leader and fly, this is where accuracy is lost). Very calm air gives the greatest problems, because even the slightest wind will aid in the forward cast turn-over and accuracy (always casting with or across the wind). Spey and roll casts are seldom possible, because of the low surface tension and mass of the leader compared with fly line, though the constant tension or 'switch' cast, changing the direction by 180° from downstream to upstream, is perfectly possible while nymph fishing.
One further observation concerning l-to-h with nymphs: most of the Eastern European river masters tend to lead the nymphs through a drift such that the braid or indicator section is under some tension. In my experience I find this most effective only when fish are very actively feeding on nymphs and gammarus in the flow. At all other times a dead-drift, as with dry fly has been more effective. I like to set the braid, and nymphs at the top of the drift and then to do no more than keep contact with the floating section, ideally with an elevated leader, so as to achieve a dead-drift for as long as possible, or until a fish takes.
I think that l-to-h is revolutionary for our river sport, giving huge potential for development. Far from being the end of fly line presentation, however, this is surely a great opportunity for fly line manufacturers to produce a novel line for the approach. So long as this method requires custom-made leaders - acting as fly line - there will be restricted take up of the method, but as soon as the manufacturers take it seriously enough to design an appropriate line, which is not that technically demanding, the river game will never be the same again. Essentially, we need a very long, tapered line tip, as described above, integral to a conventional fly line running section; which has the equivalent rating probably of a #1 weight on the old AFTM scale. The latter really needs to be abandoned and replaced now, because with all short range river fishing it is utterly meaningless; we are always under-loading rods with limited amounts of fly line out of the rod tip in order to fish the effective sub-10 metre 'presentation' range. The river paradigm has altered, driven by a vanguard of European competitors, The rod to cope with this advance is with us, though the line and leader system is lagging behind.