Jeremy Lucas writes about the technique that leads towards minimal disturbance, improved presentation and control, and a higher level of elegance.
We are in the midst of exciting developments in the sport, and at the very vanguard is the central tenet of presentation. During the last twenty years or so there have been so many small improvements in both presentation and control, on the river. We have been held back to a significant extent, however, by convention and also something else which is more difficult to define. It might be a lack of commitment to question the value of what we can already achieve and an unwillingness to go beyond what brings satisfactory results. I think duo technique (nymph under dry) has been responsible for much of this, because it is such a good percentage method. It allows fairly good presentation of both dry fly and nymph, simultaneously, even in a downstream wind, superb indication of a take to the nymph and is relatively simple to set up and to execute consistently over long periods for ranges up to 10 metres. But there have always been some of us who have been dissatisfied with this and now, one cannot help but notice, there are many who wish to go beyond the percentages. I remember hearing once that the French national team manager forbade his team from practicing with duo, on the principle that 'there is always a better method'. I am convinced that this is at least almost always the case, and this has been the driver for a lot of presentation-orientated anglers trying to find that better way.
The key to it all is the very light line, with rods capable of dealing with such lines as well as fine tippets and small flies. Even 10 years ago the standard for the river was a five weight, which today seems very heavy. Most river anglers see a four weight as standard, and there are many now who are happier with two and three weights. Below this, there are few who venture, unless it is on tiny, overgrown streams where such tackle seems justified (though sometimes incorrectly). The Czechs have led the way, as with most aspects of the single-handed fly rod sport, and there are now outstanding fly rods in the above specifications from Siman, Hends and Hanak. Hardy & Greys were among the first of the 'big guns' to enter this area and at least with the Streamflex XF2 range have produced what in my view are the market leaders, particularly the long (10'+) #2 and #3 weights. Fly line manufacturers have lagged behind somewhat, though Sage and now Rio are producing lines below the out-dated AFTMA range, right down to a 40 grain line which is referred to as a triple zero. Other manufacturers are bound to follow, given the impetus of the market.
We have also been stuck for too long with the French leader design. While all these generic leaders, with their many minor variations, are perfectly good for nymph presentation (indeed, offering significant improvements in sensitivity over fly line), they are poor for dry fly. They were designed to be used for casting the significant mass of a nymph. They were not designed for dry fly. Some individuals have taken this on board and have developed more suitable leaders; capable of being cast to long range (on the river), without fly line or any added mass of the fly. Now, Fulling Mill is launching a 'tactical presentation leader' which has been designed for purpose. There remains considerable scope for development here, especially in terms of hybrid line/leader systems, but what we have already is revolutionising the river sport.
If you think that is a bold statement, or perhaps an exaggeration, consider the following. I have more years of experience on the river than I care to admit, and for the majority of those years I was pretty satisfied with results, while gradually working at improving skills and technique. In all that time I considered that this was the normal way of things, which indeed it is, although I became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of our conventional approach. In particular, the dry fly presentation that one could achieve with either conventional fly line or early versions of the French leader left a lot to be desired. The former could deliver the fly to long range, of course, but the resultant touch-down was poor, and the subsequent drift was completely out of control beyond 10 metres. The latter suffered from not being designed to be cast at long range (indeed beyond 10 metres), though the touch down at short range, and the overall presentation at this range, were excellent. We needed a compromise. The breakthrough came for me in 2008, while experimenting with prototypes of the new generation of long, soft-action rods mentioned above. I have told most of the story before, but the critical step was in using these rods with a properly designed leader, for dry fly. The leader took me a long time to the design of a suitable compromise between casting mass, mass distribution, line 'sag' and other factors; but the result actually changed the way I fish. I have not used fly line on a river for two years, other than while guiding or demonstrating. It still leaves me astonished that we had not seriously embarked in this direction before.
The most significant advantages are the much more delicate touch down and the low interaction of the leader with the surface current. This leads to a noticeably higher level of control though a much longer dead-drift phase, and this is crucial. Whatever leader is lying on the surface (and this is shorter in proportion to the length of the rod) interacts much less than fly line with the surface drift, obviating the need for line mends. With practice, one can attain dead drifts, well in excess of 10 metres, with contact all the way (this is what we refer to as control). With fly line, controlled dead-drift can be achieved for much less than this, even with excellent line mending. The lift off is similarly delicate and quiet and the entire process achieves minimal disturbance, manifestly different from the process possible with fly line.
On the debit side, a leader-only approach is certainly more demanding on casting skills. The pauses on the back and forward casts are very long, while the power stroke between the stop points is faster. At first, accuracy suffers and one is more dependent on finding a good angle to the wind, but again with practice, one learns to improve the casting technique (which, after all, is the classic to and fro cast). Leaders have greater memory than modern fly lines, while also being subject to twisting and coiling. They have to be managed in order to overcome these issues. Kinks can be ironed out by stretching, while the twisting that builds up in retrieved line can be removed by simply casting at full leader extension (which is 14 metres). The leader is not so comfortable in the fingers than is fly line, but one also becomes used to this. We also do not figure-of-eight or 'bunch' retrieve with leader-to-hand rigs, any more than we did with French leaders; but rely on stripping and allowing the retrieved line to hang in a loop between rod hand and reel, ready to be shot on the next cast.
There are pros and cons; leader-to-hand is not a panacea for the river, and even less so for still water. And fly lines are not obsolete. What we have discovered, however, is simply breathtaking potential in presentation beyond what is possible with fly line. We are also learning to extend the boundaries, finding that the wind is hardly any more limiting as it is with fly line, and extending the range at which we have excellent control out to 18 metres. Of course, that far out from the safe and secure - the percentage approaches, like duo - there are more demands on the angler. We cannot expect seamlessly to make the jump from heavy fly line (even a #3 weight) to casting and presenting with a leader-only rig. It takes effort and time, which is partly what makes it so worthwhile. Finally, we have forged towards and stumbled upon a whole new range of presentation possibilities, particularly with dry fly on the river. Of all the many anglers I know who have ventured this far, not a single one wishes to return to the safety net of conventional fly line. I think that is progress in the right direction in our sport; towards minimal disturbance, improved presentation and control, and a higher level of elegance.