The French nymphing technique from Czech point of view...
A bit of introduction
On my fly-fishing journey, there have been a few milestones that resulted in raising my nymph fishing abilities to the next level. The first happened long ago on the Strela River, when I realized that I had left my fly rod at home and tried fly fishing with my friend's jigging rod. That was my first practical experience fishing the short nymph (since nothing else was possible with that set-up). The second experience was with the discovery of jig flies, when Jiri Klima demonstrated their killer effectiveness to me while fishing together in England - thanks to him I managed to catch nice brookies out of deep and fast currents where I previously wouldn't even have seen a fish. The third milestone came when I saw the small flies with tungsten heads being fished by Dan Svrcek, who at that time had caught many times more fish than I, in part due to these small but heavy patterns. The latest nymphing moment which brought me to the next level was my introduction to the secrets of fishing with the long French leader. There is a lot of talk about French nymphing these days, but it still not considered a standard fly fishing technique like the already classic Czech nymphing. In these few lines here, we'll take a closer look at this method of fishing with the French leader.
Definition (of the Czech way to fish the French nymph technique)
Fishing the French nymph (or rather fishing with a French leader) can be described as nymph fishing on running waters with a long and soft rod, using a special leader made of Kamoufil and a fine tippet, which are generally separated by a brightly colored strike indicator. This set-up completely eliminates the need for using fish-distracting fly line.
Where to use
The French nymph technique has primarily been used for clear, not-too-deep waters (up to about 1 meter), but with certain modifications it can be used in a much wider range of conditions, and can be useful for fly fishing most all running waters.
For what kind of fish
With the technique as described, it should be successful for brown trout, rainbows and grayling, and with only a bit of exaggeration we can say that the French nymph can bring a whole new dimension to fishing for coarse fish (chub, dace).
A bit of history
The history of the French nymph technique is closely connected to competition fly fishing. Czech fishermen first came into contact with fishing with long fine tippets, soft rods, and small nymphs against the current when seeing French and Belgian competitors at the turn of the millennium, and in our country we saw this type of fishing in practice during the European Championships in Kostelec nad Orlici in 2000. The French generally dominated fly fishing competitions at this time, so other teams naturally started to experiment with similar techniques.
In the Czech Republic, such experiments with the French nymph were quite fragmented, with many people trying things out in secret, and there wasn't much being written or talked about. Some Moravian groups (Antonin Pesek, Tomas Starychfojtu - both past World Fly-fishing Champions), a few northern Moravians and some younger fishers from eastern Bohemia around Jirka Sulc began to take the lead. One of the first to master the method was Martin Droz (World Fly-fishing Champion in 2008). Except for those eastern Bohemians mentioned, the rest of Bohemia seemed to be falling behind, though one of the top nymphers lives in Strakonice - Roman Heimlich, who defended his title of Czech National Champion on rivers in 2009.
The backing of particular techniques by equipment manufacturers has always been important, and the Czech firm Hends needs to be mentioned here, which developed special products for use in French nymphing (Camou leader, Strike Indicator, Hends XP rods), and in the book Fly Fishing and Fly Tying, the method was described and even visually demonstrated using a short film that came with the book. Today, this method is one of the standard skills of most competitors, and is gradually making inroads among the fly fishing public. The French nymph technique may not become as widespread as the Czech nymph, however, mostly due to the degree of difficulty required in mastering the technique.
When fishing the French nymph, a softer 9-11 foot long rod of AFTMA 2-5 is used. The length of the rod is chosen mainly according to the size of the river, and the rod class according to the size and finesse of the flies used. The softer rod and longer action are preferred for two reasons. First, it is easier to cast light flies on the special leader without using fly line, and second, though no less important, is the possibility to land fish even with a super-fine tippet, since the softer rod better absorbs fish strikes and lowers the chance of them breaking the fine tippet.
French nymphing is characterized by the extremely long leader, from 3.5 to 9 meters long. This line has to be made of "stiffer" material with no memory, and ideally is tapered. The leader stiffness plays an important role in more easily casting light nymphs (again no fly line is used in casting), as well as guaranteeing better contact with the flies, which must form a straight line with the leader. To anyone who wants to start fishing the French nymph, I can easily recommend trying tapered leader from the material Kamoufil, which Hends offers under the name Camou French Leader, and which has the advantage of being practically knot free. A leader can also be made (in this case non-tapered) from stronger sea-fishing leaders or assembled from different diameter Kamoufil tippets.
The French nymph technique couldn't exist without another typical and irreplaceable device - the strike indicator. The function of the indicator is clear - any movement away from its natural path is a sign for the fisherman to lightly try to set the hook. The indicator is tied between the leader and the tippet, and can be either bought commercially or made from colored line. Various reflecting colors can be used, and changed depending on the light conditions. Reflective orange and yellow are most common, but having different colored indicators can often be useful in choosing the best combination of light and contrast between indicator and current conditions.
Tippets used in French nymphing are often characteristically extremely fine. Even a 0.10 mm tippet can spook fish sometimes, though usually a diameter from 0.08 to 0.14 mm is used. The choice of tippet is often determined not just by what the fish can see but also be the rod used (the finer and softer the rod, the finer the tippet that can be used) as well as the size of the flies (again in direct proportion). Both classical monofilament (e.g. Stroft) and fluorocarbon (e.g. Tiemco) are fine.
The last part of the French nymph set-up is the flies. Ideally, we fish with one fly on the tip and two droppers, though two or even just one fly can be used (often determined by local fishing regulations).
The types of flies used for French nymphing are mainly beaded flies, jig flies, classic Czech nymphs, other weighted flies (for instance pheasant tail), or even wet flies. Smaller sizes from 12-16 are generally used, with size 12 for high water conditions and 14-16 for normal or low water conditions. One trend lately is the use of small tungsten flies tied on jig hooks, which sink well and tend to not get snagged on the river bottom due to the jig hook construction. Usually, the end fly should be the heaviest, which helps in casting the whole set and improving contact with all flies. On the second dropper a dry fly can be used, which acts as an additional strike indicator as well as also attracting fish.
French nymph fishing has certain peculiarities, and the question often arises to what extent they belong in the repertoire of fly fishing techniques. These questions are of course part of any new method, and we certainly all remember the purists arguing against the Czech nymph. The undeniable fact is that the French nymph is gaining more and more adherents because of its great effectiveness.
The fact that we fish without a fly line may cause some worry about how to cast the light nymphs. Thanks to the stiffer leader combined with the soft rod, casting is not at all difficult, though mastering the technique requires some time and practice, of course. We get the flies to the fish using a specific flick of the rod, and if we have enough line played out we can even use false casting (though there's usually no reason for it).
Flies are always cast upstream above where fish are lying, and in contrast to Czech nymphing we cast and lead the flies at some distance away. Let the flies sink, and follow their movement with the rod, which is held in front with an outstretched hand, trying to keep in constant contact with the flies. At longer distances, we have to keep the rod held up so that the line is always tight and the indicator moves just above or on the surface. The flies are led through the water column as long as possible, and at the end of their drift we let them naturally rise to the surface, cast again, and repeat the process.
The colored indicator helps us reflexively feel strikes, and we need to react to each movement or slight stopping of the indicator with a small lift of the rod. Strikes are also often perceived by the indicator dipping below the water surface, like a distant relative of bobber fishing.
When playing a fish, the softer rod is definitely appreciated, since fewer fish will get off than when fishing stiffer rods. However, it must be kept in mind that we're using a fine tippet, so fish should be played carefully and without rushing. I recommend using barbless hooks, since with the soft rod you will be losing fewer fish, and letting the fish off the hook becomes a matter of moments.
If you haven't yet tried the French nymph technique, then don't delay, since it's very successful on running waters and will certainly improve your catch statistics. Of course the method isn't a cure-all and isn't appropriate for all conditions, such as in high water, deep currents, or cloudy waters, where other fly fishing techniques will be more effective. At any rate, I wish all those who wish to try the technique best of luck during your experiments with small flies and a 9-meter leader, while giving your regular fly line a well-deserved rest in your reel.