Sight Nymphing French Style

Jonathan White explains the long leader approach to sight fishing

So much has been written in English about nymph fishing for trout, it is hard to imagine that there can be anything left worth saying. However, this would be to ignore the revolutionary innovations in fly fishing that have taken place in France over the last 30 years, in particular the ground breaking use of ultra-long, knotted tapered leaders for nymph fishing. The use of extremely long leaders, sometimes more than 25 feet in length, offers a decisive advantage both in terms of incredible delicacy of presentation and through postponing the onset of drag. French leaders were first developed in the mid-1980s as a means of sight fishing for very shy specimen trout in the crystal clear rivers of the Jura, the area of eastern France closest to Switzerland. Fishing pressure in these premier French rivers is intense, and sight nymphing with a French leader, fine tippet and a small lightly weighted nymph soon established itself as the method of choice. French leaders are most commonly associated with indicator nymphing for trout, usually combined with nymphs weighted with tungsten beads fished close to the bottom. However, sight nymphing with a French leader is quite different, and should more appropriately be seen as a further refinement of the sight nymphing traditions of Sawyer and Kite on the English chalk streams. Indeed, even today, it is sight nymphing or ‘nymphe à vue’ that is still considered to be the pinnacle of fly fishing in France. Sight nymphing is nothing new to Australian or New Zealand readers. It involves casting to a specific fish that has already been located. Takes are revealed by watching the reaction of the fish, rather than an indicator, making this one of the most exciting and demanding forms of fly fishing. In recent years, top French fishermen such as current world champion Julien Daguillanes and leading photographer Damien Brouste have demonstrated the incredible potential that exists to use French leaders to sight fish in the lakes and rivers of Tasmania and New Zealand. They have proved beyond doubt that sight nymphing with a French leader, works just as well when deployed on the clear waters of the Southern Hemisphere. French Leader Construction One of the most influential figures in the development of sight fishing in France has been Philippe Boisson. A native of the Jura, Boisson was for many years editor of the outstanding French fishing magazine Pêches Sportives, and his book De la pêche à la nymphe (2010) is one of the most thoughtful fly-fishing books publish-ed in any language. His thoughts on leader construction for sight nymphing have a wide following in France. Philippe Boisson’s leader uses five strands of nylon, each of 90 cm in length, starting with 0.40 mm at the butt and decreasing to 0.18 mm for the section preceding the tippet, which is a further 280 cm in length. As the leader strands are of equal length, the action of Boisson’s leader is neither ‘slow’ nor ‘rapid’. However, the function of the final 0.18 mm strand is to create a break as the leader unfurls, thus causing the tippet to land gently and loosely on the water. Boisson’s leader is very versatile and does not need to be changed whatever the diameter of the tippet. This leader can be used on different types of water and is suitable for sight nymphing and dry fly fishing. On smaller rivers, the leader can be shortened by decreasing the strand length to 60 or 65 cm each, and by reducing the length of the tippet to 1.5 metres. A shorter version of Boisson’s leader is also a good starting point for anyone trying this technique for the first time. Rods & Lines Most conventional fly rods will work perfectly well for using a French leader. That said, the ideal rod should have a ‘semi-parabolic’ action, in other words the rod should bend for approx-imately the top two-thirds of its length. This action, which is neither fast nor slow, is perfect for this type of fishing. A rod that bends for most of its length will almost certainly lack the power to handle a very long leader, especially in a wind, while a tip action rod is likely to cause an unacceptable number of breakages when trying to hook fish on fine tippets. A semi-parabolic action permits a fast casting movement and tight loops, allowing for the wind to be pierced — a key requirement with a very long leader. For sight fishing, a rod of around 8' 6" to 9' is about ideal, either in a 5 or 6 weight. Most top French river fishermen opt for a weight forward line as these lines load the rod quickly, which is a key factor when handling a very long leader. This also means that the number of false casts can be kept to a minimum, a significant advantage when casting to shy fish in very clear water and bright sunlight. Speed of loading the rod is also a key success factor when targeting cruising fish, as the window of opportunity to cast is often very short. Floating lines of this type work equally well for both sight nymphing and dry fly fishing. Philippe Boisson, alongside other leading sight fishing specialists in the Jura, favours triangle taper fly lines, originally invented by US fly fishing legend Lee Wulff. The continuous forward taper in these lines permits high line speed and tight casting loops, as well as delivering very delicate presentation. Choice of Fly Fish are much more sensitive to whether an artificial fly behaves in a natural way than if it is an identical copy of something they have eaten. As a consequence, a limited selection of suggestive generic patterns that have stood the test of time, such as Pheasant Tail nymphs, Hare’s Ears and some shrimp imitations, will cover most sight fishing situations. The most important choice you will have to make is what weight and size of fly to use. To achieve the most natural movement, it is preferable to use as little weight in the nymph as possible. It is, therefore, almost always better to cast a lighter fly further upstream, in order to allow it time to sink to the correct depth, rather than to try to cast a heavier fly closer to the fish. Approach In most situations it will make sense to approach fish from below, casting upstream, as in dry fly fishing. This has the benefit of reducing the likelihood that you will be detected, and also provides the best opportunity to achieve a dead drift. The disadvantage of the upstream cast, however, is that a length of tippet will inevitably precede the fly. If the fish is feeding, and the cast has been well directed and delicate, this is not usually a problem. Indeed, one of the advantages of fishing a French leader is that the fish is only likely to be exposed to a length of fine tippet, with the leader and fly line remaining outside his field of vision. However, occasionally fish will not tolerate an approach from downstream. In these situations, it can pay dividends to attempt to cast to these fish from directly across, or even slightly upstream. This positioning means that the fly will need to be cast closer to the fish than normal, as drag will set in much sooner than with an upstream cast. This may mean a change to a heavier fly is necessary so that the fly reaches the desired depth more quickly. Although this approach should only to be tried if an upstream cast has proved to be unsuccessful, it does mean that a cast can be made that delivers the fly to the fish without any tippet being visible. In certain circumstances, such a delivery will tempt fish that would otherwise have been uncatchable. Casting The key casting challenge is to use a technique that will allow the nymph to sink naturally without the effect of drag. In order to achieve this the leader needs to land loosely on the water. In fact, the aim should be for the tippet to land in a heap, thus allowing the fly to sink at its own pace. At first sight, this is a rather counterintuitive notion for those of us brought up to consider a dead straight leader as the peak of perfection in fly-casting. There are several casting techniques that can be used to achieve this effect, of which the most useful is probably the dump cast or, if the wind is blowing from behind, the bounce-back cast. Sometimes, however, at very short range or in highly wooded areas any type of normal cast may be unfeasible. In these situations a bow and arrow cast can be an invaluable alternative technique. These casting techniques are not particularly difficult to master, but it is certainly well worth spending some practice time ahead of trying to cast to the fish of a lifetime! Presentation Once a fish has been spotted, further observation is necessary to try to establish at what depth the fish is lying, if it is stationary or on the move and if there are currents or micro-currents that might cause drag. There is a significant presentational advantage to fishing as fine a tippet as possible, provided that there is not an undue risk of being broken. A fine tippet allows the nymph to move more naturally in the water, as the line generates less friction. Free movement is absolutely key in order to create the impression that the artificial nymph is behaving in a natural way, and is being carried in the current as the fish would expect. Clearly, there is an appropriate relationship between tippet diameter and both nymph size and weight if drag is to be avoided. Precise rules are no substitute for gathering experience of what works in practice, but a rough rule of thumb is that nymphs of size 16 or smaller are likely to work best with a tippet of 0.10 mm or less, while larger nymphs of size 12–14 are usually paired with tippets of 0.14 mm or more. It is a personal judgement as to whether a dead drift is preferable to an induced take, the latter being prompted by animating the nymph as it approaches the fish. The lifting of the fly seems to suggest a nymph rising to the surface, often triggering a response. One approach is to try the fish first with a dead drift, and if this does not work then to seek to induce a take by lifting the rod on the following cast. Hooking It is critical that the fly-line remains under control at all times during the drift. If there is too much slack line it will be impossible to set the hook and all previous good work will be undone. Given the size of the fly, it is rarely possible to see the nymph and follow its movement under water. What is being looked for is any indication that the fish has intercepted the nymph. Clearly this requires an ability to judge approximately where the nymph is at any given time, so that the behaviour of the fish can be scrutinised at the mo-ment when a take might be expected. The estimate of the trajectory of the fly is an art in itself, as the speed of the current, the size and weight of the nymph, the length of the leader, the diameter of the tippet and the distance the nymph was cast upstream of the fish will all have a bearing on the depth and positioning of the fly. Signs that the fish has eaten the fly can take many different forms. Most obviously, if the leader stops, the fish’s mouth opens, or the fish is seen to move to one side, you should tighten immediately. In some instances the indication of a take can be very subtle, perhaps simply being revealed by a slight movement of the pectoral fins. As a result, it can actually be helpful for the trajectory of the fly to be slightly to the side of the fish so that it is obliged to move in order to eat it, thus revealing the take. Sometimes there are no obvious indications at all that the fish has taken the fly, but a sixth sense tells you that it is still worth tightening in anticipation of a take. While this is undoubtedly frustrating, it also underlines why sight nymphing with a French leader is one of the most exciting and challenging forms of fly fishing. For more information refer to Jonathan White’s recently released book Nymphing – the new way (2016) published by Merlin Unwin Books and available from

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