One of the prominent mantra’s I remember when I first learnt to fly fish was the message of “fish your feet first”. Unfortunately for me as I learnt to cast further and further this was one of the first lessons I was silly enough to discard. That was until I started to hear about the success of the many of the European anglers using short line nymphing techniques. I read journals about Czech nymphing, Polish nymphing, rolled nymphing, high sticking and off course the French techniques. What is of particular interest now for us Kiwi anglers is how the Czech team came through as world champions earlier this year here on our home waters with their anglers placing first, third, nineth, eleventh and twenty second out of the one hundred anglers competing. In fairness to the NZ team they were only 23 placing points away from the Czech’s in a valiant second place, but what’s most interesting to note is the Kiwi’s weren’t fishing classic New Zealand long line nymphing techniques, instead the team had spent the last few years working on their shortline techniques. Modelled of, off course the Czech’s and the French.
Short line nymphing is certainly nothing new, however like all techniques in fly fishing it is constantly evolving and consequently there are consistently new concepts, techniques and tackle being developed by those at the leading edge. Shortlining techniques have been developed from a number of different avenues over the past few years, the wide range of names that have been tagged to shortlining are testament to the varied origins of these techniques. American angler Charles Brook who has often been referred to as the forefather of modern nymphing outlined in his 1976 book Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout a number of the techniques that have become commonplace within the shortline nymphers arsenal such as the Leisenring lift and high sticking. The effectiveness of shortlining in competition fly fishing came out in the World Championships in 1984 held in Poland when the home team who as the story goes were unable to access or possibly afford fly lines and were thus forced to fish short line with monofilament leaders, they did this successfully enough to win the championship and drew immediate interest to this ‘new technique’. These techniques were adopted by anglers from the Czechoslokian team and two years later in Belgium Slavoj Svoboda became the first Czech world champion using his “Czech nymphing” techniques.
Techniques have developed a vast amount over the past few years and to make things as simple as possible we can break these into two separate streams of thinking. The first technique is based primarily around using a floating line and an extended leader system. The tip of the fly line which is normally brightly coloured is allowed to touch the water’s surface but no more. In essence the line is there to act as an indicator for takes and to help load the rod, many anglers will use a heavy weighted line on their rod to help with the loading, such as an eight weight line on a size weight rod. The second technique and the one used with unbelievable levels of success by the Czech and Kiwi teams during the march World championships is the string technique. With this technique no fly line is used at all, instead a long monofilament leader is run all the way back to the fly reel. Casting is done by flicking or lobbing the weighted nymphs upstream and allowing them to sink. From a deep nymphing perspective the string technique has the advantage of creating less drag on the flies, consequently they fish deeper and more naturally. Furthermore the monofilament main line has the advantage of being lightweight and highly sensitive to takes. Conversely having the fly line as the primary loading point for the cast makes it easier to fish a team of lighter flies and also a dry fly and dropper set up. The technique for presenting the nymphs using either technique is much the same, the cast or lob is made on a high angle upstream. The rod is held high to ensure the line is kept off the water’s surface and the flies are allowed to sink. As the flies drift towards the angler they are followed with the rod tip and once opposite the angler the flies can literally be jigged up and down to represent a rising nymph. At the end of the drift the flies are again allowed to rise up to the surface before a new cast is made. As the name would indicate, casts are kept short, to between one and two rod lengths of line. The overall concept behind this is to improve line control and accuracy.
The strong European influence on shortline techniques are certainly testament to the techniques effectiveness on grayling which dominate many of the rivers throughout Europe. This is understandable as grayling have a well defined downward facing mouth suited to feeding directly off the river bottom, secondly they have a tendency to school so consequently positioning yourself over a school of grayling is a lethal approach to catching fish, thirdly grayling especially in fast water are comfortable with an angler present, I have even had them sit behind me as I wade mid current (I wish double figure browns would do that). With this knowledge it is easy to disregard shortline techniques for trout, however as we’d mentioned earlier the fact that the Czech and Kiwi teams did so well during the last World Championships is proof of the techniques effectiveness in our waters. As we all know in many of our famed crystal clear streams you simply can’t get yourself close enough to a trout to fish shortline to them. Where the technique stands out however is fishing fast runs and constant pools when having your flies on the bottom is the recipe for success. As an approach I’ve found shortline techniques extremely effective at fishing runs on the Tongariro and other spawning rivers where I am able to position myself over a bunch of holding fish and consistently drift my nymphs through their lie. Similarly on many of our rivers you are able to use natural cover to hide you as you work a team of flies through a deep run. The benefit of shortline techniques is great line control, consistent drifts and drag free presentations.
Due to the requirement to hold plenty of line off the water for shortlining, ten foot rods are often used in weights four through to six. Although I’m a fan of ten foot rods, I believe the critical factor is holding the rod up high and often a lighter nine foot rod is easier to fish in this fashion for a full day. Whether you are fishing the fly line or string technique one of the critical factors is getting a low or non stretch set up. Consequently a non stretch fly line is a must or a low stretch monofilament leader. The leader can either be brightly coloured or for times when this is going to alarm fish a clear leader can be fished with a bright sighter section of either yellow or orange monofilament. The flies are set up on traditional droppers to improve their action. Where it’s legal a three fly set up is most common. The heaviest fly is positioned in the centre and lighter flies are positioned either side around fifty centre metres apart. Flies have been significantly changed for this technique, they tend to be slim line and well weighted. The slim diameter of the flies improves their sink rates, it’s for this reason that tails and legs are kept slim and sparse. More often than not takes are felt although the bright fly line or monofilament sighter is useful to spot hesitations in the drift. As soon as a take is felt or seen a quick jig of the flies will set the hook, if you don’t come up tight then the flies can be left to keep drifting through.
Many anglers use a lot of these techniques such as jigging the flies and controlling short drifts in their standard fishing approach. Even if you have no intention of becoming the next world champion being able to master shortline techniques will not only give you another string to your bow it will also improve your understanding and abilities when fishing classic New Zealand long line nymphing techniques.
Whatever you choose to do, make sure you fish your feet first.
Here's an exceptional introduction video on euro nymphing from Lubin Pfeiffer of The Full Scale Fishing Adventures. Lubin is an accomplished competition angler, and generally one of the fishiest people we know, so this is the good oil, straight from the source.