I was recently talking with one of my fly fishing buddies about different Euro nymphing techniques. During our conversation, he talked about how nymphing with a French Leader has greatly enhanced his ability to fool large and wary trout in clear water. I decided I want to learn more about this style of fishing and find out for myself.

What is a French Leader in Fly Fishing?

A French Leader is a hand-built fly fishing leader usually 12 to 20 feet long. The leader has three components: 1) a long mono section that extends into the reel. 2) a coiled sighter to improve strike detection. 3) tapered fluorocarbon leader and tippet connected to flies.

What’s Different About French Nymph Fly Fishing?

French nymphing is all about finesse and stealth – a necessity when pursuing hookset with trout that are ultra-wary and spook at the slightest disturbance. Like other competition based tight line nymphing techniques that are similar (think Spanish Nymphing, Czech Nymphing, etc.), French Nymphing is most advantageous where the water is shallow and gin-clear.

The differences in French Nymphing stem from the angler’s need to be undetected by their quarry. To do this, the technique employs a lengthy leader (often in excess of eighteen feet), super fine tippet, and a longer fly rod (10 feet is a good starting point).

french nymphing technique
french nymphing technique

In addition, this style of fly fishing uses very light flies. Once again, the reason for the lighter flies and finer tippet has to do with finesse – that is, presenting the fly in the water with as little disturbance as possible.

Casting and Fishing a French Leader

Unlike traditional fly fishing, French Nymphing does not involve use of the fly line in casting. Instead, the fly line functions primarily as a running line. A small amount of fly line may be used for casting in situations where additional distance is needed.

Since there isn’t a lot of weight to the leader and the very light nymph attached at the tippet, learning the cast will likely take some practice. I recommend watching some YouTube videos (i.e. search “Casting a French Leader”) to get a sense of the mechanics for this technique.

Drifting a French Leader

This style of fly fishing also utilizes drifting – or using the water’s current to move the fly through the water column, while keeping the leader taught (that is, above the water). In westernized fly fishing, this is quite similar to the high-sticking technique used in the pocket water of high mountain streams.
The drift begins at a position upstream from where the angler is standing. Once the fly has drifted to a position that is parallel the angler, the angler performs a back cast and a forward cast to place the fly at the upstream position again.

Back Cast with a French Leader

The back cast in French Nymphing utilizes a water load, which uses the fly’s friction with the water surface to load the rod. This cast is achieved when the angler raises their elbow to move the fly up and out of the water. If done right, the water load does not create a lot of noise or surface disruption and maintains the angler’s stealth and finesse presentation.
While drifting, the angler may repeat the cast several times in the same location while the fish are biting. Once the bite ceases or the angler feels they have covered that section of water adequately, the angler should continue to move upstream and repeat the process.

Can I use an Indicator Fly Fishing with a French Nymphing Technique?

French Nymphing technique generally does not utilize the kinds of indicators popular in traditional fly fishing. I imagine that one reason for this is because these indicators are too large for the finesse presentation needed for extra-spooky fish. However, the primary reason has to do with the tournament fishing origins of French Nymphing, which did not allow the use indicators.

What is the function of a “Sighter” in a French Nymphing Rig

coiled sighter for fly fishing
coiled sighter for fly fishing

While indicators were not allowed, tournament rules did not stop Euro-Nymphing competitors from developing other methods of detecting a fish strike. Enter the sighter. This is the section of the French Leader that functions as an indicator.

There are two variations of the sighter popularly used in French Nymphing:

  • The Coiled Sighter – This design uses mono that is formed in a coil, not too different from the coil cord attaching a landline phone to its base. When a fish bites the coil expands rapidly. The advantage of this design is that it buys the angler some time before the fish realizes it has been hooked – giving the angler more time to set the hook before the fish spits the fly.
  • The Colored Sighter – This design includes a section of mono or dacron with different colored sections that make it easier for the angler to see a rapid movement in the line triggered by a bite. When a section of the colored line suddenly disappears into the stream, the angler sets the hook. The advantage of this design is that it is much easier to see than the coiled sighter under lower light conditions.

What Fly Rod is Recommended for French Nymphing?

In French Nymphing a longer rod of at least ten feet is necessary. This longer rod length serves a few different purposes. One reason is stealth – the longer rod makes it easier to move the fly closer to the target without the angler having to walk into (or as close to) the areas where are fish are holding.

Another reason is that the technique of keeping the long leader taught (also known as tight line nymphing) – that is without slack and above the water, requires a long rod. Usually, the angler will need to fully extend their arm to keep the leader in this position as the fly is drifting.

TFO Drift Fly Rod
TFO Drift Fly Rod

When considering rods for your nymphing quiver, there are many options available on the market today. One option that is an excellent value is the TFO Drift Fly Rod.

READ more about the TFO Drift Fly Rod in this article. The Best Fly Rod, Reel and Line for Nymph Fly Fishing

The TFO Drift Fly Rod – Built for This Kind of Fly Fishing

Looking at the TFO website, you can tell the company put a lot of innovation into this rod. It hosts an impressive degree of versatility, which is not commonly seen on the fly rod market.

Fly Rod Length Options for French Nymphing/Leader

The Drift was designed specifically with euro-nymphing in mind and may be assembled in four different lengths: A traditional 9’ 4 inches, and three extended length options – 10’, 11’ 3 inches or 12’ 3 inches. This rod is basically four rods in one!

Depending on the size of the water that you are angling, the rod length may be adjusted to match the conditions. For example, on a wide river where more distance is desired, the 12’ 3 inch length may be the ticket. For smaller pocket water with low overhanging trees, the 10’ length may be the best option.

How to Make a French Leader for Fly Fishing

Let’s look step-by-step at how to make a hand-tied French Leader of 18 feet in length, starting with the materials, knots know-how, and flies you will need:

Materials:

  • Mono Leader, Butt section – 6 – 12 feet of 20 lb. test mono line
  • Mono Leader, second section – 3 to 4 feet of 15 lb. test mono line
  • Sighter – 24”. I recommend a coiled sighter or Scientific Angler’s Tri-Color Sighter Tippet. These are specifically designed for euro-nymphing.
  • Fluorocarbon Tapered Leader 3x-6x
  • Tippet 24″ of fluorocarbon 4x to 7x

Knots:

  • Double Surgeon’s Knot or Blood Knot
  • Perfection Loop
  • Clinch Knot
make a french leader for nymph fly fishing
make a french leader for nymph fly fishing
  1. Begin with the seventy-two inch section of twenty-pound test mono. This will make up the “butt” section of the leader that attaches to the fly line and will have the largest diameter from which the leader will taper. I recommend joining this section to the fly line using a loop-to-loop connection via a perfection loop.
  2. Attach the twenty-pound test mono to a section of fifteen-pound test mono of thirty-six inches in length. To join the two pieces, use a double surgeon’s knot or a blood knot.
    Note: The double surgeon’s knot is a much easier knot to tie. The advantage of the blood knot is that, if executed correctly, it is a near frictionless knot and passes through rod guides much easier.
  3. Use a perfection loop knot to join twenty-four inches of colored sighter tippet (can also be substituted with a coiled sighter) to the section of fifteen-pound test mono.
  4. Use a clinch knot to add a section of tippet, eighty-four inches in length to the sighter’s perfection loop.
  5. Finally, attach the anchor fly using a clinch knot at the end of the tippet section. An additional fly may be attached above the anchor fly using a dropper. This completes the French Leader.

Flies When Using a French Leader and Technique

French nymphing can employ a variety of Czech Nymph style flies and other weighted wet flies in the 12 – 14 size. The technique may be used with either one, two or even three flies, with the fly attached at the tag end of the tippet serving as an “anchor” and other flies attached ahead of (higher up the leader) the anchor on a dropper rig.

An Innovative and Exciting Way to Fly Fish

French Nymphing is an excellent technique that greatly expands the fly angler’s ability to fool fish in nervous waters. While different in many ways from traditional fly fishing, this style of fly fishing was born out of an innovative approach to the sport that has proven to be highly effective in shallow, clear water where stealth and finesse are a necessity.

So now you are familiar with the form and mechanics of a French Leader and this exciting way to fly fish that is French Nymphing.

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