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Nymphing Techniques – European or Strike Indicator

I’ve briefly mentioned European nymphing and the conventional strike indicator type of nymphing in past articles (Three Main Types of Flies to Fly Fish for Trout). While that’s all good to mention those it doesn’t give you much of an idea as to just what they are. Many anglers may already be familiar with strike indicator nymphing. It’s a tried and true method that most anglers first start out using when learning the fly fishing basics and how to nymph fish. A new, and incredibly effective, technique sweeping the U.S.A. is European nymphing. This made its appearance from international fly fishing competitions and is slowly making its way across the country. So let’s talk about nymphing techniques and just what European and strike indicator nymphing really are.

Nymphing Technique - Wffc Martin Drož - Fly Fishing Basics

Conventional Strike Indicator Nymphing Technique

If you’re just starting out learning how to fly fish, and you’ve ventured into the waters of sub-surface flies, you’ll no doubt have heard of nymphing with a strike indicator. However, for those that aren’t familiar with conventional strike indicator nymphing techniques, here’s a brief explanation of just what it is.

Strike Indicator - Nymphing Techniques

Yarn Indicator from Fishwest.com

When nymph fishing, your fly is under the water. This poses a substantial problem in that you can’t tell when a fish takes your fly and when you need to set the hook. To help with this, anglers developed what are called strike indicators.  These can be a simple piece of yarn tied to your leader, a small section of floating fly line threaded on your leader, sticky colored foam shapes, or even plastic bobber type indicators that clip on to your line. The varieties are endless.

When you are employing conventional strike indicator nymphing techniques, you attach one of the above-mentioned indicators to your leader above your fly. The basic concept is that you are watching your indicator for any unnatural movement, which can be a fish that has just taken your fly.  This is the main purpose of a strike indicator.

Another purpose of these little devices is that of depth control of your fly.  Say you want your nymph to be suspended two feet into the water column of a four foot deep run.  All you need to do is place your strike indicator two feet above your fly and your fly will then no sink any deeper than this amount.  It’s a pretty nice nymphing technique to use, especially when figuring out the depth the fish are holding, and it is also one aspect of the fly fishing basics that is fairly easy to learn and implement.

Drawbacks of Strike Indicator Nymphing Technique

While all of that sounds great, there are flaws to this method.  I’ll try to not let any bias of mine in here as I’m not a fan of using strike indicators, but some drawbacks of this method are:

  • Loon Biostrike Strike Indicator on Water - Nymphing Techniques

    Loon Biostrike from Front Range Anglers

    Creates a weak link in your leader (depends on type of indicator used)

  • Doesn’t detect subtle strikes from fish very well (typically you’ll miss up to 30% of all strikes)
  • Impedes on your casting
  • Can sometimes provide leverage for a fish to throw the hook (depends on type of indicator used)
  • Easy to foul your leader up
  • Causes issues when switching fishing style (i.e. nymph to dry or streamer fishing)

These are just a few of the drawbacks associated with strike indicator nymphing.  It is one of those techniques where you have to weigh the pros and cons and decided on what is right for you and your fishing style.  There is nothing wrong with this method and many a fish can be caught using it.

European Nymphing Technique

If you’ve picked up a fly fishing magazine recently, or browsed any online blogs, you may well have heard of European nymphing techniques.  But just what are they and how do they compare to the conventional strike indicator fly fishing methods?

European nymphing is somewhat of a misleading name. Popular styles of European nymphing include Czech/Polish nymphing, French Nymphing and Spanish nymphing, all of which have their differences. The main differences you will find between European nymphing techniques and the strike indicator method are the lack of a typical strike indicator and the extended length of the leader being used (not applicable in Czech/Polish method though). I’ll discuss the two more popular methods: Czech and French nymphing. If you’re looking for a good book on nymphing techniques, be sure to check out Dynamic Nymphing by George Daniel.

Czech/Polish Nymphing Technique

With the Czech/Polish nymphing techniques you will still be using a relatively short leader, typically the length of the rod being used, longer fly rods, and fairly heavily weighted flies setup in a tandem fly setup or more. You can also incorporate a colored section of monofilament into your leader to act as a strike indicator. You’ll usually be fishing fast moving water that uses that current to help hide yourself from the fish as you’ll be in pretty close to them.  The basic technique involves only using a couple inches of fly line out the tip of your rod and fishing within leaders-length from yourself. You “flip” the flies upstream and slightly lead them downstream through the current for a fairly short drift, usually less than 20 feet or so.

You will almost feel the strikes before you see anything happen. What you’ll see though is your leader, just out of water, make a sudden move. You are effectively using a direct connection to your flies and therefore the strikes are hard to miss, greatly increasing the amount of hookups. There’s more to it and I may explore that at a future time, but for now that gives a basic rundown of the nymphing technique.

French Nymphing Technique

The French nymphing technique is a difficult one to get used to.  You use lighter flies, longer fly rods, fish almost straight upstream from you, and use a leader length in excess of 25 feet at times. As you can tell, fishing this way takes a bit of practice.

With the French nymphing technique, you’re fly line will never touch the water.  Many times you’ll be fishing fairly shallow areas of a river as well and this technique works great for spooky fish. The leader will usually include some sort of indicator, though not the same as the conventional method, in the form of colored monofilament or colored curly sighter. This allows for a continuous line yet still be able to see subtle takes from the fish. The extended length of the leader creates casting issues and you’ll typically lob the flies into position using the current behind you and a long fly rod to help get the flies there.

Front Range Anglers - Spiral Sighter - Nymphing Techniques

Spiral Sighter from Front Range Anglers

At this point, your fly rod is held high in the air and lifted back towards you as your fly drifts. Again, the drift will be short, maybe 10 feet or less. You’ll be watching your colored sighter for any sign of a take and as with Czech nymphing there’s a good chance you’ll feel the take before you see it. Now just rinse and repeat. Again, this is just a brief explanation of the method. There’s far too much information to present in a comprehensive post like this.

The European Nymphing Method – Hybrid Style

Essentially each of these methods is considered a tight-line fly fishing technique and they are all included in what is considered to be European nymphing. You remove the awkward strike indicator, replace it with a colored monofilament sighter, and create a direct connection to your fly.

The method I usually think of when I think European nymphing is more of a hybrid system. Take the beneficial parts of each method and lump them into one.  Sounds good right? This is my preferred method of nymph fishing and I’ll give a little insight into just what it is.

Fly Fishing - European Nymphing Techniques

What I do is start with the leader. It will be the foundation for everything. As with the French method, the leaders I’ll use are generally in the length of 20 feet. I include a two-colored monofilament sighter roughly halfway in the leader itself (this varies). Now you can basically choose the nymphing technique you want and adjust accordingly throughout the day for the changing river and conditions.

Say you come up to a fast-moving run in the river. It’s a perfect Czech nymphing spot. You attach you heavy flies, set your leader to the length of the rod (you may only be fishing with leader, just FYI), and proceed to fish the run Czech style. Next you move upstream and come to a slow-moving, shallow area of the river. All you need to do is change your flies up, adjust the length of leader your fishing with (again, you may only have leader out of the tip of your rod), and proceed to fish the area French style.

By setting up your leader for all situations, you are then prepared for whatever comes your way. This style of fishing allows you to be very fluid in your fishing and you can adapt very quickly. It was born out of competition where every second counts, but applying it to your time on local waters can drastically improve your catch rate.


I hope that has given you an idea of the differences between conventional strike indicator style nymphing and the newer European nymphing techniques. This may be more on the advanced side of the fly fishing basics, but learning new ways to fly fish along with new nymphing techniques is all a part of the joy of fly fishing. This explanation may leave many questions for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below or post it to the Facebook page, Google+ page, or connect with me on Twitter.

About Clint Losee

Clint Losee is an avid fly angler of 30+ years, web developer, and Utah Landscape & Nature Photographer. You can connect with him on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Curious about some of the gear he uses? Check out the new Amazon store.