Euro Nymphing: Tippet Length

The versatility of the euro-nymphing leader is perhaps its greatest advantage.  Within even a short stretch of river, numerous water types can be found, each with a different depth and speed, from fast riffles and moderate runs to slack back-currents and deep, slow pools.  

For those of you who have spent time euro-nymphing, you probably appreciate that a good presentation and change in drift depth can often be achieved in each of these unique water types by simply changing the angle of the cast, or by starting your drift slightly further up or downstream.  If a change in the cast alone won’t suffice to achieve the proper depth, switching out flies to have a properly weighted rig is another quick and easy way to get that drift right through the strike zone.

A person holding a fish

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A nice brown trout from the water pictured above, caught while euro-nymphing

While a switch in casting angle and a fly change are adequate to get a presentation that fish will commit to in the vast majority of situations, there is another variable that I find myself often neglecting: length of tippet below the sighter.  I think the main reason for this is that I sometimes find it a hassle to make this adjustment as it requires a more substantial re-rig than does a quick fly change.  However, there are a few examples that stick in my mind of when adding an extra foot of tippet made all of the difference.

Here is one from this past August on a small spring creek in Northwest Wyoming.  As is typical with many spring creeks, is has extremely clear, slow water and a population of large and well-educated Snake River fine-spot cutthroat trout.  After a bit of creeping upstream, I found myself kneeling in some tall grass behind a pod of 5 or 6 fish, all stuck to the sandy bottom in around 3 feet of water.  

A body of water with a mountain in the background

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The spring creek.  This picture is making me want to go back as soon as possible.

Using a pair of small nymphs, I began to make drifts to these fish.  It soon became clear that they were not going to be nice enough to move out of their way to eat my flies, and I knew that I’d practically have to boink them in the nose if I was going to get one in the net.  However, I could see that each of my drifts was going around 6 inches over their heads.  I first tried my usual trick of letting my sighter sink a bit down to achieve more depth, but after around 20 drifts I realized this wasn’t going to work.  I could see the flies moving past the fish, but they showed no interest.  A few fly pattern changes showed no improvement either.  Next, I added another foot of tippet between my sighter and flies.  I repeated the drift I had been doing earlier and immediately connected with a solid fish.  

A person holding a fish

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A small adjustment in tippet length led to one of my biggest cutthroats of the year.

What had changed?  Both methods (letting the sighter sink and adding tippet) resulted in my flies getting to the appropriate depth, but one clearly worked while the other did not.  What it comes down to is drag.  Due to friction between water at the bottom of the stream and the bottom substrate (rocks, sand, etc.) the surface of a stream has a significantly higher velocity than does lower in the water column.  So, when letting my sighter sink a little, this faster current at the top of the water column pulled my 0X sighter at a higher rate of speed than the current at the bottom, ultimately dragging my nymphs unnaturally fast by the picky trout holding there.  

When I added a little more tippet, my sighter remained out of the water and only my 6X tippet was pulled by the surface currents.  In this circumstance, drag was not substantial because 6X is much narrower in diameter than 0X, so it’s subject to much less drag. This change allowed for a natural dead drift by the fish, which convinced them to eat.  Since this event, I have been much more mindful of using the proper amount of tippet to get a good drift.  Too short of a length will put the flies above fish, too much will make strike detection difficult.  In most circumstances, keeping sighter up and out of the water will create a much better dead drift.  Make the appropriate changes to get the drift where you think it should be and an increase in catch rate will surely follow.  

About the Author

Calvin McClellan @jah_eel_vt

I’m an Environmental Science major at the University of Vermont who spends way more time fishing and tying flies than I probably should.  Although I do enjoy a good dry fly or streamer take, I most often can be found using European-nymphing techniques to target the wily wild browns, ‘bows, brookies and salmon of the Green Mountains and neighboring states.  While I’ll always have a love for the challenging (and sometimes frustrating) streams of Vermont, I often migrate West during the summer to fish remote rivers and alpine lakes.

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