When you’re out on the river fishing for either trout in the height of summer or grayling through winter, almost everyone you bump into these days is fishing a French Leader – A devastatingly effective method that has been favoured by many top competition anglers for quite a number of years. It was first developed and mastered by the French and Belgian anglers where then both countries generally dominated competition fly fishing. As the other teams caught wind of the technique, naturally they started to experiment with similar set ups.
For at least 10 years now, anglers from all around Europe have adopted the French leader technique and it is now the ‘go-to’ nymphing style, in my eyes taking over from the traditional Czech Nymphing style.
What is French Nymphing?
French Nymphing is a style of fishing that was created to catch spooky fish in very shallow, slow flowing rivers. Over time it has been adapted to fish fast water of up to a meter or so deep, the method as many of us know it today. However, the French leader is extremely versatile and can be adapted to fish all types of running (and still) water.
The French Leader itself is made up of an extremely long tapered leader made from monofilament. The taper is made up of a steep but gradual taper, designed to be fished on long and soft fly rods. At the end of the tapered leader there’s a short indicator piece, generally a length of coloured nylon or braid approximately 6-10 inches long. From the indicator you have your tippet and flies. You should vary the length of your tippet to the depth of water you’re fishing, i.e 3 feet deep = 3 foot tippet.
The important thing to remember when using a French leader is to flick or lob the flies rather than cast – very rarely you use fly line when fishing this method, unless you’re fishing extremely long distances.
The advantage of using a French leader is that you can present your flies with absolutely zero drag, at both close and long range. The majority of French leader set ups are designed to be fished between 2 and 9 meters away from the angler, making this the perfect method to target pressured fish…
Choosing the correct rod for the river you’re fishing is essential. The rod length is generally chosen for the size of the river, and the rod weight determined by the size of the fish and flies intended to be used. The 10ft 3# Sage ESN and the Greys GR70 Streamflex range are tried and tested French leader rods, the length and softness makes casting light flies on the long leader easier than ever before.
A long tapered leader is the preferred set up for French nymphing, with the Hendz Camou leader being an all round favourite. However of late, many anglers have been leaning towards micro thin fly lines with a short leader off the end – the Airflo SLN Euro Nymph Line has been a firm favourite of mine over the last three season. The Euro Nymph line is perfect for short range french nymphing and allows total control even in unfavourable conditions. It comes ready with a built-in indicator piece, which is considered the heart and soul of the French leader. The indicator provides the angler with vital information, any movement away from its natural position shows the fly has been intercepted by a fish and taken, or it has hit a snag – any movement should be met with a small flick or strike of the rod to potentially set the hook. A yellow or orange indicator is easily seen against the foliage, but white, blue and even black may stand out better in some circumstances – Bi-colour indicators are also very effective.
Extremely fine tippets are commonly used when French nymphing, these fine leaders allow your flies to sink quickly through fast water and are less likely to spook fish, especially on water ways that are heavily fished. I tend to use Fulling Mill World Class Fluorocarbon of breaking strains of 2-5lb depending on the water height and clarity. When the fishing is tough and you need your flies to be presented flawlessly, monofilament tippets such as Stroft or Fulling Mill Xtra Co-polymer are invaluable.
Fishing the French Leader Technique
The biggest difference in using the French Leader to any other ‘conventional’ river method is the lack of fly line… This can sometimes be a struggle when you first start fishing this technique, but persistence is key and you will quickly master the flicking/casting technique to get the lengthy tapered leader to travel. Ensure to start short and gradually work towards lengthening your cast.
The French leader is always cast upstream into the current, above any potentially likely looking lies. Once cast, lift your arm and the rod high in the air so the tapered leader and indicator are above the surface of the water, keeping everything consistently taught, without dragging the flies back towards you. Lead and track the indicator with your rod along with the current whilst the flies fish and sink through the water column for as long as possible. At the end of the cast, lift the flies gently out of the water, cast and repeat the process throughout the length of the pool. Remember to strike at any movement to the indicator!
What flies do I use?
Tungsten beaded flies are essential to fishing the French Leader to its full potential. Flies tied on Jig hooks are favoured as the weight is offset over the eye of the hook, allowing the fly to fish ‘point up’, away from the bottom and lowering the chance of hooking up – Jigs generally allow the flies to fish for a lengthier period of time before having to be recast. Other patterns such as Czech Nymphs and straight hooked patterns do, however, work extremely well.
Top 5 recommended flies for French Nymphing
Fulling Mill Flash Back Pheasant Tail – A deadly pattern fished anywhere in a run. Use this fly on it’s own or as a dropper when fishing a team of flies, a great all trout nymph.
Orange Hot Spot Pheasant Tail Jig – A great pattern for dirty water. The hot spot on this fly is a real trigger point when the water is murky.
Flash Back Pheasant Tail Mary – A Pheasant Tail Nymph variant with a pearl flashback and tungsten bead, which can be highly effective fished at long range on the french leader.
Peeping Caddis Olive – A depth charge, ideal for getting your flies to the bottom quickly. Fish this fly on the point of a two or three fly cast, the heavy split shot will force the fly to sink ‘head first’ and snag less.
Dirty Pink Shrimp – A brilliant Grayling fly throughout the whole of the winter, especially good on crisp, cold days. Fish this fly singly in slow water to target individual fish, or as a team in fast flowing runs.