It is a commonly-encountered misconception that “leader-t0-hand” nymphing is something fundamentally “other” than “fly fishing,” that it involves “fishing with flies,” but that these are cast with the weight of the fly, “plunked” or “lobbed” and that this might as well be done with a spinning outfit. In some circles this is felt to denigrate or delegitimize the practice. I’ll leave this latter point aside , along with the related issue of its legitimacy in competitive fly fishing (in which I have no personal interest or opinion, tho I recognize that for others who entertain those interests, this may be a legitimate and important topic) and address the actual technique and the physics involved here.
First, let’s look closely at fly weights. A tungsten beadhead nymph will weigh in at between 0.05 gram (2mm tungsten bead on a # 16-18 hook) and 0.35 gram (for a rather huge 3.5 mm tungsten bead on a #14 hook). The nymphs I most typically use will weigh 0.17-0.22 gram (2.5-3mm tungsten bead on a #14 hook), and I most commonly fish a single fly in this approach. In comparison, the very smallest of the “ultralight” range of spinning lures would weigh in at a relatively massive 1/64- 1/32 ounce (0.44-0.89 gram); this mass required to drag along a much lighter mass of 1-4#-test mono spinning line in the cast. Try casting a typical beadhead nymph on spinning gear to see just how far you’ll get; you’d be limited to rather clumsy implementation of short-line below-the-rod-tip strategies at best (no hair on those approaches, but not what we’re talking about here). The weight of these nymphs serves to get them quickly to the streambed where they can tick along nicely where fish might expect to find real critters, but is quite insufficient for purposes of casting any distance.
Add to this the observation that this approach works as well, and is often used, with unweighted nymphs and unweighted wet flies, as well as with dry flies in the 10+ meter range (note Jeremy Lucas’ focus on fishing tiny CDC dries in this manner). Try tossing a #16 CDC dry fly on a spinning rig.
Perhaps proponents of this method (myself included) are guilty of initiating misconception by referring to this as “long leader” nymphing; we might more accurately refer to this as a “stealth line” approach, as this is essentially what this is.
Rather than loading the reel with 30-80′ of an AFTMA-standard fly line intended to load the rod for casting, with the attendant issues of
-line sag between rod & water
– drag of the floating line across currents
– line fall-back through the guides when attempting to hold the line off the water
We substitute for the fly line between reel and leader a rather light-weight level “stealth line” (our “leader butt section”) comprised of rather heavy mono (e,g. 30lb-test Maxima or equivalent); mono because this is convenient & easy to come by, inexpensive, and works just fine if you’re not having to comply with FIPS-MOUCHE rules for competitive events); tied directly to (integrated with) a 7′ tapered mono leader. This leader butt or “stealth line” is usually tied directly to backing, without the need for an intervening “proper” fly line.
In the “leader-to-hand” approach, it is this “stealth line” or level mono butt section which is cast, just as would be the fly line it replaces. 30 feet of 30#-test Maxima weighs 2.7g (41.667 grains) – much less than the equivalent length of the AFTMA 2 or 3-wt line which would fully load the rod, but this is 7 times the weight of even my heaviest nymphs. And is sufficient to load the rod for casting, provided an appropriate rod is selected and the casting stroke is adjusted accordingly for under-lining (coming up on those points shortly), with the cast line rolling out in a nice loop ahead of the trailing fly, even on a “lob” (constant-tension cast, loaded by downstream drag on the rig). AFTMA standards do not address lines below 0wt (58 grains in 30′), but the “long leader” butt described above would be close to the Sage designation of 000 (=40 grains in 30′): http://ultralightflyfishing.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=66&t=7040.
The leader-to-hand butt section need not be “leader-like” clear, as this will be distant to the fly by the length of the actual tapered leader & tippet (and will most usually be followed by a highly-visible floating or surface-cutting sighter between the tapered section & tippet). I actually prefer a highly visible (to me) butt section, of a high-vis mono (e.g., Izorline hi-vis yellow); which permits quicker identification & control. Perhaps in very stealthy low-water conditions there might be some advantage in building this of clear or camou (to the fish) material; I don’t encounter such conditions on the streams I fish.
To meet FIPS-MOUCHE rules for competition, some manufacturers (e.g. Rio, Cortland, Barrio) have developed ultra-light nymphing lines in the <0wt. range, which can sub for this “long leader butt”. The Rio 000 trout double taper line, followed by the Rio Euro nymph line, were my “gateway” to this approach, and I still carry one of the latter (cut in half, as who needs 80′ ?) on a spare reel (I don’t engage in competitions, but this does cast a bit better, tho sag & drag are somewhat greater than with my “long leaders;” I may switch over when having to cast into a wind on occasion, or if i feel the strange urge to toss a dry fly to 40′ or more).
The proper rod makes a great difference here. It will be very lightly lined, so a 2-3wt. line rating serves best; to achieve line momentum and to help with holding the line off water, a longer rod (9.5-11′) is ideal. A soft tip helps to deal with under-lining, and a strong rod butt section will help to manage larger fish.
I have several rods I use in different situations, and occasional carry 2 when I anticipate variable water, one in its tube in the rod-carrier side pouch of my Fishpond Black Canyon backpack. I’ve heard of folks subscribing to the notion that the guy who dies with the most toys wins; after coming close to actually doing this (I survived a debilitating stroke back in mid-September), I’d suggest that the guy still living with the most toys wins!
My favorite rods for leader-to-hand work include:
Greys Streamflex 10′ 2-weight
Greys Streamflex 10′ 3-weight
Sage ESN 11′ 3-wt (pricey but lovely)
Taimen NPHX #396-4 9’6″ 3-wt (see my review here)
& I’m building a Sage ESN 10′ 2-wt from blank,
& have a Hanak Alpen 3-wt (4-in-1 extendable; 9.5-10-10.5-11′) & Hends GPX 2(2-in-1 extendable; 9′-10′) 3-wt
on order for christening this spring. I’m hoping the latter 2 will help to solve my compulsion to carry a second rod on occasion.
Casting these rigs requires some adjustment in technique, which I’ve found have not disturbed my “normal” cast. Seems body memory come into play when I pick up my “normally” lined 4- & 5-weight rods & my “normal” casting rhythm comes right back, & v/v. (tho I do now tend to automatically grab the butt-cap with my left hand since learning to cast a spey rod).
To maximize line momentum (p=mv; [I promised you some physics] as line mass is lower, and line speed with these rigs will not be what one is used to with a “normally” lined rod), the power stroke needs to be lengthened, with faster acceleration; pauses both front & back need to be extended due to lower line speed to permit the line to straighten out. I’ve found these adjustments to be intuitive, guided by feel & observation of the casting loop. With some practice, a good tuck cast can be achieved with a weighted nymph, aided by turnover due to the mass of the fly and short length of heavy pre-tippet sighter, which will help to get the nymph quickly to the bottom.
Why all this bother? The leader-to-hand (“stealth line”) approach permits holding the line fully off the water, with a nearly straight line maintained between rod tip and fly or indicator (floating- or surface-penetrating), at fishing ranges out to 10+ meters (33+ feet). The lower mass of the line minimizes line sag and fallback through the guides which could result in pulling back on the fly and disturbing its drift, and interfere with strike detection (& since we probably miss 9 out of 10 pickups on nymphs, which often involve gentle mouthing, this is no small thing). Being able to effectively hold the entire line off the water reduces or eliminates surface drag, permitting working across multiple conflicting currents and, in the case of weighted nymphs, allowing sensing and achieving effective drift in the inscrutable and frequently changing bottom currents. Jeremy Lucus emphasizes the advantage of gentle delivery (which I’d affirm, tho find to be less of an issue on my waters) when fishing dries, as well as obtaining good drift.
I fully expect that there are folks who will not feel the need to add this to their repertoire of approaches. Not likely you, or you might have left this post mid-way through the first sentence. For me, perhaps it’s largely the health of the streams I fish, but a 25-fish day is now a bit of a disappointment, & I’ve topped out at well over 100. & I have not yet found that to be boring.