Fish Magic: The wizardry of European nymphing

Article & Photos By Scott Willoughby

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Jason Lieverst. Photo by © Scott Willoughby

Jason Lieverst is performing a magic trick. Or so it would seem. With just a few flicks of his 11-foot wand, the former captain of the British national fly-fishing team plucks trout after trout from a seemingly shallow pool in the Eagle River like some overgrown Harry Potter pulling a litter of rabbits out of a hat.

“What was that, about 14?” Lieverst estimates in a proper English accent as we hike back up the bank toward the truck before the engine had time to completely cool. “Not bad for an hour or so of fishing.”

Unlike most modern magic, Lieverst’s wizardry is no illusion. Rather, it’s a systematic technique originating in Europe and honed over nearly 30 years before making its way to the banks of the Eagle River near Avon, where it’s now being put on display on an increasingly routine basis.

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The 2016 World Fly Fishing Championships take place in the Eagle River Valley in September. Photo by © Scott Willoughby

Lieverst didn’t invent the technique known originally as “Czech Nymphing” and now “European Nymphing,” nor is he the first to apply it to American waters. But he is at the forefront of a fly-fishing phenomenon that has begun to take hold in Colorado, particularly along the Eagle River Valley that will play host to the 2016 World Fly Fishing Championships on Sept. 11-18.

“The Czechs get a lot of credit for inventing it, but really it was the Polish back in 1985, when they hosted the Worlds as a very poor communist country,” Lieverst said. “The Polish anglers didn’t have money for reels, so they fished Tenkara style and won the World Championship. The Czechs finished second and started asking, ‘What the heck did you guys just do?’ They took the technique home and put their own little spin on it, and all the other countries started doing the same thing. Really, it should be called ‘World Nymphing’ now, because everybody is doing it, including the Americans.”

Bear in mind, just about “everybody” in Lieverst’s world is a competitive fly fisherman. He spent nearly 30 years traveling the world with a quiver of competition fishing rods, serving as captain for two different teams (England and Holland) before taking a position with the International Sport Fly Fishing Association and coming to Colorado to inspect the venue in Vail prior to World Championship competition. Like so many, he immediately fell in love with the Rocky Mountains and decided to stick around and do some fishing.

Meanwhile, he’s made it his mission to share the secrets of European nymphing with anyone interested in catching more trout.

“These guys just kill it,” said John Packer, owner of the Orvis-endorsed Fly Fishing Outfitters Shop in Avon, where Lieverst now teaches the techniques to clients. “They take holes where most of us would catch four or five fish and move on, and they catch 20. The productivity behind the whole thing is insane.”

Amidst the classic fly-fishing culture of the West, the competition-cultivated aesthetics of Euro nymphing are undeniably about as far away from the romance of “A River Runs Through It” as angling can get. Gone are the long, looping casts of ornate and delicate dry flies and the subtle slurps of fish feeding from the water’s surface at sunset, replaced by heavily weighted hooks with tungsten beads and sparse feathers that hardly resemble an insect. Rods are unusually long and light (e.g., 10-foot, 2-weights and 11-foot, 3-weights), as are leaders, demanding short, quick casts and deliberate drifts with a meticulous technique designed to keep the fly in front of the fish holding tight to the river bottom as long as possible.

Some claim that it isn’t really fly fishing. To which Lieverst replies that it’s not fishing at all. It’s catching.

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© Scott Willoughby

“In the early days people were all like, ‘What are you doing? That’s not fly fishing.’ We had a lot of flack to deal with early on,” Lieverst said. “But now, the world stage has been in Vail with The America Cup for eight years, the Youth World Fly Fishing Championship last summer, and later this year probably 30 countries and world media are going to be here for the World Championship main event. People are going to be like, ‘Wait a minute, I just saw some South African kid stand behind the fly shop and catch 75 fish in an hour. How does he do that?’ Well, he’s nymphing.

“People are starting to realize it’s not the devil’s work at all. It’s fly fishing. You just catch more fish. There’s a reel, a line, a leader and there’s flies. It’s fly fishing with a different technique.”

While a 75-fish outing may border on the realm of hyperbole, the reality of competition fly fishing mandates that every fish caught is counted by a controller. And the competitors who have taken part in Vail-based producer John Knight’s America Cup events or last summer’s Fips-Mouche-sanctioned Youth World Fly Fishing Championship serving as a precursor to the 2016 World Fly Fishing Championship have been tallying up fish numbers previously only thought attainable through Colorado Parks and Wildlife electroshocking surveys. Unsurprisingly, the volunteer controllers were among the first to approach Packer asking for lessons.

“After they saw what was going on at the Youth World Championships, people starting coming into the shop and saying, ‘I’d like to learn that,’” said Packer, noting that Team USA competitor Steve Parrott also teaches the techniques out of the Blue Quill Angler shop in Evergreen. “It’s not for everybody, especially when you get into all the rules of international competition, but for the guy who wants to be a pounder and catch 30 fish out of a hole, this is how you do it.”

So just what is the secret? What are the Europeans bringing to American waters that’s so different?

“It’s really just a matter of fishing where the fish are. And keeping your fly down there,” Lieverst says. “It’s almost equal parts equipment and technique. The whole system from your reel right down to your point fly is very important. If it’s all put together correctly, with the right rod, obviously — and we’ve got reasonably priced rods coming out that are pretty good now and can handle bigger fish — you can fish 7x-8x, super thin tippet that sinks straight down to the feeding zone, very easily. The tungsten bead will keep the fly down there longer, and the hook is like a jig, where the eye is down, as opposed to being straight out. It will bounce and snag less, and it also puts the hook straight into the top lip cartilage, where you want it.”

Fly line manufacturers such as Rio have begun making specific Euro nymphing lines and compatible lengthy leaders that extend through the upper eyelets of fly rods, although Lieverst’s personal system involves about 100 inches of 12-pound-test Stren blue monofilament super-glued inside the core of his fly line to eliminate connection knots, tapered down to a fluorescent orange indicator line that attaches to his tippet. Even a 5x tippet is thick enough to alter the sink rate and drift of a fly, he says, pushing his preference to narrower diameters.

So much for the equipment. Now how about the technique? How hard is it to pick up an entirely new fishing style after spending so many years learning how to fish the way you do now?

“The impression is that it’s more complicated. But the reality is that it might be more simple. To get to that high, world-beating level, is obviously a different story. But the basics of it you can learn in five minutes,” Lieverst said. “I think it’s easier to teach a total newbie how to lob nymphs upstream and follow them back again than to actually teach them how to cast a fly line with a Thingamabobber on it and try to put a mend in. I think it’s probably a lot easier to teach the basics, then you’ve got the super nuances and the fine tuning and it’s a never-ending learning curve.”

There’s a fairly convincing argument that the European technique is more physical than mental, which is likely to hold appeal to a large segment of would-be fly fishermen intimidated by the sport’s complexities. Entomology is reduced to the lowest common denominators, simplified through the basic profiles of insect imitations and the emphasis on placement over patterns. Pretty casts aren’t required, as long as the fly lands in the feeding lanes where fish lurk. By treating every bump as a bite, hook sets are never-ending.

To many of us who have put in countless hours seeking out isolated areas devoid of fishing pressure, surveying ideal water conditions and meticulously matching the hatch, the idea of stepping into almost any Colorado stream and pulling out a dozen more trout than ever before sounds too good to be true. The notion of doing it six or more times over the course of a week — often twice in one day — sounds patently preposterous.

Yet, that’s just what the international anglers plying the designated competition beats along the Eagle, Blue and Colorado rivers have been doing during America Cup and Youth World Championship contests year after year for nearly a decade now. Using Euro nymphing techniques almost exclusively, the competitors regularly land and release dozens of fish from the same pools where other anglers had already done the same, often only a few hours prior.

In hard numbers, the 2015 youth competitors landed 1,926 fish from three segments of river and two lakes during five consecutive fishing sessions last August (albeit, 20 of them were whitefish). One teen, Martin Vlk of Czech Republic, landed 47 trout in a single three-hour session. Earlier the same day, American youth Cam Chioffi recorded 37 fish to set the pace for an eventual Team USA gold medal.

With the exception of hatchery trout stocked in Sylvan Lake State Park, the vast majority of the fish caught during competition were naturally reproducing wild trout, making the feat all the more impressive.

“Competition breeds innovation in any sport. Slowly but surely, people are coming to embrace it, first at arm’s length, then realizing, ‘Wow, I’ve just caught more fish than I’ve ever caught in my life.’ The penny drops and they think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t fish with a dry fly as much as I used to,” Lieverst said.

Ultimately, the decision over whether or not to go Euro comes down to the basics of what you want to achieve as an angler. Is your brand of fly fishing more about aesthetics or action? Seeing the strike or blindly setting the hook? Learning something new, or sticking to your tried and true.

To Lieverst, the answer is simple.

“What’s the objective? For me, it’s to catch fish,” he said. “And all I can say is it works. It just outright works.”

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Photo by © Scott Willoughby

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Scott Willoughby is the former outdoor writer for the Denver Post. This is his first time writing for Colorado Outdoors. This article is copyrighted by the author.

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