2018 European-Style Nymphing Fly Rod Shootout and Fly Rod Review
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What is European-Style Nymphing?
Czech nymphing, tight-line nymphing, French nymphing… What does it mean? Simply, it’s just a different way of fishing a nymph. Tight line methods made their way to the US via international fly fishing competitions in the 80’s and 90’s, but it’s taken a really long time for them to become popular amongst mainstream anglers.
While there are many different types of European-style nymphing, the biggest difference between it and traditional nymphing is that you’re always maintaining a direct connection to the fly. No bobbers here. The second important difference is that you’re not really casting a fly line – just a leader. That means that you really need a light line rod to give you any shot of casting a fly accurately. Which is why we're doing this test. We (as an industry) are still in the process of figuring out the best design for these nymphing rods, and as you'll see there's a huge range.
But, if you’re interested in this shootout, you probably already know all that.
How we tested
As usual, we started by weighing, poking, measuring, and wiggling until there was nothing left to learn from the rods. Then we got to the fun part – fishing! After all, you can’t test nymphing rods on the lawn. We picked a stretch of productive water on the (relatively) famous Magalloway River in Northwest Maine, and fished each and every rod down the same stretch. That gave us the ability to really see the differences in sensitivity between each rod. Plus, we even caught some fish!
Reel, Line and Leader
We tested each rod using my trusty personal Euro nymphing setup which consists of an Abel SD 5/6, Rio's Euro Nymph line, and my favorite leader, which consists of 20' of Stren, a short section of bi-colored sighter, then 3-6' for 5x fluorocarbon.
Honestly, I’ve always thought that deflection boards are really cool. But, I’ve also had some serious reservations about their ability to provide any useful information about a rod. Nevertheless, we took a leap of faith and did it for this shootout. If there’s one test where it was really going to be able to show us something, it’s this one. I can say that it was interesting, but I’m still not quite sure what it all means (if anything). Without further ado:
Balanced Total Weight (20 Points) – Balanced total weight (BTW) is a measure we introduced this year in our review of the Sage Salt HD. To calculate BTW we find the weight needed to balance the rod and add it to the actual weight of the rod. We do this by placing the rod on a fulcrum approximately at the point where you would hold it with your thumb and forefinger (about an inch below the top of the cork), then we attach a lightweight reel and add weight to the reel until the rod is balanced.
We think BTW is a worthwhile measurement for all rods, but especially for Euro nymphing rods. The reason behind this is that weight distribution becomes especially critical as rods get longer. Think about this: the difference between the total weight of the 14 rods we tested is only about an ounce, which, isn’t much. BUT, the difference in BTW is 6.3 ounces – almost half a pound! I know that I don’t want to be carrying or fishing with that much extra weight.
Finally, in calculating BTW, we’re going to give you an idea of how heavy of a reel you need to balance the rod. Early iterations of 11’ 3wt’s require as much as 8 oz to properly balance. That’s a lot of reel for a trout rod! Because of this massive variation, and the fact that this is a totally calculated category (with little to no opinion), we awarded it the most points in the test.
Reach (10 Points) – Longer rods provide more reach. When tight line nymphing, it’s particularly important to have more reach because you don’t have the luxury of casting. You can simply cover more water with a longer rod. Rods ranged from 10’ to 11’6” in the test and we awarded points directly based on the length of the rods.
Casting (10 Points) – Let’s face it; while most of the rods we tested are 3-weights, there’s really not a lot that European style nymphing has in common with a 3-weight rod. So much so that fly line rarely even leaves the tip of the rod. Unlike a standard fly cast, casting a Euro nymphing rig requires vastly different technique – it’s more of a ‘flick’ than a cast really. What’s important about this is that not every rod excels at it. In fact we found that there was a massive difference between rods in terms of their overall casting ease. The top rods had softer tips and made casting very little weight much easier.
Sensitivity (10 Points) – Sensitivity took the place of “Feel” in our test. Since you’re not actually casting, “feel” doesn’t really make any sense to test. What does make sense, though, is to borrow a category from our conventional tackle cousins and talk about sensitivity. For this category we fished all of the rods along the same stretch of river and compared. The top rods felt like we were mapping the bottom of the river. You can feel every bump and every rock along the way. By contrast, the worst rods were incredibly damp. You really couldn’t feel anything along the way and the only way you’d feel a strike is when the fish was hooked or if your sighter moved.
Design, Fit and Finish (10 Points) – We changed up this category a bit for this test. We started with a base of 5 points, which was given to all of the rods, because, let’s face it, even overseas-made rods are well made these days. From there, we added one point for upgraded hardware like titanium guides or better than average cork.
We then awarded two points for a downlocking reel seat. It’s not that a downlocking seat looks better, or is even more comfortable, but it dramatically changes the weight needed to balance the rod. This is particularly important for longer (10.5’ and 11’) rods. But when it comes right down to it, it’s a sign of a rod that was *specifically* designed for tight line nymphing, rather than a standard fly rod that was simply elongated.
We then awarded one additional point for exceptional finishing to all of the USA made rods – because, while all the rods are good, the USA made rods in this test are just a little bit better. Finally, we awarded one point to Sage for having the best grip of the bunch and one point to Winston for just being so superior in terms of the quality of the finish on the rod.
Price (10 Points) – Last but not least, is price. We go back and forth on whether or not it should be included on almost every test. Given the highly specialized nature of these rods, we thought it was worthwhile to include as at least some sense of value to a rod that some of you won’t be using every time you go out.
Sage ESN HD 10' 6'' 3wt
Yes, technically, there was a 3-way tie. But this is a shootout and there has to be a winner, so we took price out of the equation and crowned the Sage ESN HD the champion. The ESN HD is a complete redesign of the old ESN. Unlike the old rod, which was just a long rod, the new ESN is definitely designed specifically for tight line nymphing. Let’s walk through some of the features that make this rod the winner:
- Weight – overall weight, BTW, swing weight. The Sage is at or near the top of our list for all of them. It’s a super light rod, which makes it much more fun to fish than some of the heavier rods in the test.
- Casting and Sensitivity – By and large, we saw that the better a rod is to cast, the less sensitive it is. The Sage manages to strike a really nice balance between the two. While not the most sensitive rod, or the best caster, it’s pretty easy to cast and remains sensitive.
- Design, Fit and Finish – Sage makes a top of the line USA made rod with a great finish. But more importantly it’s built with a great grip, downlocking reel seat, and fighting butt.
The ESN HD just does everything really well.
- A well designed rod with a great fit and finish.
- Excellent all-around performance
- Didn’t dominate any particular category
Bottom Line: The best, and most well-rounded, rod in the test.
Cortland Competition Nymph 10' 6'' 3wt
There are probably more people out there fishing this rod than any other in the test. What’s the reason? The price (and a viral video). Here’s how it stacks up:
Weight: The Competition Nymph weighs in at 3.4 oz with a BTW of 9.4 oz and a swing weight of 106. Basically, it’s slightly worse than average.
Casting and Sensitivity: The CN is a decent rod to cast, but lacked feel. Certainly not the worst combination, but nowhere near as good as the Sage.
Design, Fit and Finish: The CN is essentially a standard first generation nymphing rod: half-wells grip, uplocking reel seat, fighting butt. It also has standard chrome guides and good, but not spectacular finishing.
The Cortland Competition Nymph rod embodies a rod that feels like it wasn’t really designed for tight line nymphing, but is closer to a standard 3-weight taper with added length. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the MKII, which, while too late to test, has made vast strides in its design. There’s nothing wrong with this rod, but it really doesn’t stand out in any way either. This all sounds overly harsh, but the reality is that the price-to-performance ratio on this rod is spectacular and it’s really hard to fault anything that Cortland has done here at a $250 price point. Better still, this rod is at the heart of the tight-line movement.
- Way cheaper than any of the other rods you should even consider fishing
- Reach: at 10’6”, it’s got some length to get your flies to where they need to be
- Doesn’t wow with performance
Bottom Line: If you’re thinking about getting into tight line nymphing, but not ready to commit to spending $800 on a new rod, this is a spectacular bargain.
Douglas DXF 11' 3wt
When Greys exited the US market a few years ago, a lot of us were left looking for an 11’ 3-weight to replace it. Douglas came onto the market with their DXF at exactly the right time to capitalize on this (and they had some of the same team that was at Hardy). The truth is that it’s not a copy as some initial reports claimed, but a solid rod in its own right.
Weight: The DXF weighs in at 3.25 oz with a BTW of 11.7 oz and a swing weight of 118. While not a light rod, it’s actually one of the lighter 11-footers in our test. If you need the length, this is one to consider.
Casting and Sensitivity: The DXF did really well in both casting and sensitivity. It scored the maximum number of combined points we awarded to any rod (16) in these categories. It’s really as good as we’ve seen.
Design, Fit and Finish: Pretty much identical to the Cortland (and several other rods in the test), the DXF is pretty standard. Nothing special going on here.
- A long rod with above average performance across the board.
- A bargain at just under $400.
- A heavy swing weight and balanced total weight keep this rod from being a competitor for the top spot.
- Would be much better with a downlocking reel seat
Bottom Line: For an extra $100, it’s a worthwhile upgrade over the Cortland Competition Nymph, but *quite* enough of an upgrade to earn our best buy.
Douglas Sky 11' 3wt
The Sky is the big brother to the DXF. With a host of awards in other line weights, we had some really high expectations for the Sky.
Weight: The Sky weighs in at 3.65 oz with a BTW of 12.1 oz and a swing weight of 125. It’s heavier than the DXF across the board. The only 11’ rod that’s consistently worse is Redington.
Casting and Sensitivity: Like the Cortland, the Sky is a decent rod to cast, but lacked feel.
Design, Fit and Finish: Pretty much identical to the Cortland and the DXF (starting to see a trend??), except for the use of pricey Torzite guides that don’t help you at all when you’re not actually casting…
Unfortunately, the Sky fell in this shootout. It’s just not a well-designed rod for Euro nymphing. For example, it has a heavier swing weight and BTW than the DXF. Spend your money elsewhere.
- At 11’, it’s definitely got some length
- Heavy and a weak performer across the board.
Bottom Line: If Douglas is your brand, save $300 and get the DXF. It’s better.
Fenwick Worldclass 11' 3wt
I’ve been fishing the old Greys XF2 for years. Given that Fenwick is the new Greys in the US, I had high hopes for this rod.
Weight: The Worldclass weighs in at 3.32 oz with a BTW of 11.7 oz and a swing weight of 100. It’s got the lightest swing weight of any 11’ rod in the test! It still has a fairly heavy BTW however.
Casting and Sensitivity: For such a soft rod, I would have expected it to cast better, but it was just OK. It did, however, lack feel as we’ve come to expect from softer rods.
Design, Fit and Finish: See description of Cortland and DXF.
While the Worldclass is certainly light and long, it managed to be not great at either casting or sensitivity. Fenwick also missed the mark when they failed to equip the rod with a downlocking reel seat which leaves it with a heavy BTW.
- Light and long
- Priced right
- Lacked feel
Bottom Line: Another rod that felt like it missed the mark
Loomis NRX Nymph 10' 4wt
Probably the least known/talked about rod in this test is the NRX Nymph. I’m not really sure why, but this rod never got much marketing steam behind it. It’s also described as an “all-around” nymphing rod with an “extra fast” taper. I don’t know about you, but none of that makes me think of an excellent Euro-nymphing rod.
Before any further comments, I want to mention that this is a 4wt, and the only one in the test, so please realize that it’s a slightly different rod than the others.
Weight: The NRX weighs in at 3.5 oz with a BTW of 11.2 oz and a swing weight of 109. It’s horribly heavy for a 10’ rod.
Casting and Sensitivity: Loomis delivered on sensitivity in spades and was one of only 2 rods to really deliver here. The only rod that was better was the Winston. Unfortunately, it’s super stiff and that made it very hard to cast.
Design, Fit and Finish: Great build quality, but we would have liked to see a downlocking reel seat and a fighting butt.
- Super sensitive
- Made-in-the-USA quality
- Not a great rod to “cast”
Bottom Line: I don’t want to pass judgement on this rod yet, since it’s not a 3-weight. This rod, however, is better suited to indicator nymphing that tight line nymphing.
Marryat Tactical 10' 3wt
When I scoured the internet for nymphing rodmakers, unsurprisingly quite a few were from Europe. Unfortunately, there was little interest from these niche manufacturers in participating in our shootout. I was pleasantly surprised when Marryat enthusiastically said yes!
Weight: The Tactical weighs in at 3.2 oz with a BTW of 9.3 oz and a swing weight of 91. It’s one of the lightest rods in our test! Its light weight makes this rod super fun to fish and a welcome reprieve from the heavier rods that we’re used to.
Casting and Sensitivity: Like the ESN and the DXF, the Marryat Tactical scored the maximum number of combined points in casting and sensitivity. It’s top notch.
Design, Fit and Finish: What’s keeping the Tactical off the podium? Sure, it was missing some of the features that would have put this rod over the edge like a fighting butt and a downlocking reel seat. But the real flaw in the rod is its grip. The Tactical, which shares its grip with the other Marryat rods, has a very large-diameter grip that just makes it really awkward. It kept not only this rod, but the Tactical Pro off of the podium.
Frankly, I still don’t know much about Marryat, but they make some damn fine rods that have found themselves in the hands of many of the world’s top fishermen. The Tactical 10’ 3wt is a fantastic rod. It feels very much like our champion, the Sage ESN, and at half the price! It’s light, it casts well and is reasonably sensitive.
- A great all-around nympher
- An excellent buy at $400
- Would have liked to see a 10’6” length
- Like the other Marryat rods, the grip was awkward and way too large in diameter
Bottom Line: An excellent rod for the price!
Marryat Tactical Pro Nymph Special 11' 6'' 3wt
I’ll be honest. When I looked at the collection of rods that we had prior to the test, I expected this rod to place highly, if not win outright. It’s the longest rod in the test and while you can always back up a foot, it’s often not an option to wade a little deeper.
Weight: Super heavy. Sure it’s long, but this rod is REALLY heavy. The 11.5’ Tactical Pro weighs in at 3.85 oz with a BTW of 12.3 oz and a swing weight of 158. Its high weight makes it really hard to recommend.
Casting and Sensitivity: While the deflection board was generally not that interesting, it revealed that this was in fact the stiffest rod (overall) in the test. As such, it wasn’t a particularly good caster, nor was it very sensitive.
Design, Fit and Finish: The Tactical Pro gets a lot of things right. It’s got lightweight guides and a downlocking reel seat. While we would have preferred a fighting butt, the real flaw in this rod is its grip (see review of the Tactical).
Unfortunately, where the other Marryat rods were fantastic, the 11.5’ Tactical Pro was a bit of a dud. Overall, it’s a super specialized tool for anglers that really need the extra length.
- If reach is your primary concern, this is the rod for you.
- As you might expect, the swing weight of a super long rod is quite high
Bottom Line: If you’re reading this review, you probably don’t need or want this rod.
Marryat Tactical Pro Nymph Special 10' 6'' 3wt
Tied for first! The Marryat Tactical Pro 10.5 is truly everything that a great Euro-nymph rod should be. It’s light, it’s sensitive, it’s easy to cast. Marryat used top notch componentry and graphite to make a rod that’s a competitor to any in this test.
Weight: One of the best! The TP tied the Mystic for 2nd place with a BTW of 8.5 oz and a still super light swing weight of 96. The only 10.5’ rod to beat it was the Sage.
Casting and Sensitivity: Also excellent. The TP tied Sage for the top spot in these categories.
Design, Fit and Finish: The 10.5’ version is identical in this category to the 11.5’ version. They’ve really done a lot right. Except the grip.
- Fires on all cylinders!
- Like the other Marryat rods, the grip was awkward and way too large in diameter
Mystic M-Series 10' 3'' 3wt
We’ve been carrying Mystic for several years now and we’ve always been impressed by the Reaper for its top notch performance and value price. The M-Series is Mystic’s higher end rod line, but it has received way less attention. We were excited to see how it performed.
Weight: Super light! The Mystic tied for 2nd place with a BTW of 8.5 oz and a chart topping swing weight of 92. Because of its odd length (it’s 10’ 3”) it’s hard to really compare it to another rod, but by any measure, it’s really light.
Casting and Sensitivity: Like the other soft rods in the test, the M-Series is a pleasure to cast. It’s second only to the Orvis Recon in casting. Also like the Recon, it lacks feel.
Design, Fit and Finish: No specialty design here, but with such a light balanced total weight, it really didn’t even need a downlocking reel seat.
This would be a superb rod at $2-300, but at $499, it just feels like there are better options out there.
- An excellent casting rod
- A very light rod
- Like the Fenwick, the Mystic was too soft to provide an adequate amount of feel
- Priced like a US-built rod
Orvis Recon 10' 3wt
The OG Orvis Recon was Orvis' first foray into a Euro-specific rod. As we've come to expect from Orvis, it delivered! One of our 3-way tie winners, the Recon did extremely well in the weight and casting categories.
Weight: If there’s one thing that Orvis gets, it’s that lighter weight rods are better. The Recon doesn’t disappoint. It’s the lightest rod in the test by every measure (though it is 6” shorter than the Sage).
Casting and Sensitivity: If you want to learn to nymph like the Europeans, the Orvis is the easiest casting rod in the world. OK, at least in this test. Unfortunately, it was also the least sensitive rod in the test. You just have no feel for the bottom whatsoever.
Design, Fit and Finish: The Recon is a well-designed nymphing rod. It’s got all the bells and whistles.
Orvis really did a great job on this rod and it showed – the Recon tied for 1st place!
- Super light
- The easiest casting rod in the test
- A bargain at just over $400.
- Like the other soft rods, the Recon was too soft to provide feel
Redington Hydrogen 11' 3wt
There are good rods, and there are bad rods. The Hydrogen falls into the latter category. Rather than do a deep dive into exactly how this rod fails, I’m just going to say that there are better options. Check the charts if you really want to know.
- Pretty much everything else.
Thomas & Thomas Contact 11' 3'' 3wt
Thomas and Thomas is probably one of the hottest rod companies right now. Every rod I’ve cast with their “StratoTherm” resin has been really great, so I was super excited to try out the new Contact. Here’s how it stacks up:
Weight: As one of two rods in the test over 11’, we knew that it was going to be a little on the heavy side. And it is… but not by much. It weighs in at 3.17 oz with a BTW of 12.3 oz and a swing weight of 120. It beats out the shorter Douglas Sky and Redington Hydrogen.
Casting and Sensitivity: While the Contact was surprisingly sensitive, it was just a bit too stiff to make it an easy caster. Overall it finished just behind the top rods in these two key categories.
Design, Fit and Finish: While there’s no question that this was designed as a nymphing rod, it really was missing the downlocking reel seat that we really prefer. Fortunately, you can order it with one!
While this wasn’t our favorite rod, I’m really looking forward to testing the 10’8” 3wt and the 10’2” 2wt (with a downlocking reel seat of course), as those rods are probably what we should have tested in the first place.
- Excellent fit and finish
- Extra reach
- Option to go with a downlocking reel seat
- A heavy swing weight and balanced total weight keep this rod from being a competitor for the top spot.
Winston Boron IIIx Super 10 10' 3wt
Last, but not least, is the Winston Super 10. They went big and designed an entire line of rods dedicated to nymphing. Winston is one of our favorite brands and I was super (pun intended) stoked to finally try out the Super 10.
Weight: In terms of overall weight, the Winston is actually the heaviest rod in the test, but a lot of that weight goes into the great details like the classic Winston reel seat, so it doesn’t *feel* as heavy as some of the other rods.
Casting and Sensitivity: I don’t know if it’s the Boron, or just the taper, but the Super 10 was by far the most sensitive rod in the test. You can really feel every bump in the stream. The stiffness of the tip also gives you great hook setting power. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the harder rods to cast.
Design, Fit and Finish: No one does finish like Winston – and this rod is no exception. They also hit the nail on the head with the design of the rod – it’s got all the bells and whistles we’re looking for.
Overall I see the Super 10 as a rod that offers you a choice. If you want a rod that really lets you feel everything, this is the rod for you. We prefer a little bit of both. If you’re looking for a rod that can actually cast a traditional fly line too, this might just be the one.
- By far the most sensitive rod in the test
- Great finishing details we’ve come to expect from Winston
- Tougher to cast than we’d like.
Thanks for taking the time to read this! Please leave a comment with any thoughts/questions/comments. Tight Lines!