The Backing Barrel

by | Nov 5, 2014 | 44 comments

A decade ago I learned about euro-nymphing, and I was impressed with the rig. I gradually made the switch from a Joe Humphreys nymphing style, worked my way through the short line tactics, then lengthened the leader and learned to fish at distance.  I believe Humphreys was close — real close — to euro nymphing, with his deep nymphing system which is detailed in his books and videos.  The major change from a Humphreys deep nymph rig to a euro nymphing rig is the removal of the taper under the water. While Humphreys’ rig is tapered to the flies, a euro nymphing rig (ideally) has only one diameter of tippet underneath the surface.

After years of experimenting and fishing nymphs with a tight line / euro nymphing setup, I branched out. I started attaching suspenders to the leader for the times when they provided an advantage. I swapped nymphs for streamers on the same rig instead of switching leaders. And during the hatches I learned to fish dry-dropper styles on the same long leader with no fly line. This hybrid, bastardized, do-it all system is what we call the Mono Rig.

These three elements of the Mono Rig are what make it so effective:

— No fly line. Use 20# monofilament (Maxima Chameleon) as a fly line substitute.

Sighter. Tie colored monofilament into the leader to provide better drift tracking and strike detection.

— Just one diameter of tippet under the water. Different diameters resist the currents at different degrees. Thicker line is pushed around more than thinner line, causing more drag and less contact. Using just one diameter of tippet under the water solves the problem.

After removing fly line from the equation, the biggest game changer for me was adding a sighter. Previously, I’d used half-inch sections of bright orange fly line with the core removed that I bought at Fly Fisher’s Paradise. I pushed them over the knots in a hand-tied leader.  That’s a sighter — sort of.  The small sleeves certainly gave me something to reference where my line was. But a full fledged sighter is better. By building colored line into the leader right before the tippet, I instantly had excellent leader visibility and a lot more information about what was happening with my drifts. Usually.  Sometimes.  Alright, so I couldn’t always see the damn sighter either. And along came the backing barrel.

Backing barrel with one tag, attached to the sighter

Backing barrel with no tags, mounted on tippet section

I took the idea for the backing barrel from the gear fishing world, where carp and stinky-bass fishermen use pieces of string to mark their lines for depth. I use 20#, orange Dacron backing (Gudebrod is my favorite) attached with a sliding stopper knot. Sometimes I clip the tags close, leaving just the barrel. Other times I leave one or two hanging tags for even more feedback about the drift.

The backing barrel has two purposes: improving visibility, and as a slidable stopper.

Improving Visibility

I think it’s important to be able to locate your sighter immediately after the cast.  Quite often bad lighting conditions make that a tough task. The backing barrel solves that issue for me. Sometimes it’s visible enough with no tags, but I’ve really taken to using the barrel with one tag intact. Not only can I locate my actual sighter sooner after the cast, but it dramatically improves the visual sensitivity of my sighter by twitching and shaking at times when the straight sighter indicates nothing. Fish on!

I also like having a small backing barrel (with no tags) on the upper part of my tippet section. I keep it about 12-18 inches below my sighter. The small barrel is amazingly bright. If I can locate my sighter, I can usually locate the small barrel. The barrel on the tippet serves as an extension of the sighter. It’s often underwater, and it points directly to my nymphs or streamer, giving my even more information about where my flies are and what they’re doing.

I use this same barrel, mounted on my tippet section for another purpose …

A Slidable Stopper

In essence, I use the backing barrel as a knot that I can move. When tied tight, the barrel holds snug on nylon or fluorocarbon material and only moves if I purposely slide it.  I often mount a backing barrel on a portion of my tippet while dry-dropper fishing, then add a dropper loop of mono around the standing line, above the barrel. When I want to adjust the rig for depth, I simply slide the barrel and tag up or down, creating a slidable dry-dropper system.

The backing barrel is also a key element of the slidable Thingamabobber rig that I often use. Someday I’ll do a dedicated posts for each of these two rigs.

Material, and How It’s Attached

After trying many other materials, I now use orange Gudebrod 20# Dacron backing. The orange is extremely visible, and the Gudebrod Dacron is just the right mix of flexibility and stiffness. I also like that their braid doesn’t fray much compared to other brands. I sometimes use an off brand of black backing for a dry-dropper setup because an orange barrel might spook fish away from the dry fly. Maybe?

I use a six-inch section to tie the knot and then trim it for my purpose, and when I want more visibility, I leave the tags longer.  About an inch always seems to be enough in even the worst lighting conditions, and I clip the tags close when I’m using the barrel as a stopper .  I attach it using the knot seen below.  Incidentally, the barrel is easily removed from the line with nippers.

So What’s the Downside?

I wondered if the backing barrel would add weight to my sighter, and most people I’ve shared it with seem to have the same instinct at first.  My opinion is that the barrel with one inch tags doesn’t add enough weight to my sighter to notice any extra line sag. I often grease the barrel and tags with Mucilin first, but even when waterlogged it causes me no problem. I’ve weighed equal length pieces of .017 chameleon and 20# backing on a gram scale, and the mono weighs more. After it’s clipped, even with two tags, we’re talking about a piece of dacron that’s about two inches long. Basically, that weighs nothing, even with a little water in it. The only real problem with the backing barrel (with tags) might be a strong wind moving it around a bit, but at that point my sighter is being blown around too, and I’ve usually switched to some kind of suspension method by then.

Two-tag backing barrel. These tags are a little long. The barrel is slid up against a knot joining two materials in my sighter. There’s also a barrel without tags a little further up the line.

The backing barrel is so useful that I always have one or two on my leader.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


More Troutbitten articles on nymphing

The Mono Rig and Why Fly Line Sucks
Tight Line Nymph Rig
Sighters: Seven Separate Tools
Learn the Nymph
Tags and Trailers
The Backing Barrel
Take Five
The Add-On Line
One Great Nymphing Trick
The Trouble With Tenkara — And Why You Don’t Need It
It’s a Suspender — Not Just an Indicator
Stop the Split Shot Slide
Trail This — Don’t Trail That
For Tight Line Nymphing and the Mono Rig, What’s a Good Fly Rod?
Depth, Angle, Drop: Three Elements of a Nymphing Rig
Over or Under? Your best bet on weight
Modern Nymphing, the Mono Rig, and Euro Nymphing
Resources for Tight Line and Euro Nymphing
Split Shot vs Weighted Flies
Tight Line Nymphing With an Indicator — A Mono Rig Variant
Bill Dance and Jimmy Houston go fly fishing — The Mono Rig for streamers
Get me back to my fly line — Connecting and disconnecting the Mono Rig
The Dorsey Yarn Indicator — Everything you need to know and a little more
Finding bite windows, fishing through them and fishing around them

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. I’ve been using this technique for a while, and it really works. Thanks for a thoughtful post. Something that makes the backing knot even more visible is to soak it in UV resin and then set the resin. At first, the knot appears to be glued to your leader, but it doesn’t take much pressure to move it. Then, you have a glossy dot that really catches the light (you might need two or more coats of resin for it become really glossy).

  2. In Steps 2 and 3, you make five turns over your tippet with each end of the backing?

    • Hey Bruce, what’s up?

      Thanks for the question. Sometimes it’s really tough for me to understand where the communication of a concept fails, especially in an illustration.

      No, you don’t wrap with each end. In the illustration, the left end of the backing never moves (until you pull the knot tight). Steps 2 and 3 are meant to show the right end of the backing wrapping around the tippet AND the backing loop 6 times. You should end up with 6 wraps.

      It’s really a super simple knot once you do it a couple times.

      Let me know how it works our for you.

    • That’s what I figured, thanks.

  3. Thanks for the update.

    The best material for a backing barrel that I’ve found is stuff called “Fox Magic Marker.” It’s used by carp fishermen and Helen Keller could see it.

    Could you clarify what you mean about using a backing barrel with a dry dropper rig? As I understand you, you attach a dropper by knotting the dropper tag above a backing barrel knot. If that’s the case, when you get a strike, doesn’t the tag, and fly, slide down the main leader rather than sticking into the fish’s mouth?

    • Alex, nice. A friend told me that the Fox’s Magic Marker is thicker than 20# dacron. Can you confirm that or no? I like the Gudebrod because it’s really bright and stays together. If the Fox stuff is thin enough, then that would be good too, because the Gudebrod is getting hard to find in small spools.

      About the slidable dry dropper — I will someday do a full post. But here’s the setup …

      The first two feet of my tippet section is 4X. On that section I always have a backing barrel and it’s very snug. For attaching a dry fly for dry dropper, I use a perfection loop dropper, like this, but a dry fly.

      I mount that perfection loop dropper tag above the backing barrel.

      To answer your question, it doesn’t slide until you have a good sized fish on. And when it slides, it just stops at the knot two feet down from my sighter. I’ve never found a problem hooking a fish on the dry with this method. And most fish don’t move the barrel during the fisht. On occasion, with large fish and if the slide is quick, the line can be damaged. But that’s rare, and it’s worth it to me to have a slidable dry dropper system. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn good.

      Let me know how it works for you, Alex.

  4. I eyeballed my Fox Magic Marker, and it is, indeed, thicker than 20lb. backing (I don’t have Gudebrod; it’s Cortland, I think). Actually, it looks pretty identical to 30lb.

    It does stay together pretty well. Do you think that that the slight extra thickness adds appreciably to the weight of the knot?

    • Alex,

      No, probably not. But that sort of thing gets in my head. I just like having it as light as possible, and since I’ve used 20# from the beginning, and because I have no problem seeing it, I stick with it.

  5. Just eyeballing, it, Fox Magic Marker is closer to 30 lb. backing than 20 lb. Do you think that the thinner material works better (reduced sag, etc.)?

  6. Sorry for the dual reply. My first reply didn’t show up, so I tried again. When I replied again, the original magically appeared. Go figure.

    • No problem. Sometimes the WordPress software takes a few minutes to automatically approve a post.

  7. Dom, have you tried the opaque white sighter material (made by Cortland, I think)?

    • No, Alex. I’ve seen it but haven’t tried it. Honestly with the backing barrel on my two tone sighter I can almost always find it immediately after the cast.

  8. I have been trying to find a good indicater for years been fly fishing for about 60 yrs.where have you been all my life. The most useful info on fly fishing I have ever read. Thank you. I am sure it will take some time toget it all straight. Going to the beaverhead in two weeks. Hear the water is clear,fish are spooky, and they get pounded ever day.will be drifting in a boat most of the time. Which of your methods do you think would work best. Been told a good drift is the key to success.
    Thanks again

  9. Domenick – I tried this recently on the South Holston and it is a very visible way to find your sighter. I float my sighter upstream alot with small flies (Pat Weiss taught me this method) and it really helps in glare and heavier water. One question – is this FIPs legal. For some reason I usually try to fish FIPs legal and I was curious.

    Great web page

    • Thanks, Tom. I’m glad you like the site.

      No, the Backing Barrel wouldn’t be legal because it’s an addition to the line.

      Fips Shmips. Who cares? If nothing is legally holding you back, why restrict yourself? That’s always my take. Hell, I’d still fish bait if I thought it would catch me more trout.

      Half kidding, there. Do what you like, of course. It’s your game.

  10. I have used slip bobber knots and thought of using it with droppers. Your article clarified several ideas. Thanks.

  11. The cheap backing material I’ve been using is getting on my nerves, but I can’t seem to locate any 20 lb. Gudebrod. Could you tell me where you get yours?

    • They don’t make it anymore, and that sucks.

      But 30 lb Cortland Micron is my second favorite. It’s a tight weave. Note, the micron runs much thinner, so use 30lb instead of 20lb.

  12. I’m way late on this one, but I’m wondering if you have tried this method for a glow in the dark sighter while night fishing? I don’t have glow backing, but I do have some other material that might work for tying around my leader.

    • Hello Patrick.

      You won’t be able to see such a small piece of glow-in-the-dark material. That’s my opinion. But it’s based on a lot of trial and error. Like you, I had the idea to use a lot of different things for a night sighter.

      I finally came up with a solution that I absolutely love.

      Find the Night Sighter here:

      And more here:

      Hope that helps.



      • Hey Dom,
        Thanks for the reply! I’ll have to check the recommendations in the articles. I have to say, this is the best site on the internet for all things fly fishing. I shared it with my fishing club and you’ve become our go-to source. So thanks for that!

        1 final question: have you played around with glow material for your flies? I’m thinking like glow Krystal Flash, dubbing, articulation beads, etc.

        • Hi Patrick. Thanks for the compliment and the support.

          I have definitely played with a lot of glow stuff at night. Every glowing thing I’ve ever built into a fly has seemed to hurt its productivity more than help it. That’s the truth. I don’t feel like river trout eat glowing things at night. That’s my current conclusion, anyway.


  13. Hi Dom. Does putting the backing barrel on the tippet section reduce the effectiveness of having only one diameter of tippet under the water?

    Looking forward to playing around with the backing barrel in a couple of weeks on the Truckee / Little Truckee Rivers in the Lake Tahoe, CA area. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

    • Hi Randy.

      In short, no. It is such a tiny piece of backing that the weight or water resistance is insignificant.



      • Two words- GAME. CHANGER. After trying this out it has forever changed the way I will fish. It is INCREDIBLE how visible it is without seeming to impede my drifts or adding sag to my line whatsoever. Frickin’ AWESOME. I LOVE IT. Thanks Dom.

          • Orange Gudebrod 20# Dacron backing just like you suggested!

          • where’d you find some? 100 yards would serve me the rest of my life but they only sell it in hundreds of yards now. Thanks

          • I bought thousands of yards on ebay a while back. But I don’t see it anywhere else. I’m in touch with a few companies, trying to get the same or similar things produced.

            If anyone knows another source for the Gudebrod 20#, please let the readers know. It really is far different than the average backing.



          • If anyone would sell me a few yards I’d be grateful. Not worth it for me to by 1200 yards. I’d be dust before I came close to using up 10yards.

            Got out today for a few hours. So thankful for this small weather window.

  14. I could be late to this thread but I just bought 300 yards for $20 on eBay. I hope I got the right stuff.

    Gudebrod Braided Dacron Fly Line Backing – 20 Lb – 300 Yd(6×50) – Orange – $19.99 free shipping

  15. so about using just the barrel sighter with out any other sighter in a pinch?? ,so lets say your making your way down stream ( on a small to medium stream say 40 ft across ) and you come to a section of stream you want to nymph fish have a standard 9ft knotless leader down to 5x tippet section , rather than changing your rigging and adding a sighter section and stuff ..just add the barrel sighter in at the appropriate place for what you intend to nymph and have at it ?? ,you are now done with that section and you want to go back to dry fly fishing . Just take off the barrel, rig up your tippet for dries and presto ! most if not all of your tippet ,all one dimension ! is what would be under the surface . seams like a reasonable thought ?

      • Cool beans ..light lines sir

  16. Hi Dom
    Many thanks for your very valuable contributions.
    Have you tried your leader at 6lb x 20/24 feet, then connect up the 3 feet multicolour indicator, then the tippet section?
    Kind regards, David.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for the question. I’ve been getting it a lot lately, and it seems that micro-thin butt sections are trending right now. I have a full article on this subject coming soon, so keep your eye out for that.

      In short, the answer is yes, I’ve fished many rigs like you describe. (I tied one on yesterday for about three hours, thinking about the upcoming article.) The key is the 6 lb for the butt. That’s the big difference. That’s what make the leader highly specialized and not very versatile. Micro-thin butt sections have very little power compared to something like my Mono Rig. 20 lb vs 6 or 8 lb is a huge difference in performance. Micro thin leaders sag less — that’s great, but the downside is they have very little turnover power, so you end up relying on the weight of the fly to do the casting and not the leader — that’s the definition of lobbing, really. Certainly, at longer distances and with extra small flies, it can be helpful to have a lighter leader. But again, the performance of such a leader is extremely limiting. Namely, you lose the ability to tuck cast, and that just doesn’t work for me.

      Watch for the upcoming articles. I’ll write a lot more about it.

      Until then, these articles are pertinent:

      Does that help?



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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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