Tight Line Nymph Rig
Almost eight years ago, I made some adaptations to my nymph rig that completely changed the game for me, tripling my catch rate and adding a new spark to my passion for fly fishing. Suddenly, a whole new set of techniques and achievements were possible on the water, and I was catching enough fish to feel like it wasn’t just luck anymore — I had some control over the outcome. My casts, my drifts, my fly selection, and (most importantly) my ability to focus and adapt became the reason that I caught fish or I didn’t. I soon realized that the old excuse of “the fish just weren’t on” was usually a cover-up.
I like to give credit where it’s due, so I’ll mention that it was the long talks with both Loren Williams and George Daniel that helped me come to understand these few simple principles. Their knowledge came from the competition fly fishing circuit, but since I’m not all that competitive when it comes to fishing, I borrowed the main elements and eventually eschewed a few of the restrictions like continuous leader taper, no split shot, and no suspenders (indicators) — I bend all of those rules whenever I believe doing so will catch more fish.
These three elements of my nymphing rig changed: I took fly line out of the mix, I allowed only one diameter of tippet under the water, and I added a sighter. Two of these elements are about eliminating drag — and when it comes to nymphing, getting true drag-free drifts while being in enough contact to detect strikes is where the real fun begins.
No Fly Line
For upstream, tight line nymphing, fly line is a real handicap; it adds weight and causes drag by sagging off the rod tip and pulling back on the nymphs. That subtle drag may seem slight, but the difference between a great drift and a lousy drift is in the fine details. By using a very long butt section in the leader, the nymphs can be presented relatively drag free. When casting without fly line, it’s the weight of the nymphs and the leader itself that are carrying the flies to their target. In essence, the weight of the flies (or split shot) pulls the leader to the target, while with a traditional setup, it’s the weight of the fly line that pushes the leader and the flies to their destination. After casting nymphs without fly line for a while, you realize that you never really needed it.
One Diameter Under the Surface
Another place where traditional nymphing rigs create drag is in the tippet section. Tapered leaders (whether hand tied or manufactured) most commonly start their taper a couple feet from the tippet end, so while fishing all but the skinniest of water, part of the taper is under the surface. That’s a problem.
I tied my old style of nymphing leaders in a way that resulted in the diameters of 4x, 3x, 2x, 1x, and sometimes even part of my butt section being submerged in some of the deepest pockets. To me, the big revelation was how the thicker diameters were being pushed by the currents more than the thin diameters. It’s one of those things that I never gave much thought to back then, but it makes perfect sense. The upper part of the taper in a leader is more than twice the diameter of 4x tippet.
Now consider two kites in a strong wind: a large kite that is double the size of a small kite will offer a lot more resistance — you can feel it as you hold the string. Likewise, the thicker diameters of a leader under the water offer more resistance in the current — and that equals drag. Is it really that much drag? Again, the difference between a great drift and a lousy drift is in the fine details. Add a few small details together and you get big results.
A tippet of any diameter will incur some drag. That can be managed, but the real problem with my old nymphing rig was in having multiple diameters under the water. My tippet section was being pushed around at different rates, creating various degrees of drag and slack while making it difficult to stay in touch with a tight line method. Having only one diameter of tippet under the water solves that problem.
A third element to an effective tight line nymph rig is the sighter — a colored piece of material tied into your leader to help visually track your line. It not only aids in strike detection, but also helps judge the depth and location of your nymphs. There are many options for sighter material, and I carry a number of them. Sometimes, when fishing is tough, I find that simply changing the type of sighter that I’m using improves my catch rate. I carry sighters made from fly line backing, braided running line, furled monofilament, coiled monofilament, and straight monofilament. I carry the mono sighters in different colors, and it often helps to use a couple of contrasting colors built into one sighter. The point is to see the sighter, and if I can’t see it immediately after my cast, then I change the color or type.
Tight line nymphing rigs can be very basic in design. I’ve tried leaders with elaborate tapers built from a half dozen diameters of various materials (I’m a leader junkie), but I keep coming back to a very simple formula that works for me: a long butt section, a transitional piece, a sighter, and then the tippet.
A Simple Mono Rig Formula
24 feet — 20lb Maxima Chameleon
2 feet — 12lb Maxima Chameleon
— Tippet Ring (2mm)
6” — 15lb Red Amnesia
8” — 12lb Red Amnesia
10” — 10lb Gold Stren
20″ — 1x Rio Two Tone Tippet Material
— Tippet Ring (2mm)
4-6’ — 4X or 5X Fluorocarbon Tippet
(The 15lb Red Amnesia above is not a typo. It closely matches the diameter and flexibility of 12lb Chameleon.)
I originally made these key changes only to my tight line nymphing leader, but a decade later I now find myself rarely taking this long leader off my spool. Instead, I use the long leader for almost everything — suspender fishing, streamer fishing, and most dry-dropper fishing. The only times I use a shorter, traditional leader are when I’m dry fly fishing at distance and sometimes for swinging wets at night.
The other day, a friend asked me what nymphing books he should own.
“Do you have Trout Tactics from Joe Humphreys?” I asked.
“Do you have Dynamic Nymphing from George Daniel?” I asked.
“Well, that’s all you need.”
I really believe that. All my other fishing books gather dust after a thorough reading, but I refer to this pair constantly, learning something new every time I turn the pages. Together, they are a comprehensive resource, and everything else you need can probably be learned by fishing a lot and just thinking about it — think hard.
For more details on long mono rigs and what you can do with them, read this Troutbitten article:
Also, if you are looking for a good primer on tight line techniques, or if you would like to improve your game by understanding the basics completely, I often recommend Devin Olsen’s three part series on his blog:
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N