The Mono Rig and Why Fly Line Sucks (Updated)
For presenting nymphs and streamers to river trout, fly line sucks. There, I said it. Now I have to defend it.
Most underwater deliveries require weight, and using a very long, monofilament leader to cast that weight is more efficient than using fly line; it keeps you in better contact with the flies, and you’ll catch more fish. I’m talking about leaders with butt sections of 20 feet or more. For all but the most lengthy casts, the fly line never comes off the reel, and the thick monofilament butt section essentially substitutes for fly line while casting, drifting and retrieving — it just weighs a lot less.
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I wrote this article in the winter of 2016, and it immediately caught fire, provoking much conversation and even some intense controversy (which seems kinda silly). The interest showed me how hungry people are for this information, so I kicked off a series of articles detailing how and where I learned about the Mono Rig, what we use it for and how it developed into a full system. (Links to those articles are provided at the conclusion of this one.)
Among the hundreds of questions I’ve fielded about the Mono Rig, these two are the most frequently asked:
Isn’t this just like spin fishing?
No. Spin fishing for trout is most often performed with thin monofilament lines. Fly fishing is traditionally done with a relatively thick and heavy fly line, then a tapered leader. The #20 monofilament used for the Mono Rig functions somewhere in between those extremes. It has some properties and abilities of both spinning line and fly line. It’s still castable like a fly line because it has enough mass to carry itself and some lightweight flies to the water, but it’s light enough not to sag too much. In essence, the Mono Rig is a fly line substitute.
Is using the Mono Rig the same as Euro nymphing?
No. What my Troutbitten friends and I call the Mono Rig is a full system for both tight line and indicator nymphing styles (weighted flies and split shot), and for streamers and dry flies, all while using #20 monofilament as a fly line substitute.
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In a previous article, I detailed the Tight Line Nymph Rig and why it works, and I strongly recommend reading through the tight line post before this one. So if you’re going as far as a tight line nymph rig, why not go further?
I’m qualifying my proposition here by saying the long Mono Rig is better for almost all underwater presentation — just to leave the door open a bit, and because taking away fly line is shocking to some and appalling to others.The same principles that make the Mono Rig so effective for tight line nymphing make it just as deadly for all other presentations of nymphs and streamers (for trout in rivers and streams), including nymphing under an indicator, and fishing large streamers at distance.
Some fly fishers will take a few steps back from this rig, drop their heads and shudder disapprovingly. That’s OK. Others will see this rig as too much bother — reluctant to change and adapt. If you’re the kind of angler who tries not to get too technical when you’re out there, and you just want to enjoy what happens, this isn’t for you. And that’s OK too.
The Mono Rig works, and why it works really isn’t complicated: it’s all about weight.
Fly line is heavy, so it sags off the rod tip, and it sags in the guides, causing drag by pulling back on the leader and the flies, resulting in a bad and unnatural drift. If you’re fishing fly line at distance, it lays in the water. Then you have to mend it, and then you’re no longer in touch, resulting in bad strike detection and lousy hook sets. By contrast, with a Mono Rig, long lengths of leader can be held off the water at some pretty remarkable distances; there is no need for mending, and you can stay in touch with the flies — that’s a fantastic thing in fly fishing.
All fishing casts happen because of weight. Spin fishing relies on the weight of a lure to pull line from a spool and carry it to a target. The original purpose of fly line was to push wet flies to the destination because the flies were too light to get there on their own. Dry flies are also a natural match for fly line (they need pushed toward the target), and lightly weighted nymphs and streamers can be presented exceptionally well with a fly line (especially if they are swung across and downstream).
But I would argue that the upstream, dead drift presentations of modern nymphing with weighted flies or split shot (and sometimes an indicator) is not the job for a fly line. The weight needed for the cast is already there — it’s in the weighted nymph, split shot, or the indicator itself — and using fly line for the cast just adds more weight. In essence, it creates a system that is fighting itself: the push of a fly line and the pull of the weighted nymphs are what create the clumsy, clunky cast that nymph fishermen eventually try to get used to. So why the hell are we fishing fly line?
A long Mono Rig solves the problem, and with a little time and practice, casting weighted rigs becomes much more elegant, accurate and efficient.
How to Do This
The more years you’ve spent casting fly line, the more awkward casting a Mono Rig might seem — but only for a short time. You can easily make the transition in a few outings by learning and implementing one key principle: take the wrist out of the cast. Loren Williams gave me that piece of the puzzle one wintry day on the banks of a good trout stream. He taught me to hold the rod with the index finger on top instead of the thumb on top (the finger points to the rod tip). Then, plant the butt end of the rod into the underside of the forearm, and cast the rod by bending the elbow, not the wrist. In fact, holding the rod like this completely disables the wrist; with very little effort, even lightly weighted flies will sail easily to the target.
In time, I’ve worked a little bit of the wrist back into my cast for certain situations, but the basic principle is still there; it’s far more important than any fancy rod will ever be (Mono Rigs are effectively cast on a wide variety of rod actions, weights and price tags). Just take the wrist out of the cast at first.
A common misconception about tight line nymphing rigs is that there’s no real casting involved — that it’s nothing more than lobbing and drifting, then lobbing and drifting again. That’s simply not true. The finesse of casting is still there (20# mono is a fly line substitute). I still make back casts, I can still tuck a cast tight under a tree limb, but with the Mono Rig I have the controlled precision to either drive my flies hard into the water (with a tuck cast), or land them with a subtle plop.
A decade ago, when I first saw this rig, I remember being absolutely amazed by the simple, obvious principles that make it work, and I’ve enjoyed sharing this revelation with friends ever since. Together, we’ve explored the possibilities and adapted it to other presentations.
We started to see fly line as a handicap. Burke often says that fly line is the biggest detriment to fly fishers, and it was Burke who took our tight line system and started fishing indicator rigs and streamers with it. He’ll tell you that it was out of pure laziness (that he just didn’t want to change leaders), but I give him the credit for discovering how effective it is. For years, I had fished indicators and dry-droppers fairly close on a tight line rig, and I routinely fished smaller streamers on the end of my line instead of nymphs, but Burke is the first person I saw using the long Mono Rig (on purpose) at longer distances with indicators and with larger streamers. It’s killer.
The long Mono Rig, however, is certainly not a Troutbitten creation. You can find it detailed in Joe Humphreys’ Trout Tactics, and I would assume that many others were using similar rigs through the years. (That’s fishing.) Humphreys used Cortland Cobra flat monofilament in place of fly line, eliminating drag and getting nymphs and streamers deep while maintaining contact and control. Eventually, he had Cortland manufacture what they marketed as the Deep Nymph Floating Line; a very thin running line of about .022” in diameter. I’ve used the line, but I prefer mono.
The specific material used for the butt section really doesn’t matter so much. If it’s significantly thinner than a regular fly line, then line sag and fly drag will be greatly reduced. I often experiment with different materials, but I keep coming back to Maxima Chameleon in #20 because it’s thin (.017″), yet it’s thick enough that it still handles well. With an easy pull, Maxima stretches out and the coils relax nicely, even in winter weather. With most thicker material, I’ve had more coiling problems than I want to deal with.
Some of my Troutbitten friends prefer Hends leaders or other brands of long, extruded leaders. The Hends leaders are nice; they feel a bit more like fly line. However, the butt diameters are a little too heavy for what I like. I’ve tried Stren, Berkley, Suffix, Amnesia (a flat monofilament), braided mono running line, Rio Slick Shooter, and a one-weight fly line. I keep coming back to Maxima Chameleon.
If you are hung up on the idea of using mono, then try one of the competition fly lines now available. They are much thinner and lighter than an average fly line and can come close to the performance of mono. Finding your own favorite material is part of the fun.
You can find tight line leader recipes from a variety of dependable sources (Dynamic Nymphing by George Daniel is one of the best). Some like to start with a standard 9’, manufactured, extruded leader and build from that, while others like to tie their own leaders from scratch. Whatever you choose, though, the long Mono Rigs I’m writing about here need to be long enough so the fly line rarely leaves the spool of your reel. I use a 24’, one-piece butt section in my leader so that the connection from leader to fly line rarely finds its way into my guides where it could hang up or slow down any shooting line during the cast. The 24’ butt section also assures that no fly line sag will occur in my rod guides while nymphing either. Remember, fly line sucks.
The rig I use for nymphing is listed below. If I add a suspender/indicator, I do so on the first few feet of the tippet section. If I want to fish larger streamers, I swap out everything from the sighter down (using Loon’s Rigging Foam) for another smaller but stronger sighter and a tippet section of 2X.
This formula is basic because it doesn’t need to be complicated. Elaborate tapers with multiple sections aren’t necessary.
The Amnesia/Stren sections in this formula are the sighter. The specific materials you choose for the sighter portion of the leader is also unimportant. There are many good options, and these days companies make Bi-Color sighter material for this purpose. I prefer to taper my sighter, but it’s not necessary. Just be sure to choose materials that you can see well.
I suspect I’ll take some flak about this long Mono Rig. “It’s not fly fishing!” is a pretty common response, and that’s fair. It’s certainly nontraditional, and even considering the current popularity of tight lining, euro-nymphing, and competition fishing styles, a long mono rig still raises eyebrows.
In my mind, fly fishing is defined in two parts: using flies, and retrieving by hand. What “flies” actually are is pretty blurry these days; beads, coneheads, molded heads and rubber fins on streamers are ubiquitous. Who cares? I say. Just fish what works. However, the line-retrieval aspect of fly fishing is more concrete. If you are cranking a reel handle after every cast to bring your offering back for the next cast, then you probably aren’t fly fishing.
Another common reaction to this rig is, “Why not just use a spinning rod?” That’s fair too. I’ve tried it, but it’s actually much less effective and a lot less fun. Retrieving by hand and using a long rod allows for more versatility and efficiency of presentation.
When I first saw the Mono Rig used for tight line nymphing, I was intrigued. When I first used it, I thought it was fun — and that’s where I’ve been ever since. I simply enjoy fishing the long Mono Rig because it presents me with more options for greater control over where my flies go and what they look like to the fish. And then I catch more trout.
Problems and More
Like anything else in fishing, there are untold numbers of intricacies, adaptation, and points to be made about this rig. I’ve addressed many of them on Troutbitten, and I’ll continue to add posts about the Mono Rig. There are specific challenges to be overcome: line coils must be handled, retrieves must be adapted, etc.
Tight line nymphing is the core tactic of the Mono Rig. But indicator fishing and streamer fishing are both dramatically improved by fishing with the long leader, and these two variations complete the set of techniques that I refer to as the Mono Rig. I’ve written about both, and you can find details at these links.
- close range and at distance
- suspender types
- using the double haul
- when to mend, how to mend
- balance between weight of suspender and weight of flies
- angles of drift, angles to nymphs
- staying tight to the suspender
- Big streamers and small streamers
- Old-school vs modern streamer tactics
- water haul and double haul
- advantages over a floating line
- advantages over sinking line
- creating and using drag with the mono leader
- shooting heads
If you’ve read to the end of this thesis, let me commend your persistence. You are my kind of fisherman, with a heart for exploration and a head full of questions.
One more thing: I don’t think I would start a new fly fisher off this way. There’s something very special about casting dries on a fly line that should not be missed.
Enjoy the day
T R O U T B I T T E N