Tight Line Nymphing | Where Should the Sighter Be?

by | May 31, 2017 | 12 comments

What’s the sighter for? Ah, well that short length of colored line changes everything, doesn’t it?

The twenty-inch chunk of vivid monofilament, tied into the leader just before the tippet section, is perhaps the most useful element in the Mono Rig. But how do we best use it? And where should it be during the drift?

Spawned by the ardent imaginations of anglers, sighters are creatively constructed from a myriad of materials, all designed to improve the visibility of a simple leader. Monofilament is surely the most common. However, even ordinary mono is shaped into variations, forming a wide collection of detectable shapes: There’s curled, furled, braided and more. But straight sighters are most widely used and versatile. To catch up, go back and read Sighters: Seven Separate Tools on Troutbitten.

The advantage of tight line nymphing is the control it lends to the angler. We can then dictate the course of the flies at the end of the line. The direction, speed and depth are all up to us. Sometimes, these are burdens better left to an indicator (that’s a whole different article). But a skilled fly fisher who can make the most of a tight line rig has the advantage in many situations. And the sighter is our focal point. The sighter shows what the line is doing. And if the angler can read contact on the sighter, it points directly to the flies.

I should mention, my sighter is a bit different than most. I attach a one-inch orange Tag Sighter made from twenty pound Dacron, near the middle of the colored line. The added visibility and sensitivity of the Tag Sighter is unmatched. I also use the same Dacron backing to attach  a small tag-less Backing Barrel to the first section of my tippet. I keep it about a foot below my sighter, and it drastically improves the visibility and tracking of every drift..

READ: Troutbitten | The Backing Barrel

READ: Troutbitten | Category |The Mono Rig

So a good sighter is highly visible and responsive. We use it not just for strike detection, but to also tell us everything about how the flies are drifting under the surface.

Photo by Pat Burke

Photo by Chris Kehres

Float ‘em or Hold ‘em High?

Floating the sighter is what I consider a secondary tactic. While it’s extremely effective, it’s not the primary method for tight lining — keeping the sighter above the water is the primary tactic. Most sighters can only support a small amount of weight, and if I’m using more than a #16 tungsten beaded nymph, I probably cannot effectively suspend it with a sighter.

What most guys seem to do when floating the sighter should really be called floating the slack. They aren’t actually suspending the nymphs. With a normal payload of weight required to get to the bottom of your average pocket water or run, the sighter sinks as soon as it’s in touch with the nymphs. Before that (while the sighter is floating) there’s usually a little bit of slop in the system, a bit of slack — and that can be a good thing. Floating the sighter is a great technique, but it’s helpful to understand exactly what’s going on. If I really want to suspend something, I usually opt for a small Dorsey, a Thingamabobber or a dry fly.

More often, tight line nymphing is about keeping as much line off the water as possible. The sighter is above the water and in touch with the nymphs.

READ: Troutbitten | Everything that Touches the River Drags — Everything Underneath Drags Even More

How high should it be? It doesn’t matter, and you don’t get to decide that. The river does. If the drift is good, I can read the signs of a sighter when it’s three feet off the water or three inches above it. Now let’s think about that . . .

How High?

“How far off the water should I hold my sighter?”

I hear the question a lot, and it always confuses me a bit. Honestly, it’s a bad query. It’s like asking how long the tippet section should be before either of us ever sees the water. No one really knows until we see the conditions. Like everything else around here . . . it depends.

Questions like these seem to come with a smart-assed answer, like the one I just gave. But you might get a more qualified and accurate response if you really press someone. So I’ll say this: I prefer my sighter close to the water. Six inches to a foot is probably my most comfortable setup. But I’m not willing to clip and tie tippet all day just to make that happen. Not very often, anyway. So I choose a length for my tippet below the sighter to start the day, factoring in the maximum water depth and speed I expect to encounter. And unless I run into unusual circumstances, I stick with it.

So how far off the water should you hold your sighter? The answer comes by considering the conditions in front of you, by observing the sighter, the water speed and depth, and deciding where you want the nymphs in the first place.

Photo by Pat Burke

Photo by Chris Kehres


Let’s agree: the most common destination for a point nymph is the bottom. More precisely, we want it in the cushion of water near the bottom where trout usually hang out (the strike zone.) The water in that 4-20” zone is slower than the mid-current because it’s in constant contact with rocks, vegetation, the streambed itself, and . . . well . . . trout (hopefully). So the water in the strike zone near the bottom is our target.

READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone

After the cast, I like to keep the rod tip high. On all but the longest casts, I can usually keep my sighter off the water without dragging it unnaturally downstream. (That’s exactly what the monofilament butt section in the Mono Rig allows for. Because fly line destroys this presentation.)

Most often I throw a tuck cast, so as my nymphs enter the water they get a bit of slack added on top of them, allowing them to sink to the bottom quickly, without the unnatural tug of a tippet section. Although even when I straighten out the cast (no tuck), I still do a slight upstream push with the rod tip to give the nymphs a touch of slack to sink easier. It helps. Then I watch the sighter and track the flies.

Leading the sighter downstream at the same speed of the surface current is a decent way to start. As the nymphs sink, recover the slack by guiding the sighter downstream (above the water). But keep in mind, the strike zone is slower than the surface. And after a few drifts of getting to the bottom, you’ll learn how much slower the water in the strike zone is, and you can hold back the sighter-lead accordingly.

Just recover the slack that the drift feeds you, by leading the sighter downstream. If you’ve given some slack for the nymphs to dive to the bottom, then the sighter will seem loose at first. But try to gain contact within a second or two. Watch for the sighter to tighten. Then allow a slight bend in the mono but not so much that it’s limp. Then lead enough so the sighter is almost straight.

The sighter signals when it’s in touch with the nymphs. It tightens up a bit under the load of even the lightest flies. It stiffens when the line is taut and the slack is gone, and it may slow a bit.

Once I read contact on my sighter, the next ever-so-slight tightening is what I watch for. It signals that my nymphs are in the strike zone, right where I want them. I then keep my sighter at the same height and angle for the rest of the drift, perhaps varying it for known drop-offs or faster currents through the ride.

Photo by Pat Burke

So . . . HOW HIGH???

There’s that question again.

Every spot in the river is unique. In one pocket, my sighter may be two feet off the water when I reach the strike zone. At the next turn, on a deep outside bend, I may find swift depths that require a sighter angle to be more vertical and only inches above the water. Maybe I even need to submerge half of the sighter to reach the bottom. (I rarely do this.)

Let the river make the decision. And just do what you’re told.

If I know I’m fishing skinny water all day, I go with just 3-4 feet of tippet to my point fly. On the contrary, if I plan to fish deep runs for most of the day, then I may extend my tippet length to 6-7 feet before I even begin fishing. I then work most of the day with what I have set up.

If I find a shallow piece of bank water, I might hold four feet of tippet above the surface as I fish thin water for ten minutes, before getting back to the deep stuff. Rarely do I stand there and waste time clipping and tying tippet, although sometimes, at the extremes, it is necessary.

First read the water. Then read the sighter. Then catch trout.

Good luck out there.

Fish hard, friends.

Photo by Pat Burke


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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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. Great post, as usual. One of the best, actually. Raising and lowering the sighter rather than adding or subtracting tippet is a tremendous time saver.

    Here’s a thought concerning the tuck cast. I use it, but I also find it somewhat messy. More and more I’ve been casting normally but, at the end of the cast, keeping my rod tip high. The result is the that the nymphs enter the water with the sighter still high in the air (sort of what Joe Humphreys called a “downer and upper”). I then lower the rod gradually, giving the nymphs the slack they need to sink quickly.

    • Right on. Hump’s downer and upper is actually a tuck cast too. I think a good tuck cast doesn’t really throw a pile of leader on top of the water, and it doesn’t tuck the nymph all the way back under the leader, it just fires the nymph straight down into the water.

    • Those are super visible, for sure, Alex. I’ve used the drop bead sighters, but they are too heavy for my liking. In fact, I’d say they’re the heaviest sighters I’ve ever used. I like my sighter as light as possible, on long range drifts, line sag can become an issue.

      • I agree with both your points. I tend to use a sighter when I’m fishing very close to me, almost at my feet. Doing that, and using a 10 ft. rod, my line is almost vertical to the water, so sag isn’t much of an issue. When I want to go out farther, I usually add a bobber.

  2. Lately I have been using a wool ‘New Zealand strike indicator’ on my french leader and it can do 2 things: float my pair of nymphs or act as a pure sighter. I started using this system since you mentioned you sometimes put a yarn indicator on your french leader.
    I really like this wool thing because it has no weight and so doesn’t create any sag. It also makes the french leader more versatile.

  3. Thank you, Dom, for such accurate information on the mono rig’s sighter. Learning how to use this nymphing system has been a challenge but good instruction like this article gives us a lot more confidence to continue learning how to nymph and therefore catch some trout. Each time I read an article about this system I go out and try to apply what you have taught me. I understand more and more about it. Especially understanding what it means to see the bite before I feel it. Thank you very much for sharing so much fly fishing knowledge with us. With such a well rounded content and style of teaching, how could a man not learn what we have so far. Thanks again, Dom. Please keep writing.

    • Hi Dom, thanks for all the advice you share with us. You’ve expanded my trout fishing tactics and enjoyment. A question about the distance from the mono sighter to the point fly. Is there a formula similar to the 1 1/2-2 times depth of water? Like we do with indicators? Thanks.

      • Hi John.

        I hesitate to offer a formula like that, because it so much matter whether you like to fish more vertical or horizontal angles — also how far away you fish.

        That said. My personal preference is for about 1.5 times the deepest water I believe I’ll fish.

        Make sense?

        • Thanks Dom. Yes the more I use the sighter the better I get what I’m trying to do. My initial mistake was to have the sighter 6’ -7’from my point fly in 2’-3’ of water.

  4. Good info but my recommendation is to substitute anglers ( for what most guys do…) in one of the paragraphs of your article. Plenty of both genders using this method so it reads better in my opinion.

    • Hi Kiki,

      Thanks for reading.

      I think, if you read through a lot of articles here on Troutbitten, you’ll find the gender writing pretty fair. Of course I understand that I could have used “anglers” up there. I do it all the time. But restricting language too much gets quite bland after a while. Try writing 600 articles about fishing and you’ll see what I mean. So it’s my choice not to write under strict PC rules.

      I’m surprised that you’d take issue with the word “guys” these days. I’m curious if you have problems with EVERY youtube video that starts with “Hey guys,” from both males and females — all the time. The word has become very gender neutral over time.

      Again, I encourage you to read through the articles here. You’ll find times when I mix in she, her, etc. And I trust that no one is offended when I do that. Basically, I’m asking you to see my work here at Troutbitten as a whole and not just this one article. And if you consider the whole project, I think you’ll see that my choice of pronouns is fair.

      Thanks for considering.



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