Sighters are game changers. A visible sighter allows you to stop guessing where your fly might be and know where it is instead. By having a visual reference at a fixed point on your leader, you can track the movements of that leader, in relation to the currents, and have a very good idea of what your flies are doing under the water — or on the surface.
Not only do I build a sighter into my nymph and streamer leaders, I also add small, subtle sighters into my dry fly leaders. As my friend, Jimmi Ray, says, “Why wouldn’t you?” Sighters, however, are a staple in tight line and euro nymphing leaders, and in the Mono Rig. For a lot more about where sighters fit into these long-line fly fishing rigs, visit the Troutbitten Mono Rig page with dozens of articles on the subject.
I absolutely believe in the effectiveness of long mono leaders for nearly every underwater presentation to river trout, but here’s one major drawback: without the fly line, there’s nothing to look at. A sighter gives that visual back, better than ever.
Watching the end of the fly line for a strike puts the reference point 7-12 feet away from the fly (or however long the leaders is). By contrast, I typically have a sighter 3-6 feet from my flies. I also build a second sighter into my rig — a small backing barrel about a foot below my sighter. With that much to watch during the drift, the accuracy of my fishing improves dramatically.
The sighter is another tool that grants me greater control of the outcome. Fishing becomes less about luck and much more a performance of skill. Careful though, because with a rig too effective, you can’t make excuses about the fish not biting anymore.
I use seven different kinds of sighters, not because I need all seven, but because I enjoy experimenting. As you’ll see in the list below, every sighter has its weak points and its strong points. Slow days are sometimes turned around just by changing the sighter style. Maybe the sighter switch simply renews my concentration, or perhaps I focus on a subtle aspect of my drift with the second sighter that wasn’t available with the first.
The point is, I’ve learned a lot by experimenting with each one of these sighter types. Curiosity is the seed of knowledge.
The Backing Barrel
My first sighter was a small orange sleeve of fly line with the core removed, shown to me by Steve Sywensky in the 90’s. I bought the inch-long sleeves, trimmed them a little smaller, and slid them over the knots in a hand-tied, 9’ tapered leader. I learned to rely on those small points to track my drifts. Without them, I felt blind.
Today, I’m still watching a small orange marker to track my leader and flies, but now it’s a backing barrel.
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 lb, bright 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 short, hanging tags for even more feedback about the drift.
This small piece of orange backing is amazingly visible under most light conditions. It can be added to any diameter of line anywhere on the leader, and I often incorporate it onto other sighters. With one or two small tags, the subtle twitch of the hanging backing can signal soft trout takes in a way that most other sighters cannot.
A huge advantage of the backing barrel is the ability to slide up or down the leader. I usually tie a barrel on the tippet section of my nymph rig and slide it into position two feet above my top fly. The small backing barrel is often visible under the water, and when combined with the in-line sighter a short distance above, it points to the nymphs.
I also use the sliding backing barrel to hold an indicator in place, or for an adjustable dry-dropper setup. The backing barrel is the most versatile sighter in my arsenal. I wrote much more about its various uses in a previous post.
By far, the most common type of sighter is straight mono. It’s a simple solution that gets the job done, and it casts well when adding an indicator. Commonly, diameters of .015” to .007” are tied into the leader, just before the tippet section. I like straight mono sighters in the middle of that range, and I commonly use a two-piece sighter of 12 lb red Amnesia and 10 lb Gold Stren.
I like to keep my straight mono sighters around twenty inches. Ultimately, the goal is to see the darn thing without straining (and without spooking trout while hanging a piece of colored line over their heads). Do trout actually spook from a sighter? Maybe. In clear, shallow water, I think I’ve seen it happen, but that’s about as decisive as I can be on that.
Browse through the gear fishing world of available colored monofilament, and you’ll find an abundance of choice. But the easiest solution is to visit your local fly shop and purchase the bi-color tippet material available from Rio (or Cortland, Umpqua, etc.). Then tie it into your leader.
Straight mono sighters don’t float well. That’s fine if you’re tight lining with the sighter and leader above the water surface (standard), but if you want to float the sighter and suspend any weight underneath, straight mono is not the best option.
If you plan to add an indicator, either on the sighter itself or to the tippet section below, straight mono sighters are arguably the best choice on this list.
All the variables of color, diameter, length and type are a personal choice, and you’ll eventually find what works best for you.
There’s a lot more you can do with mono, and furling it is a pretty slick variation. Furling adds light-reflecting angles and dramatically increase the visibility — that’s why I started doing it. If I can’t pick out my sighter immediately after the cast, then I need to change something. And I often switch to furled mono.
Of course, the doubling of material also doubles the weight, so I keep the furled sighters around 10-14 inches.
The weight of any sighter is a primary consideration. Line sag (as addressed in this post) is a real thing, and it destroys drifts. Every centigram counts, so I keep my sighters as light as possible.
The furled mono also holds a tiny bit of water in the valleys of the furl, so in sub-zero temps, ice-up can be a problem. Silicon Mucilin usually solves the ice issues (for any sighter listed here), and it lends some flotation as well.
Furled mono is a much better floater than straight mono and it easily casts an indicator.
Coiled Mono (Curly)
Another way to improve the visibility and flotation of straight mono is with a curly. Colored mono is wrapped around a dowel rod, pencil, pen shaft, etc., then boiled for a few minutes and frozen overnight, thereby setting the mono coils into memory.
Coiled mono can work as an everyday sighter, but it excels when used as a floating indicator for long range nymphing over spooky trout, as described in Dynamic Nymphing by George Daniel (p.16).
If I plan to add an indicator, I do not like the curly.
I also carry sighters of braided monofilament. I use Cortland Braided Mono Running Line in 20 lb test, and it’s about .019” in diameter — much thicker and far more visible than a straight mono sighter. It’s also stiffer than straight mono (in this diameter) and can cast an indicator when needed. I usually build them in lengths of 10-14”.
These sighters are slightly heavier, partly because they tend to take on a bit of water, but like furled mono, if greased, they are good floaters.
I’ve mentioned floating the sighter a few times now. Keep in mind, that a sighter’s primary function is not for floating — leave that to the bobbers, indicators and suspenders. The sighter is usually held above the water in a tight line presentation. There are times when a floating sighter is useful, but none of these sighters suspend a nymph of more than (about) 25 centigrams.
The backing sighter is one of my favorites. Combining two sections of orange and chartreuse 20 lb backing, the backing sighter is so visible that any length greater than fourteen inches is not needed. I usually build them to about ten inches.
Because Dacron backing is so limp, the backing sighter doesn’t cast indicators very well. Otherwise, I’d probably use it for most of my nymphing. (I like the versatility of quickly adding an indicator to my rig.) But backing sighters are extremely light, sensitive sighters for tight line nymphing, and on days where I’m struggling with my drifts, I often switch to the backing sighter; I wade close to my target and tight line. Many times, just spending a little time with a backing sighter seems to fine tune my presentation.
Aside from the visibility, the strongest characteristic of the backing sighter is how limp it is. It’s a tremendous tool, better than any other sighter for visually understanding contact with the nymphs as you lead the flies through a drift: backing straight — you are in touch; backing sagging — you are not in touch. A slight sag in the backing indicates slack in your tippet section and the need to lead the flies faster to match the speed of the bottom current. Good nymphing is about the fine nuances of presentation.
When I started night fishing, all I did was swing wet flies and streamers. Eventually, I wanted to tight line the dark water just as I did in the daylight. After a few failed attempts with various glowing sighters over the years, my light bulb finally lit up.
I tie the night sighter with a two-foot section, cut from the back end (running line portion) of a weight forward Rio Lumalux glowing fly line. It’s nail knotted on both ends to two pieces of 12 lb Maxima Chameleon and tied to tippet rings.
That’s exactly what I needed. Yes, it weighs a bit more than any of the other sighters listed here, but when quickly charged with a flashlight I can see it in the dark, and the extra weight is a fine trade off for being able to tight line at night.
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I carry all seven sighters listed, but I don’t change between them much while on the water anymore. I’m glad I’ve fished extensively with every one of them, and I’ve found my favorites. Each of these sighters persuades me to fish in a different way, to see different things, and to learn something new. That may seem strange, but if you try each one, you’ll understand. Some are more sensitive. Some track better in faster water, and some are so visible that you can’t miss what they are showing you.
Fish them all. “Why wouldn’t you?”
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N