Nymphing: Tight Line vs Indicator

June 26, 2018


I’ve watched a lot of anglers fish nymphs. Most of them pick up at least a few trout, and some guys are like a vacuum cleaner. But I like to watch how differently everyone approaches the game. It’s curious to see so much variation, because essentially we’re all striving for the same thing — we want a drift that looks a lot like what the natural bugs are doing down there. (And yeah, usually that’s a dead drift.) But while the refinements and nuances between anglers are plenty, I think we can fairly group all approaches for dead drifting nymphs into two camps: tight line or indicator nymphing. The next question: Which one is better?


Note: I really love this topic, and I’ve built a full presentation around it. I do speaking engagements for clubs, schools and fly shops. Essentially, this article is an outline for a sixty minute discussion and slide show in greater depth. Please get in touch if you’re interested in booking a presentation.


Of course, the merits of each method have been and will be argued for decades. But it really comes down to this: Which one puts more trout in the net?

If you’ve read much of my work on Troutbitten, you know that my answer is easy — neither. Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. Both excel at certain moments, and both provide advantages in water types and situations which the other method cannot.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, each nymphing system complements the other. You can learn a hell of a lot about good indicator nymphing by improving your tight line game, and vice versa. The fishiest anglers I know use both approaches, taking the best of the indicator game and merging it with the best of the tight line game, rolling it into one great system and fishing the water hard.

My sons, Joey and Aiden. We fished high water, nymphing the slow edges from the bank, with the flies suspended under an indicator.

Defining the Terms

Real quick, just for the sake of clarity, here’s what we’re talking about.

Tight Line

Tight line nymphing is what it sounds like. There is a tight line between angler (rod tip, really) and the nymphs — direct contact with the nymphs or the weight. Granted, there are different degrees of contact (resulting in an angler being more or less effective). Also, most good tight lining is done with a leader long enough to keep traditional fly line out of the mix. And lastly, tight line nymphing is done without anything attached to the leader which might suspend flies or weight.


The best way to define indicator nymphing is by using George Daniel’s more appropriate term for what most people call an indicator — a suspender. Indy fishing is performed with something attached to the leader, something that can suspend flies or weight underneath it. The indy floats. It is cork, yarn, plastic, foam, a dry fly, etc.

It’s important to realize that the flies themselves have nothing to do with the distinction between tight line and indicator nymphing. Neither does the weight. With either method, you can use split shot or weighted flies. You can even choose a drop shot rig for either tight line or indicator nymphing.

Let’s Do It

This article could easily grow into multiple chapters of a book. But the purpose here is to lay out the key points and provide some food for thought while you are on the water or away from it.

Strengths of a tight line system

— Ultimate control over the flies. The angler may dictate the depth, speed and angle of the presentation.

— Strike detection. Because the angler has direct control over the above variables, she has the best chance of setting up contact and detecting strikes.

— More variability with less adjustment. An angler can modify the cast and the drift for each piece of water without changing weights. For example, a single #12 tungsten beaded Walt’s Worm may be used to fish a shallow, twelve inch riffle. But that same fly may be fished in water twice as deep and twice as fast, simply by tuck casting hard and providing some quick slack for the flies to achieve depth.

— Fewer tangles. Without an indicator attached to the leader, there is one less thing to tangle. It’s math, man.

Weaknesses of a tight line system

— Too much contact. I know, this seems counter-intuitive at first. But If you don’t do things just right, you end up moving the fly too much on a tight line. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with such control over the nymphs, and you have to be good to make it work consistently.

— Concentration. Even excellent tight line nymph anglers may find it difficult to perform at a high level all day long.

— Wind. Tight lining can be really tough in anything more than a stiff breeze. You can keep the rod low, stay close and use heavier flies, and you can try floating the sighter. But it’s often much more effective to just add an indicator.

— Distance. It’s tough to make tight line nymphing work at long distances. Once you cast beyond twenty-five feet or so, some of the leader usually lays on the surface. And too much leader on the water means less contact and less control over the flies.

My friend, Jim, tight lining in the seam.

Strengths of an indicator nymphing system

— Steady, smoother drifts with less bounce. An indicator rig tends to even out the drift by eliminating the incidental or unintended motion that tight line nymphing can introduce to the nymphs.

— Distance. An indy rig allows for effective drifts at a greater distance.

— Defeat the wind. Hard indicators are better for this than yarn styles.

— Across stream. Indy rigs also allow for more effective drifts at cross stream angles, because . . .

— The indy controls the flies, while the angler controls the indy.

— All of the above adds up to long, steady drifts at many different angles of presentation. So . . .

— Indy fishing can be less taxing because the angler may wade less to get into good position. You can cover more water from one spot, and you can . . .

— Suspend flies at one specific depth. (perhaps mid or upper column, or above vegetation.)

Weaknesses of an indicator nymphing system

— Less control. Once the flies are in the water, the angler has much less control over the flies vs a tight line look.

— Less variability. It takes more time and adjustment to adapt for depth and speed. The indy must be repositioned. And the weight must be changed more often than with tight lining.

— Poorer strike detection (usually). Because there is less contact and less control over the drift, strike detection may suffer with an indy rig.


Go have a beer while you digest all of the above. Photo by Bill Dell.

. . . and some homemade fries.   Photo by Bill Dell.


What makes nymphing work, anyway?

Dead drifts catch trout. And keeping our flies drifting in one current seam is the key to a good dead drift. We all know this, and we can see it with a dry fly — effective drifts happen when the fly travels unadulterated down one surface seam.

Likewise, our objective is the same under the water, with a nymph.

I’ve flushed out this concept in another article.
READ: Troutbitten | One Great Nymphing Trick

For the comparison of tight line vs indy approaches, it’s important to understand the two different ways we can achieve this one-current-seam drift.

Look at this . . .

Versus this . . .

And here are the indy version of it:

Versus this . . .


With those pictures in mind, let’s think about something . . .

One major advantage of indicator nymphing

With an indy approach, we can effectively dead drift flies below our position. By starting the cast up and across, we can get the flies tracking behind the indy. That same  angle can be maintained toward the end of our drift, down and across from our position. The indy acts as a hinge. The flies still track naturally behind the indy. And this cannot be achieved with a tight line approach.


On big water, that is a VERY big deal!


One major advantage of tight line nymphing

This one is simple. It’s the control. With tight line nymphing, it always comes back to how much control the angler has over the flies. That’s the advantage.


How to improve an indicator system

— Stay closer. Always fish as close as possible to the fish.

— Mend less. Use aerial adjustments in the cast rather than mending line on the water.

Use a smaller indicator. Use only the buoyancy needed to suspend the flies. Smaller and lighter equals more sensitive. (And nothing is more sensitive than a properly sized Dorsey Yarn Indicator)

— Limit multiple tippet diameters under the water.

— Here is a full Troutbitten article on a leader designed for indicator nymphing.
READ: Troutbitten | Three Parts of an Ideal Indicator Leader

— Use a tight line leader! (A Mono Rig). Do this . . .

Tight line nymphing with an indicator

These days, most of my indicator nymphing is done with a Mono Rig, on a tight line. By keeping fly line out of the game, I eliminate the need for on-the-water mending, and I gain a lot more control over the outcome.

Tight lining with an indicator combines the best of both worlds, and it’s a deadly tactic in my big bag of nymphing tricks.

Here is the full Troutbitten article on the subject:
READ: Troutbitten |Tight Line Nymphing with an Indicator — A Mono Rig Variant

In some situations, I still use fly line and shorter leaders. Sometimes I need the heft and power of the fly line to push the indy rig to its target.

Water Types

While considering the benefits of tight lining vs indicator nymphing, most anglers think about water types first. Personally, I think of other conditions first: things like how close can I get, how far across stream must I cast, and how long of a drift do I want.

Of course there are pieces of water that lend themselves more toward one method or the other. In general, tight lining is best suited for broken water, heavy runs, moderate riffles and pocket water. And indicator nymphing may be best suited for calmer water like flats and glides.

That said, I’ll make this point: Even in a heavy run, there are small pieces of flats and glides. And in pocket water, behind every rock, there is a stall, where an indy rig may very well be the best option. It’s something to think about.

Try both methods in all water types. The results are often surprising.

Here’s one more cool thing about indy fishing …

While an indy is in touch with the flies below, sometimes the indicator lightly rolls and bounces on a broken surface, providing just the perfect bit of motion to the nymphs underneath.

Watch for it. See the indy rise slightly and drop as it rides a minor wave. And know that the nymph is also rising and lowering in a tantalizing rhythm. Sometimes it’s a magic action. (And that is very difficult to reproduce so subtly with a tight line approach.)

Here’s one more cool thing about tight lining . . .

You can do anything with it. Try some mini strips or jigs, then allow the flies to get right back down and settle into a dead drift again. With tight line control, the options are endless. (And such animation is much less effective with an indy setup.)


Photo by Bill Dell

One or the other or both

Neither method covers it all. And if you want to nymph any situations and all water types, then aim to be proficient with both systems.

When done properly, each method is deadly effective. Each has its place.

Last point. Neither system is easier. Neither method takes less talent. Indy nymphing, done well, takes a lot of work to adjust for depth and speed, and/or mend line. And tight line nymphing requires more wading and more casting.

In the end, everything works. And everybody wins.

Fish hard, friends.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Alex Argyros

This is a wonderful, and very important, post. Your observations are apt and incisive. Good work, Dom. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter. I think that the way the same flies are presented when tightening and when using an indy is different. So, the same flies presented roughly the same way (upstream, for example)but with different techniques will catch different When I’m fishing a stretch of water that I know well, I usually start using a standard Euro rig (two beadheads, one on point, the other on a dropper). Then, I’ll fish the same stretch by removing… Read more »

Ben Bailey

Good article! Up until a few years ago where I got more seriously into fly fishing, I was the rigid dry fly guy who was confined to the early morning and late evening hatches. Since incorporating nymphs into my arsenal, I’ve almost always gone with the indicator rig. As someone who hasn’t done a lot of tight line nymphing, it seems counterintuitive that strikes would be easier to detect without the indicator. Since fish don’t usually “strike” nymphs, how can I tell when one bites? Assuming that you typically watch the end of your fly line.


I think it was Pascal Cognard, about a decade ago, (the then French fly fishing team captain) that said there was always a more efficient way to catch fish than with the duo! At the time that made perfect sense to me so I barely touched the method again. Maybe just to stabilise a tiny dry in the wind or using a dry help locate a small spent pattern in the last few minutes of daylight. Recently with a renewed focus on developing efficiency out there on the river and many more resources available I’m not so sure Cognard was… Read more »

Domenick Swentosky

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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