Quick Tips Tips/Tactics

Quick Tips — Thumb on Top | Finger on Top

November 14, 2018

There’s a reason for everything, right? It’s a truism of life. And that goes double for your fly fishing game. Most of us will never get the hours we really need to learn everything we’d like about the river. Trout fishing runs deep. Questions we ask of ourselves on the walk back after dark linger in our minds until the next time we hit the stream. Until then, we research — we read, watch and talk about trout on a fly rod, filling in the hours, days and weeks until our boots are wet again.

Sometimes, things like these quick tips might answer that nagging question in your mind. Other times, one of these tips might create a new question to chew on. Both are significant. Both are valuable.

Pick a side

When we hold the fly rod, should the thumb or the forefinger be on top?

I use both. There are good reasons for each hold, and we’ll get to that briefly. But accuracy and power suffer if you do anything else.

So finger or thumb. Pick one. Just don’t do this . . .

No good.


The thumb-on-top hold is arguably more common. It’s the standard. I think it’s also the most natural. It allows the index finger to be the trigger finger, and that’s more natural too.

The thumb on the cork lends more power to the cast. I tend to switch over with the thumb on top when I’m casting at distance or if I’m pushing streamers through the cast with fly line.


The wrist also has more freedom with the thumb on top. That’s likely why it’s the standard — because good dry fly casting comes from the wrist. We want crisp and clean acceleration between ten and two, with short, compact motions mostly achieved through the wrist.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Tips #28 — Ten and Two

For years, I used only the thumb-on-top approach. I tried the finger up there a few times because my friend, Rich (an excellent dry fly fishermen), cast with his index on top. His wrist got plenty of power and movement with the finger on top too. But when I tried it, I felt awkward.

Until . . .


I learned to tight line nymph with the Mono Rig on a five weight rod. At the time, specialized two and three weight rods designed for “euro nymphing” were not yet available. So we all used what we had — four and five weight rods — for the long leader styles.

Although I had tight line nymphed for years with a Joe Humphreys style, when I finally committed to a full Mono Rig, I struggled a bit with the casting.

One day that I spent with Loren Williams on the water changed all that. Loren saw my difficulty. He saw my thumb on the rod cork, and he recommended a change. He suggested putting my finger on top instead — fingertip on the rod blank — tucking the butt of the rod against the inside of my forearm.

“Take the wrist out of the cast,” he told me. Keep the wrist locked and cast with your arm bending at the elbow.

Notice how the butt of the rod is against the inside of the forearm.

Top angle

It worked right away. I gained distance and authority over my long leader casts, and within an hour I was comfortable with the new position.

It was so effective, that I never really looked back. Over time, I loosened the grip a bit. I don’t tuck the rod into my forearm as much, and I brought some wrist back into the cast. When I do cast with specialized, more flexible nymphing rods, I notice that I can cast them with a more traditional wrist approach.

READ: Troutbitten | For tight line nymphing and the Mono Rig, what’s a good fly rod?

I use the finger on top most often. I now use it for dries and even streamers on many days. And I also like the sensitivity I gain with my fingertip on the rod blank. When tightlining, it’s a real benefit.

Some anglers (like Rich) argue that the finger on top provides more accuracy than the thumb. I don’t know about that, but I’m open minded, if you want to prove it to me.

Either | Or | Both

You’ll find excellent anglers employing both styles. And that’s what it is, really — a personal style.

But the next time you’re on the water, try the other method. Give it an hour or so, and you’ll probably notice some advantages. Maybe you’ll end up using both positions too.

Fish hard, friends.

Photo by Josh Darling

Photo by Josh Darling


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Chris Morris

95 percent of my casting is with my forefinger on top. I tore the tendons in my casting arm a long time ago and casting this way was much more comfortable and didn’t aggravate it one it healed. Casting this way now is normal for me.

david hutton

I find all this discussion of rivers fascinating. I dont have one nearby and havent been on one fishing is a long time….

Theres a third grip position, what I call the “Paintbrush Hold.”
I think of it as a finesse casting grip; its end result is to treat the cast like flipping paint off the end of a brush.

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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