Tight Line Nymphing — The Check Set

by | Apr 3, 2019 | 5 comments

How do you know when to set the hook? Should you set on any twitch, pause or hesitation of the line and sighter? Yeah, sometimes. If the trout eats the nymph fast and hard, those twitches and pauses are unmistakable. Aggressive takes are obvious, but most eats on a nymph are subtle. And the angler has a choice: set on anything, or make guesses about every twitch, pause and hesitation. It’s a rough life. But there’s a third option too . . .

The check set is a very short and powerful hook set that moves the nymph just a few inches. Drift, drift, bump, check set. Nope, not a trout. Then let the nymph fall back into the drift, and watch for the next take.

That sounds much easier than it really is. And in fact, the check set simply does not work under some conditions. But in the right situation, it’s a deadly tactic. We’ll get to that . . .

Flying Fish

Think about all the different ways you’ve seen trout eat a dry fly on the surface. Many of those takes are casual interceptions of the fly. And yes, some of them are fast, aggressive grabs. Much of it depends on water type, temperature, what bug the trout are eating and, of course, the trout itself. Point is, they do the same thing under the water. If every eat was a quick grabby-grab that pulled the sighter upstream, we’d all have a lot fuller nets. Instead, our trout sample. They mouth nymphs lightly. They taste and spit. And they make it tough to know if the next bump is a trout or a rock.

Considering all that, setting on anything is a pretty good strategy. And it’s not only an effective rule of thumb for beginners, it’s a good tactic anytime the nymphing is tough. When you know that trout are taking lightly, set the hook any chance you get.

Unfortunately, every hook set pulls your nymph far away from the fish and into the air again for another cast. And brother, there are no flying fish in Montana. (Maclean)

Sixth Sense?

I’m not much of a believe in any mystical or immeasurable feeling about trout takes. I think all hook sets happen for a reason. Is there a sixth sense that experienced nymph anglers develop about trout eating the invisible fly? Nah. Rather, years of experience and millions of drifts have taught the angler what to expect. And when the slightest unexpected thing happens, she sets the hook. Fish on.

If your target is the strike zone (the cushion of water near the river bottom that’s moving slower than the rest of the flow) then the fly will occasionally encounter rocks, tree parts, swirling currents or trout. And on a tight line rig, those encounters result in something unusual — twitches, pauses or hesitations.

Now, if we’ve decided to set on anything, that’s what we do. The sighter twitches, and we perform a full hook set. That’s not a trout. So our hook set becomes the next backcast, the rod drifts forward into the power stroke, we make the tuck, and the fly is back in the drift.

But more often, we choose to read the signals of the sighter. The line pauses slightly where two currents meet behind a pocket. But hey, you expected that. You already set on a pause the first time through that lane, and now you understand what the currents are doing with the fly underneath those waves. So when you see the sighter pause in the merging seams next time, you let the fly ride through. A full two seconds later, the sighter flattens out, and you finally set the hook. Too late. You miss the trout, realizing that the pause in those merging seams the second time was actually a take. You should have set the hook. That’s fishing, right?

But what if you’d used a check set in that spot?

READ: Troutbitten | Fifty Tips #45: The Dry Fly is a Scout

The Check Set

It’s best with heavier flies, it’s tough to do with much wind swirling around, it’s nearly impossible to perform with any line on the water, and it will cost you some trout.

All true.

But the check set is also one hell of a fish-producing tactic.

Upon any signal during the drift, use your wrist to set the hook, with a short and powerful action that moves the fly only a few inches. In fact, it might be best to ditch the notion of setting the hook altogether — think instead about swiftly moving the fly up through the water column. Most of the signals we set on are not trout takes. But if you’re disciplined enough to move the fly just six inches, you can now allow the fly to settle back into position and continue the drift.

Remember, any motion from your rod hand is amplified at the rod tip. And whatever the tip does, the line follows. Keep the check set tight and short. Try to make the motion as small as possible. Then try harder. Keep it crisp, powerful and short.

At the end of the check set. Train yourself to hold the position until you are certain there is no guest at the end of your line. No fish? Are you sure? Then let the rod tip fall back into position (just those few inches), so the nymph drops back into the strike zone.

Conditionally Effective

The check set needs a lot of variables lined up just right to work as described. But you’re the one with the rod in your hand, and many of these variables are up to you.

Here are a few things to think about:

— Light flies don’t settle back into the drift as easily. After a check set, light flies can be pulled into neighboring currents, or they may never have a chance to return to the strike zone at all. Heavier flies provide more control and contact. There’s a time for everything.

— The check set works best when the drift is long enough for the fly to return to the strike zone after the check. When you’re fishing super close, it’s often best to just full set on anything.

— You will lose trout with this method, but it’s always your fault. Yup. Giving slack at the end of any hook set is the worst thing to do. And yet, the last move on a troutless check set is a drop of the rod tip to provide subtle slack for the nymph to drop again. There’s not much you can do here — just be hyper-aware of your motions. Know for certain there is no trout attached before dropping the tip.

— The check set only works on a tight line. I’ve written before about purposely slipping in and out of direct contact with the nymph/weight while nymphing. And providing the payload with small amounts of slack is an excellent strategy. But if you check set with any slack in the system, all you’ll do is pull out the slack. Think about it. And be tight before the check set.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing — Not all that Tight

— Some rods are not built for this. The check set is another reason why I prefer a four weight as my main nymphing tool. Most euro nymphing rods are too flexy in the tip for an effective check set. The inevitable softness of a two or three weight rod takes away some of the power of my short check set. With a slightly stiffer tip I have more effective control, when I either bury the hook in a trout’s jaw or move the fly upward just a few inches. It’s a fine line.

READ: Troutbitten | For Tight Line and Euro Nymphing, what’s a good fly rod?

— Remember, all of this happens fast. Most of our tight line drifts are fairly short. On a twelve foot drift, you might establish the nymphs in the strike zone within the first two feet. Four feet into the drift you respond to a twitch with a check set. Six feet into the drift the nymphs are back in the zone. And maybe there’s another check set at eight feet, with the nymphs back in position at ten feet (if you’re skilled). Ride out the last two feet and pick it up for the backcast. Sweet drift.

Well, that’s nice

You know what’s cool? Check setting into nothing and realizing that giving the nymph upward motion is a trout trigger. Lots of strikes come just after our nymphs dart up on an empty check set. So be ready. Use the check set to see if the twitch or pause was a rock or a trout. And then don’t be surprised when a trout grabs your nymphs after the check. You can learn a lot about trout behavior from things like this.

Fish hard, friends.


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. Thanks for offering another part of my education in becoming a better fly fisherman! I’ve seen some recommend a hook set as slight lift and others recommend a downstream hook set for nymphing. Perhaps the downstream hook set is the wrong term. They way I’ve read it explained is “sweep your rod horizontally toward the bank behind you, keeping the rod parallel to the water’s surface” (orvis article). What’s you opinion on lift vs downstream hook set (I may not have the terms right)?

  2. Good stuff, Domenick. A perfect check set and return to drift is hard, I agree. However, even an imperfect one is good because it keeps you flies in the water and not in the trees behind you! I hate what you described; setting the hook many times on twitches and coming up empty, but when you finally decide not to set – it’s a damn fish. Grrr…

  3. I just noticed this post in my gmail ‘Promotions’ instead of my Inbox. I checked and several more were also there that I hadn’t seen. I’m obviously no techie, what can I do to ensure they all go to my Inbox? Thanks.

    • Try clicking on the little arrow to the right of the subject to mark it as “Important” so gmail learns future emails from the same address should go to the Inbox

  4. Dom: We discussed this today and I had not read this post so in follow up to a great day on the water my mental approach to the check set will be one of aggressively lifting the fly up through the water column with the butt section of my rod and not cocking my wrist set aka using a stiff wrist.


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