Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone

by | Jul 28, 2019 | 41 comments

Put the nymphs on the bottom. I heard it from everyone I talked with and everything I read, so that’s what I did. I added weight to get the nymphs down — to touch the river bottom with my flies. And on most days, the experience was something between frustrating and maddening. It was a long series of snags, hangups and breakoffs, mixed in with the occasional burst of fish catching — when I somehow got the drift just right.

Twenty years ago, this is how I learned to nymph. I thought snagging up a bunch was just part of the nymphing game. I dealt with it because I caught trout. And I learned to tie knots and put up with lost flies. But, I would argue, this is one of the main reasons many anglers don’t enjoy nymphing. We want to fish. We don’t want to re-rig tippet sections and tie on new flies all day.

Back then, my leader was different. I nymphed on a tight line, but with a more general leader. I did experiment with Joe Humphreys’ Mono Rig, but I used it only for deep water tactics and for streamers (as he describes in his book).

Finally, about fifteen years ago, I began using a Mono Rig in something close to its current formation (adding a sighter and a couple other twists to Humphreys’ design). And suddenly, I had tremendous control over the course of my flies underwater. With no fly line out of the guides, the leader sagged and dragged less. With a sighter built into the leader, it showed me contact, pointed to the flies, indicated their speed and signaled strikes. By limiting the tippet diameters under the water, the flies rode more predictably. The tippet cut through the currents more evenly, and I was in better contact.

That contact, I learned, meant I was truly in control over the course of my flies, like never before. And it took only a handful of trips before I realized I could paint the bottom of the river with my nymphs.

For years, my goal remained as it had been — to get the nymphs to the bottom and ride them over it. I hung up less because I could move my flies more accurately along the riverbed. My production easily doubled with the new Mono Rig, and for a while I was content — almost.

One foggy fall morning on my favorite limestoner changed all that. In a couple hours of fast pocket water action, I stumbled upon one of the most important lessons in nymphing: The nymphs do not need to be on the bottom. In fact, gliding through the strike zone and staying off the bottom results in far more trout to the net.

Photo by Josh Darling

What’s the Strike Zone?

Most of the life in a river happens at the bottom of the water column. Nymphs, baitfish and crustaceans all live there, and so do trout.

The strike zone is the cushion of water near the bottom of the river that’s moving slower than the rest. Its depth is variable, depending upon the size of the obstacles on the riverbed. One section with pea-sized gravel may have a narrow strike zone of six inches, while the next piece of river with large rocks and boulders may have a strike zone of twelve or even eighteen inches.

I wrote a full article on the strike zone, with a helpful diagram from Dick Jones. Find it here.

READ: Troutbitten | The Water Column and the All-Important Strike Zone

How Deep is that Zone?

No one can stare into the water and accurately predict how deep the strike zone is. But experienced anglers may come close.

Good fishing starts with a good guess.

It’s that way about a lot of things. And from the outset — as the first backcast flexes with the weight of the nymphs ready to shoot forward — the calculations of an angler are already at work.

So how do we do it?

Judge the depth of the strike zone by observing the obstacles on the bottom.

What’s the substrate? Is it sand and tiny gravel, or is it made up of baseball-sized chunks of bedrock? Are there submerged tree parts breaking up the flow? Are there big hunks of limestone? The larger the obstacles at the bottom, the taller will be the strike zone. So make your guess.

Now judge the speed of the strike zone that you cannot see by starting with something that you can see — the top current.

The strike zone is certainly going slower than the top water, right? And do you think the bottom cushion is pretty deep in this spot, at twelve inches? Then it’s probably flowing significantly slower that the top current too.

These are the guesses, the calculations that take place, before you ever drift the rod tip forward and make your tuck cast.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Strategies — The Tuck Cast

Vertical Seams

I’ve written hundreds-of-thousands of words about nymphing, here on Troutbitten. And so much of it boils down to this key point: drift the nymphs through one current seam.

READ: Troutbitten | One Great Nymphing Trick

We see seams as they appear across the river, from left bank to right bank, these seams start upstream and flow downstream. There may be a dozen different lanes to choose on a river that spans thirty feet across. So pick a lane and drift your flies though just one seam. That’s excellent.

But it’s just as important to see into the water column, and keep the nymph in one seam — at one depth — as long as possible throughout the drift. That kind of drift is most convincing.

So, at what depth should the nymphs ride?

How about putting them in the strike zone . . .

Photo by Josh Darling

Now Stop Guessing

How do I know I’m in the strike zone? That’s the next obvious question. And the answer is pretty simple.

When the sighter or the indicator is traveling slower than the top current, then your nymphs are in the strike zone.

Back up and read that again, because it’s the crux of this article.

Now, let’s expand on it. We’ll also consider this point while fishing with both a tight line and an indicator.

Tight Line . . .

After the tuck cast, your first job is to gain contact with the nymphs under the water. The sighter shows us contact by tightening up and straightening out. After contact, your next job isn’t to boss the flies around, but to only recover the slack that the river sends back to you. Just stay tight.

(There are really three ways to tight line: leading, tracking and guiding. And you can find a detailed breakdown of all three styles at the following link.)

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line and Euro Nymphing — Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding

If we are tight to the flies — in contact but not influencing their drift (much) — then we can accurately read the sighter. We can trust the information that it shows us. It points to the nymphs. It indicates strikes. And here’s the big one: It shows the speed of the nymphs.

When the sighter slows down, we know the nymphs have reached the strike zone. When we see the sighter going slower than the top current (and we are still in contact) then the nymphs are in that bottom cushion.

The key to good tight line nymphing is to be so in tune with your flies that you notice the exact moment when the sighter slows down. Then, gently glide the nymphs through the strike zone at that speed, maintaining the same sighter angle. If you do not lead the nymphs when they reach the top of the strike zone, they will usually continue to fall, and you will hang up on the bottom of the river.

All of this takes fantastic imagination — a good mental image of the flies, of obstructions on the bottom and of the strike zone itself. While you’re at it, you might as well imagine where the trout are too.

And with an Indy . . .

Tight line nymphing provides the angler with superior control over the nymphs. But by using a good indy, such as the Dorsey Yarn Indicator, we can read the indy for contact with the flies. We can also see when the nymphs reach the strike zone.

A lot of thought goes into good indicator nymphing. When done right, it is not a set-it-and-forget-it tactic. Our first goal is to land both the fly and the indy in one current seam — easier said than done. And the second goal is to have the nymph in contact with the indy.

Landing the flies with a little slack between nymph and indicator is not a bad thing. And good indy anglers learn to work with this slack during the cast, providing a little extra in deep water and eliminating it altogether in shallow water. Regardless, all of that setup happens in the air. And once the fly and indy hit the water, the next thing is to watch for contact.

A great indy, like the Dorsey, shows contact by righting itself. With slack between the flies and the indy, the Dorsey lays on its side a bit, cantering left or right. And when contact is made, when the slack is taken up between indy and the flies, the Dorsey stands up straight — it rights itself on the surface.

Once that contact is made, then we can trust what the indy shows us about the flies underneath. Just like the sighter, the indy shows when a trout strikes, and it shows the speed of the flies. When the indy slows down — slower than the surface current, the flies have reached the strike zone.

. . . And there ya go.

All of the indy stuff is much better performed by going tight line to the indicator, using a Mono Rig as the vehicle for delivery. But you can make it work with traditional leaders too, with line on the water and efficient mending.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line to the Indicator — A Mono Rig Variant

A True Ride

What does a drifting nymph look like? I mean the real thing, not the fakes that we tie, with weighted beads, wire, fur and feathers.

Most nymphs are poor swimmers — too small to have much propulsion. They spend their lives clinging to rocks and crawling the bottom. They’re available to trout when they’re dislodged — when they lose their footing or decide to take a ride downstream to the next rock.

So where are the nymphs when they aren’t planted firmly on a rock? The strike zone.

Likewise, when a nymph finally does begin its emergence, where is it first available to the trout? In the strike zone.

Drifting nymphs do not tear off downstream — that’s what a dragging leader does to our flies.

Drifting nymphs do not swim upstream or hold in the current — that’s what swinging the nymph looks like.

And drifting nymphs do not touch the stones over and over, bouncing up and down, lodging behind a rock and then quickly jumping up into the flow. That’s what “getting our nymphs to the bottom” looks like.

However, touching the bottom over and over is the presentation I was trying to achieve in those early years. I thought that I wanted my flies tick-tick-ticking the riverbed. It certainly worked. (And I still use that presentation at times.) But I’ve found much better success by gliding the nymphs through the strike zone.

Yes, I occasionally touch the bottom. It’s a good reference to assure that I’m in the strike zone. And yes, I still accidentally run my nymphs into rocks and tree parts down there. I hang up and break off flies sometimes. But on the best days, my imagination of the riverbed aligns with the knowledge I gain by watching the sighter for signs of that bottom cushion. I “see” the position of the nymphs by processing all the information, and I guide them on a course through the strike zone.

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. Couldn’t agree more, excellent article.

    • Thank you, Greg.

  2. NOW you tell me! Seriously, great tip. I too think (thought?) that you gotta bounce those flies to make sure they’re in the zone, and you just have to live with losing flies and blowing up your rig periodically, because if you’re not in the strike zone you’re not catching fish. This makes even more sense, though, if you can do it. I must program this into me brain. Thanks!

    • We all thought this!!! Hard to argue with science and logic…thanks again!

      • Cheers.

    • Tomas, I think a lot of people aim for the bottom so they end up in the strike zone. It’s a good first step. But this is Troutbitten . . .


  3. Good stuff Dom. I hear a lot of anglers claim that if you’re not ticking bottom and loosing flies, your not fishing deep enough. I never agreed with that.

    • I did for a long while . . .

  4. As always, Good Stuff Dom. Since my last “lesson” with you, I’ve been paying less attention to the bottom and more attention to the strike zone. I hit a local stream with mostly a dry dropper approach this weekend and was struggling with not getting into the strike zone, until my drift was right in front of me (shortly before the end). I suspect I need to “tuck” both nymph and dry into the seam sooner (keeping them in the same lane)…but the one positive is that I could clearly tell when I was hitting the strike zone…I just wish it wasn’t so “short” at times!

    • Right on, Marc. You recognized a lot there. And you can (perhaps) lengthen your drift in the strike zone with a little more weight. BUT . . . that’s the downside of any suspender — you can adjust for depth through the drift. And really, when I fish dry dropper, I most often am not all that concerned with the strike zone.



  5. Great points Dom. There is still a lot of reading material out there that suggests you must tick the bottom…however, like you mentioned…the real thing doesn’t do that, neither should our flies.

    • Yeah, the bottom is a good target. It will put your flies close enough to the real target often enough. It’s just a more advanced technique to look for the strike zone, in my opinion.



  6. I’ve read a few books on nymphing techniques and your article sums up the most important part of all of them combined. Your insight about when the fly is in strike zone and how to keep it there, could be part of a trout fisherman’s bible of sorts. Thank you for packing so much information into one article. Now if I could only get back 20 years of my life learning… I guess that is the fun of it though. Cheers Domenick

    • Thanks very much, Rich. I do agree, that there’s a lot in the article above, especially when understood within the context of the other nymphing articles here. And anglers like yourself can really benefit from these concepts, because you can implement them.

      Thanks again, Rich.


  7. Thanks Domenick! This is a great article validating something I’ve recently been observing and experimenting with while fishing in Colorado. I have a question, though. I feel comfortable with my tuck cast and angle, but find I get “tight” only at the very end of my drift, if at all. Would you recommend using heavier nymphs as a remedy for this?

    As a contribution, I’ve found getting the nymphs “tight” and letting them “swirl” in pockets behind rocks (where the water is super-slow), has been *awesome*. I try to keep the rod tip directly above the sighter in this case, in order to prevent any unnatural drag in the swirl. I’ve picked up some really nice fish doing this. In fact, there are times I’ve just (vertically) dunked my flies into the “swirl” and hooked some good ones!

    • I gotta try that. Dunk ’em straight down, eh? You can’t get a normal drift through those swirls anyway.

    • I like that dunk and swirl too.

      You wrote:
      “I feel comfortable with my tuck cast and angle, but find I get “tight” only at the very end of my drift, if at all. Would you recommend using heavier nymphs as a remedy for this?”

      Yes. Definitely

      And then, once you gain that feel and site for contact, you will find times to underweight as well.

      Hope that helps.


      • Thanks Domenick. I practiced your suggestions yesterday. I used heavier nymphs and got “tight” much sooner; within 3-seconds. I also adjusted their depth to be higher than the “ticking point” by raising/lowering my rod tip. The sighter doesn’t always have to be “just above the water surface”; it needs to be as high as necessary to get the nymphs into the strike zone. The result: some great fish landed! In fact, I found I was getting into bigger fish than normal. Thanks for being such an OPEN and great resource!

  8. In my humble opinion, without a doubt, this the best and most informative article you’ve ever written!

    • . . . and it’s not even about dries, Steve.

  9. Good follow-up to my one on one lesson with you. Hey first picture of trout is one of the big guys I caught with your instruction!

    • Excellent.

  10. Great article! Now I know why you kept pointing out to me that my indicator was moving slower than the current: it’s an (ahem) indicator that the nymph is in the strike zone.

    • Damn right!

      Lots of this stuff takes a few trips of practice to sink in. But after that, it’s there — like riding a bike.


  11. Fantastic article.

    If you are guiding your flies through the strike zone, meaning you’re leading them to some degree, how are they drifting differently than that would if you used an indicator. An indicator would also “guide” the flies through the bottom layer of water (since it would be flowing in the faster flow on the surface). Wouldn’t an indicator moving slower than the surrounding current effectively have the same effect on the flies as “guiding” them?


    • That is, an indicator that is cast upstream.

      • Just a guess to clarify my own understanding.

        Maybe when you’re “guiding” the nymph your are just adjusting the depth of the fly by reading the indicator’s height and angle, while letting the strike zone current move the fly at the same speed? The size/mass of the line in the water does not create appreciable drag – or if it does, you are compensating for it in very small degrees.

        In this regard an indicator may do this for you when you correctly adjust the distance between the indicator and the fly, and as long as you are following the indicator with no more pressure than you would with a tight line method, the nymph appears in almost the same way as it would if you were tight lining.

        I’m very new at this, but will be back on the stream in few days to work out the kinks in my understanding. Hopefully Dom will comment and smooth out my rough edges.

        • See my comment to Alex above

    • Couple things, Alex:

      First, my goal on a tight line (usually) is not to lead them downstream, meaning I don’t pull them the whole time. I want to get the weight just right and my angle and tuck just right so that the nymphs mostly do the job of gliding through the zone themselves, but with just a little help from me and the tip of my fly rod.

      Second, I use indys and leaders and tactics that don’t pull the nymphs downsteam very much at all.


      If you set up the Dorsey on a mono rig, the indy is MUCH more influences by the weight underneath and not by the top current. And THEN you can see the indy settle into the strike zone.

      Know what I mean?


  12. Outstanding article. I know I will catch more fish with this knowledge. Your posts always are educational and inspire me. Thank you.

    • Thank you for reading, Jason.

  13. I love this post. I’ve been so busy building our new home, I haven’t been on here very much. But, I have a comment. You know what made me realize more about trout, and the strike zone? Fishing a spinning rod. I know……..Half of you are cringing, like I said a nasty word. But let’s be real. A fly rod, is a disfuntional set up. The line, weather it’s floating, sinking, or whatever………is an impedience to success. That’s what this post is really about.
    So, I went back to an old method. A 7’ ultra light spinning rod. With 3 lb spider wire, a 2 lb flourcarbon leader spliced with a blood knot, and a #20 scud hook. Now, I only use dinsmore split shot. They don’t hang up. I don’t fish worms, or colored putty, or any other junk those guys fish, I fish wax worms. A nymph really…………a perfect nymph.
    Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ll Out fish anyone, with this setup.
    So, I started to think………this is really fly fishing, without the weight of that stupid line. My drift is perfect, I’m in the strike zone simply by adjusting my dinsmore split shot.
    I still enjoy fly fishing…………but I have to say, sometimes, it’s more an exercise in management of all the weight I’m tossing out there……..because when I come along, I’m going to pluck that fish right out from under you in one swoop, with my set up.
    After all, I’m here to fish………..if I wanted to be an artist, I would have a brush in my hand, not a fly rod. But, I still like it. Excellent article……pay attention……’s correct! Alex

    • Alex,

      I’ve seen videos of Matt Wettish (the Mealie Master) fishing like that. Do you rig and fish pretty much like he does?

      Also, is there a reason why this method shouldn’t work using artificial nymphs?


      • Sorry, I guess they deleted my response. I didn’t ignore your question. Thanks,

        • Hi guys.

          Hey I’m on a family vacation, so I’ve not been attentive to comments this week. Just taking a few days off.

          But I didn’t delete any replies either.

          And there’s no one else. There’s no They at Troutbitten. Just me. Ha!



          • Sorry, it’s probably me. I thought I posted, but maybe I messed up. It was a long post, so I’ll just summarize my thoughts.
            This post is so right on. The reason I bring up a spinning rod is the same reason a golf coach hands you a 9 iron. Here, hit this! Then he hands you a 2 iron and says……swing the same way. The spinning rod rigged my way, brings me back to drift free thinking mentality.
            Yes I’ve seen the Matt Wettish videos. It’s not where I started with this idea, but it’s a place I’ve been.
            Sometimes the fly rod just gets difficult, like a golf swing…….Pick up an ultra light spinning rod with 3 lb spider wire, 2 lb leader, and what the heck……..tie on a #20 nymph. Add weigh, with dinsmore split shot, and notice how just one more or less split shot makes a difference. I was amazed.
            Take that same approach to the fly rod. And it becomes easier to understand…….I think anyway.
            That was my point. Thanks for letting me tell it again.

            When you get the drift right, I think you could catch them on a blade of grass. The right drift, in the zone, deadly. It just helped me to switch rods, like picking up a 9 iron. I mean, everyone thinks they can hit that………right?

          • Alex,

            I like it. It’s a good rig. I’ve done similar. Thanks for sharing.

            Only trouble is, to fish such light weights on a spinning rod, you have to do what you said — use 2 lb line or similar. And even with that, it’s work at times to get the rig out there.

            I fly fish a Mono Rig.


            And with that rig, we eliminate the problems you brought up in your first comment. I agree with you that fly line is not well suited for underwater presentations. All that mending and sagging and dragging is just bad. Mono Rig solves that. AND I can use much greater line strength than 2 lb. AND I then have the fly rod as a do-just-about-anything tool in my hands.

            Many of the Troutbitten guys and the regulars here fish a Mono Rig. And I promise that you won’t fish circles around us.

            (I say that in good spirit. Same as your comment above.)



  14. Reminds me of an article I read many years ago in STS titled “Gliding Through the Drifts” Same concept applied to steelhead drift fishing.

    Do you think drop-shotting accomplishes the same thing (nymph in strike zone) but may more precisely?

    • Hi Rick:

      Do you think drop-shotting accomplishes the same thing (nymph in strike zone) but may more precisely?”

      It could. It just depends how you are fishing the drop shot. There are so many variables, really.

      I use drop shot to ride the bottom but keep my flies clean and/or so I don’t bust off flies a bunch in water where I can’t get ’em back. So when I’m doing that, I touch bottom more — on purpose. But that’s not nearly as natural of a ride as the way I usually fish.

      Now, you could try to not touch the bottom with a drop shot very much either. BUT, then you may have your nymphs just scraping the top of the zone. Again . . . all those variables of length of tippet to the bottom fly, current depth, speed, strike zone depth, etc. . .


  15. I stumbled on this article and this helps to explain a few things. 1. it is ok to subtly lead (glide) the flies through the drift 2. the more weight = more hang ups. I understand what you mean by gliding the flies through the strike zone. While on the stillwater river this year I decided to fashion a euro leader on my 9.5′ 6 weight rod and give this euro nymphing method a try. While in pocket water i had to learn the feel of the bottom current and match my leader movement, when it seemed that I allowed the fly to work the bottom of the rapids it usually ended in success. I was still getting hung up too much, snapping off, and such. So, I will need to learn how to use weights, but at the end of the day I came off the water a better angler. I am convinced this method must be learned so much so I ordered a euro nymphing fly rod for being completely set up for this method. I can’t wait to use it and will be taking it on my next trip to MT and the stillwater. I just need to get my weights right and continue to expand my feel for this strike zone.


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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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