Nymphing: A two diameter solution to a one diameter problem

by | Nov 13, 2019 | 37 comments

Good nymphing requires a few adjustments to the leader. And failing to make these adjustments results in mediocre fishing, at best. The basics of leader design change when delivering flies underneath, especially if the goal is a natural dead drift. So what else travels along with the flies? The tippet, of course. And the best nymphing leaders incorporate a key principle: Limit the diameters of leader material under the surface. That’s a great rule of thumb. But sometimes, two is better than one. Here’s how and why . . .

By placing only 5X tippet under the water, the mixed currents of a river push on that 5X evenly and predictably. By contrast, if part of a leader taper is fished under the water, the angler might have 0X, 1X, 2X, 3X, 4X and 5X below the surface, and all are being pushed around at different rates. 0X is almost twice as thick as 5X. And it takes on twice as much force from the currents.

We don’t need a physics lesson to understand the difference. A big kite gathers more wind. And a Mack truck doesn’t slice through the wind like a motorcycle.

Thing is, when most of us compare 2X and 5X, turning them around in our fingers and handling them, we think both are pretty thin. How much difference in drag can a thousandths of an inch make, right? A lot! And it only takes fifteen minutes of first-hand testing to see and feel the results. I encourage you to do it some time. Directly compare the sink rates of the same nymph on 3X vs 5X. The results are startling. (Excellent fishing comes from many small refinements.)

So, the various forces of drag taken on by multiple diameters under the water is a contact killer — and contact is where strike detection begins. Multiple tippet diameters in the current are pushed at unequal rates, destroying any decent drift and resulting in loss of contact. Sure, you can make it work — adding extra weight helps force a tight line from sighter or indy to the fly. But that creates its own set of problems.

READ: Troutbitten | Over or Under — Your best bet on weight

READ: Troutbitten | Three Parts of an Ideal Indicator Leader

The easy solution is to limit the diameters of tippet under the water. Best case? Use just one tippet size.

Look around, and you’ll see this principle used in many good nymphing rigs. I first encountered this concept a couple of decades ago, with a right-angle nymphing rig. Now I take that same idea to the Mono Rig, with a tight-line-to-the-indicator approach and a slidable indy. I always mount the suspender on the upper part of the tippet section (below the sighter). So the tippet slices evenly through the water, keeping contact with my flies.

Photo by Austin Dando

From the beginning of my writings about tight line and euro nymphing on a Mono Rig, I’ve stressed this important concept: Limit the diameters under the water. And for many years the Mono Rig formula I listed here showed just one diameter of either 4X or 5x beyond the tippet. But I did that for simplicity of explanation. Truth is, I’ve fished two diameters under the water from the beginning. Here’s how and why . . .

To What Advantage?

Fact number one: nymphing anglers snag the bottom and bust off flies.

Fact number two: nobody likes it.

In our efforts to ride the nymph through a narrow strike zone near the riverbed, hooking up with rocks and waterlogged tree parts is inevitable.

Personally, I do whatever I can to get the nymph back and recover the line. I choose to fish fluorocarbon, and the fact that it never biodegrades (essentially) is an ethical conundrum. But the half-life of nylon tippet is thousands of years too, so I choose fluoro for its strength and abrasion resistance — because I leave a lot less tippet in and near the river. And one of the ways I recover most of my tippet during a break-off is by fishing two diameters — two different strengths — of tippet.

READ: Troutbitten | Let’s Talk About Tippet

Not only do I leave far less fluorocarbon on the river by rigging with two diameters of tippet, I also save a lot of time and material cost. But what’s the negative effect on my dead drift? Very minimal . . .

In What Way?

Below my sighter (or indicator), I run 4X to my first fly and 5X to my point fly.

Looking at it in reverse, it’s like this:

— Point fly
— 20” 5X
— Tag fly
— 36” 4X
— Sighter

Most hang-ups happen at the point fly. Riding lower, it finds more things to snag into. And if I cannot wade over to recover the fly — if I must break off — most times I lose only the point fly. Sometimes, I lose the whole twenty inches of 5X. But I almost never lose the piece of 4X.

READ: Troutbitten | Tags and Trailers

This makes break-offs much more tolerable (environmentally and for my own sanity).

By contrast, if everything below the sighter or the indy is 5X, then the rig may break anywhere. And it often fails at the top — right by the sighter — leaving yards of material behind.

By using two diameters (two strengths), we’re in control of where the line breaks — and if you spend any time nymphing, you will most certainly break off and re-rig a few times.

What Problem?

The downside of all this is what I detailed in the beginning — multiple diameters take on the force of currents at unequal rates. In the extreme case, with 0X through 5X under the water, a decent drift is virtually destroyed. But by making this small concession, by running 4X for all but the last twenty inches of 5X, the effect on the drift is marginal.

I’ve done this for so many years that I can promise you, with confidence, that this two diameter solution is a good one. I either run 3X to 4X, 4X to 5X, or 5X to 6X. Never more than two diameters under the water, with the longest stretch being the stronger of the two.

However, angler confidence is a fragile thing. And I have friends who cannot bring themselves to nymph with two diameters under the water. In that case, the easy solution is staring you right in the face . . .

Photo by Austin Dando


My buddy, Smith, is a linebacker-sized human with super-strength like Bruce Banner. I know other dudes who are just as large, but none are nearly as strong. Same thing with tippet. The diameter of 5X comes in many different strengths. So use this to your advantage.

These days, every major fly fishing company offer a quality fluorocarbon tippet. And yet, the breaking strengths vary widely.

Often, I run all 5X below my sighter, but from two different brands. The first three feet is stronger and the last twenty inches is weaker. The result is the same as discussed above — you control where the break-off happens (usually).

And there’s your two-strength solution.

Just one more tip here: Don’t rely on the stated breaking strengths printed on tippet spools, because they are famously inaccurate. Instead, test for yourself. Tie a piece of each tippet to the eye of a fly and pull evenly on both ends. Repeat the process a dozen times, and you’ll have a clear winner in strength. Put the strong one up top as your main tippet, and the weaker one leading twenty more inches to your point fly.

It’s Your System

There are, of course, a bunch of variations for rigging nymphs. And I simplified things above by referring to lengths and diameters that I most often use.

Take these concepts and work them into your own system. Decide where you want the line to break when the inevitable happens. And I think you’ll enjoy yourself out there even more.

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. Great advice, Dom.

    However, I’m not sure that we need to worry so much about different brands of the same diameter tippet having different breaking strengths. If you just knot two pieces of the same tippet material together, say with a blood knot, the knot becomes the weakest point in the tippet. If you break off your tippet on a snag, it will snap at the point fly knot or the blood knot (usually).

    And, you don’t even need to do that. If you tie on a dropper with a triple surgeon’s or an Orvis tippet knot, that becomes the weakest point in the tippet (except, perhaps, for the knot that holds the point fly), and most break offs will occur there.


    • These are all great ideas. Wouldn’t tying a blood knot between point and dropper fly also provide the perfect split shot stopper?

    • Hi Alex,

      I say kindly, that I simply don’t agree.

      “If you just knot two pieces of the same tippet material together, say with a blood knot, the knot becomes the weakest point in the tippet. If you break off your tippet on a snag, it will snap at the point fly knot or the blood knot (usually).”

      Sure, the junction of blood knot or double surgeons is a weak point. But it matters very much which diameter you put up top. The strength of each 5X , in the last case, matters. You can’t put the weaker of the two attached to your sighter or it will break there and defeat the purpose of this whole thing. Imagine running 6X from your sighter and then 4X to the point (just as an illustrative example). The break could very often happen right at the sighter. No good.


      • I think that I wasn’t very clear. My point is that you don’t need to transition from, say, 4x to 5x to prevent breaking off your whole tippet. If you have one long piece of 5x, cut it in half, and retie it with a surgeon’s or Orvis tippet knot, then that knot becomes the weak point in the tippet. So, you can have the same diameter tippet and still not lose the entire tippet sections on a break off.

        • Thanks for the discussion, Alex.

          But, to me, the splice knot is not a reliable breaking point. I mean, that 5x can just as well break at the sighter junction, whether that be a tippet ring or tied directly. Know what i mean?

          • Absolutely. And you make an excellent point.

            I can only say that, in my experience, the sighter knot (which for me is a double Davy tied onto a tippet ring) is almost always stronger than a Orvis Tippet knot joining two sections of the same tippet. But, I realize that everyone’s experience isn’t always the same.

            Keep up the excellent work, Dom. You have no idea how much your blog means to me.

        • I’ve also utilized tippet rings for large transitions in line,then do fly combos for final tippet. Used to blood knots too,but find often were weak link

  2. I’ve read about people doing this (weaker tippet to the point), but I didn’t know you did that too, Domenic. Now I’ll do it too! In addition, if after tying a surgeon’s knot I could identify which of the two tags belongs to the weaker diameter tippet, I could also tie the dropper fly on that for the same reason. That said, it’s hard to distinguish the difference between 5 inch tags of 4x and 5x tippet, for example, with just your fingers. Maybe I’ll test it out with different colored tippet just so I can differentiate them.

    • You’ve probably lost many a fly fisherman from this discussion.
      Many fly guys don’t have the time to get what you are talking about.
      I love the blog most days but my favorite teaching comes from the Mad River Outfitters Youtube channel.
      He keeps it simple.
      I hope you do too.

      • Plenty of us look to Troutbitten for the detailed technical discussion. Plenty of basic how to’s our there but few offer the advanced refined approach of this blog. Keep it up Dom we love it!

      • I find Dom’s posts very clear. He breaks down complicated issues into simple components that are easy to follow. His ideas have introduced me to countless new ways to go about my beloved sport.

      • Dude, Dom has upped my nymph game considerably just from reading this stuff (starting with the seminal – “Why Fly Line Sucks.” Try to stay with it and you’ll pick up some key nuggets.

        • Hi Tomas, appreciate your suggestion to stay with it.

          • Don’t get me wrong – he loses me all the time as well! But, there’s usually something I can take away and bring it to my own game, or affirms something that I was already doing but didn’t know if it was right or wrong.

      • I respectfully disagree with Mr. McNabb–the fly fishing internet is a big place and it isn’t all a good fit for every reader/fisherman and doesn’t have to be. I find the technical details valuable and suspect that the majority of your consistent readers do too.

      • Hi Gary.

        Nah. There’s plenty of Fly Fishing 101 all over the web. Troutbitten has never been about that, and it never will be.



      • Also, Gary, email me. Let me know what you found confusing about the article. As a writer, I’m always curious about what doesn’t connect and why.



        • I’ve written a private email to Dom but for those who disagree with me, let me explain.
          I have been a fisherman for a few decades now, surfcasting for stripers, kayak fishing both salt and fresh in multiple venues from the Everglades to Europe.
          But I am relatively new, just a few years into fly fishing. The sport is the most complex of all the various forms of fishing that I have enjoyed.
          As a healthcare professional I have to teach my patients the complexities of cardiac disease and I have found that a combination of verbal, written and video demonstration are the most effective.
          So guys, I remain on the learning curve and I’m sorry my opinion was so poorly received.

    • Wouldn’t the longer tag be to your point? That’s the weaker, no?

      • Yeah but it’s also nice to know which of the 2 shorter tags left behind is the 4x vs. the 5x. If you have a leader ending in 4x and want to triple surgeon a 2 foot long piece of 5x onto this you know where to tie the point fly on (at the long end of the 5x). But I want to tie my tag fly onto the 4x tag, not the short 5x tag. A diagram here would be worth a thousand words probably.

        • Interesting. I guess the way I tie my surgeons (4x coming in from the left, 5 x coming in from the right), the short 5x tag would always be the upper tag sticking out (which I clip). I dunno, it makes sense in my mind’s eye, LOL! Awesome article.

          • Hi Dave,

            My right hand line ends up as the left tag. That’s the way I look at it


    • Tomas – What I do is just bite / score the end of one of the ends of tippet, that way after your triple surgeon’s you know which end is which. For example I’ll bite/score the end of the 4x, then when I triple surgeon on a length of 5x I can tell which is the 4x and which is the 5x. Hope that makes sense.

    • Hi Tomas. Use two colors to tie your double surgeon’s sometime. You’ll see that the right side line always ends up as the left side tag. Make sense?

      And you can’t use that tag in a double surgeons or you’ll break off on the biggest fish of your life. Ha.

      That’s on reason why I strongly prefer the Orvis tippet knot — I can use the upper tag.

      Hope that helps.



      • I use the right side line a bunch. This spring I was throwing a double clouser rig and catching american shad on the upper tag with no break offs on 1x. I always take the upper tag (from the right hand line) and seat it against the surgeon’s knot with a half hitch.

      • Totally makes sense that the added tippet on the right leaves a short tag on the left. So now I don’t have to do the experiment with the colored lines! 🙂 I have read that you should not use that tag because it will break off, but honestly, I have not had that problem. Still, I will play around with that Orvis knot. Afterall, I now use the Davy know because you (and Matty Kowalchek of the Feathered Hook) recommended it.

  3. I have thought / played around a lot about how to get around this conundrum of losing the whole rig on a snag. More often than not I am fishing pocket water and just resign myself to spooking a pool to wade in and retrieve my snag (better for leave no trace IMO); I just move on 10-15 feet upstream to the next pool. However sometimes in a very nice pool in low gradient rivers with big fish I have a hard time blowing the whole pool so then I’ll intentionally break off.

    I have tried purposely tying “weaker knots” on my point fly compared to “stronger” knots connecting tippet to tippet ring. Also used monofilament of same diameter combined with fluoro (e.g. 5x mono will break at a much lower strength than 5x fluoro). However I am believer in fluoro from my saltwater background though and try to use it unless the water is slightly stained in which case I feel like you can get away with mono. I usually just do what you do – 5x & 4x fluoro (or 4.5x). Sometimes the “wrong” tippet still breaks though.

    • Good stuff. I’ve done a lot of the same. My most reliable way to (almost) guarantee not breaking at the sighter is to use 4X to 5X. That’s what I do day to day. Maybe breaks wrong once every 30 trips.


  4. Good information. I have been messing around with this concept recently and it makes a difference. I recently ran into an issue that Cortland fluorocarbon 6x was as strong as another cheaper brand 5x. It messed me up for a bit. Solved the problem by sticking with same brand then mixing. It’s nice to read I’m on the right track.

  5. Have been using this concept since started nymphing. Because I’ve almost drowned recovering a 1.50 nymph I learnerd mighty quick if 2 or 3 flys on same strength possible to lose all,so now use 4X for top and 5X for bottom,and for me,always smaller nymph. Works great

  6. In winter i often tightline a drop shot rig.I just use one diameter for my main tippet.But my split shot is on lower diameter.My droppers are lower diameter on Polish rotating droppers.My stopper dropper knots are fo8 knots.I just tie the fo8 knot when setting up.I am not joining line togeather with the fo8 knot.I only ever loose the split shot or maybe the bottom fly.When i need change a dropper i snip the old one & add new one .Works well for me.I have no problem talking about complicated fishing stuff.Love troutbitten.

  7. Hi Dom, another great tip with using two different manufacturers 5x tipid material. For years I’ve done the 4x to 5x application. Curious as to which two manufactures/brands of 5x you prefer and which one you felt was the stronger material? All the best!

  8. I find using a jig fly as my point fly results in fewer snags and it is a bit easier to release from a snag.

  9. Thanks again Dom for your thought-provoking articles. After my third read of this article over the months, I have a question. Would deep water situations change things for you with the two diameter setup? For example, in a section of river that’s 5 or more feet deep, there could be a significant difference in the current speed at the bottom and near the surface, as I understand it. There would also be a much greater volume of water acting upon the tippet, which being longer would provide for a greater differential displacement by the water when comparing the effects of the surface current to those of the current at the depths. So, would you have a very long section of 4x tippet to your first fly, and then just a few more feet at most to the next one? Wouldn’t this thicker diameter make a more pronounced negative impact on the drift, in this case? Just wondering, as I prepare to head out to exactly this kind of situation.


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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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