Tight Line Nymphing — Strike Detection is Visual

by | Feb 5, 2020 | 25 comments

** This is Part One of a short Troutbitten series about contact, feel and sight while tight line nymphing. Be sure to find Part Two (How Much of this is Feel?)  and Part Three (Contact Can Be Felt at the Rod Tip) **

Smith arose from his halfway crouch and took a step backward. He threw two more half-hearted casts toward the limestone-green seam before reeling in his line and wading toward me. We were fishing a large river — wide enough for two guys to walk up the middle, with one fishing left and one fishing right. That’s what we’d done for most of the evening, and now the sun dipped below the hemlocks. Shade engulfed the highlights and began ushering in the daily darkness.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Smith approaching. I knew he’d struggled on this trip. In truth, he’d struggled a good bit since he picked up tight line nymphing. His expectations had been sky high, because every euro nymphing article he’d read described triple the catch rate and a full net. Smith had already experienced some success — enough to spark his determination and curiosity — but the consistency he’d expected was missing. So Smith set up over my right shoulder and watched for a while, quietly examining my backhand drifts and spitting sunflower seed shells on the water.

I landed two trout and missed another.

“Did you feel those strikes, or did you set the hook because the sighter twitched?” Smith asked.

“Sighter,” I replied, as I forced a deeper tuck around the outside corner of a mossy rock.

“So you didn’t feel the strike?” Smith asked. He seemed surprised. “Do you ever feel it, or do you always set the hook because of something you see on the sighter?”

I turned another trout at the merging V shape, where two seams flowing around the mossy rock came together. Then I paused and turned to Smith. He offered his bag of sunflower seeds, and I poured out a handful.

“That’s a good question with an answer that will create more questions,” I laughed.

“Start with the first one,” Smith insisted. “You probably caught a dozen trout tonight. Did you feel any of the takes?”

I shifted my weight and jammed the handful of salty seeds into my left cheek.

“Yes. Sometimes,” I replied. “But when I felt the take, I saw it on my sighter too. Know what I mean?” I asked. Smith listened. “If a trout hits hard enough for me to feel it, then the sighter surely indicates the take too. And the truth is, I see it before I feel it, if only for an instant.”

Smith nodded thoughtfully.

“So you’re not waiting to feel the take?” Smith asked.

“That’s right. I’m definitely not waiting to feel it.” I shook my head and gestured upstream. “These trout take a fly so softly that I’ll never feel most of their hits. They don’t grab the fly. They just slide over a couple inches and intercept it, stopping its progress.” I shook my head again. “They rarely hit hard enough to feel it, man. And if you’re waiting for some some kind of tug or tap, you’re missing a lot of strikes.”

Smith gazed off to the horizon, like I’d just told him the moon was made of Swiss cheese.

Photo by Austin Dando

“Man, that’s different for sure,” Smith said. “I’ve been waiting to feel the strike this whole time. Imagine how many trout I’ve missed because you didn’t tell me this sooner.” Smith pushed me playfully, and I rocked back on my heels.

A mink scurried over the bank side rocks, drawing our attention for a moment, but Smith’s thoughts remained on the drifts.

“So how do you know what pause of the sighter, what twitch, jiggle or whatever sign from that colored line to set on?” Smith asked.

“Well, how do you know when to set if you’re relying on feel?” I asked him in turn. “You’re bumping and ticking a lot down there, right?”

Smith hesitated. “Ummm . . . I was guessing, I suppose.”

“Yeah, that’s why my goal is to not touch the bottom, so I set the hook on any unexpected movement of my sighter,” I said. “I’m looking to ride my nymph through the strike zone and stay slightly above the river bottom. That way I can set on anything unusual and not have to guess so much.”

Smith nodded, but I could see that his confusion remained. And I continued . . .

“There’s a lot to it, Smith. But that’s why it’s fun. Point is, I don’t feel the take. I see it. And when I do feel the take, I see that too.”

READ: Troutbitten | Nymphing | Set on Anything Unusual

Smith and I stood silently for a few moments, watching the water flow and feeling its force pushing against us. No doubt, Smith was exploring the same questions I’d gone through when tight lining was new to me. And I was happy to let him make his own discoveries while filling in a few blanks here and there.

Smith zipped his jacket fully up to his neck, buffering against the incoming breeze of nightfall. Then he asked another question, with some noticeable doubt.

“So, this whole thing — all of this tight lining and contact system stuff — is it a hundred percent visual? And are you saying that feel has nothing to do with it?”

I reeled up my line and fixed the stonefly nymph to the rod’s hook keeper.

“No,” I answered. “Strike detection is visual. But there’s a lot of feel in the tight line game too. The contact that we’re aiming for is felt as much as seen.”

I paused.

“Think about that one for a while,” I chuckled.

“Yeah. I like it,” Smith said.

With Smith deep in thought, we waded through the deepening shadows and started our long walk back to the truck.


** This story continues with a discussion about feel while tight lining. You can find the next article in the link below. **

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing — How Much of this is Feel?


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. This is a very thought provoking article. Let me convey my experience. When I fish with a rig that is like yours, Dom, I do indeed see most of my strikes, the rest coming on a simultaneous visual and tactile signal.

    However, lately I’ve been nymphing with what some comp anglers call a micro-thin leader. Specifically, my entire “line” is 4x sighter material, followed by a short (3-5 ft.) tippet. With such a rig, I almost always feel the strike before I see it. I think the reason is that the super thin leader transmits strikes more efficiently than a thicker one. And, not only do I feel strikes, I think that I miss fewer than before.

    One more thought. When I fish a Dom-style leader, I tend to fish upstream. However, with the micro-thin leader/line, I fish mostly up and across stream. I can do so because the super thin line isn’t as affected by conflicting currents as a thicker line would be. And, with the cast being primarily up and across stream, there’s a more constant tight contact with the nymphs, make tactile strike detection easier.


    • Hi Alex,

      I always enjoy your insights.

      Regarding micro thin leaders, in general: I’ve used them a lot. Yet I find them to be too limiting for versatile use. I like them at times, and I switch out just to refocus myself on something different, sometimes. I have a lot more thoughts on micro thin leaders which I’ll write about soon.

      I do agree that you can feel more. They’re sensitive. But i don’t agree that you feel it before you see it. Personally, I believe that’s impossible. We see before the line ever transmits that feeling to us. BUT, some extremely subtle things may only be felt, I suppose. I would mention that if you had just two feet of a sighter material, instead of the whole leader being made of sighter material, I believe you would see those subtle takes you are feeling in the micro thin. That’s my experience. It focuses your vision more.

      Good stuff, Alex.


      • I agree with you on several fronts. First, the problem with micro-thin leaders is their relative lack of versatility. They’re pretty useless for dry fly fishing, for example.

        And I agree with your second point, with one proviso. As with all leaders, with a micro-thin leader, the sighter will always indicate a take before one is felt. However, as you say, the indication is often so subtle, it is not all that visible (at least to me), whereas the feel of a take is hard to miss.

        I should add that the sense of touch is more primitive than the sense of sight, so elicits a more automatic reflexive response. When I’m looking for my sighter to move, I often second-guess myself. When I feel a take, I strike almost automatically.

        Finally, let me repeat that with a heavier mono-rig, I tend to fish upstream and register my strikes visually. It’s only when I’m fishing a micro-leader that I find that more of my strikes are felt than seen.


        • Alex,

          We won’t agree here completely, and that’s alright.

          Micro thin butts are far more limiting than just for dries. The big thing, to me, is that they take away the casting that a thicker butt section provides. When using 4X as a butt section, there is very little casting involved — it is lobbing. Meaning, really, that the 4X has not enough mass to do any of the real work of getting the fly to the target. Instead the weight must do all the work. Therefore: lobbing.

          I also don’t agree that the sense of touch is more primitive than sight. I’m not sure what that means. 🙂 But I still argue that any hit strong enough to be felt should also be seen. Then again, if your sighter (and whole leader) is 4X, then you’ve taken away a lot of the sight that is possible. That’s hard to see. You know from my writings, that a visible sighter, with a Backing Barrel is a priority for me. Again, that’s because I believe that strike detection is mostly visual.

          I think we both agree that one striking quality of micro-thin butt sections is the sensitivity. But I’m saying that I still see what I also feel, the way I set things up, even on a micro thin. That said, the next time I swap out to a micro-thin butt, I’m going to think about that even more.

          Obviously, both elements work together. So no matter how thick the butt section is, we often see and feel at (pretty much) the same time.

          Lastly, I recognize your point that you can fish more cross stream anglers with a thinner butt section. Yes, it sags less so it pulls the nymphs across less. BUT, the tippet underneath is still in crossing current seams as well, so there’s that to think about.

          I hope you take my reply not as any argument to prove you wrong. Because there’s no right answer to all this stuff. It comes down to how you like to fish and what works for you, etc. I’m just offering my thoughts.



          • Dom,

            I take your reply as it was intended: an attempt to exchange thoughts for everyone’s benefit. And for that, I am, and will always be, grateful for your generosity in sharing your hard-won insights.

            And, btw, when I said that touch is more primitive than sight, I meant it literally: biological creatures evolved a sense of touch much earlier than sight.


      • I tried the whole leader made from sighter.I didn’t like it.It’s too much to look at for me.I like just a few feet of pink/white Pezon color line sighter.All good stuff as usuall.Cheers

    • I like much the same leader as you Alex.But i still like maxima 6lb for the butt section.Then 4 or 5x sighter followed by 3-5ft tippet.Really like using the thin leader on a 10/2 wt rod.There is virtually no line sag back towards you.

      • Where do you come down on the see vs. feel issue with your thin leader, Robert?

        • I would say much the same as you Alex.My eyesight is good for tying small flies ect.But i sometimes struggle to see stops/takes with the sighter.I think i do feel takes better especially with the 2wt rods & thinner leaders thoughThe last few times out for grayling i was trying a short mop fly on the point.I could feel the very soft takes from grayling.But i could feel the trout chewing on the mop fly.If you are fishing all sighter leaders Alex.Try putting a short section of clear mono between your sighter butt section & your sighter nearest your fly.I know lots of people who do that & say they see the takes better.Cheers

          • Thanks for the tip, Robert. I’ll try it.

  2. Taking this back to those of us who are attempting to climb that exponentially ascending hill of knowledge and competence in matters fly fishing, your article about “Do Stocked Fish Ever Become Wild” set us up for learning from this current blog. While we’ve heard it over and over again to set-set -set on subtle indicator signs, being on home water where where 90% of the fish are stocked creates bad habits. Every aggressive hit by those stocked rascals sets back gains on detecting indicator hesitation. Gotta dedicate myself to paying more attention and gotta spend more time time in Central PA!

  3. If you have ever fished jigs or plastics for bass 99% of time a 6# bass will just twitch the line,absolutely no tug at all. That’s why a lot of pros go to faster baits,fishing plastics is so much slower and mind consuming. Same with tight lining,imagine a trout opening it’s mouth,sucking in all the things it thinks might be edible,and instantly rejecting most. Miracle we hook any of them,still amazed they hang on long enough to dunk an indicator

  4. Tight line nymphing

  5. Great question by ol’ Smith: If you’re not touching bottom, and strike detection is primarily visual – what’s all this talk about feel then? I love it, because tight-liners love to talk about that feel that they’ve paid for in their specialized rods. Feel plays a part, but I think it can be over-emphasized. I think that people who are really good at tight-lining use a combination of sight, feel, and bunch of barely-perceptible environmental cues and lessons learned from thousands of previous drifts that the mind’s computer calculates in real time and brings to bear on every subsequent drift such that to the casual observer, the fly fisher is has an intuition, a sixth sense, when that’s not really the case.

    • Couldn’t agree more on the environmental cues! I’ve spent the past several months learning tight line and slack line nymphing (definitely still learning), and I think the biggest improvements I’ve made have been from learning how structures and general seam characteristics influence the nymph’s path and speed. It’s a bit like the golf saying that you’ll never have the same two shots, and, therefore, need to understand how one drift differs from another. A certain sighter movement may mean a take in one spot and an unseen eddy in another.

  6. Hi Dom,
    Great article! I’ve been studying and tight line fishing now for several years and slowly becoming a bit more proficient with each outing and article I read. In reading this article I picked up a gem that really helped me to now understand it’s purpose. I’m referring to leading/guiding your flies through the strike (feeding) zone near the bottom. I’ve been practicing this; however, not fully understanding “why” or the significance. Until now. I also rely on sight detection and set on anything that ticks my sighter…, even a pause. Often times, I find myself setting on a bump from the river bed. In reading your article, it sounds like I may need to guide my flies just a bit higher off the riverbed so now when I detect any unusual disturbance with my sighter it will more likely be from a fish than a rock. Many “Thanks” for shedding light on this, and BTW, I love how you relay it in your stories. Looking forward to the continuation. All the best!

  7. Great article. I think a lot of what determines whether you see or feel the strike depends on how heavy your flies are. When I started tight line nymphing, I went almost entirely by feel, and as a result gravitated toward heavily weighted flies, far heavier and larger than I needed to sink to the bottom, so that I had a super tight connection. I tried smaller flies, but I couldn’t seem to catch fish on them. As I progressed, I realized that even with the heavy flies, I was missing plenty of strikes because I wasn’t using my eyes. After switching to a more visual approach, I started catching a lot more fish and was able to catch them with large or small flies, depending on the conditions and water type. I’d say about 75% of my successful sets are visual. As long as the flies are able to get in the strike zone, I think the little bit of slack in the system that comes from fishing smaller flies helps with the drift (as you mentioned in your article last week).

  8. I’ve switched from the yellow/red sighter from Rio to the white opaque sighter from Cortland, and I seem to be visually detecting strikes over feeling them more. Maybe my eyes see the white better or it might be that I’m just concentrating better on the sighter in general. I guess I’ll switch colors here and there to determine if it’s sight or better concentration. To be continued.

    • I have only been tight line nymphing a few years and I realized this summer about the visual vs the feel “strike”. I always read and thoughtthat with this technique, it is imperative to get to the bottom to feel the ticks. To do that we use weight of the fly and usually add more with split shot just to be sure! The strikes with all that weight can be seen but usually it is also felt. Well, this summer, mainly due to low water levels, I used the technique of floating the sighter with a size 16 unweighted PT nymph. To my surprise, the bowed sighter tightened up quite a few times that morning. To be honest, I only caught 14 or so 5-6 inch chubs but it showed me how sensitive the system is. This taught me to back away from using too much weight to “see” the strike!

      • When I started out about 3 years ago with the mono rig, I was doing the opposite. I was throwing nymphs that weren’t heavy enough. It was late June on the upper Main Stem Delaware and the rainbows were chasing emergers. They’re whole body was breaking the surface. Since my flies weren’t that heavy, they must have been drifting around the same level as the suspended rainbows. Best day monoriggin to date. That day taught me to go light or suspend the flies with the Pat Dorsey indicator when they’re suspended or chasing emergers. When you’re leading your flies just right ( without pulling them) and the sighter and leader straightens out, that’s a beautiful thing.

        • Louie D.I sometimes find pulling your flies or adding movement can out fish dead drift.I fished tenkara for years & some things i use with my euronymphing rods.I will often fish upstream with a beadhead on point softhackle top dropper.But then turn round & fish back down through water pulsing my flies .Stopping the fly/ pause drift & bouncing your rod tip up & down during the drift.When the fish are looking up for emerging flies especially sedges it works a treat.This is a very good video.You know within 5-10 minutes if the fish want movement that day.

          • Yea I could see that working when the fish are looking up and aggressive. I did something similar to that last year at the Junction Pool on the Beaverkill/ Willowemoc. I was bouncing and pausing a Henryville Special. I caught about 10 small stocked browns in the last hour of daylight. I’ll give it a shot this year on some wild browns.

      • I think I’ll do a backing barrel with a tag and a couple feet of high-vis green above my 18” sighter. Thanks Dom!

  9. So much of “knowing” when to set the hook is recognizing that your line/fly/leader/indicator/whatever is doing something it shouldn’t be doing because a fish had begun to pay attention to it. It’s a function of knowing how that particular fly should be moving in that particular current over that particular bottom in that particular kind of water, using that particular setup and somehow knowing that, well, that particular aberation means a fish is in the house and likes what you’re selling and thinks it might be worth looking into. Often we swear that we know when a fish is going to hit before it actually does, because the setup does something it shouldn’t be doing right before the fish takes the fly. Call me nuts but that’s just how it works. If I don’t think my setup will help that happen, I know I’m using the wrong setup. Funny how the more years you spend fishing, the more that sort of stuff makes perfect sense.


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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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