Tight Line Nymphing — Contact Can Be Felt at the Rod Tip

by | Mar 11, 2020 | 4 comments

** This is Part Three of a short Troutbitten series about contact, feel and sight while tight line nymphing. This all reads a lot better if you first visit  Parts ONE (Strike Detection is Visual)  and TWO (How Much of this is Feel?) **

— — — — — —

So there we were, two friends wading among dark shadows and passing through the moonlit creases of a river. A waning crescent mixed with the stars and provided just enough light to feel comfortable under the black sky — companionship helped a little too.

“You’ve night fished before, haven’t you, Smith?” I asked.

“Yeah, kinda,” he answered. “A couple times I tried fishing big flies on the surface. But I sure didn’t plan on it tonight.”

“Well, for this, let’s go under the surface with the same nymphing rigs we’ve been using all evening,” I said. “Change nothing. And I wouldn’t really call this night fishing. But it’ll be a good experiment. You’ll see what I mean.”

Smith and I had fished from late afternoon, through the evening, and all the way into dusk. The trout had responded well to nymphs, but they’d demanded a precise, unaltered drift, or they simply would not be convinced. That’s standard in these waters — the trout require an excellent dead drift. And while I’d had little trouble catching trout on a tight line system, Smith had struggled a bit. He’d been curious to understand the difference between his presentation and mine. And after an exchange of ideas, we’d narrowed it down to a contact issue. While Smith had been waiting to feel the strike, I was reading the sighter. Smith’s approach was more tactile, and mine was more visual for strike detection.

But Smith had also drawn out of me one thing that I’d never fully put into words before explaining it to him. Namely, that contact is felt as much as it’s seen. While tight line nymphing, I’d told Smith, an advanced angler can feel contact with the nymph on the rod tip. Essentially, you could very well fish with your eyes closed. And because Smith was skeptical, I’d suggested some after-dark tight line nymphing as a way to prove to my friend that he could feel that contact just as well as anyone.

The cold wind swirled again, reminding us that winter had not yet passed. The earth remained cold, and each strong breeze seemed to pick up frozen touches of the surrounding forest, mixing and stirring it into the warmer air. I flipped my hood up, and continued to lead our slow wade toward the dark side of the river.

Smith spoke over the growing volume of rushing water.

“This is the same place where we wrapped up around noon last weekend,” he shouted.

“Yup,” I replied. I turned my head to throw my voice back to Smith. “Same run. So we know there are a lot of trout in here. And you can visualize it because you know this spot real well.”

I paused midstream, and Smith bumped into me before he stopped. We stood as two friends, knee-deep in broken water, just past the edge of the shade line. And we stared ahead into the darkest part of the river, guarded against moonlight by thick hemlocks boughs.

“This is a little nuts, Dom.” Smith chuckled. “I still don’t know how I’ll feel the contact enough to stay in touch. And I know I won’t see the line at all out there.”

I swirled my leg in the current, and that water created more noise as it rushed around my waders.

“You can feel the water pushing against your legs right now, can’t you?”

“Yes,” Smith said.

“Same thing,” I told him. “You will feel the push and pull of the currents against the resistance of the fly.”

“Hmm. Alright. So you don’t want to change anything about the rig?” Smith asked.

“Not yet.” I answered.

“And I’ll still cast upstream, then work to get a dead drift?” Smith asked.

“That’s right. Nothing changes,” I added. And then I let Smith think about it.

Another long pause . . .

“Alright,” he said with hesitation.

Smith waded in front of me and settled into the riverbed. I slid upstream a few feet until I was positioned off Smith’s left shoulder. I noticed that all the color to his gear was gone. His coat was no longer blue. His pack wasn’t green or gray. What remained were the outlines of shapes — blackness that shaded in the surrounding shadows. It was this blacked-out form of Smith that I watched. And I saw his arm cast forward.

“Ha. I’m hung up already,” he said from the darkness.

Smith tugged at the snag, and it mercifully popped free.

“Got it.”

I saw his arm cast again. In the next few repetitions, Smith’s arm seemed to travel faster than the currents below it. And when he slowed it down, he stuck to the bottom again.

“Ugh. I’m hung up,” he said. Smith pulled on the second snag until it released. “I think I broke it off,” he complained.

“Swing it here,” I told my friend.

Earlier, while walking the bank around dusk, I’d dug out my headlamp from the corner pocket of my vest and strapped it over my ball cap. Now, as Smith brought in his line, I flipped on the dim red light and turned away from our target water. I could see just well enough to tie a Davy knot to a new fly.

“Here’s what we’re gonna use,” I said. And I held out my hand to show an attached fly of rabbit strip and synthetic dubbing brush, about two inches in length. “It’s a Bunny Flash Jiggy,” I told Smith. It could be a lot of things, but this ball head jig will help you find the bottom without hanging up — hopefully. And then, as soon as you find the bottom, try lifting a bit, and glide through the strike zone. That is how you’ll develop a feel for contact.”

“That looks heavy,” Smith said. “If I’m hanging up, why are we going even heavier.”

“Fair question,” I told him. “It’s about 1/16 of an ounce, which isn’t all that much, but remember — it doesn’t matter how heavy your fly is. On a tight line, it’s up to you whether the fly touches the bottom or not. You are in control of everything in a contact system.”

READ: Troutbitten | Troutbitten Fly Box — The Jiggy Streamers

I could see Smith nodding in the dim, refracted light of the red lamp.

“Here’s the other important thing,” I added. “This fly has a good bit of resistance to it. All that fur and dubbing is easily influenced by the currents.”

“You mean it’s pushed around more than a small Pheasant Tail, right?” Smith asked.

“Exactly.” I replied.

I cut the red light and then watched the dark form of Smith’s arm again. A moment later . . .

“There’s the bottom,” he said.

“Good. Now just lift it a bit and glide through the strike zone.”

I paused and let Smith cast a few more times. I gazed across the treeline and took in the full 360 degree perimeter. I breathed deep and enjoying the crisp, dark evening. It had been a month or so since I’d fished under the night sky, but that familiar dark space of peaceful mystery settled right in.

“Alright,” I told Smith. “Now stop trying to see it. Just feel where the fly is. Trust what you feel. You won’t get it right every time. But mix in an occasional touch with the bottom to reassure yourself where it is. And then work on feeling the resistance of the water against the fly. Then after you . . .”

“Ooooo!” Smith interrupted. “I missed one.”

“Nice,” I said. “That’s all you need. A little positive feedback goes a long way.”

Smith set the hook a few casts later.

“There he is!”

The trout flopped at the surface near our legs. And I could see Smith’s arm held high. When I turned on the red lamp again, I saw a good, mid-sized wild trout just under the surface.

“That’s fun,” Smith chuckled. “Hey, he took the top fly.”

I grabbed the line and quickly removed the hook from the trout before releasing it back into the swift current.

“Yeah, I replaced your top fly too. I did that when I changed out to the Jiggy at the point.”

Turning the fly in the red light, I showed Smith a simple #10 stonefly.

“Again,” I said, “with a little extra material resistance in the fly you can feel the effects on your line easier.”

I tossed the fly back in the water and cut the light.

“Know what I mean?” I asked.

“Yeah, I really do,” Smith agreed. Then he continued casting and drifting in the dark.

“I think I can feel the resistance at the rod tip,” he said with some excitement. “And I bet I’ll feel it with smaller nymphs once I get used to it.”

“For sure,” I said. With a little practice and some belief, you can sort of feel the currents against the tippet itself.” I thought about that for a minute. “Not to get too esoteric about it, but that’s pretty much what’s going on. And that’s all I mean when we say that contact can be felt as well as seen.”

“Yeah, well I definitely can’t see anything!” Smith said.

“Ha. Nope,” I said. And I watched the dark outline of my friend for a bit longer.

“Alright, I’m going fishing,” I told him. “I’ll hit the next level upstream. But let’s walk out of here in about an hour. Sound good?”

“Yeah,” Smith agreed. “I’ll be ready by then. This darkness is about ten degrees colder all the sudden, and I’m not dressed for it.”

“Agreed,” I told him. “Good luck.”

With that, I waded to the moonlit bank and walked slowly upstream toward the whitewater sounds indicating the next piece of good water.

Photo by Trevor Smith


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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. To me, the beauty about monoriggin, is the feel.

  2. Have been trying the tight line technique without success. Yesterday, with water flow rate of 282 the current kept tugging my line. In addition, I was fighting wind gusts of 10-15 mph. I believe you feel as well as see a strike but under these conditions, I couldn’t control the position or depth of the line. Side arm casting helped but required a mend. Your thoughts?


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