Most anglers seem to think that tight line nymphing is just one thing — as if there’s a single way to do all of this. The logical assumption, at first, is that you can learn this style and then polish it up until the new-to-you tactic is under your belt. Then maybe you’ll move on to the next thing.
But that’s not how it is. Instead, there are different ways to tight line or euro nymph, and they’re all effective. Each of these variations are viable options at any moment on the river. But I do believe that one of them is the best option for each situation.
I’m not talking about leader variations, split shot vs weighted flies, tippet diameter or any of the other hardware that enters the equation of tight line or euro nymphing. Instead, let’s consider how the flies drift through the current. Let’s think about how we recover the slack to stay in touch and how much contact with the nymphs we really are aiming for. Think about how much influence we want to have over the nymphs.
In my view, there are three different ways to bring the nymphs downstream. I call them leading, tracking and guiding.
I’ve been tight lining baits since I was a kid. I learned it from my dad and his brother. My uncle taught me to cast up and across, to get contact and keep the minnow off the bottom, but to also allow it to touch once in a while. Then let the strung minnow turn over and swing at the end of the drift. Our goal was a dead drift most of the time — although we didn’t call it that. These days, with a fly rod and a long leader, the drift concept is the same as when I was twelve, but the casting is all different on the fly rod. And now, I rarely let the nymphs drift downstream of my position. And I even more rarely let them swing out. (When tight lining streamers, that’s a different story.)
So, the dead drift I aimed for with bait is the same deadly approach that we now call tight line nymphing. Euro nymphing is a tight line style that uses weighted flies only and attaches nothing else to the leader. And what I call the Mono Rig is a versatile leader for performing all of these tricks and more.
With the fathead minnows and six pound Berkley Trilene, I was leading the drift. I added enough weight to touch the bottom a few times. Then I lifted the split shot to continue the ride, trying not to hit the riverbed too much because the inevitable snags would follow. It took me a couple more decades and the addition of a sighter to realize that reaching the bottom was often unnecessary, and that finding the strike zone and gliding through it was much more efficient than touching and hanging on the bottom repeatedly. These days, with a fly rod and nymphs, I still choose to lead the flies a good bit, but I often lead through the strike zone. It makes me wonder how much more effective those minnows would have been if I’d done the same thing at twelve years old.
Eventually, after decades of drifting things for trout, I discovered other ways of fishing dead drifts. I started using less weight, sometimes choosing lighter flies that dropped more slowly through the water column. And although feeling and sensing contact on the lighter rig was more difficult than with heavier flies, I could allow the flies to be affected more by the current than by the attached tippet. And I learned to track the progress of those flies more than to influence their progress. That’s a big deal.
Now I try to be out of contact as much as in contact. I ride the line between leading the flies and tracking them — choosing sometimes one and sometimes the other. And I’ve come to think of that mix of both styles as guiding the flies.
Good, Better, Best?
It’s our tendency to think of everything as a progression — first this, then that and finally the other thing.
I do think it’s best to learn tight line tactics by leading the flies. Because contact is the primary concept of tight line and euro nymphing. Using flies and a method to help learn that contact only makes sense. Then, once a sense of contact is developed and leading the flies is intuitive, the next logical step is to learn a method of tracking the flies. Instead of influencing the course of the nymphs so much, simply track their progress downstream. This too, takes time on the water and years of refinement.
While the path of learning may logically put leading first and tracking second, both methods are equally as useful and effective. The key is to match the tactic to the conditions. Let the river and the trout make the decisions.
I don’t believe that one method is more advanced than the other. But the truth is, tracking requires more experience and a bit more finesse than does leading the drift. However, tracking is not always the best tactic. Neither is leading.
I know good anglers who are dedicated to one style. They may not refer to their tactic as leading or tracking, but they choose their rig and the water to suit their method. Most times, that’s enough to put fish in the net for them. But when the river is tough, the one-trick nymphing angler may strike out. It’s these slow days that motivate and teach us to move past our comfort level, to try new things and eventually develop a full arsenal of tactics. And that’s a good thing.
Guiding the Flies
Future articles in this Troutbitten short series will break down the differences between leading and tracking the flies in greater detail.
But first, think about these concepts the next time you are on the water with a pair of nymphs in hand. What is your standard approach? What are the strengths of leading the flies? What are the deficiencies? When does tracking the flies stand out as the best tactic? And when does it fail?
I’m an angler who values versatility above all else. I’ve spent so many seasons on the water, that being adaptable has been ground into me by failure. I’ve gone through days of disappointment while trying to force upon the trout the tactics that I wanted them to eat. Until finally, I relented to reality and learned, adapting to how trout really wanted to eat.
For tight line nymphing, I choose an approach that mixes both styles of leading and tracking. And I think of it as guiding the flies downstream. I choose gear and build leaders that help me walk that middle ground between the styles. At the slow bank seam, I may track the flies only. Then, as I turn to my backhand to fish the middle current, I may swap out to a heavier point fly that allows me to gain the strike zone quickly and lead the flies down a path behind my rod tip.
Often, within one drift I use both concepts. I may track the flies for the first ten feet, and then lead them around a rock before backing off the tension and tracking them again.
For me, this is the heart of the guiding concept — leading the flies into the best position, and then allowing them to do their own thing once in a while. It’s masters-level tight line nymphing. And while it’s not easy, it provides a lifetime of work to achieve proficiency. And what wonderful work it is.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N