Tight Line and Euro Nymphing: Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding

by | Jun 7, 2020 | 5 comments

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Beyond Euro Nymphing

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.

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

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.

READ: Troutbitten |Tight Line Nymphing — Not all That Tight

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.

Joey’s favorite catch of the day, because he got to say “Hornyhead Chub” out loud.

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.

** READ Part Two : Troutbitten | Tight Line and Euro Nymphing: How to Lead the Flies **

** READ Part Three:  Troutbitten | Tight Line and Euro Nymphing: Tracking the Flies **


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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. Thank you Domenic for your ideas that I don’t take the time or have the knowledge to figure out for myself.I have become a much better fisherman reading your articles . I’m recently retired and have lots of time to spend on the water, my wife says I fishh too much I told her that’s impossible. Again thank you for sharing your knowledge!..Pete

  2. great article ,,i try to use all 3 tactics in my drifts ,,of course as needed

  3. I’ve been “challenged” by Eoro nymphing. Perhaps my setup is incorrect. The point fly tippet is joined to the leader with a tippet ring. The top fly,tag fly,dropper(terminology?) 8 or 10 inches also is run through the same tippet ring. Bad idea?

    • Just out of interest Fred, what challenges have you found? Is it that you find you get breakages of your mono at the ring? Or is it that you don’t seem to get many eats from the fish?

      I’m sure the author will have plenty of thoughts on both – but for what it might be worth – to reduce the chances of breakages, you need to be careful about the choice of tippet material and knot. Half blood knots (and many others) can reduce the breaking strain of fine fluorocarbon by 40 or 50 percent. High quality nylon or copolymer will stand that kind of knot better – but for greatest insurance something like a Palomar knot or a Pitzen knot preserves a lot more breaking strain. The caveat being that you need to tie them well and wet them before tightening down.

      If getting eats seems to be the problem – then there are a lot of things that go into that. Trying to tackle the 10 percent of things that account for 90% of the results I’d say that you would do well to work out what weight and profile of (tail) fly will reach almost to the river bed within about 5 seconds of hitting the water. That will do a couple of things. First of all it means you’re “fishing” for more of the day than you are “waiting for the flies to sink to where a fish will see it/them”.

      That “dead time” in the course of each cast adds up massively over the course of your day.

      Secondly, it will mean that your dropper fly and your point fly are making a good “hedged bet” that one of them is in a great feeding depth-band.

      Thirdly, when your tail fly is a bit heavier than your dropper fly, it gives you a much better chance of maintaining great “contact” to both your flies. If you’re casting upstream or “up and across stream”, you don’t want your tail fly overtaking your dropper fly – which can easily happen if you put the heaviest fly on the dropper.

      On that same subject of contact in the tippet, for my money, your dropper is a little long. I like 4″ to 6″ droppers, because the rest of your rig doesn’t have to drift as far before a bite registers.

      Working back up the system, everything else you do to the mono rig at and above the surface of the water needs to maintain light contact – and avoid any part of the “system” getting out of sequence.

      So the point fly is always upstream of the dropper, which is upstream of your “indicator line” which is upstream of your rod tip.

      Watching for eats/signs of eats – and not relying on feeling them – is super important.

      I actually only intended to jump on and say I enjoyed the article – so I hope Domenick doesn’t mind me including my thoughts here. He may well have additional/different things to offer – and my apologies if I am speaking out of turn.


      • I think Paul has some great advice there. Thanks for the breakdown, Paul.

        I would only add that I don’t care for tippet rings for the droppers. Here’s why:


        And if you’re looking for a breakdown about attaching that second fly, here are some other thoughts:


        I’ll say this too: It can be pretty tough to jump into an article like this and understand it without knowing the backstory — without understanding the routine basics of a Mono Rig setup, in this case, and tight line principles. But if you go to the Menu and find the Mono Rig articles, you will find a ton of info. LIkewise, you can follow the Nymphing category here on Troutbitten.

        Paul has some excellent information on his site as well. Lots of great resources, and everyone does things a little differently. You don’t want to miss any of it.



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