Tight Line and Euro Nymphing: How to Lead the Flies

by | Jun 21, 2020 | 4 comments

This is Part Two of a Troutbitten short series on leading, tracking and guiding the nymphs in a tight line and euro nymphing system. This will all read a lot better if you first check out the overview of these multiple styles from Part One.
(Part  Three is linked at the conclusion of this article.)

— — — — —

The advantage of a tight line system is contact. It’s that simple. With an excellent, tight-line connection to the flies, we have full control over where those flies travel.

We dictate the depth. How high or low in the water column will the flies ride?

We manage the speed. How fast downstream will the flies move?

And we control the path of the nymphs. Will they hold one seam or cross through many seams?

All of this is up to us.

With excellent contact, we have the ultimate strike detection system. When everything is tight, with no slack between rod tip and flies, we see the take of a trout by watching the leader and sighter. And the most aggressive strikes are often felt.

These things — control over the course of the flies and strike detection — are what make tight line and euro nymphing systems so successful.

But there is, of course, a downside.

With all this contact comes great responsibility for the angler. It’s difficult to tight line all day, because doing it well requires mental energy. It takes constant attention from the angler, with frequent adjustments to the cast, to the drift and to the rig itself.

Photo by Bill Dell

Here’s a key point: Great tight line nymphing is about being out of contact as much as in it. Find the fine line between being in touch and slightly out, and then ride that line all the way through the drift. For me, this is the concept of guiding the flies. It’s a little bit of leading and a little bit of tracking. And after some years on the water, I find that most seasoned tight line nymphing anglers do a similar thing.

Guiding the flies is a combination of leading and tracking them, and it’s arguably the best day-to-day approach. But first, we must understand the concepts of leading and tracking, because they are dramatically different methods of drifting the flies.

Let’s consider leading first.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Lining — Not All That Tight

Leading is . . .

After the cast, find your contact and bring the flies downstream. That is the rock-bottom, basic concept. But refinements are infinite.

After delivering the flies with some form of a tuck cast, allow them to drop for a moment. (How long depends on the water depth and speed.) But as those flies drop, and as soon as the flies enter the water, search for contact on the sighter.

What does that contact look like?

Reading a sighter is the primary skill of tight lining nymphing. When the sighter is straight or it holds a slight, controlled bow, then it’s in contact with the flies. When the sighter is waving or jiggling in the air, contact cannot be assumed.

So, deliver the flies, gain contact and then lead them downstream.This is the baseline approach. Once contact is assured, we may then choose to lead, track or guide the flies downstream. But without contact on the sighter first, we are fishing blind and only hoping to know the position of the flies.

(As an aside, many anglers find it easier to forego the tuck cast and to instead lob the flies in to land with contact. You may start this way, but I recommend eventually building a tuck cast into every delivery. For shallow water, the fly should simply arc in, with no significant slack. The nymph will not tuck under, but it will enter the water with only the tippet that must go with it, and everything else stays up and out of the water. This is the value of casting rather than lobbing. And there is no substitute.)

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing the Mono Rig: It’s Casting, Not Lobbing

Once contact is seen on the sighter, leading the flies is an active approach to what happens next. We lead the flies downstream, remaining in good contact all the way through the drift. We can then lead the flies into dips of the riverbed, over humps or around rocks. We may choose to lead the flies a little faster, and we also have the choice to slow the flies down. Having these options — with ultimate control — is the advantage of leading versus all other methods.

Leading does not mean we are dragging the flies downstream. In fact, no matter what method we choose (leading, tracking or guiding), our job is to simply recover the slack that is given to us. We tuck the flies upstream and the river sends them back. It may seem like there is just one way to recover that slack. But there are at least two distinct methods — leading and tracking.

Leading rides a fine line between being in contact and out, and it leans further to the side of influencing the flies. While tracking rides the same fine line and leans further to the side of letting the flies do their own thing.

Leading the flies is about maintaining ultimate contact with the nymphs. And with that contact comes superior control and strike detection.

Photo by Austin Dando

Start Here

It makes sense for the tight line angler to start with the leading approach. In truth, you can’t learn to deliberately slip out of contact and track the flies until you are good at riding in contact. It can take seasons of refinement to see everything that the sighter shows and learn how to manipulate the nymphs naturally in the flow. Who am I kidding? It takes a lifetime.

But when it’s time to start tracking the flies instead of leading them all the time, the best anglers still understand that leading is always home base. A good feel for leading never goes out of style. It’s always useful.

This is not a greater than or lesser than situation. Neither technique is better than the other. They are partners. And remember, good tracking is based on a fundamental understanding of good leading.

Gear and Setup for Leading

Leading is best done with an over-weighted rig. We must err on the side of more weight than less, to easily manipulate the flies and influence their speed. More weight allows for precise control of the flies’ depth and position in the current seams. Under-weighting should be reserved for tracking and (sometimes) guiding the flies.

For leading, use nymphs or split shot that are heavy enough to easily stay in contact.

Experiment, and you will find these flies. You will learn the required weight. If the water is swift and deep, start with heavier flies than you think are necessary. Then learn to keep them off the bottom.

Better yet, find the strike zone instead of the bottom. There’s no need to touch the riverbed. Just read the sighter — look for the downshift — for the slowdown, indicating that the heavier fly has found the bottom current of water traveling slower than the rest. There’s your strike zone. There too are the real nymphs and the trout you’re looking for. Now ride it, and lead the flies through the strike zone.

There’s a tendency to focus too much on fly patterns for tight line techniques. To me, there are no euro nymphing flies. There are just flies. And yes, some are more suited for leading, tracking or another thing. But any fly can be dropped to the bottom if enough weight is built in. Or, use split shot for the weight, and lead by being in touch with the shot while the flies ride with a bit of freedom. It’s not the flies that make everything work so well. It’s the method.

That said, when I really want to cut through fast water, to get the flies down and keep them there, I choose flies with very little material resistance, like a Polish Woven nymph. But in average water, most any nymph is suited for leading, provided it has the necessary weight.

How much weight? It may require only a two millimetre bead and a fly of twenty-five centigrams to get the fly down in a couple feet of moderate current and keep it there with enough contact to lead the rig. Heavy water may require flies three times that weight, or the addition of split shot. There are no formulas, of course, and much of it is determined by how the rest of the rig is built, with tippet, sighter and butt section diameters and lengths all part of the equation.

Photo by Bill Dell

Try This

For an excellent exercise in leading, take an over-weighted rig that’s built for fast, deep water and fish it in the shallow stuff.

Try a four millimetre tungsten bead on a small white wooly bugger so you can see it. Then find a riffle of a foot or less. Look for a sun angle that allows you to see into the water, and watch your bright fly. Now learn to ride that riffle without touching the bottom. It’s always up to you whether the fly touches or not. You can easily keep it off the bottom with the right rod angle and recovery speed.

Spend a few hours working with that small, heavy bugger, and you will have an unforgettable lesson in leading the flies.

When to Lead

There are times when leading the flies is the best approach. But first, understand that leading can be a good choice anytime. So, if that’s what you feel like doing, just find water that suits it best.

Here are a few times when leading has a clear advantage over tracking:

Varied river bottom
If the riverbed is uneven, if the trout are holding in the dips and the trenches and you need to probe the shadowy crevices next to the rocks for stubborn trout that won’t move from structure . . . then leading is your huckleberry.

When the airflow becomes anything more than a breeze, the sighter can be blown around like a sail. There are other ways to deal with the wind, but a leading approach is one excellent way to overcome it. Add weight to anchor against the wind, keep the rod tip low and lead the flies to the trout.

Fast water
When fishing fast water, try a leading approach to slow down the flies. With precise control, you may choose to ride the flies lower than the strike zone — all the way down to the rocks, ticking and bumping along for part of the drift in big broken water. This approach fools trout on both flies. As the bottom nymph bounces up and the tag fly stutters, trout make fast decisions in fast water. Try slowing the drift to let them make those choices.

There are two things I always recommend when times are tough. The first? Get closer. It always helps. The second, for the tight line nymphing specifically, is to lead the flies. Again, good tracking only comes by first understanding good leading. So going back to home base and dialing it in helps get things on track.

Next Time

The leading approach is an important method in the tight line angler’s toolbox. But it’s only one way of doing things.

Next time, a discussion of how to track the flies, because tracking provides a counterbalance — one where being out of direct contact is the goal.

Fish hard, friends.

** 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. Wow !!! Great info Dom !!! I need a tune up buddy !! All my best Brian Mac

  2. Dom,

    I always try to visualize your shared expertise. I visualize leading as rod tip being in front ( downriver ) of my nymphs at 5-10 % and tracking as being right over or even slightly upriver of my nymphs. I know it cant be that simple as I want it to be. Yea or nay? (or kind of, or crazy, … ?)
    Always appreciate your sharing,
    Scott Miller

  3. “Find the fine line between being in touch and slightly out, and then ride that line all the way through the drift.”

    I call it Zen nymphing.
    You know your are doing it right when you realise you were doing it wrong.

  4. Great article! Out of curiosity, which Scott rod is that in the picture? I have really enjoyed every Scott I’ve used. Curious if there was a model you particularly liked for your mono techniques.


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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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