Tight Line and Euro Nymphing: Tracking the Flies

by | Jul 26, 2020 | 5 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. Also find a rundown of leading the flies in Part Two.

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Tight line tactics continue to gain the interest of dedicated anglers. Because the contact and control, the finesse and success of a long leader system is unmatched for underwater presentations. We cast and drift our rigs with precision. Even if a trout refuses, we read the quality of the drift by watching the sighter to understand the position and progress of the flies.

If you’re an experienced long liner, you already know this. And on many days you’re surprised if trout don’t eat the flies more than you’re surprised when they do.

Leaders, methods, terms and descriptions for these contact rigs abound. Euro nymphing is sometimes considered a different form than French nymphing, while others consider them under the same umbrella. The short contact systems are Czech and Polish nymphing. French is further away, more upstream, and often employs just one nymph. Spanish nymphing, with the thinnest leaders and longest range, has its devotees as well. In the states, high sticking and tight line nymphing systems run as far back as when monofilament was first extruded. Probably further.

My approach is to throw it all together into a melting pot and remain versatile. I’m ready to attach a suspender when it makes more sense. I fish streamer tactics on a tight line as well as dries. Put it all together, and I call it the Mono Rig.

READ: Troutbitten | The Mono Rig

Regardless of the leader choice, angle of delivery, or distance in the cast, every tight liner must choose whether to lead, track or guide the flies downstream. So the question here is how  do you fish these rigs, not how they are put together.

Previously, we covered leading the flies. Now here’s tracking . . .

Tracking is . . .

As mentioned in the overview article, leading the flies is the base tactic to learn. Master it first. Likewise, having a firm understanding of the leading concept is necessary before we dig into tracking. So go back and do your homework here if necessary.

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

Photo by Bill Dell

Tracking is the counterpoint to leading. Instead of controlling the speed and position of the nymphs through the drift, we let the flies find their own way. Good tracking is about letting the flies be more affected by the current than our tippet. Instead of bossing the flies around and leading them downstream, we simply track their progress in the water.

Tracking the flies requires being slightly out of contact more than being in contact. Therein lies the degree of difficulty. There’s more guesswork involved, more imagination for where our nymphs are in the current. But experience and attentiveness teaches the skills.

Think of good tracking as being just inches out of contact. We still want the same angles on the sighter. We still easily predict the path of the flies. And we still have excellent strike detection if the nymphs and the tippet are both set up in one current seam.

While leading, there should be no build up of slack under the water. Slack in a leader is caught and pushed around by adjoining currents, even in slower water. So, too much slack ruins the drift. While tracking the flies, aim to be just inches out of contact. That’s right — inches. Your tracking skills are solid if you can slip right back into contact at any moment. So check for that contact throughout the drift occasionally, and you will learn what being just inches out of contact looks like on the sighter.

All of this makes sense, because allowing the flies to drift without influence from our leader should produce a more natural dead drift. But again, the challenge is to perform this magic trick without too much slack.

Always remember: the advantages of a tight line system are contact and control. Take away too much of that contact, and the strike detection, along with everything else, falls apart.

Photo by Austin Dando

Dog on a Leash

Leading and tracking are companion techniques. And I’ve heard the difference referenced as a dog on a leash.

Your dog’s leash can be tight. You can pull the dog where you want him to go, and you can let the dog pull you where he wants to go. Either way, the leash is tight from the tension of pulling.

Conversely, you can have a well-trained pup that heels. The leash hangs easily between your hand and the dog’s collar. It’s tight enough not to drag on the ground, but loose enough that there’s some freedom. Either you or the dog can take a step sideways or drift off line for a moment without going tight. There’s some grace and cooperation in the system. And that’s a good thing.

It’s leading vs tracking.

Gear and Setup for Tracking

While leading is best done by overweighting the flies, tracking is performed by under-weighting them. Whether split shot or beadheads, choose less weight. Because extra weight in the system tends to pull the line tight, forcing contact and requiring us to do something with that contact and weight — so we lead the flies.

By under-weighting, the flies may ride the wave of a current seam, appearing as a natural nymph in the column. Without tension on the sighter and tippet, the flies will drop. But once enough tippet is under the water and downstream of the flies, a natural equalizing occurs. And on the best drifts, we have just enough weight, angle and current speed to balance the flies and the connected tippet in the drift.

Photo by Josh Darling

For me, there are no euro nymphing flies. There are just flies. And any fly can work with a tracking approach, provided the weight and the leader is correct.

That said, if tracking is the goal, then thinner tippets are helpful. (I most often choose 5X for my terminal section.) Consider the difference between 3X and 6X. Think about how the currents affect each one. The currents grab any slack in thicker diameters more than thin ones. With a leading approach, that effect can be counteracted by remaining tight to the flies and slicing the line through the column. But while tracking, currents grab the extra inches of slack on 3X, so the resulting drag matters more. It’s something to think about.

Try This

To learn good tracking. Choose a fly or weight that you would normally lead — not extra heavy, but a moderate weight that gets down quickly.

Lead the drift for a few casts, and stay off the bottom. Aim for the top of the strike zone, or just above it. On the next cast, lead the next drift to the same depth. Then back off the contact by only an inch or so, and watch the sighter. See how it loosens up a bit with just a touch of slack introduced into the system? The flies may fall into the strike zone. And you will still see the sighter slow down, because the sighter is still influenced by the flies. There is still contact in the system, but just barely. Next, deliberately lead the flies through the remainder of the drift.

The drift described above is an example of guiding. And it is the bridge to pure tracking.

When to Track

No Strike Zone
When the strike zone is not the primary target, tracking is often the best approach. But remember, we can still easily get the flies into the strike zone by tracking. We just don’t force it as much as we do while leading. Watch for the sighter to slow down — and there’s your strike zone.

Tracking allows the flies to find their own path, which may eventually get them into the strike zone. By contrast, leading is more deliberate about where we want the flies.

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

Active Trout
When the fish are moving up to eat nymphs through the water column, tracking is an excellent choice. Warmer temps can also encourage trout to feed more aggressively — to move further for food. If you find eager fish, tracking is a good method.

As a First Choice
When you’re not sure where in the column trout are feeding, going straight to the bottom with nymphs may be unwise. No matter what method I’m nymphing, I most often have a top to bottom approach. I choose to drift mid column at first and then work my way down. Tracking is a good way to start this.

Spooky Trout
The lighter weights and sometimes smaller flies of a tracking approach can provide necessary stealth. Likewise, tracking may look more natural than leading, and trout should be more tolerant of repeated drifts.

Calm Conditions
Wind can be the long liner’s biggest enemy. The extra weight and contact of a leading approach is the better choice when the breeze kicks up. So take advantage of the still days and track the nymphs with unaltered, supernatural drifts.

Next Time

Both leading and tracking have their moments of strength. Plenty of anglers choose to track or lead at every bend and riffle. But the best anglers I know employ both.

For years, I’ve opted to set up a rig that allows for a versatility of approach — one that allows me to mix leading and tracking together in the same drift. I might lead in one pocket and then track behind the next rock. I think of it as guiding the flies. And that’s what we’ll tackle next time.

Fish hard, friends.

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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. Yes there is a subtle difference. Also what you say about wind is very important. I’m a 6X guy but this week the upstream wind was screaming where I fish and blowing a C shape in my sighter as it came downstream. The only way to catch fish was add more weight and fish a 1″ bobber (indicator). Although this type of rig gives a more sluggish drift in general; when the wind is ripping it seems to work better IMHO.

  2. “Whether tight lining, nymphing with an indicator or fishing dry-dropper, the most critical element for getting a good dead drift is to lead the nymph through one single current seam.”
    This introduction from your earlier article says it all. Not easy to always accomplish.

  3. Informative article. I especially found the top to bottom approach interesting.

  4. New to tight line nymphing this season, and having a great time. I find this article very useful, and I know it will help focus my learning on the water. Well written and fun to read too. Thank you!

  5. New to tight line nymphing this season, and having a great time. I find this article very useful, and I know it will help focus my learning on the water. Well written and fun to read too. Thank you!


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