Tight Line and Euro Nymphing — The Lift and Lead

by | Dec 6, 2020 | 25 comments

The contact we have on a tight line rig allows for choice. How do you want to present the fly? How deep? What speed and what seam? Call it euro nymphing or a contact rig. Fish a Mono Rig or shorter leader with a euro line. It’s these decisions left for every angler that makes it all so interesting. Good tight line anglers have nuances to their game, with personal styles and preferences that are adapted to their own waters and abilities.

No other style of fly fishing allows for such precision. Tight line nymphing, performed well, is a mental challenge as much as it is physical. Because it takes premium focus, cast after cast, to decide not just where our fly goes, but where the tippet goes too. We see beyond the sighter to visualize an unseen nymph gliding over an unseen riverbed.

Our experience and understanding allows for constant improvement. Each of us refines the tight line tactic until the nymph is in perfect harmony with the currents below. Then we start over again in the next seam.

Our goal, as tight line anglers, is a pure drift — a dead drift on the fly, with a natural, untethered look. And yet, we recognize that without contact to the fly we lose strike detection. Likewise, without some influence on the fly’s motion, it simply sinks to the bottom of the river and sticks there. Success rides a fine line.

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

Through the years, one concept — one technique — has allowed me to ride that line more than any other. It’s the most natural way to get the nymph near the bottom and the most efficient way to keep it there. I call it the Lift and Lead.

River. Almost five months old now.

The Set Up

Standing midstream, your boots face into the current. Your casting target is the left edge on a small piece of whitewater created by a mid-sized rock that just barely breaks the surface. Your drifting target is the left merger seam of the long pocket created by that rock — right where soft water meets the fast stuff. Trout heaven.

The head of the seam (in that whitewater) is about twenty-five feet upstream and twelve feet to the right. You’re in perfect position to dead drift with everything in one seam: fly and necessary tippet in the water, with the sighter, leader and rod tip out of the water — a true, one seam approach.

READ: Troutbitten | #1 Angle and Approach: Nine Essential Skill for Tight Line and Euro Nymphing
PODCAST: Troutbitten | Angle and Approach: Tight Line Sand Euro Nymphing Skills #1

With a good tuck cast, you can set up for a great twenty-foot drift before the fly drifts past from your position. Then you hookset into a backcast to repeat the process.

READ: Troutbitten | Set the Hook at the End of Every Drift

So let’s do it. Make the delivery using a medium tuck cast that arcs the fly in first. The tippet follows, and your sighter sticks the landing, settling with its colors a foot off the water, with an angle a little shy of forty-five degrees.

Now . . . what do you do next?

Slack Recovery

The best tight line nymphing happens by simply recovering the slack that the river feeds us. Stay in touch. That’s the goal. And there are three ways to recover that slack.

One: We can recover slack with the line hand. Without moving the rod tip, using the line hand for slack recovery keeps us in touch.

Two: We can recover slack by leading the rod tip downstream, just enough to keep the sighter in contact with the fly.

Three: We can recover slack by lifting the rod tip. The slack is lifted from the water, and we stay in touch as the rod tip rises.

Good anglers use all three methods of slack recovery throughout the day. Sometimes all three are used in one drift, and sometimes just one is best in a certain piece of water. My favorite, and the one that lends the most control, is a natural combination of two — the Lift and Lead.

Photo by Austin Dando


Many anglers make a common mistake — they don’t recognize when the nymph is in the strike zone. Instead, they wait for the fly to touch the bottom, and they set the hook. Over and over, they fish only the free fall, and they never drift through the strike zone.

But great nymphing presentations happen in two parts. After the cast there’s a free fall, then a drift. This concept is a partner to the Lift and Lead. And the following article is the companion piece to this one.

READ: Troutbitten | Nymphing — Free Fall and the Drift


The nymph should enter with a tuck cast. Even in skinny water, we want the nymph to break the surface with a shallow tuck. It’s a turnover cast, so the nymph hits, and only the tippet that must enter the water does. Everything else stays dry.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Strategies — The Tuck Cast

But the target merger seam ahead of us is not skinny. It’s two feet deep. And when the nymph hits with a bit of slack provided by the tuck cast, the fly needs a chance to free fall. That’s the most efficient way to drop the nymph into the strike zone. After our cast, the fly should sink quickly through the column with no tension on the line (or very little). Call it the free fall.

This free fall happens for about one to three seconds in our two-foot-deep seam. And during the free fall, the fly is also making progress downstream. Slack is introduced, and it’s our job to recover the unnecessary slack. So we lift.

The Lift. Illustration by Dick Jones

When the fly lands, begin lifting the rod tip. Don’t lead yet. Just lift. Use streamside trees as a marker — a reference — to be sure that your rod only elevates into the air, without making any progress downstream.

This lift does not move the nymph. It’s simply a way to recover the slack. Only the slack is lifted and not the fly.

Lifting the rod tip changes the angle of the sighter, and it becomes more vertical as we lift. That’s good. And remember, we are lifting so the nymph can fall into the strike zone.

Now watch the sighter for contact with the nymph. When the slack from the tuck cast is gone, the sighter will tighten ever so slightly. That’s contact. And by gaining contact with the nymph, we can now trust what the sighter tells us about depth, angle and strike detection.

After contact, we continue to lift the rod tip, recovering slack as the nymph drifts downstream. It’s still falling. And when the sighter slows down, we know the nymph has reached the strike zone. Because we don’t want the nymph to fall any closer to the riverbed, we stop the lift and begin the lead.


With the free fall finished, it’s time to glide the nymph through the strike zone.

The lift has permitted the nymph to fall through the water column with little to no tension on the line, and now we want the nymph to glide through the strike zone. To do this, we switch from lift to lead.

The Lead. Illustration by Dick Jones

If we mistakenly continue to lift, the nymph keeps falling through the strike zone and hits the riverbed. But bad things happen when we touch the bottom. The nymph hangs up or gathers debris. And real nymphs aren’t down there banging their heads on the rocks. They are gliding through the strike zone. That’s right where we want our flies.

READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone

So, with the strike zone reached, we stop lifting the rod tip and begin leading it through the drift. Lead just enough to stay in contact. Leading doesn’t mean that we drag the nymph downstream. We simply recover the slack given as the nymph drifts toward us.

The sighter angler should remain stable. Understand that leading does not change the sighter angle. Only lifting does that. So be careful to keep the sighter stable, and hold the angle all the way through the lead portion of the presentation. Look for a good, balanced ride throughout the lead, and the nymph will look most natural.

That’s the Lift and Lead.

READ: Troutbitten | Short Series | Tight Line Nymphing — Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding the Flies.

Take the Next Step

Remember, good tight line nymphing is about maximizing the time of our nymph in the strike zone. So aim for a quick free fall, enabled by the lift. Then aim for a long drift, enabled by the lead.

Most euro nymphing or tight line studies seem to ignore the lift, focusing only on the concept of leading the flies downstream. For certain, the Lift and Lead is an advanced tactic. But if you’re having tight line success for a few seasons now, you’re probably already incorporating some of this without knowing it. And by considering both elements, by being deliberate with each part of the lift and lead, control over the course of your flies increases. The path is more predictable. And more trout eat the fly.

The Lift and Lead is a cornerstone concept for advanced tight line nymphing skills.

Fish hard, friends.

READ MORE : Troutbitten | Category | Nymphing

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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. This is a very important post. In my experience, lifting and leading is what separates a good drift from a bad one. And on days when I’m impatient, or I regress, it’s what makes the difference between a good day and a mediocre one.

    • Hey buddy,

      I agree. I think it’s very important too. I built up to this one for a very long time — at least a year, honestly. There were many supporting articles and concepts needed to get to this point. Most of those articles are also linked above. Any many of them have their own supporting articles.

      It’s a good path.


  2. Hi Dom,

    I have put this link on my calendar for every Saturday morning so that I can revisit it as I think it is such an excellent summary. I’ll want to revisit it many times until it is seared into my head!

    I have one question. When you write “we stop lifting the rod tip and begin leading it through the drift” do you mean (a) the rod tip should be held at the height it was stopped at or (b) lowered to some other height?

    I think the answer is ‘a’, but wanted to doublecheck.

    Happy Holidays,


    • Hi Charlie.

      Definitely choice A.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Dom,
    If you are casting 25 feet up and 12 feet to the right, wouldn’t your rod have to be at least 12 feet long to keep everything aligned in the same seam? I got the impression from your earlier writings that you should cast no farther to the left or right than the length of your rod. I know that you don’t use a 12 foot rod so I must have misunderstood something.

    On Thursday I went trout fishing for the first time since July because I had been bass fishing exclusively since then. I caught a trout right away, but then went fishless for awhile. Then I realized that I was setting on the drop, even though I had recently read your article in which you said not do that. I started catching again after I allowed the drift to continue after the drop and lift, and ended up well into double figures, same as the two friends that I fished with that day.

    Thank you for the articles.

    • Hi Tim,

      Really glad to hear about your success. I love that!

      Hey, about the 12 feet over thing. Absolutely right, we go over only as far as the rod tip can go. I often round that up to twelve feet because I include the arm in their too. Know what I mean?


      • Yep, I know what you mean, Dom.

        Thanks for the clarification!

  4. Morning Dom….after reading your many pages on euro nymphing, I’ve settled on dropshot techniques as my go to method. Tuck cast, recover slack, lift, lead, contact, no contact. In one of your comments, you describe the magic happens somewhere between tight line and slack line. I love that description and try to make sure my lift and lead allows for that “magic” zone.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

    • Hi Elwood. That’s an excellent way to describe the method in a couple short sentences. I like it.


  5. Dom — You do a very good job describing things I do instinctively. I’d probably just say “Heave it over there and twitch it around some.”

  6. Hi Dom,

    I am not certain whether my question relates directly to you excellent article, but it is one that arises often as I contemplate the use of the mono rig. The question is can the mono rig be used with a soft hackle as the top dropper and a weighted nymph on the point? I understand that this would be a hybrid model and I am interested in its potential utility. I raise this question because one of the best fishers I know usually fishes a team of soft hackles or a mixed team of soft hackle and wet. I mention the soft hackle as the dropper since soft hackles often inhabit water column positions mid column to near surface. The question comes down to – is there a place for wet and soft hackle flies in the mono rig domain? Thanks.


  7. I was fishing in very clear water and could see big trout ignoring my nymphs,no matter what. Then when slowly lifting to recast,bam. That’s what they were waiting for. Now I’m extremely alert anytime fly is raising,could be the trigger!!

    • Hi Rich.

      Hey, I’m glad that trout ate! But, just to be clear, that’s not what I’m talking about in this article. The lift here does NOT lift the fly. In fact, the lift allows the fly to DROP.

      “This lift does not move the nymph. It’s simply a way to recover the slack. Only the slack is lifted and not the fly.”

      Lift to allow the fly to drop. Lead to keep the fly at one level.

      Make sense?


  8. Hi, I have a question about the lift. I’ve put your comments in quotes. “If we mistakenly continue to lift, the nymph keeps falling through the strike zone and hits the riverbed. But bad things happen when we touch the bottom. The nymph hangs up or gathers debris.” My question is how can the nymph hit the bottom if the rod tip is still lifting. It seems if you continue to lift your rod tip, the nymph will rise, and if taken to the extreme, you will eventually lift the nymph out of the water. Please enlighten me. Thanks for all you do with these posts. I am an avid reader.

    • Cheers, David. Thanks for the question.

      Here’s the important thing to remember, also quoted from above:

      “This lift does not move the nymph. It’s simply a way to recover the slack. Only the slack is lifted and not the fly.”

      So, we are only lifting the slack here, and not the fly. So as we lift the new slack, the nymph keeps falling, if we don’t pull it.

      Make sense? Granted, it’s a difficult concept to grasp. Definitely hit the water, with this in mind, and it will all come together for you.


      • Thanks so much.

  9. Such a great article I read it three times just to make sure I didn’t miss anything thank you for the great info really helps

  10. Hi Dom,
    Great explanation! Just for kicks, if we bring in some geometry, doing so is useful i feel.

    If you start lead at a 45 degree angle, the amount of submerged tippet is ~40% more then your fly depth. For 60 degree angle, the amount of submerged tippet is ~15% more then your fly depth.

    With that, here are examples of how i put it to use. I tie a 5 foot tippet before my sighter most often (for fishing 2-4 feet of water). First cast is the money cast…. hmm what angle? Say you want your fly 3 feet down to start. If you start the lead at 45 degree angle (3X1.4=4.2 feet submerged) i should have less then a foot (8″) of tippet above the water to when sighter starts. For 60 degree angle (3×1.15=3.45feet submerged) i should have about 1.5 feet of tippet above the water err, before sighter starts. I’m watching the sighter like a hawk anyway. Also what if you don’t see the sighter characteristics you mention. I recall this. In determining tippet length this can help.

    For me, reading the sighter as you describe is definitely best. Especially since its the same look using a suspension device. Nice, i like that consistency! I just keep the above in mind.

    Thank you for all your articles Dom i feel this is one of your best. It was great meeting you and having you show me these methods this past Oct..

    • Hey now!

      I admire what you did there. Didn’t understand it. But I admire it.


  11. Great article. I thought I’d add something that gets overlooked a lot in my opinion. That is tippet diameter. Most people only think about tippet diameter in this scenario. “The water is running fast so I need to use finer tippet to allow my fly get down faster.”

    I feel that tippet diameter is just as important in leading in the fly.

    My example.
    The seam is 2 feet deep and relatively slow. The fly needs to be the correct weight, let’s say 2.8mm or 3.3mm depending on how slim or bulky the fly is tied You also need to fish a relatively thicker diameter tippet like 4 or 5x so that the tippet has enough surface area for the water to help the fly to drift since the fly is in such a slow current the the fly by itself probably wouldn’t drift on it’s own. And if you were using say 6x the fly will crash into the rocks because while that 6x tippet is definitely fine enough to get down it doesn’t have enough surface area to actually allow the water to push tippet which leads and guides the fly.

    It takes a marriage of tippet diameter and fly weight and bulkiness or slimness of the fly all working together perfectly to get that nymph down and to drift at the correct speed below. If this has already been written about please let me know.

  12. “Hey now-ing” your “Hey now!” Dom, with a tequila in-hand in Puerto Vallarta. I do have enough brain cells still working though that everything you mentioned above resonates with our time on the water together in November. Will get it back in practice a week or so from now. Cheers brother!


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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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