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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Enjoy the day.
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