The Tight Line Advantage Across Fly Fishing Styles

by | Apr 5, 2021 | 8 comments

As a fly fisher, if you have any experience with a spinning rod or baitcaster, then you understand the tight line advantage. When I was young, my uncle taught me to hold extra line off the water by keeping the rod tip up. That made sense, because I could feel the weight of the Rooster Tail or fathead minnow against the rod tip when I was in touch. And however I fished with a spinning rod, the goal was to be in contact with the bait as we kept extra slack out of the system.

That same approach can be effectively carried over to all fly fishing styles.

Casting Line and Casting Weight

The most consequential difference between gear fishing and fly fishing is the thickness in lines. Gear anglers tend to use the thinnest lines possible. Fly anglers may use the thinnest tippet possible, but it’s attached to a thicker leader that usually finishes in a thicker butt section, and that’s attached to an even thicker fly line. It’s necessary because flies are (generally) light, while lures are heavy enough to carry the attached line behind them, flying off toward the target. But with the extra diameter in fly line and leader comes extra weight. And while the gear angler can easily hold line off the water, the fly angler can hold only some line off the water. The rest must lay on the surface.

I first picked up fly fishing as a teenager, and I vividly remember the confusion. With time, I learned to cast the weight of the line rather than the weight of the lure, but I didn’t know what to do with the line after the cast. Sure, I learned about mending, but that never seemed to solve the problems at hand. Enter, tight lining concepts.

Good morning

The Tight Line Advantage

Staying tight to the flies or just barely out of contact — that’s the tight line advantage. And to achieve this, we keep all extra or unnecessary line out of the water and off the surface. Doing so improves contact, strike detection and control over the course of the flies.

While the tight line concept is most often considered for nymphing, the tight line advantage is useful across all fly fishing styles. So, understanding and employing this key concept dramatically improves fishing success.

Let’s start here . . .

Tight Line and Euro Nymphing

Much of modern fly fishing is centered around the goals of dry fly anglers. The standard indicator nymphing set up is similar enough that it’s comfortable for the masses. Casting, watching the indy, mending to keep it drag free or feeding slack are all visually similar to fishing dry flies. It’s a popular style, effective enough in the right circumstance and easy for anglers to accomplish.

Tight line nymphing is now a widely accepted and a popular method. But the concept of the tight line advantage has been in practice since the very beginning of fly fishing with nymphs.

“Just fish pretty short and keep your line up.” That’s great advice to any nymphing angler — from the first timer to the most river-worn sharpie.

By keeping the line up and out of the water, we eliminate the influence of extra currents — no drag pulling the line, leader or tippet in multiple directions, just a direct connection from rod tip to the fly or split shot. That’s the tight line advantage in its most obvious form. And the effectiveness is intuitively understood, especially by anyone who’s spent time with a gear rod in hand.

READ: Troutbitten | Beyond Euro Nymphing

Indicator Nymphing

The tight line advantage is easily brought over to the indy game by keeping all the line from rod tip to indicator off the water.

It can be done on a standard fly line and leader setup by wading close to the target, fishing with twenty feet of line off the reel and using longer rods of nine to eleven feet in length.

But that range can be extended to thirty feet or more by using a long Mono Rig or euro nymphing leader. Mount the indicator below the sighter, on the tippet, and take tight line principles over to the indicator setup.

I call this the Tight Line to the Indicator method. And it combines our tight line advantage with the unique benefits and problem-solving attributes of using an indy. It’s a deadly variation.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing With an Indicator 

Photo by Austin Dando

Tight Line Dry Dropper

My favorite way to fish a river is with a dry fly paired with a suspended nymph on a Mono Rig.

Using the same concept as the Tight Line to the Indicator style, the dry fly replaces the indy, and it does the work of leading the nymph down one current seam.

With good casting, the tight line advantage remains for both the nymph and the dry — the dry fly is in touch with the nymph, and the nymph is in touch with the rod tip, with no line on the water. I call this Tight Line Dry Dropper.

Like tight line and euro nymphing, this style can be practiced at short distances, given a standard leader and fly line setup. But the method really shines with a long leader system. So, tie the combo on the tippet end of a Mono Rig or euro leader and extend the range of the tight line advantage.

Keeping all line off the water from rod tip to dry fly allows for amazing drag free drifts on the dry. The tight line advantage here provides a natural look, with options like stalling and hopping the dry that are unavailable with any other rig.

READ: Troutbitten | Three Styles of Dry Dropper

Tenkara

The logical extension of the tight line dry dropper style is Tenkara. And whether the fly is a dry, wet fly or weighted nymph, Tenkara is the quintessential example of the tight line advantage.

With an extra long rod, a light leader and no fly line, the Tenkara angler has the option to be in touch with the fly at any moment. And that contact — that control and strike detection — is at the heart of success.

READ: Troutbitten | The Trouble With Tenkara, And Why You Don’t Need It

Dry Flies

Even fishing a single dry fly on a standard dry line will benefit from the concept of the tight line advantage.

Of course, direct contact on such a rig results in a dragging fly, because a dry fly needs s-curves in the tippet to freely drift drag free down one lane.

But advanced dry fly anglers understand a key concept: The line leading to the s-curves is best kept off the water. And as we recover the slack in an upstream dry fly presentation, we limit line on the water by raising the rod tip and stripping slack, keeping tight, not to the fly but to the first s-curves on the water. This is a modification of the tight line advantage.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Dry Fly Fishing

Streamers and Wets

The liberation of fishing streamers and wets is the breakaway from a dead drift. We spend all our time with dry flies and nymphs aiming for a one seam, natural approach — the dead drift. But the lifeforms we imitate with streamers and wets do different things. They cross seams. They rise in the column and swim at varying speeds. Imitating those movements is the joy of fishing long flies and wets.

We can dead drift these flies, of course. But the same tight line advantage we use for a dead drift translates well to the multitude of viable presentation angles and options at hand with streamers and wets.

It’s as simple as this: By keeping all unnecessary line up and out of the water, we are tight to the flies with immediate control over the next move of the fly. The more line that is under the water or laying on the surface, the less control we have over the next move of the fly.

Like every other method and fly style, longer leaders allow for greater range of the tight line advantage to streamers and wets. I’ve detailed my preference for using my Standard Mono Rig for streamers, because it allows for precise control over the depth, angle and drop rate of the flies, at any moment, all the way through the drift. By staying tight, and keeping unnecessary line off the water, I control the head position of the streamer or wet fly with my rod tip.

WATCH: Troutbitten | VIDEO: Streamers on the Mono Rig, Episode One

Close and Kinda Isn’t Good Enough

For each rig and fly style, using a tight line advantage significantly improves the presentation. And when possible, all the extra line should be kept off the water. Not some of it. Not most of it. All of it.

This is easily seen by watching the indy or the dry fly in their respective tight line style. See how the indy skirts off downstream when some of the sighter touches the water, and watch how it slows down when that colored line and all of the tippet is picked up. It’s the same with the tight line dry dropper. When all of the tippet leading to the dry is held off the water — not just some of it — the dry drifts as pure as you’ve ever seen it.

Staying tight from rod tip to fly or from rod tip to indy is the heart of the tight line advantage. Use it, and catch a lot more trout.

Fish hard, friends.

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Enjoy the day
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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8 Comments

  1. Here is a brief analogy I witnessed: 3 weeks ago when my area was experiencing heavy wind, I got out a kite and was flying it for my kids in the front yard. Here is what realized: when I had perfect tension on the kite string, I had full control of the kite. As soon as I had slack in the kite string, I no longer was in control of the kite. Immediately, I thought of tight lining and the mono rig. It became clear with this visual. IMO, the same applies on a stream. John

    Reply
    • John, the kite analogy is a good one, and the control that you have (of the kite) makes sense. But in a way, isn’t what’s going on there sort of the opposite of what we are trying to achieve in fishing? Think of it this way – that control is essentially the same thing as drag on a fly that causes it to act “unnaturally”. What we want is for our fly line to NOT have that sort of control and to have a “drag free drift” so that the fly drifts without the influence of the fly line. So, in the kite analogy, the times when the kite is just flopping about in the wind and out of your control is actually “more natural”, or “drag free” (and would catch more sky trout).

      Reply
  2. Dom, speaking of wind……how does wind factor into the whole mono-rig-line-off-the-water thing? I’ve been fishing a lot in windy conditions of late, the the influence of wind on my line is maddening. At times, if I keep my rod tip high, and keep most/all of my line off the water, the wind actually picks the fly off or out of the water. How do you manage, and what adjustments to your tactics do you make, for windy conditions?

    d.

    Reply
  3. Thanks so much for the blog Dom, I’ve read so many of your articles and it’s an incredible body of work that you’ve built up, such a great resource for our community. It’s been and continues to be a huge help for me learning this style. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Hi Dom,
    Great article as usual! How does this change when we are fishing from a boat and drifting along with the current?

    Reply
  5. Hi Dom! I often fished with an indy, mending line constantly. I would generally fish 2 to 3 times per week. In a months time, I would average 2 to 3 fish. Then I began reading about the tight line technique and the mono rig, and decided to give it a try. First time I tried it, it took a few casts to satisfy my learning curve, but then, things began to click as I caught 3 rainbows within a period of 2 hours. I was sold! This technique was a game changer for me. Sure occasionally I’ll have a slow day, and I’ll admit, I’ve lost a few fish, but not often. I now have confidence that I’ll be successful almost every trip I make to the river. In the last month I’ve been able to net 41 trout, fishing an average of 2 days per week. I like to experiment with changing the distance between my point fly and dropper and also with different nymph combinations. I just want to say thanks so much for sharing your great knowledge.

    Reply
  6. Dom, during the pandemic I studied Troutbitten like it was holy scripture. Time on my hands and a new found sport. Thanks for that.

    Like you state, when I first started it did not make sense how I was to know when the fish was hitting when my line was mostly on the water. Too much slack.

    Then, started reading your blog. It made sense. With practice, it became obvious. I was able to get out a good bit during the fall and winter to experiment.

    I modified my leaders a bit to adopt the Lazar with a few feet of 15 lb Amnesia. Both are super visible. A foot of orange sighter to the tippet. Works well for me. I look forward to trying your dry fly leader when you have it back in stock.

    Reply
  7. Hi Dom another great article with useful practical advice. I do look forward to reading the weekly message always something to learn and ponder.

    May I ask your advice about mono rig construction. When building and using the mono rig just wondering if there is any significant noticeable difference in performance between Maxima Chameleon and Maxima Ultragreen.

    Ultragreen is readily available but Chameleon is hard to find in NZ, the tackle importers favour Japanese mono brands, so it’s practically impossible to compare the various maxima lines for oneself. Appreciate your thoughts….tight lines.

    Reply

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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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