#4. Recovering Slack: Nine Essential Skills for Tight Line and Euro Nymphing

by | Jul 21, 2021 | 18 comments

** NOTE ** This is the fourth featured skill in the Troutbitten series, Nine Essential Skills for Tight Line and Euro Nymphing. You can find the overview, along with dedicated articles for each chapter and skill as they publish HERE.

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Good dead drifts with a nymph happen only by casting upstream. Just how much upstream and how much across is variable, and those details are covered in the Angle and Approach section of this Troutbitten series. But when we deliver the nymph in the upstream direction, the river sends the fly back to us, creating slack in the leader. It’s our job as attentive anglers, aiming for perfection, to simply recover the slack that is given to us.

While tight line and euro nymphing, pulling downstream too much creates unnatural downstream drag. But leading too little allows slack to build up, putting us out of contact, dampening strike detection, and permitting excess tippet to drift into conflicting currents that destroy the dead drift.

Recovering slack, then, is a critical skill.

After the tuck cast, and after sticking the landing, it’s time to pick up line and find contact. Because it’s the only way to gain control over the leader and have contact with the fly.

The skill of slack maintenance is overlooked too often. And while it seems intuitive, I’ve seen enough good anglers struggle with this seemingly simple skill to know otherwise.

Here’s a breakdown . . .

Two Hands

God gave you two of these things, so why leave one dangling at your side? Use two hands to fly fish.

Many tight line nymphing anglers fish with only their rod hand involved, forcing themselves to do all the slack recovery with their rod tip instead of also using their line hand to manipulate the Mono Rig or fly line. And that can be a good place to start. Simplifying things with an approach similar to Tenkara is a fine way to focus on the other things, like body positioning, casting angles and accuracy. I bring up Tenkara, because it’s a style that forces anglers to fish with a fixed length of line. There is no reel, and there is no line stripping. But once you’re comfortable with the basics of tight line and euro nymphing, then bring in that second hand — yes, even at short range.

Learning to manipulate the line and leader provides us far more control in a wider array of situations. Line hand skills are especially important in tough conditions, like wind or tight cover. So, use ‘em both.

READ: Troutbitten | The Mono Rig, and Why Fly Line Sucks

Photo by Josh Darling

Three Ways

With the line hand involved, we now realize there are three ways to recover slack: one with the hand and two with the rod tip.


With the line hand, recover slack by stripping or hand twisting. But be careful, here. Strip only the slack that is given, and don’t pull or drag the flies through the water with streamer-style stripping. Strip or hand twist only to recover the line, not to move the fly.


With the rod tip, recover slack by lifting. Again, attention to detail is paramount. Don’t lift the fly from its position — don’t alter the fly. Instead, lift only the slack as it is sent back downstream. The rod tip lifts, and the extra line is brought into the air, over the water.


With the rod tip, recover slack by leading with the rod tip. This is the most common way to maintain slack. The nymph goes in, and we lead with the rod tip down one current seam. Beginning anglers think about leading the flies. But advanced anglers focus on leading the tippet and just barely maintaining tension to the nymph by recovering the slack that is given.

READ: Troutbitten | Two Ways to Recover Slack
READ: Troutbitten | The Lift and Lead
READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line and Euro Nymphing: Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding the Flies

So we can recover slack in three ways: by stripping, by raising the rod tip and by leading the rod tip downstream. And while these are basic skills, the heart of advanced nymphing is in the critical ability to recover slack in all three ways.

The Next Step

I fished a tight line nymphing rig blind for over a decade, and then I finally added a sighter to the rig. Also, I believe that indicator nymphing is popular because the indy gives anglers something to look at. But a sighter changes all of that. And even when I fish indicator setups, I still keep a sighter built into the leader, bringing tight line principles over to a suspender style of fishing.

Point is, the sighter provides all the information we need about where the flies are. But first, it tells us if we’ve recovered enough slack. Are we too tight or not tight enough? That’s the next skill in this series of nine essential skills for tight line and euro nymphing — finding contact.

Fish hard, friends.

** Next up is the fifth skill for tight line and euro nymphing — Finding Contact. **

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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. Just recently built/tweaked and started employing a sighter setup that I like into my rig. It’s making a HUGE difference. Yep, sighters.


  2. Dom, another great article thanks. Just a nuanced comment, I recover slack more often with a hand twist than stripping. For me, I can control the recovery better that way. Thanks again for all the great info!

    • Good stuff, Mark.

      Personally, I find hand twisting too limiting. I fish a lot of fast water, and I can’t twist fast enough to keep up. Most often, I use what I cull a fulcrum retrieve. That one needs a video.

      Lastly, hand twisting a Mono Rig is not my favorite, as it can introduce coils to the line, especially in the winter.

      Thanks for the input.


  3. Great stuff as usual.Line control is very often left out on videos & other internet stuff.Watching George Daniels videos & Old Dominion Trout Bum videos.These are great resources to watch good line control. I really like thinner Spanish type leader.Very little sag.

  4. When nymphing in position looking upstream, casting directly forward (or anywhere within rod length) I find myself in an awkward place to recover slack as the drift comes too close and my pole yanks the fly outa position. What am I doing wrong?

    • Hi Richard. If you cast directly upstream, the only way to recover is by lifting the rod tip. You have no lead, or you pull the nymph off track, and you’ve already sensed this. So try casting up two and over one rod length. Then you’ll have plenty of room to lead.

      Make sense?


  5. I’ve been using “sighters” for several yrs via tiny pieces of bright yellow adhesive squares. The problem was they weren’t adjustable. Last yr, a friend and professional guide to whom I’d shared my technique, showed me a super revision.
    I take pieces of cheap bright yellow fly line and tie it onto my tapered leader using a nail knot. I typically make 2 as I have a better depth perception with them 4-6” apart.
    The best part is they’re ADJUSTABLE! In shallow water, I move them closer to the fly. In deeper water, I move them further from the flies, keeping them a few feet above the surface.
    I’ve even adapted this process by making long casts into deep pools up to 60ft away, allowing my heavy nymphs to sink, while still seeing the indicators and gently mending the slack. I’ve caught more than a few wild, trophy browns sitting in deep water using this technique.

    • I have probably tried most things.Keep going back to adjustable braid backing barrels.First seen the barrel on troutbitten.Must have been quite a few years now since the barrels came out.

      • Robert – Check out keiryu markers (bright fluorescent yarn from japan specifically designed for strike detection on a leader) and use this rather than fluorescent backing to make a backing barrel- it weighs less (less line sag, every little bit counts IMO), and is much is more visible – I tie my backing barrels (without a tag) with this material and love it.

        • Hi Greg,

          I appreciate the suggestion. But long ago, I tried 3 different kinds of Keiryu markers. None of them were as light as a one inch piece of 20 lb Dacron that I use for the Backing Barrel. The yarn styles also fray too much, leaving a little puff ball instead of a tag. Do not like. The other style, almost plastic, is too heavy and too rigid.
          Seriously, if you find ones that are better, let me know.


          • I should clarify – I wrap 5 times and cut the tags off flush. There is a very tiny bit of fraying but I find that helps visibility at far distances in low light, especially in breezy conditions ..basically gives you a slightly bigger target to see than the dacron barrel without having to have the traditional backing barrel with long tag that is tough to fish in the wind.

            The yarn colors are much brighter than even the brightest dacron I can find as well. Agree on the plastic style for sure.

          • Hi Greg,

            So I’m not trying to be “right” here by arguing. I’m just giving you my perspective. The Backing Barrel that I write about and suggest is 20 lb Dacron. I like Gudebrod because it’s insanely bright and does not fray. I wrap 5-6 times with a uni-knot, pull it TIGHT and then clip off the down tag, leaving just one inch of the up tag. There is no wind resistance of consequence. There is no weight of consequence. The perception of wind effect or weight is truly just the Backing Barrel more accurately showing what the sighter is doing. Here’s the full write up on the Backing Barrel:


            What you describe, clipping off both tags leaves a small point on the leader/sighter. That’s nice, but it shows less than half of what the tag I described can show. The barrel with tag adds a third dimension to a straight sighter. It not only is much more visible, it sometimes rotates to reveal a strike. Nothing else can do it that way. And that one inch tag shows a nervous sighter better than anything else. I write about that in Part 5.

            Again, I acknowledge that there are many things that work. And I’m truly glad that you have what works for you. I just wanted to be clear about what I call the Backing Barrel and its use.

            Cheers all day.

          • Totally hear you on the backing barrel. You should sell small sections of the Gudebrod in your shop, I usually use the bright orange Rio and Orvis backing. The 1″ long backing barrel tag is almost too distracting esp in the wind – it flaps around a little too much for me, at least for my preferences.

            I think all of us that do this a lot have experimented with every type of sighter system and all have our preferences that work for us. For example, I was pretty unimpressed with the Skafars wax that I bought, sure it shows up great in the bright sun, but so does a normal sighter, and if you want a movable sighter then you can use a backing barrel or movable marker as discussed above, and avoid the hassle of wiping off the wax. However some people think that wax is the best thing since sliced bread…

          • Totally agree on the wax. The comp scene makes a bid deal about it, because they can’t add anything like a Backing Barrel, and they keep using thinner and thinner sighters as the current trend goes that way. So if I competed, wax would matter to me. I don’t compete. I have more visible solutions available. So I don’t care about wax.


  6. Recovering slack and line control in general is just as critical for us DFOs. Maybe more so. It is rare to see this topic discussed anywhere else. When it comes to drag free presentations, casting and line control are equally important, yet the former seems to get all the love. No one digs deeper Dom.

  7. Thank you, Dom, the essential skills articles are great, both in themselves and in the way they serve as a jumping-off point for reviewing previous writings. The series provides a central structure to the site, in the best of ways.

    A “geometry” question: do you ever take into consideration the potential arc that your rod tip might trace (as seen from above) when leading/tracking your flies during the drift? For instance, if your flies land in the seam ahead, then by the drift’s end, when your rod has come perpendicular to the current, are they not in danger of being outside the seam?

    Do you extend your arm out at the beginning of the drift, and gradually pull it in, to compensate for the rod rip describing an arc as you pivot?

    Sometimes I feel myself doing something like this, that is pulling my rod-arm back (elbow behind) so that I don’t end up guiding the flies away and outside the seam when they come nearer. I’m never sure if this is a good habit. On the inside of a bend, this isn’t a problem, because the seam and drift are themselves an arc.

    Maybe you cover this in another article, but I don’t recall. Thank you.

    • Hi JP,

      I really don’t like to reach much. And I encourage others not to reach with the arm either. I think it’s bad form and hurts us in the long run.


      That said, I do reach a bit, many times and then lead and do what you said. However, you can take the rod tip through a pretty long path without reaching your arm out much.



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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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