#5. Finding Contact: Nine Essential Skills for Tight Line and Euro Nymphing

by | Jul 26, 2021 | 6 comments

** NOTE ** This is the fifth 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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Everyone loves fishing dry flies. For those with the skills, casting a dry and watching it move downstream with the current is a particular joy, even when the trout don’t eat the fly. Why do we love it? Because it’s all visual. Because we can see success. When the dry fly starts to skate and drag, we pick it up and cast again. It’s easy, fun and rewarding because there’s no guesswork involved.

Now compare that to standard nymphing tactics. As soon as the nymph disappears under the surface, the guesswork starts. Because we can’t see the fly, our confidence is shaky. Where’s the nymph? Where’s it going next? Did a trout eat it? Was that a hit? These questions require guesswork. That holds true under most indicator setups and even with some forms of tight line nymphing. But guessing isn’t much fun. And it feels more like we’re hoping that something will happen instead of fishing.

So what’s the solution? Contact. Instead of providing slack to the nymph — deliberately being out of touch, as we do with dry flies — nymphing is best when we fish with contact to the fly. There’s no slack to get swept away or caught in conflicting currents. There’s no slack to tighten up and telegraph a take from a good trout. There’s just contact — pure contact that puts us in touch with the fly, with knowledge about where the nymph is and where it’s going next. In this way, we have good drifts and excellent strike detection.

It was time for new boot laces. I went with a Kevlar weave this time. We’ll see . . .

Importantly, this doesn’t mean that we’re always in touch with the fly every moment of the drift. Contact nymphing is just as much about being out of touch as being in. But the margins of slack here are inches and not feet. And, in truth, before we can slip out of touch, we need to first find that contact.

We can carry the tight line advantage over to indicator rigs as well, and I’ve written about that extensively here on Troutbitten. But in this series of nine essential skills for tight line and euro nymphing, we’re focused on a long leader approach. I choose a Mono Rig, because it extends the tight line advantage to the greatest range with the most options. But contact operates similarly in other euro nymphing rigs and tight line systems.

Remember, there are three things that make a tight line rig work: removing traditional fly line to reduce line sag and drag, limiting the diameters of tippet under the water, and adding a sighter. I believe that the sighter is the most important of these three elements, because a sighter with contact shows us everything about the drift.

Here’ what I mean . . .

Reading Contact On the Sighter

A good sighter is constructed from a colored material that is easily seen by the angler. If you struggle to find the sighter for a second after the cast, it’s useless. Going extra-thin with sighter diameter may reduce line sag a bit, but that’s not worth much if you can’t pick out the sighter and read it for contact. Choose materials that you can easily see.

Likewise, sighter length should be long enough to clearly show direction to the fly and to reveal a slight bow vs a straight line. I find that two feet is plenty of length for my sighters.

Much has been made about the bow in a sighter, and many anglers will argue for the use of extra limp materials to allow for this bow. But I find that I can read a sighter just as well by looking for something I call a nervous sighter. And that may be better shown with slightly stiffer materials.

READ: Troutbitten | Is a Soft Sighter Best? Not Always

Reading the bow is easy. But it also requires certain sight angles, and it’s most effective with lighter flies. I believe that looking for nervousness in a sighter is more reliable for showing contact.

What’s nervous? With a bit of slack to the fly, the sighter isn’t tight. So It shakes a bit. It waves subtly. It’s nervous. Start looking for this quality, and you’ll find it. Then, just like the bow straightens out, you’ll see the nervousness settle as the sighter becomes stable. That stability indicates contact. We may manipulate contact throughout the drift, but as we progress through these nine essential skills, we’re building a cast and drift from beginning to end. So after tuck casting, sticking the landing and recovering slack, we next find our contact. The sighter settles.

Here is a sighter in contact. It is tight, with no wave, bow or jumpiness to it.

And here is a sighter out of contact with the fly or the weight below. Not only is there a lot of bow in the line, it also waves and jiggles — it’s a nervous sighter

So what does the sighter show us? Everything . . .

What to See

Reading contact on the sighter means we’re in touch with the nymph or the weight below. It’s that simple. Seeing contact above the water means we have contact to the fly below. This does not mean we are touching the bottom of the river. That’s another topic altogether. No, here we mean contact with the fly, from rod tip to the nymph, with the line straight (enough) that there is no slack.

The sighter tightens because it feels the weight of the flies or split shot. And with the sighter between rod tip and the weight, the colored line between two points straightens and settles. With that contact, the end of the sighter points directly to the fly. Here a bit of imagination is in order — but not much. If we’re running five feet of tippet, then the fly is five feet from where the end of the sighter is pointing. It’s not guesswork to know where our fly is. Look through the water, see beyond the sighter, and imagine the position of your nymph.

A sighter in contact shows us the depth, angle and speed of our fly below. With the simple knowledge that the nymph is five feet from the end of the sighter (in the example above), we know how deep the fly is. By observing the angle of the sighter, we know where the tippet is, and therefore where the fly will go next. And by seeing the speed of the sighter under contact, we know the speed of the fly below.

The sighter shows us everything.

Slipping in and Out

A sighter with contact always points to the fly. But we know that too much contact hurts the drift and drags the nymph downstream unnaturally.

What’s more, with good turnover and a tuck cast, we deliberately introduce some slack upon entry, to give the fly some grace to fall, to get down quickly and to maximize the travel of the nymph.

After that tuck cast, we recover slack until we find contact — until we see the bow in the sighter straighten or notice that the nerves have settled. At that point, and for the remainder of the drift, it’s our job to simply recover the slack that is given to us. That’s what I call guiding the fly downstream. But a leading approach or tracking approach works wonders too.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line and Euro Nymphing — Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding the Flies

All of these skills are based on a fundamental ability to read the sighter — to see contact and know what it means, to back off the contact a touch, introduce the nervous look again, and then slip back into contact.

But remember, until you are in touch, you can’t reliably and purposefully slip out of contact. Personally, I err on the side of too much contact rather than too much slack. I’d rather have more control and know exactly where my flies are headed than to build up too much slack, lose control and miss the strikes. That said, I probably spend at least half of my average drift being slightly out of touch and watching that sighter subtly shake.

Next Up

Recognizing contact is the fundamental skill of reading the sighter. Without contact, without a straight and tight sighter, we cannot trust what it’s telling us. But with contact, we know exactly where the nymph is — how deep and how fast it is traveling.

A sighter under contact always points to the fly. And what we’re looking for next is for the sighter speed to slow, indicating that the nymph has reached the strike zone.

Fish hard, friends.

** Next up is the sixth skill for tight line and euro nymphing — Locating the Strike Zone. **

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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. Thank you Dom for your great breakdown! I understand this “finding contact” by reading the sighter in the context of your “lift and lead” article and within 25 foot cast. Is finding contact the same when stripping in line to recover slack?

    Not to upset your awesome breakdown, but at some point will you address when will you do “strip and lead” and “strip, lift and lead”? Thanks much.

  2. Love how technical this stuff is. To be honest, you probably have to somewhat already “know” how to do this to fully appreciate/understand this article.

    One thing I have always struggled with is when fish are looking up (i.e. heavy hatch season) and take the nymph early on the free fall after a tuck – then it is tough to know whether your sighter is going tight from achieving contact from the weight of the nymph once it finally reaches depth, or because the nymph has been taken by a fish. Sometimes you can guess one way or the other based on how quickly the sighter goes tight (i.e. it goes tight sooner than it should), but I still find it tough. In cases like these I actually don’t tuck much and have the nymph fall with more contact / less slack from the moment it hits the water. It takes longer to get to depth but I can detect strikes on the fall much better. Not sure if there is a better way to detect strikes on fish that take very soon after a nymph hits the water (i.e. on the initial descent)…other than fishing a dry dropper with a short tag nymph.

    • Great stuff, Greg. And really, it’s just all about expectations compared to what you see. As you already realize, the more control you have over the tuck and the entry, the more you know what to expect. So when it tightens, you know it’s a trout (or not).
      Incidentally, I find that far more trout take on a true drop, without contact than they take a fly under contract as it falls. That’s yet another reason I use a tuck all the time.

      Lastly, I agree with your first statement, and that’s very much the point. There are hundreds of resources to learn the basics. 99 percent of the authors out there try to cover it in one article. But I have the luxury here of expanding on these topics. Self publishing is wonderful.

      Thanks for reading and contributing, Greg.


  3. Hi Dom. You mention modulating between a nervous sighter and an in-contact one, and then recognizing when the fly is in the strike zone (the slow down). I’m not clear on whether you see sighter modulation as an ongoing tactic during the whole drift (including the strike-zone portion), or whether reaching the strike zone puts an end to the modulation.

    • Hi JP,

      Cool question. Yes, I see sighter modulation, as you call it, an ongoing tactic, even once the fly is in the strike zone. Slipping in and out of contact is always possible, as long as the weight isn’t too much.

      Make sense?


      • Yes sir it does, thanks. I’m realizing lately that I’ve been relying too much on weight. I’ve been seeing hooking bottom as the only downside. But clearly there are several others, even more important than that.


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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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