** 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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