#7. Guiding the Flies: Nine Essential Skills for Tight Line and Euro Nymphing

by | Sep 5, 2021 | 7 comments

** NOTE ** This is the seventh 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.

— — — — — —

Many anglers fish for a lifetime without learning much about the techniques used. They walk the banks and wade the river, catching a few fish along the way and enjoying what may come. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

For us, the pursuit of knowledge and the search for a better understanding about the methods to catch trout is the draw. Knowing that more is possible, believing that our skills can be sharpened, is what keeps us on the path, making fly fishing a lifelong journey.

Nymphing with tight line tactics is the perfect tool for such an angler and approach, because a good contact system offers infinite control over the flies. The guesswork is gone. It’s replaced by precision and knowledge about where the fly is and what it’s doing next.

How do you want to fish the nymph? It’s up to you.

Where We Are

In this series, we’ve focused on the first six important skills. And now, we’ve finally reached the one that people think about most — drifting the flies or bringing them through the water. At its root, this is fishing the flies. I call it guiding the flies, and it’s the longest in duration. It’s the most active, with the most room for variation.

We wade to the perfect angle and hit the target with line control that allows the weight of the fly or split shot to quickly find the strike zone. Then we guide the flies downstream. Guiding is something you can work on for the rest of your life and never master it.

Let’s fish . . .

Leading | Tracking | Guiding

I break down how we drift the nymph into three techniques: leading, tracking and guiding the flies.

Leading is having full contact and control over the nymph at all times, and it’s achieved by overweighting the system (a little or a lot.)

Tracking is allowing the flies to do what the current dictates, with less direct contact achieved by under-weighting the system.

Guiding the flies is a mix of both leading and tracking. Guiding happens within one drift or a series of drifts. And it’s best achieved by finding the perfect weight for the water at hand.

Because I value versatility on the water above all else, I most often choose to guide the nymphs through their path. So I build my leaders and my casting system around that goal. For me, guiding the flies is a fun and flexible way to approach the drift, with all the good things rolled into one.

Two of my best fishing buddies — Joey and River

Learn More First

I’ve dedicated a short series to the concepts of leading vs tracking vs guiding the nymphs.

Here are the links to the articles in that series:

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

** NOTE ** The above articles are not required reading, but they will surely help to put some flesh on the bones of this topic. Remember, Troutbitten reads more like a book than a blog. This article does not stand alone, and this series of nine techniques does not stand alone. By following the in-content links provided across the hundreds of articles on Troutbitten, what you can learn here is almost endless.

There are a lot of choices to make in a contact nymphing system. That’s the beauty and artistry of the whole thing. But it can also be intimidating or confusing at first. So, to reiterate a point I made earlier, learn to lead the nymphs first. Spend some time with the tactic — seasons perhaps — and don’t rush it. Then move to tracking the flies and learn the nuances and possibilities of a fundamentally different approach. When you have all of it under your hands, that’s a good time to combine both leading and tracking into one deadly method — learn to guide the flies.

Weight Selection

Perhaps the most important element in a rig for guiding the flies is the weight. More specifically, we want the ability to adjust that weight quickly, because you will do it often. As you wade upstream, tucking the fly into pockets, pools and runs, the water changes — it flows faster or deeper, slower or softer. Guiding the flies requires that the weight be just right — like Goldilocks, not too heavy and not too light.

Leading and tracking are both approaches that allow for leniency in weight selection. Think about that . . .

While leading the flies, overweighting by ten or fifty centigrams gets you to a similar place — on the bottom or in the strike zone with excellent control over the path of the flies. Understand that even with a full gram of extra weight, we can choose the speed and depth of the fly. Even in shallow water, a good tight line angler can keep the fly from hanging up, with, say, four times the necessary weight. On a tight line, it’s up to you how deep the fly rides.

READ: Troutbitten | Series | Know Your Weights and Measures

Likewise, underweighting the rig allows for the currents to dictate the course of the flies more than the angler — that’s tracking. And in many water types, there’s a fairly wide range of weight where this is effective.

But to guide the flies, we must find the middle ground, with enough weight to control the flies against the effects of the current but not so much that the flies cannot be permitted to drift at the will of that same current. This may sound like a bit of hocus pocus. But in truth, it’s an intuitive process that becomes natural with trial and error, combined with a full understanding regarding the nature of leading and tracking the flies.

Most of all, be willing to adjust the weight. Change the weighted fly or change the split shot to provide more or fewer chances to bounce between the tactics and guide the flies downstream.

Guiding the Flies — Two Approaches

Let’s fish . . .

On a crisp fall morning you’re guiding the flies. The nymph rolls over a small pile of rocks on your first drift, and you feel it scrape. The sighter hesitates and then goes limp as the nymph falls into a pothole that runs deep for the next ten feet.

If you were set up to track the flies only, your nymph would likely not reach the depth necessary to convince the best trout to eat the offering. And if you were set up to lead the flies only, the nymph would reach to the bottom of the pothole, but the inherent drag caused by leading may be too unnatural for a wary trout.

But you’re guiding now, and it’s a great choice for this situation. Because in one drift you need two approaches.

Taking a few seconds, you add a #6 shot to the rig, combining the weight of the tungsten beadhead with a bit of supplemental shot, just for this seam. On the next cast, you take some of the power out of the tuck, so the fly lands with less velocity, and it sinks to the strike zone just in time to encounter the pile of rock that you scraped over on the previous cast. You anticipate the obstruction, and you know it’s a fishy spot, so you lead the nymph a little higher, touching only once on those rocks instead of scraping through. Then, just as the rock pile falls off into the bucket, you release some of the tension on the line and sighter, allowing the fly to fall. And through the ten foot long pothole, you track the progress of the fly with the perfect weight.

Why’s it perfect? Because you see the sighter go slower than the top current and understand that the nymph has reached the strike zone. And yet, with no direct influence to keep the flies moving, the nymph never touches bottom as you track its progress to the end of the drift.

That’s a perfect ride, with good leading for part of the drift, and good tracking for another. Two in one. That’s guiding the flies.

Slipping Contact

Learning to back off the contact and allow a fly to do its own thing is a critical skill for every tight line angler. I call this slipping contact. And I may slip in and out of touch with the fly multiple times through the drift. The trick is to allow small amounts of slack to the fly — just inches — before regaining perfect contact and control.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing — Not All That Tight

Slipping contact is not possible with a rig that is heavily over-weighted, because you can’t get out of touch for long enough. But it’s also not possible with a rig that is very lightly weighted, because you can’t always get in touch for long enough, without accidentally moving the nymph.

Guiding the flies is a perfect match for slipping contact. And by finding just the right weight for each piece of water, we can be in touch, out of touch, then back in, multiple times through a long drift.

Feel or Sight?

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing — How Much of This Is Feel?

However you choose to bring the flies downstream (leading, tracking or guiding), contact and control all starts by reading the sighter. Yes, with heavier weights and a bottom bumping approach, we may also feel the weight touch the riverbed. But even if that contact is felt, it is also seen at the sighter.

So, watch the sighter and learn to read everything it shows you. Manipulate the tension on the sighter to introduce a touch of slack and slip contact. Then watch for the sighter to tighten, pause, twist or hesitate. Look for anything unusual or unexpected and set the hook. That’s the next step in this series of nine essential skills for tight line and euro nymphing — the strike.

Fish hard, friends.

** Next up is the Eighth skill for tight line and euro nymphing — The Strike. **

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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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What do you think?

Be part of the Troutbitten community of ideas.
Be helpful. And be nice.


  1. Love your articles they are great and if you can present a drawing of the presentation that that you are talking about would be awesome. If you could put together a drawing of what you are talking about in your articles seeing it displayed in a format drawing is like a thousand words. Otherwise it’s hard to fathom the techniques when reading than actually seeing it in action.

    • Hi Peter,

      I’m with you. Illustrations are a great teaching tool. That’s why there are about 60-70 illustrations already, just in the pages about nymph fishing alone. So what you ask for is here at Troutbitten already. The above article has about 25 links, and I take the time to add those to help people navigate through the site and the information. As always, I encourage everyone to follow those links in the articles. There are links that have those diagrams that you’re looking for. Like this one:


      and this one:


      I don’t repeat those images in every post that I talk about the strike zone, for example. In part, that’s because of the way pages need to load quickly and not be overwhelmed with image files. But also, because the information is there, if you follow the links.

      In truth, this is one of the struggles — getting people to see this as a vast resource of connecting information and not just one article at a time. I get it, I know that it’s an uncommon approach these days. But that’s the heart of Troutbitten — the depth that’s contained here. So I invite everyone to dig in!

      Cheers. And thanks for reading.


  2. Hi Dom. Thanks for defining the differences between leading, tracking, and guiding. After careful reading of each term, I suddenly came to realize, that I had been using all three techniques dependent on the weight of my nymphs, and river conditions, but not knowing the terminology behind them . Reading this article helps me to visualize, and be able to fine tune, and practice these skills with even more awareness. Thanks!

    • Nice, Frank. That’s the idea. I think many anglers do use all three, day to day. I find myself but doing each of them more intentionally, and fishing better because of it.


  3. I hope that River’s cotton (the “death cloth”) neckerchief doesn’t chill him when it is wet. Maybe your wife could make him one out of Merino wool which might not be as likely to chill him. He is a beautiful animal!

    • Hi Mike,

      If it adds any chill, I think he actually likes that this summer.


  4. Great read as always. And I completely agree with being more deliberate (with techniques) certainly catches more fish. The hardest part for me was finding that “just right weight”. I found that the biggest mistake I would make was simply not making enough adjustments when I needed to. I have found myself relying on a drop shot rig in lots of situations, from deep to shallow, but mainly in moderate to fast water. I also use tungsten putty often. Start with a set split shot and add or subtract the putty as needed.

    Its awesome to see so many fishing pics with your kids as well. I got my 4yr old her first rod recently and has landed a few trout on it already! Makes a heart happy. Thank you again for your writing!


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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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