The Backing Barrel Might Be The Best Sighter Ever

by | Oct 8, 2021 | 21 comments

** Note ** This article is a full re-write of a previous article titled, The Backing Barrel. Now, many years later, new ideas and new materials deserve a fresh look.

— — — — — —

A simple piece of Dacron, tied in a barrel, is a visible and sensitive addition to your tight line and euro nymphing rig. The versatile Backing Barrel serves as a stand-alone sighter, especially when tied with a one-inch tag. Better yet, it draws your eyes to the colored monofilament of any sighter and enhances visibility threefold. The Backing Barrel adds a third dimension of strike detection, with the Dacron flag just stiff enough to stand away from the line but just soft enough to twitch upon even the most subtle takes.

READ: Troutbitten | See Beyond the Sighter

Better Than Tag Ends and Bunny Ears?

For many years, it’s been common practice to leave the tag ends of colored monofilament unclipped on the sighter, or more accurately, clipped at about one-inch in length. Some anglers even add more knots to the sighter in the ongoing effort to improve that elusive visibility of the colored lines in our rig that we try so hard to see.

These tags, sometimes called bunny ears, are a modest improvement. But they come with a cost. The stiff tags tend to catch the tippet while casting. And the more tags you have, the more tangles come your way. Instead, a single Backing Barrel with a one inch tag, tied somewhere in the middle of the sighter, catches the tippet far less, simply because it is softer.

The Dacron is thicker and brighter, and it’s much more visible than a piece of monofilament. When added to the straight sighter, it’s a wonderful tool.

So why doesn’t everyone recommend something like the Backing Barrel?

Because it’s not competition legal. And almost everything written and taught about tight line nymphing is center-focused on euro nymphing styles that follow FIPS competition rules, where nothing may be attached to the leader but the flies themselves.

READ: Troutbitten | What You’re Missing By Following  FIPS Competition Rules — Part One
READ: Troutbitten | What You’re Missing By Following  FIPS Competition Rules — Part Two: Leader Restrictions

These kinds of restrictions are an unnecessary handicap for every angler. And only a small fraction of fly anglers — those who compete — need follow such rules.

What About that Wax?

Seeing a straight sighter is a common problem. So the always-resourceful-and-creative angling public has come up with solutions for many years. The latest trend is Skafars Wax. It’s a neon paste or wax that can be applied to any tippet, where it sticks until it’s wiped off. This idea sprouted from the competition scene because, again, anything attached like the Backing Barrel is not permitted.

I’ve used Skafars Wax. It certainly makes monofilament more visible. But it’s nothing like the Backing Barrel, which is not only more visible but adds the third dimension of strike detection. The wax that I used was also not temperature stable, so it was too warm and pasty in the summer and too hard in the winter.

In short, the Backing Barrel is a better solution for me.

Origins and the How-To

I took the idea for the Backing Barrel from the gear fishing world, where carp and bass fishermen sometimes use pieces of string to mark their lines for depth.

I use 20#, orange Dacron backing attached with a sliding stopper knot. It’s really nothing more than a Uni Knot.

The Backing Barrel

Illustrations by Dick Jones

Sometimes I clip the tags close, leaving just the barrel. But most times I leave the up tag hanging like a flag, for even more feedback about the drift. That short tag changes everything. It draws my eyes to the straight sighter and shows up in almost any light conditions. And as I drift the flies through a seam, the small tag twitches, jiggles and rotates, providing unique feedback about the flies below.

** Note ** You must tie the barrel TIGHT. Don’t be a sissy. Grab one end with your forceps and the other end with your teeth, then pull until  very tight. 

Not Just Any Backing

I’d like to tell you that any backing will do. And, in truth, the fact that most fly line backing is not up to the job is what has kept the Backing Barrel an underground industry solution.

I use 20#, orange Dacron backing for my barrels. Gudebrod is my favorite, because it is crazy bright and because the weave is very tight. Importantly, then, it does not fray. Almost every other backing frays over just a few hours of fishing. So you no longer have a tag, but a fluffy piece of shredded Dacron instead. However . . . Alex Argyros pointed out that you can make any Dacron backing work if you singe the end with a lighter. That’s a neat trick — it works.

And now the sad thing: Gudebrod went out of business, and their backing is very hard to find.

But . . . my friend, Jeff, found that Orvis Dacron is nearly the same as the Gudebrod. The backing does not fray, because the weave is tight — just like the Gudebrod. I have a spool of the Orvis backing now. But I feel compelled to mention that I also have an older spool of Orvis backing, and it is not the same. It frays like the rest.

Does It Add Weight / Cause Sag?

Tight liners are often obsessed with the weights and measures of their rigs and anything attached to it.

READ: Troutbitten | Know Your Weights and Measures

So it’s fair to be skeptical of the added weight of a piece of 20# Dacron. I’ve had a few anglers tell me that the Backing Barrel causes line sag. But I disagree. Let’s quickly look at the facts.

20# Gudebrod is just under twice the weight of 1X Rio Bi Color Sighter material.

Almost twice as heavy? That sounds bad. But hold on. We’re talking about a 1.25 inch piece of Dacron here. When the barrel is tied and the flag is trimmed, that’s a very short length of Dacron that we’ve added to the line. And it’s equal in weight to 2.5 inches of 1X mono. So, in truth, the Backing Barrel adds the equivalent sag of casting 2.5 inches further away without the barrel. Seriously, that’s it. What about water weight? Well, I didn’t take the time to calculate that, and I’m not sure how I could. But, sure, the Backing Barrel can gather a tiny amount of water and add to its weight. I’d guess that it might not even register a difference on my gram scale.  But if any of that bothers you, then don’t use a Backing Barrel.

I use a Backing Barrel with Troutbitten Thin and Micro Thin leaders all the time, and there is no noticeable sag.

The Bonus Feature — A Slidable Stopper

I also use the Backing Barrel as a knot that I can slide and move. When tied tight, the barrel holds snug on nylon or fluorocarbon material and only moves if I purposely slide it. I often mount a backing barrel on a portion of my tippet while dry-dropper fishing.  Then I add a dropper loop of mono around the standing line, above the barrel. When I want to adjust the rig for depth, I simply slide the barrel and tag up or down, creating a slidable dry-dropper system.

The backing barrel is also a key element of the slidable Thingamabobber rig that I use often. Someday, I’ll dedicated a post for that excellent hack.

Backing Barrel with no tags. Put this anywhere, for visibility or for a slidable stopper.

A Sighter for Your Sighter

I fished a tight line nymphing system for many years without a sighter. Instead, I relied on the end of the fly line to indicate strikes. Sometimes, I added small orange sleeves along the leader to serve as a visual cue for where my leader was, and I suppose that was my first sighter.

But when the popularity of euro nymphing hit, the biggest game changer for me was the addition of a colored piece of line before the tippet section in the leader. Why weren’t we all doing this before? I wondered. Because a visible sighter shows everything: depth, angle, speed, strike detection and more.

Then I quickly realized what everyone does — that seeing the sighter was too challenging, too often.

The Backing Barrel changes all of that. And with a short piece of Dacron tied in a series of barrels, the visibility and strike detection is unmatched.

Fish hard, friends.


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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. Great write up Dom. And perfect timing as well. Here is my issue. At times, based on light and sun positioning, I’m having a terrible time seeing my sighter material and my barrel tag when casting directly up stream. Meaning at 0 degrees, straight up stream. It’s not an issue once I start casting up and out. I am a former fan of New Zealand wool indicators. Could I add some wool in the area of my tag sighter? I’m not wanting to let the wool ride on the water, just on the sighter material or even on the leader further up. Do you ever experience this ‘straight up stream’ issue and the inability to find the sighter? Any thoughts are appreciated. John

    • Hello John,

      Thanks for the question. I seem to talk about this with my guests almost every day. Most people seem to accept what angle they are looking into. But I recommend choosing angles that allow you to see better. If you can’t see even the Backing Barrel with your sighter, then I’m certain you can’t see past the highlights on the water to see what lies below either. That’s a very big disadvantage. But by looking carefully, you’ll notice that by changing your angle even fifteen degrees, you will find a sight angle that works well. It’s always there. It might be only left, up and across — or the opposite. But whatever it is, move your body so you can look into the water. You’ll see your sighter too.

      Here’s an article that covers this:

      Lastly, I don’t recommend adding wool or even the yarn that I use for the Dorsey. (It’s lighter). Any yarn catches the breeze too much and affects the drift. Yes, it’s extremely light, but it’s still adding resistance to the sighter. I think if you try it, you’ll sense what I mean. And again, it’s really not necessary, if you choose your sight angle as described in that article.

      Make sense?


      • Thanks for your response and insight…….JJ

  2. Dom, thanks for sharing. Another option I like to use for preventing fraying is tying an overhand knot on the tag and clipping at the end. Maybe it’s just me, but that extra touch of weight at the end makes strikes a little easier to detect too.

    • Without a doubt the best sighter I’ve come across. Sometimes it slumps over but Ive learned to compensate. I might try a touch of expoxy or uv resin at the base of the single ear

      • Hi Jack. Thanks for the comment. If you haven’t yet, try the Orvis backing, if it’s the same as the Gudebrod, then it is stuff enough not to slump over. Also, you could try 30# instead of 20#.


  3. I learned about a backing barrel sighter from you and it has added a lot to my fishing. Thank you. An additional benefit of the backing barrel is that is really good at conveying useful information when drop shotting. The nervous twitches of the sighter tell you you’re on the bottom, and, in addition, suggest what kind of bottom it is. You can frequently feel the bottom when drop shotting, but seeing and feeling is better than either one alone.

    • Good points, Alex. That jiggle and twitch is very different when you have what I call the third dimension of the sighter. Gotta love it. Thanks again for the idea to singe the end too.


  4. Great update! Thanks. I’ve been using your backing barrel concept for a couple of years now with great success. BTW, we met last last month on that crazy day when the whole region flooded. We were trying to put a name to this: Hareline’s Cautery Tool, which can certainly singe the ends of the backing barrel (or trim loose pieces of thread on flies or perhaps errant nose hairs…).

  5. The only point I couldn’t find was where on the sighter you tie the backing barrel…at the top, middle, bottom, it depends?

    • Hello Gene,

      There is no rule there. Put it wherever you see it best. Or put it where it works best for you. Remember too, that the barrel is slidable. Tie it tight — very snug. But then slide it up or down to try different positions.

      I keep mine mostly in the middle.

      But also understand that I use the barrel as a sliding stopper knot, sometimes down on my tippet. I also use the barrel with a flag on a streamer rig, sometimes just three feet up from my fly, to give me a very visible reference and some idea about where the streamer is below and what it’s doing.

      The decisions are yours.


  6. The sublime backing barrel, simple yet functional and versatile what could be better.

    When fishing in variable dappled on stream lighting conditions I sometimes use two one fluorescent orange the other bright green. They add little weight but enhance visibility almost to perfection.

    Way to go. Thank you for the article Dom.

  7. I’ve come to relying on a backing barrel sighter so much that I can’t really imagine not using one (for underwater flies of course). I’m a big fan of low-tech, simple, easy, and low-cost tips & tricks, and this is pretty much the epitome of such things, especially for the high-impact effect.


  8. Way cool. When I first started using your backing barrel while figuring out how to euro nymph, I got tired with sighter construction in general. I thought, There has to be a simpler way. Then I read about your backing barrel about a year ago, and I thought why not just tie two of those above the tippet right on either end of the two-tone sighter. In time, I just left the sighter off entirely, kept the tippet rings, and added two more backing barrels to give me four total spread out 18 inches. Works great. But I leave the tags off cuz they tend to catch the tippet.

    Now here’s my question for you: Where do I find white backing material that is bright? I want to experiment with a two tone barrel backing, half orange and half white. Maybe standard white backing is the answer, but it looks opaque. And I want to avoid wax, but I should start experimenting with that.

  9. Hi Dom,

    I can’t thank you enough for everything you have taught me (us) on TroutBitten. Is there anything not to love about fishing the mono rig?

    Out of curiosity, what percentage of your time spent fishing do you utilize the backing barrel sighter?

    • Hi there.

      Thank you. That’s very nice.

      I do love everything about the Mono Rig. But as you know, I build mine for versatility. I use other formulas, but they often leave me wanting and needing more. However, I’m the kind of angler that wants everything — right now. I don’t want to spend much time changing things. I’ve found my system withe what I call the standard Mono Rig.

      To answer your question: I always have a Backing Barrel or two on my Mono Rig. Always.


  10. Dom,

    This is a question that is somewhat off-topic. Having never seen you fish, I was wondering if the way you nymph with the Mono Rig resembles the way Joe Humphreys fishes his nymphs. It seems to me that there are many similarities (a preference for upstream casts, the tuck cast, etc.), but I’m not sure if you use your sighter the way Joe uses his fly line to indicate takes. BTW, I’m not talking about using beadhead flies or not, using split shot, etc. I’m just talking about the way you cast and monitor your drift while nymphing.


    • Hi Alex,

      So I’ve never spent time fishing with Joe Humphreys, and I can’t tell you exactly how he fishes. But I can surely say that my approach the the river comes from his teachings. Upstream (and over ten to twelve feet) to stay behind the fish and keep everything in one lane. Tuck cast to control the entry of not just the fly, but the tippet as well. I do feel like I point that out so often on Troutbitten, because, in truth, there’s no better way to nymph. And I’ve tried all the other ways. This is the way to keep nymphs in one seam from the beginning. Casting across crosses seams = no true dead drift. And the tuck cast is sorely misunderstood and underutilized, I think because it’s difficult to master. But to me, it’s critical.

      I’ve pointed this out in articles before, but the tuck cast and this approach is precisely why I prefer the standard Mono Rig leader. The trend to go thinner and thinner takes a LOT of power away from the tuck. So the fly enters with contact much more often. I daresay going thinner is a quicker route to success than getting a handle on a good tuck. But, in my opinion, the tuck cast provides a better delivery and far more versatility.

      Make sense?


  11. That makes a lot of sense.

    One of the things I was getting at concerns where the sighter is during the drift. Watching videos of Joe Humphreys, I notice that he uses his fly line like we use a sighter, except that he keeps his fly line fairly high off the water. I have always fished like that: cast upstream with a tuck, and keep my sighter considerably above the water. Most of my Euro friends fish quite differently. They cast across (you’ve already discussed that), and they keep their sighter essentially right above the water surface.

    I like keeping my sighter high because I can make adjustments, but, more importantly for me, because I can see it tighten when the flies are in the strike zone, and I can see it twitch to indicate a strike better than when it’s at the water’s surface.

    I was wondering what your thoughts are about where the sighter should be after an upstream tuck cast.


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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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