Fly Distance — What You’re Missing by Following FIPS Competition Rules — Part Three

by | Dec 7, 2022 | 14 comments

** Note ** This is Part Three of a Troutbitten short series about what tight line anglers might be missing by following competition rules. You can find parts one and two here:
What you’re missing by following FIPS competition rules — Part One
What you’re missing by following FIPS competition rules — Part Two

In recent years, the fly fishing industry has built a bank of knowledge and a category of gear around euro nymphing, which is fairly described as fly fishing under FIPS competition rules. This is odd, because the vast majority of anglers who are interested in tight line tactics also have no interest in competitions. And yet, the gear they are offered, the gear they are led to, is very much designed and specialized around a strict set of rules. The gear is built for competitive anglers. Truly, it is made to accommodate and work around a strange set of limits and rules that govern leader design.

I’d estimate that well over half of what I do on the water with a tight line system would not fall under competition-legal standards.

What I call the Troutbitten Mono Rig is a hybrid system for fly fishing with a long leader, using solid fly casting fundamentals to bring the tight line advantage to nymphs with and without an indicator, to streamers, to dry-dropper rigs and sometimes even pure dries.

That Troutbitten Standard Mono Rig is too long to be comp legal. I also (sometimes) attach things to it like a Backing Barrel, an indicator, supplemental split shot or a drop shot. None of that is comp legal either. I also routinely fish two flies much closer than FIPS rules would allow for.

Why? Because the versatility that I enjoy in my approach is fun. Because many of these adjustments are better suited for the moment, and because these rig modifications simply catch more trout. I’m not beholden to any set of rules other than what my state’s fish commission dictates. So I choose what works best — almost always.

Photo by Josh Darling

So Then . . .

The purpose of this Troutbitten short series is to highlight the FIPS rule restrictions that limit tackle and technique. It’s also intended to show how those limitations affect an average angler, who often fishes under competition rules without ever knowing it.

One important point: This article series should not be read as an opinion against competition fly fishing. Sure, I’ve made it clear before that competing while fishing is not for me. But I have respect for anyone out there, in any style, putting in the time, fishing hard and enjoying themselves on the water. Do your thing.

Instead, this Troutbitten short series is intended to point out the shortcomings and limitations of a set of rules that few people seem to talk about. I’ve even heard it argued that these rules help anglers catch more trout. But I will argue strongly against that notion, as limitations rarely lend an advantage.

To recap, Part One focused on a FIPS rule that disallows anything attached to the leader but the flies themselves. This rule drastically limits a fly angler’s ability to adjust to many common situations on the water.

Part Two focused on the FIPS leader-length restriction and how that limit dramatically changes the options for leader formulas.

The FIPS leader rules begin what I call a downward spiral of adjustment — of concessions and compensations in other parts of the leader, in the flies, and in the presentations. The end result absolutely catches trout. But these rules and adjustments box the angler into a narrow set of tactics while using a tight line. And these limitations just aren’t necessary unless you are a competition angler.

Now let’s get to part three . . .

THREE: The Distance Between Flies

Competition rules dictate the minimum distance between flies as 50 cm. That’s roughly 20 inches. (Article 29)

I remember first placing my nymphs about two feet apart because that’s what Joe Humphreys recommended. You gotta start somewhere, and I didn’t question Hump’s wisdom for many years, not until I developed my own confidence to solve my own river problems.

The point is, twenty inches or so is a great distance of separation for a pair of nymphs, and it’s what I still choose most often. But there are many times in each season when I’d rather fish a pair of nymphs at half that distance, simply because it provides a greater advantage.

Here’s why . . .

Upper and Lower

Quick question: when fishing anything under the surface, what are you most in touch with?

My answer . . .

You are most in touch with the heaviest thing on your line. This makes sense when you think of a tight line system. And if you’ve fished much with these rigs, you can feel that control, that contact, directly with the heavier nymphs, with the split shot, with the drop shot or with the streamer. You are most in touch and most in control of the heaviest thing down there, and anything lighter is very much along for the ride.

With that in mind, consider why the most common configuration for two nymphs in a modern nymphing rig is with the heaviest fly at the point. Let’s say you are fishing a larger, heavy fly and a smaller, light one. By putting the light fly on a tag twenty inches above the heavier one, you are in-touch with the light fly on your way to the heavier fly.

This rig choice absolutely provides the best strike detection and the most control over the whole system. It also allows for two flies to effectively and predictably fish two levels.

Now let’s do the opposite. Extend the tippet a bit by tying another twenty-inch length to the end, right where the heavy fly was. Leave a tag and tie the heavy fly to it. That heavy fly will ride in the same position, near the bottom of the river. But now, clip the lighter fly from that upper tag and tie it to the point position, twenty inches further away from the heavy fly, from you and your rod tip.

With the light fly on the point like this, we are no longer in perfect contact with the light fly. Instead, it is on a twenty inch leash. It is somewhere in a twenty inch radius of the heavy fly. In reality, the fish that eats the light fly needs to move the heavy fly for us to register a take — because, remember, we are always in touch with the heaviest thing on the line.

That can be okay, but . . .

The Problems

With the above scenarios laid out, our issues with limiting the distance between flies to a minimum of twenty inches start to become apparent.

In the first scenario, I might want the lighter fly (up top on a tag), riding closer to the same depth as the bottom fly. And by riding that tag only ten or twelve inches up, I can keep the top fly much closer to the strike zone. It simply rides lower than if it was spaced twenty inches from the point fly.

This becomes especially important during a third of the year, when trout in cold water hold low and feed low, usually unwilling to rise to a nymph that is out of the strike zone. At those times, riding a smaller fly twenty inches up is a wasted effort.

So then, why not ride the smaller fly as the point? That way, the heavier fly does the job of getting both flies down, and the smaller fly can ride through the same strike zone as its heavier counterpart. This is a fine solution, but do you remember that twenty inch leash? In the complex currents of a river, being twenty inches away most often puts two nymphs in a different current seam. They might both be in the strike zone, but they too often drift in different lanes. So the presentation of the light fly suffers greatly. We like to think that it is tracking along behind the heavier fly, but my testing repeatedly shows that this is not the case.

So what’s the solution?

Keep the flies closer together. Again, try ten or twelve inches, from the heavy fly to the trailing light fly. You have a much greater chance of keeping everything in one lane or seam, and strike detection is greatly improved.

This, of course, is not permitted under competition rules, but it is absolutely the best solution.

What This Rule Does to the Flies and Everything Else

Good anglers, competition or otherwise, understand the problems at hand with the twenty inch restriction. So they begin to accommodate . . .

A common solution is to fish one fly. There are good arguments to be made for fishing one fly in thin water with spooky trout or generally technical water with the most complex seams. But the truth is, a two nymph approach catches more trout under general conditions — if the setup is good. And sometimes, that setup means keeping the flies closer together than twenty inches.

Anglers who choose to fish one fly and who won’t use supplemental weight (split shot or drop shot) must now pack all the weight necessary into a tungsten bead and some lead wraps. But what if trout aren’t eating bigger flies? The most you can get out of a 2.5mm beadhead and some lead wraps is about 20 centigrams. So how can you get that 20 cg to the bottom? Use lighter tippet. Some anglers will also turn to a thinner leader, thinking to avoid line sag at a few extra feet, because a thicker leader weighs more than the fly does, and something must be sacrificed.

That’s the downward spiral . . .

Here’s the easier solution: Use the fly that fish are eating, and employ a little extra weight on the leader if necessary. Or . . . fish two weighted flies closer together.

Get This

For every angler, it is critical to understand what makes your fishing system work.

And for the tight line and euro nymphing angler, it is these three things:

  • The elimination of a traditional fly line (removing sag and drag)
  • Using a sighter to show you everything about what is happening below
  • Limiting the diameters of tippet under the water

Note, it is not the flies themselves or the lack of split shot, it is not the leader length and it is not the distance of twenty inches between flies. None of that is critical to success. In fact, those restrictions actually limit our available tactics. They hamstring the angler from adjusting freely for the conditions and meeting trout at every bend.

I’ll finish with this . . .

If you choose to fish under FIPS rules, I encourage you to do so by choice, with your eyes wide open and for good reason. Maybe you like to compete or you plan to someday, so you want to practice within those restrictions. But if not, then take a fresh look at why you are choosing your flies, your leaders, your fly rods and your tactics. And be sure that you’ve thought through both the benefits and the consequences inherent.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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14 Comments

  1. I fish small, hydrodynamic flies on point below a weighted tag fly about 80% of the time. Works great if they’re close (~30cm) together, and has minimal impact on strike detection (I rely on the sighter more than feel) unless you’re fishing in really complex currents.

    I also like a weighted nymph on a tag ahead of streamers – it’s essentially like using shot, but I’ve had fish follow the streamer and take the nymph when I’ve dropped it back and let the flies flow downstream. It also keeps the streamer (just) below the surface.

    Reply
  2. Very interesting article! Most recently I have been fishing a larger bead nymph on the tag with a smaller beaded nymph at the point. I’ve been catching fish mostly in the lighter and smaller point fly, but not with overwhelming numbers. I’ll be on the water in a couple hours and bring the flies closer together and play with their relative position.

    Reply
    • LOL. Gave it a try and today was the first skunked day in a while!

      Reply
        • I’ll be back out on the water after this next storm cycle. I like the idea of shortening the distance between flies; not sure what was up.

          Reply
  3. Dom,

    I really appreciate this series. I find the competition aspect interesting, but not compelling. I appreciate some of the advances that have resulted in the sport and gleefully embrace anything that helps me be more effective.

    That being said, I fully resonate with you and the Troutbitten crew on being a versatile angler. I will be fishing all winter this year, for the first time, and will be using what I have learned on this website, the podcasts and your YouTube videos to ensure that not only am I doing what makes me a better human…I am being a more versatile and successful angler at the same time.

    Thanks for all you and the crew do for us out here on the water.
    Mike

    Reply
  4. You make (and have made for a long time) a compelling argument about versatility. As you doubtless know, many comp anglers bring several rods with them to a competition, rods set up for nymphs, dried, and streamers. Like you, I don’t find that to be a particularly savory idea.

    However, as you say, competitive angling has brought many innovations to our sport. What I find most interesting about the comp scene is that it s a way to make success in our sport slightly more objective than the usual “the fly of the day was . . . ” Over time, anglers and techniques that bring in fish will be selected, and ones that don’t work as well will be discarded (or course, culture tends to generate fads and trends, so this tendency needs to be considered as well).

    Now, for a thought experiment. Imagine a comp that lasts for one year and is restricted to nymphing. Now, imagine two copies of the same angler, one who fishes by FIPS rules, the other who can use split shot, indicators, etc. The former nymphs with a micro leader and the latter with your mono rig. They fish once a week for a year in many different kinds of streams without changing types of rigs. Who do you think would win the comp, and why?

    Reply
  5. Hey Alex,

    You knew that question would draw me out, didn’t you. 🙂

    Two things:

    First, I believe the comp scene has added more restrictions and limitations than innovations. That’s really a large point of this series. The average angler into tight line tactics is now MUCH more limited in tactics and by their gear than I’ve ever seen before. And when someone shows them all the other great stuff that can be done with a tight line system, they’re often happy and amazed at how well it all works.

    What you are probably considering innovations, I would call restrictions.

    Second, in your year-long scenario, given that each angler is of equal skill and completely understand the possibilities and limitations of their own system, the Mono Rig would win by a wide margin every time. That’s simply because of everything I mentioned in the first part. Limitations and restrictions just handicap success. Nothing beats versatility, especially over the long haul.

    Great stuff, as always, Alex.

    Cheers.
    Dom

    Reply
    • I’ll add my $0.02 here… Competition rules are aimed at trying to even the playing field on equipment and techniques to try and measure who is the best angler on each competition day, controlling as many factors as possible that might help a ‘lucky’ angler rather than a skillful one.

      Over a longer time scale, you don’t need to control as many factors and most of the rules wouldn’t be necessary to try and do this to measure who the best angler is – the ‘luck’ factor would even out over multiple fishing days through multiple seasons/conditions.

      Speaking of versatility, something I don’t think has been acknowledged is that there’s an imaginary limit to how versatile one needs to be.

      Reply
      • Fair thoughts. I’m not sure how limiting the things discussed in parts one, two or three will help control any factors that make an angler “lucky.” It’s all about leader restrictions. In my opinion, what the FIPS rules have tried to do is keep things “fly fishing.” But of course, anglers are good at finding ways around all that, and they are further away from their intentions than ever.

        For the record, I couldn’t care less who the “best” angler is. I sincerely don’t care about all that, because I don’t think it can be judged much anyway. Your goals are different than mine. My experience and desires and opportunities are different, etc., which is why I’m not a competition proponent for fishing anyway.

        Lastly, you said:
        “something I don’t think has been acknowledged is that there’s an imaginary limit to how versatile one needs to be.”

        It’s not imaginary. It’s a limit that each of us choices for ourselves. I fished the same rig, the same water type and the same handful of flies for five years — never cared to be versatile. Now . . . I change up all the time. That’s my choice.

        Cheers.
        Dom

        Reply
  6. Great answer, as I was expecting. However, I must add one thing: restrictions don’t always constrain freedom; they can enhance it. For example, chess has more restrictions (i.e., rules) than checkers, but, because of them, it offers players many more degrees of freedom than checkers. Ditto playing tennis with a net as opposed to without one. What’s interesting is what kinds of restrictions enhance freedom and which squelch it.

    And, btw, thanks for answering twice. It makes me feel important.

    Reply
    • Ha. Nice. I hit the button twice.

      Interesting point about chess. But I see chess as there being MANY more opportunities, because there are different pieces with various movements/abilities/advantages, right? So that’s not a restriction at all. Checkers is the game that is restricted — half the spaces being used, and all pieces doing the same thing.

      I don’t think I have to make the analogy to tight line varieties there . . .

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply

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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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