Five Keys to Reading the Sighter (with VIDEO)

by | Jan 11, 2023 | 12 comments

Control. Options. Precision. These are the most attractive aspects of fishing a tight line system. This is also why euro nymphing and the Mono Rig continue to gain so much support. Because every angler wants to know where the fly is and choose where it’s going next.

Whether fishing streamers or nymphs on a tight line, there are three things that make any tight line system work, regardless of the leader build. And the most important of those things is the sighter.

That colored line, that reference point, built into the leader shows us everything we need to know about what the flies are doing under the water.

A sighter is more than a strike indicator. It also shows depth, angle, speed and contact. It points to our flies and takes away the guesswork. For an angler who learns to read all of this on the sighter, that colored line above the water provides a most significant advantage to the underwater game.

Take a look at the video. Then read further, because the paragraphs below break down our topic more thoroughly, providing links to companion articles and providing a bigger picture of how to read the sighter.

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A sighter can be built from many materials. I used to carry seven different sighters in my vest: straight mono and furled, braided mono and coiled mono, straight backing, a night sighter built from glow-in-the-dark running line, and a backing barrel.

I rarely carry so many, these days. Because, for me, the Backing Barrel, mounted on a straight length of colored mono, is the most versatile and useful tool I’ve found.

READ: Troutbitten | The Backing Barrel Might Be the Best Sighter Ever
READ: Troutbitten | Sighters: Seven Separate Tools

Incidentally, I build my standard sighter from thicker and stiffer material than is now common among tight liners. There is a good reason for this, and when it makes sense, I extend that standard sighter by adding thinner materials beyond.

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

Five Things

Watching the sighter shows us five key things about what’s going on with our flies under the water. Understanding all of these, and learning to read the sighter for this information, is a critical step to next-level nymphing.

  • Contact
  • Angle
  • Depth
  • Speed
  • Strike Detection

This is the most important thing to read on a sighter. There is no doubt that contact must come before anything else. Because with contact to the flies, we can trust everything that the sighter is showing us.

Without contact, we know nothing (for certain) about the flies underneath.

In your hands is a tight line system. So get tight. Learn to read contact on the sighter. Contact equals control, and it’s the first step to learning everything else.

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

Watch the video above again. Notice how the sighter tightens when it is in contact, but it becomes nervous or goes slack as we back off the contact by even the slightest amount. We call that slipping contact, and it’s another key toward understanding what tight lining really means.

No, we are not in perfect contact all the time, and we should not be. However, gaining contact, knowing where it is or being certain where it is if you WANT it, is the gateway to all four of the other elements in reading the sighter.

Find contact. Know what it looks like, and make the most of the tight line advantage.

Photo by Josh Darling


Here is the next thing to understand. Remember, with contact, we can trust what the sighter is showing us. So when we have contact (or if we’ve just slipped out of it) the sighter points directly to our flies.

We don’t have to guess where the flies are. By reading the sighter for contact and then the angle, we know EXACTLY where they are. If we have four feet of tippet from the end of the sighter to our point fly, we can find that fly by following the angle of the sighter and looking four feet beyond where it is pointing.

Understand, too, we are in control of the angle. Our rod tip dictates the angle and therefore . . the depth.


No matter what kind of fly we’re putting under the water, we’d all like to know how deep it’s riding.

And by first reading the angle, and knowing that our fly is four feet away, we know how deep the fly is below the surface.

On a tight line rig, we’re in control of the depth all the way through the drift. We can simply lift the sighter or create a different angle to adjust the depth.

Many anglers ask me how much I adjust my tippet length throughout the day.

My answer: I do not.

I rarely adjust my tippet length on a fishing trip. I begin the day by using the longest piece of tippet I believe I’ll need to reach the deepest water I’ll encounter. Then I adjust for depth with the height of the sighter off the water and with angles.

READ: Troutbitten | Where Should the Sighter Be?


Just like depth, we’d all like to know how fast our fly is moving through the water. And once again, by being in contact with the sighter, by being in touch with the fly, we can see how fast that fly is going.

Here’s an important point:

While aiming for dead drifts with a nymph on a tight line rig, our job is to simply recover the slack that is given. Cast upstream. Slack forms as the river pushes the rig back downstream, and we should barely keep contact with the flies. That’s our baseline technique — moving the flies very little while being in touch or slipping contact.

As we do this, we look for the sighter to slow down. That tells us the flies have achieved the strike zone, near the bottom. And we know this without ever touching the bottom. Watching for that downshift in the sighter — that slight slowdown — is a necessary skill.

READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone

Strike Detection

The last thing to read on a sighter is probably the first thing most anglers think about — strike detection.

As we’ve seen, the sighter is much more than just a strike indicator. But yes, we read the sighter to indicate when a fish eats the fly.

Set the hook on anything unusual. The longer you fish, the more expectations you’ll have for what the sighter should do. And when you see it do something unexpected, set the hook. That’s how we read the sighter for strike detection.

If it pauses, twitches, jumps, jiggles or straightens out when you don’t expect it to, set the hook!

READ: Troutbitten | Don’t Guess — Set the Hook and Set Hard
READ: Troutbitten | Hook Sets Are Not Free

Wrap It Up

These five keys for reading the sighter open the door to truly successful tight line nymphing. Reading the sighter provides confidence about what the flies are doing below — so much confidence, in fact, that you’ll be satisfied with a good drift even when a trout doesn’t take.

Nobody hungry or nobody home. Either way, you’ll know the drift was good, so you’ll move on without any nagging questions about the drift.

By reading the sighter you know where the flies are and you decide where they’re going next. The sighter is the heart of the system.

Fish hard, friends.

READ: Troutbitten |Series | The Nine Essential Skill of Tight Line and Euro Nymphing

PODCAST: Troutbitten Skill Series | The Nine Essential Skills of Tight Line and Euro Nymphing


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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. Excellent article and accompanying video.

    Here’s a question: if you know that you’ll be primarily nymphing, do you add the “optional” bi or tri color sighter material r to your mono rig sighter?

    • Hey Alex. Thanks for your question. That has to do with how heavy my weight is (flies or shot) and how far away I’m choosing to fish. I add that optional bicolor sighter section and choose its length and diameter to help me gain a few feet with lighter flies and longer setups, when necessary.

      Basically if I feel like leader sag is hurting the drift, I extend the leader, making it lighter and thinner, by simply adding the bicolor.

      Make sense?

    • I really like it when your articles come out on the days I fish! Today I was totally focused on contact. All the other things seem to fall in place after that.

  2. If you fish often and hard using a tight line system, your rod and line will tell you what is going on under the film. You will learn when you get a take or bump along the stream bed. You don’t need a sighter to tell you that.

    • Respectfully, I completely disagree with that. As I mentioned in the video, sure I did that for decades. Then I added a sighter. The difference is night and day. Not sure how that colored line in there could do anything but help the situation. That said, if you’re happy doing what you do, that’s excellent. Keep doing it, and don’t change.

      Enjoy the day.

  3. This is one of the best Troutbitten media empire productions ever. This video is a great addition to the library of written knowledge. Thank you Dom!

  4. I’ve read your articles and watched your videos with great interest , especially this one about reading the “sighter.” However, when you talk about the importance of “contact” I’m assuming you are referring to the contact one’s nymphs are making with the actual stream bed and that is what’s causing the “sighters” to be taught. Am I correct in this assumption?


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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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