We aim for dead drifts on a nymph, but we also aim to be in touch. We want the fly traveling naturally with the currents, but we also desire contact. Good nymphing is a paradox with no perfect resolution.
Dead drifts on a dry fly are a simpler affair. Since the fly weighs nothing, the leader pushes the dry to the target, and a good caster builds slack in the tippet to keep tension off the dry. No tension means no drag. The dry fly drifts dead — uninfluenced by the attached tippet or the attached angler.
But once our target is underwater and the nymph disappears, the paradox begins. Because, to fish below the surface, weight enters the equation . . . and it changes everything.
While a dry fly can roll and glide along with the provided slack, weight wants to keep sinking (be it split shot or a tungsten beadhead). And that constant pull of gravity is what confounds the dead drift goal of every nymphing angler. We wish to allow the nymph to respond freely in the current, to be carried along as perfectly as its sister dry fly, but that ever present, necessary weight, prevents this perfection.
Such is the struggle of nymphing. It’s the contradiction of contact vs freedom of motion.
Why not lean on the side of more slack then? Why not provide s-curves to the nymph just as we lend to the dry? Why not mend slack into the nymphing system?
Because slack below the water, in anything but the slowest currents, spells disaster. Slack underneath gets pulled right, left, up, down and sideways by three-dimensional, complex currents. And, if that weren’t enough trouble, the weight — inherently necessary in every nymphing system — surrenders to gravity when given slack.
A few days on a trout river teaches these hard lessons to every nymphing angler. And for decades, those unwilling to think outside the confines of dry fly philosophy have walked away, shaking their heads about nymphing and sometimes dismissing it altogether, most often because it was misunderstood.
So then, weight in the nymphing game, no matter how slight, inserts the paradox and changes everything.
But tight line principles provide a way out. By eliminating unnecessary slack and providing contact with the nymph (whether that’s tight to the tip of the fly rod or tight to an indicator) a path forward is possible.
It’s a compromise, but the dedicated nymphing angler works through it, learning to lead nymphs just enough to counteract the necessary weight of the system. The angler allows a nymph to fall into position and then works for an equilibrium with the currents that surround the nymph. The good nymphing angler prevents the fly from falling further (and hanging on the bottom) while also being careful not to drag the nymph anywhere outside of its parent seam.
Therefore, good tight line nymphing is a walk on a tightrope. Let the fly sink to the strike zone, and then lead it — help the nymph along — but only enough to keep it from sinking any further to the bottom. Lead too much, and the nymph appears unnatural. Lead too little and the fly sinks and hangs.
This solution, however tenuous the construct, is what I call slipping contact . . .
In touch, but not too much. Slipping contact is the cornerstone concept that reaches to the heart of good tight line nymphing.
READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing — Not All That Tight
Lead a bit, and then let the fly do its thing. Let it drop a little deeper into the pothole, and then keep the nymph coming so it doesn’t hit the lip at the edge. Slipping contact is about intermixing influence with autonomy. Take the fly somewhere — help it glide along. Then surrender it to the current, and let the river make the decisions.
These are brief moments within a drift — seconds at best and more often fractions thereof. With any real weight in the system, slipping out of pure contact for long allows a fly that has already achieved its depth to fall more and inevitably reach the riverbed — where only three things can happen, and two of them aren’t good.
Slipping contact might seem like a magic trick, and for a decade or more, I attempted it with limited success. It wasn’t until I added a sighter to the tight line, Mono Rig, that I finally had the necessary tool for slipping contact, because on the sighter, on that beautiful, visible monofilament, I could read contact.
READ: Troutbitten | Over or Under — Your Best Bet on Weight
READ: Troutbitten | Leading vs Tracking vs Guiding the Flies
Read the Sighter
In the following video titled, Five Keys to Reading the Sighter, I cover slipping contact at the 4:10 minute mark. Take a look . . .
(Select 4K or 1080p to watch the video above in high resolution.)
Read the sighter. Is it taught or is it somewhat slack and a bit nervous? This is how we read the sighter. This is how we slip contact.
Realize that it takes just the slightest movement out of pure contact to provide the nymph some freedom. Small, micro movements and micro slack are all that is necessary.
Too much slack spells disaster under the water, with unwanted drag the result. So slipping contact is the act of being slightly out of touch and then back in. Out, then in — sometimes multiple times throughout the drift.
Last point here. Err on the side of contact, whenever tight line nymphing. These systems — these rigs — are built to maximize the advantage gained by having contact with the nymph. Strike detection is enhanced, control over the flies is maximized and drag is minimized with good contact nymphing principles. So don’t give those up.
Err on the side of contact. But once it’s established, try backing out of contact. Try slipping contact. Give the flies a chance to flow naturally with the surrounding currents. Then gain pure contact again, before the weight in your system takes over. Slip in and out, and find the balance between influence and independence to the fly.
Fish hard, friends.
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T R O U T B I T T E N
The most common (widespread) way to think about nymphing, at least in terms of how it appears in various media and discussion contexts, seems to be that it should be dead-drifted. The second is usually presented as an alternative to that first model — that the nymph can be lifted and dropped, or very slightly jigged. Try the first method, but then if that doesn’t work, try the second, because that could be the key at that particular moment.
It sounds like you’re saying, however, that it’s not a matter of two distinct techniques, but more of a spectrum in which both elements are always at play to different degrees. There’s a difference there, is there not? What is that difference?
In the video, you discuss the tautness of the sighter and its relation to the degree of contact achieved. How does sighter angle play into this relation, if at all?
Two questions, I guess. Thanks again for the great resource provided by you and your crew.
“It sounds like you’re saying, however, that it’s not a matter of two distinct techniques, but more of a spectrum in which both elements are always at play to different degrees.”
Honestly, no, that’s not what I mean. We slip contact in an effort to achieve a dead drift. People seem to miss this, but we MUST influence the flies sometimes, or they will simply fall to the bottom. The idea that a dead drift, underneath, with weight can happen without our influence, is a fallacy. It’s impossible, in my opinion. I walked through this in the intro above. Weight sinks. So we try to find an equilibrium with the current. Help the weight not sink anymore, but don’t drag it around, either.
Hope that makes sense.
Your other question:
“In the video, you discuss the tautness of the sighter and its relation to the degree of contact achieved. How does sighter angle play into this relation, if at all?”
Sighter angle doesn’t matter for slipping contact. Well, not much anyway. Point is, you can slip contact at many different angles.
Thanks for the questions, JP.