Q&A: Can I Dead Drift the Nymphs Without Contact?

by | Aug 6, 2023 | 5 comments

Last week, I published an article about the three ways to aim for a dead drift underneath the water. I’ve had some really in-depth comments and reactions come in across the channels. There are a lot of you out there who love the detailed game of nymphing.

Here’s a question that I received a few times about the topic . . .



I love what Troutbitten is doing with the podcasts and videos. But I’ll admit, I still look forward to your technical articles the most, because no other medium allows for such details.

Your latest piece about three ways to dead drift nymphs has me thinking a lot. I’ve been out there fishing twice since I read it, and I have some feedback, some thoughts and a question.

I learned to Euro nymph about a year ago. I hired a guide, and we fished the Truckee River. My guide was insistent that I should be OUT of touch with the nymphs. It was very hard for me, but everything was hard that day (HA), because it was all new.

Knowing that what you and others teach about nymphing runs counter to that, I asked my guide why. Why be out of touch with the nymphs? Wouldn’t that limit strike detection, and wouldn’t extra tippet get caught up in other currents of water?

His answer was this: “If you are in contact with the nymph, it won’t look natural, because it can’t move naturally. Leading the fly is bad because it just drags the fly along,” he said.

I spent most of that day not having much confidence in where my nymph was. But I learned a lot, and my guide was knowledgeable. Since then, I’ve gotten better at Euro nymphing, and I catch trout on most trips. Sometimes I even catch a lot! But I will say, most of my success comes when I feel like I am in control of the flies and when I do have contact. So I tend to use heavier weights as time goes by, because I like the results. Meaning, I catch more fish!

But am I doing this wrong? From your article it sounds like I probably aim for strike zone rides the most and end up bottom bouncing a bit.

Thank you for the Troutbitten resource.

Tight lines,
Paul Kline


Thanks, Paul.

While I agree that too much contact or too much influence over the nymph can look unnatural, I disagree that being out of contact is the best approach. I often do what we call slipping contact, where we try to ride the line between contact and influence vs no contact and less influence.

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

But, as all of this applies to the article in question, it’s important to understand that you cannot fish a nymph without influencing the fly. Here’s what I mean . . .

The idea that you can be out of touch with your nymph, allowing it to drop and then drift without any angler influence is another myth in fly fishing. It likely comes from mistakenly bringing over dry fly fishing concepts and applying them under the water.

When weight enters the equation, everything changes. With a dry fly riding the surface, we can see it travel with the current with no effect from the attached line, if we provide slack to the dry in all the right ways. And for a dead drifted dry fly, that’s the objective.

However, achieving the same goal on a nymph — a dead drift — is impossible to do in the same way with the same strategies. In even mildly mixed currents, extra and uncontrolled slack gets pulled across currents and among the three-dimensional movements of a river. So we try to stay tight, or close to it, to keep extra tippet out of the water instead of under the water. And whatever must be under the water, we keep it in one lane. This is the tight line advantage.

I’ve written about all of this often and published a video on the differences in achieving real dead drifts up top and underneath.

VIDEO: Troutbitten | Real Dead Drifts — Up Top and Underneath

Photo by Bill Dell

All that is to say that we always have influence over our nymph, whether we like it or not. And there are two reasons for that.

First, remember, the attached tippet is also in the river. And it is always being influenced by various current speeds.

Second, our nymphs, and anything else fished underneath, must be fished with weight. Whether it’s a tungsten bead or a split shot, weight drops. It wants to pull the nymph down. And for even the lightest nymph, being tied to a tippet is the only thing that keeps it from sinking immediately and landing on the riverbed.

To prove this, take a random, visible nymph, with light weight and toss it into two feet of clear water (no tippet attached). If you can track it, you’ll see the fly touch the bottom in just a second or two. In the fastest water, the nymph still makes it to the bottom quickly. Also, in the deepest water, the nymph still makes it to the bottom quickly. Because, without influence from the tippet, the nymph simply drops. Sure, it travels with the current a bit, but even a seven centigram fly — a #18 beadhead in my box — drops to the bottom if no tippet is attached. And there is no drift — no time when it is moving along in just one layer.

READ: Troutbitten | Nymphing: Let It Drop and Then Help It Drift

So, without the attached tippet and without influence from the angler, there is no lengthy travel with the currents — there is no drift on a nymph, and it does not look natural. I think it’s helpful to understand and acknowledge this fact, and then work with it. So understand, it’s our tippet that helps keep the fly moving along and drifting in the river.

We can certainly have less effect on our nymphs — less contact and less deliberate leading. We can do our best to let the river make the decisions about where the nymph goes next. I call this tracking the flies, and it can be a fun, effective way to fish.

It sounds like your guide was teaching you this method — what I call tracking. But in my opinion, he had part of the equation wrong. Because, remember, it’s impossible to have no influence over the fly. We might limit our influence, but the attached line, and the inherent weight necessary to fish nymphs, always demands some kind of responsibility — some kind of contact and control — over the nymphs.

Lastly, I think it’s excellent that you are experimenting and finding success. Choosing more or less weight is the fundamental change in this nymphing game, and you are seeing the benefits of both sides.

As I wrote in the article, having the facility to fish all styles and all methods, makes you a well rounded, versatile angler. It’s a lot of fun out there.

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. Dom, the last podcast I listened to was with your wife. She needs to be a regular on the podcast. She had me laughing hard.

    Also, when flyfishing a double dry. Say a size 16 BWO followed by a size 20 cripple how much tippet from big to small bug? My 2nd bug always passes the first bug and its driving me crazy.

    I’m in Denver Co. Thanks!!

    • Hi Dan.

      Becky is great.

      Double dry: You CANNOT control the positioning of those flies once they are on the water. You are providing slack to the first fly. That’s all you can do. It’s all you can control. That’s one of the downsides of two flies on top, honestly. Because two flies get in two different currents too often and create drag.

      Make sense?

  2. Thanks for another thought-provoking article, Dom. I’ve become quite proficient euro-nymphing and, over the past 3 years, shared my method with several buddies that wanted to catch more fish. When I get to the drift part, I found it helpful to describe what I do as “controlled slack”, i.e., finding the balance between tight contact and no contact. I don’t always achieve it but, when I do, I get a great drift while detecting strikes both visually and tactily (if that’s a word).

  3. Dom,

    I agree with you that using the term “dead drifting” for what we do with nymphs and what we do with dry flies causes a lot of confusion. As you point out it is impossible to truly dead drift a weighted nymph as the weight of the nymph and tippet all can act to move the nymph out of natural currents. Insects trapped in the film, duns and spinners on the surface don’t move against the current hence the need for a true dead drift. However, if you have ever observed a tank full of nymphs, pupae and larvae, they all have the ability to swim through the water column to some extent. So, luckily, a “natural” subsurface presentation does not necessarily mean the nymph has to track the path of neutrally buoyant, inert mass.

    In nymphing, rather than making our nymphs appear “natural,” I think what we are actually doing is trying to get our nymph to ride a specific current at a specific level in the water column for that short period when the nymphs are near to being directly opposite us in the drift. Our objective is really to maximize the time over which our nymph rides the target current since our nymph must always trace an arc from the surface down to the target current and past it, eventually to the bottom. The art to nymphing comes from learning to shape that arc to maximize the time the nymph rides the current that represents the strike zone.

    To this end, I think of the tippet as a suspension device which can be applied along a spectrum running from drifting in contact with the rod tip directly above the nymph (minimum suspension) to floating the sighter (maximum suspension). The more tippet in the water the more suspension and this can be adjusted by altering the lead angle and/or the amount of slack in the tippet, i.e. adjusting contact. Changing either of these variables changes the path your nymphs take through the water column in the same way as adjusting the position of a yarn indicator.

    Like you, my default is to be slipping in and out of contact because it gives the best strike detection and the most precise drift. So to change the amount of suspension, the first thing I adjust is lead angle to alter the amount of tippet in the water rather than slack. Adding slack is kind of a last resort to be used only when I cannot achieve the right presentation when drifting on the edge of contact. For instance, slack becomes necessary if I need to allow currents to carry the nymph under an undercut bank or under tree limbs. There have also been times when fish are feeding on nymphs or pupae near the surface of slow-moving currents and slack applied as a suspension device seems to get many more bites than a dry/dropper or indicator suspending an unweighted or lightly weighted nymph 6” below. I think in this case the slack, in addition to providing maximum suspension, gives the nymph more freedom to ride the currents near the surface than tethering the nymph with only 6” of line to a suspension device.


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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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