** NOTE** This is part of an ongoing Troutbitten series that gives me a chance to answer some of the many questions that I receive. Sometimes these are questions that come up frequently, and other times they’re just great, thought provoking questions. Keep sending them. Thanks, everyone.
I’ve read a good bit of your Streamer Presentations series — maybe all of it — and you’ve mentioned sinking lines a few times. In some of your podcasts with the full crew, you guys talk about different sinking lines and rigs too, but I’ve also seen your material about fishing streamers on a tight line rig. I tend to do the same, but I definitely run into others who think that streamer techniques work much better with a sinking line.
I’d like to ask when you go with a tight line rig and when you go with a sinking line.
Al Rhoden, New Jersey
Thanks for your question, Al. And I agree, it’s probably good to clarify a few things about how I fish streamers.
The Streamer Presentation series that you mentioned is over a dozen articles deep by now. I like to have names for the different looks that I give a streamer, because it keeps me focused. It also helps me remember exactly what I was doing when the trout ate the fly. Then I often repeat it.
If you notice, the Streamer Presentations articles rarely discuss rigs. For the streamer game, I believe success is much more about how you are moving and drifting the streamer rather than the rig itself. And every way we fish streamers — every one of the tactics in the Streamer Presentations series — can be performed on multiple rigs.
My point is, whether we choose a sinking line, a floating line or a tight line, the chosen rig might have just as much to do with personal preference as it does with the technique we’re aiming for.
Water type, river size, whether or not I’m floating or wading the river: these things have the greatest impact on the rig that I choose.
Your question was about sinking line vs tight line, so let me get to that. But let’s first acknowledge that a floating line is another viable option. I probably use it the least with streamers, because I believe these other two rigs do a better job.
This or That
I don’t fish streamers on the surface unless I’m night fishing. And let’s note that all underwater presentations require weight, in some form, to carry the fly underneath.
A sinking line distributes the necessary weight along a length of line. A weighted fly carries the weight with it, either in the head or the body. A split shot is easily added to a leader somewhere above the streamer. Those are our three options, and they can certainly be combined.
Let’s choose a well dressed #4 Wooly Bugger with a medium brass conehead. That’s not much weight in the fly — just enough to help it break the surface and get it down a bit. In four feet of water flowing at a fast walking pace, I need more weight in the system to get the fly down where most trout will be interested. This doesn’t mean I’m aiming for the bottom, but let’s say mid-column and lower is my target zone.
Assume an up and across presentation to the bank. If I choose a tight line rig, I’ll get that fly down and under control with the addition of a couple #1 split shot . Tippet diameter matters too, so let’s call it 1X.
I most often use a Troutbitten Standard Mono Rig. HERE is the link to info on that leader.
Once the fly is in my target zone, I can stall it, strip it or jig it. I can mix in lane changes, slides and glides before letting it fall again. About half way through the drift, I can Head Flip the fly when it’s across from me. And as tension begins to tighten and swing the fly, I can toss in a few more animations, drops and stalls, all at the whim of my rod tip, which usually remains shoulder level or higher, keeping most of the leader out of the water so my options for the next move are open. My presentations remains flexible.
That’s the advantage of a tight line to the streamer. I can do almost anything I want with the fly throughout the drift. I can also shoot the next cast directly across to the bank, drop the rod tip and treat the tight line Mono Rig like a fly line, using the belly of the leader against the current, with a Galloup Jerk Strip to tease that mean-old brown-trout-boss into striking (on a good day).
Again, a tight line system to a streamer gives me full control over the fly. I am literally in contact with the streamer, and I get the same benefits that we all enjoy when tight lining to a nymph. But with a streamer, we’re rarely dead drifting, because the animations we can do with a streamer are what sell the presentation. All of this is a lot of fun. This is why I love fishing tight line to a streamer. This is why I choose it most often.
But there are downsides and compromises. My range is limited. At about thirty-five feet I lose some of that tight line advantage, as more leader meets the water. And beyond about forty-five feet, it’s too much hassle to work the leader to its full advantage. At that distance, I’m usually looking for the power of a fly line to push the cast to the target.
Lucky for me, I enjoy the close game. On our water, and on most trout waters I’ve ever fished, the best success happens within thirty feet. But there are times, there are places, where that simply is not true.
Some anglers would argue there’s another disadvantage with a tight line setup — we cannot fish neutrally buoyant flies very well.
Understand this: a weighted fly is always dropping when paused, or it’s following the split shot downward on the pause. There’s a faction of excellent anglers who believe trout hit a streamer better when it glides and moves straight through the column, rather than falling on the pause, then moving up on the next strip or rod motion, then back down.
I’m not one of those anglers. But I’m not completely sure about it, either. So I remain open to the possibility, and it’s one of the key reasons I do fish a sinking line.
Think about a Zoo Cougar fished on a five foot leader and a moderate sinking line of about three inches per second. Assume the same casting angle as the last scenario.
Because the weight to carry the fly down is in the line, the fly does not sink on a stall or a pause — not much, anyway. Instead, it holds its level. And that’s a real advantage for the angler using a sinking line. Yes, the line may be built to fall at three inches per second, in this case, but with the weight spread out over the line, and with that line likely crossing lanes and various currents, a skilled angler can hold the line depth and therefore the streamer depth much easier than a streamer angler on a tight line setup (usually).
Because the flies we use with sinking lines in this scenario are very light or unweighted, they should move more naturally. They should be more enticing. They should be more convincing and put more trout in the net. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it is not.
A sinking line can also seem easier to cast and easier to handle than a tight line rig. It casts further. And when trout are on that gliding, suspended-in-the-zone streamer presentation, it’s my favorite way to catch trout.
But there are downsides. Once the sinking line is in the water, I’m mostly committed to a certain angle and presentation. Meaning, it’s difficult to effectively mend a sinking line, when any of it is under the water. Yes, all of this applies to sink tips as well. With any amount of line, even 4-6 feet committed underneath, that line dictates the course of the fly. Of course I can control the speed. I can vary the strip length and timing. I can even lift the line and the fly a bit. But the sinking line presentation can never be as nimble as the tight line streamer rig. It’s simply impossible to do so many things within one drift. It’s also not possible to effectively perform a head flip, or get a fast jigging look, because the rig just isn’t built for that.
The sinking line does a few presentations very well. But a tight line streamer rig can do many things well. While the sinking line approach gains me more distance and longer retrieves, the tight line system is great for a targeted approach, with more casting and shorter retrieves.
Tight line systems provide direct contact and direct control, where sinking line systems put a weighted fly line in between you and the streamer. Two different styles.
There are many things to consider. And again, I’d go back to where we started: What is the water type? And what are your goals?
Thanks for your question, Al. I hope that makes sense and helps you out.
Fish hard, friends.
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