Q&A: Streamers — Sinking Line or Tight Line?

by | Oct 4, 2023 | 5 comments

** 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.

Question

Hello Dom,

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

Answer

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Streamer Presentations

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.

Photo by Bill Dell

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.

Tight Line

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.

Photo by Bill Dell

Sinking Line

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.

Great times on a sinking line. Photo by Bill Dell

VS

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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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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5 Comments

  1. I have compared and favored dark star lit nights when streaming say big zonkers or woollies or whatever big streamer pattern I adopted the built in sinktip 15ft flyline. I always prepare and consolidate before dark and my streamer patterns and top water bugs essential for top or below .. know where in the water I’ll be wading to cast spicific runs in any the pools I’ve done well.. always sure to bring the secondary headlamp .. I usually like reading the water going into the dark so I know if and what is going on.. like late summer but it’s usually tough.. so yeah my approach is try top using big dry like a drake iso and when it’s dark I consider streamers and getting down using the 15ft.. When it happens to be one of those quiet nights especially when the water flow is above avg. I had better results using a sinking system. I start off early before sundown read the water and try my dry fly patterns using my g-loomis 4wt 9ft stream dance / 4/5wt. ross san miguel for straight on top and listen for top water feeders.. going into dark.. if there is top water feeding ,I’ll stay with the dry patterns because the woolies will get them later in the dark if nothing on top got to go down! I look forward to using the sink tip especially if the flow is running on the high and it’s too dark to see anything anyway.. otherwise i keep with the lighter float 4wt wf standard streamer set up leader to flyline ..9ft standard 5x tippet modified from 5x to 3x I be using early going heavier 3 x tippet length about 18″ (like star lit dark nights using a 6 wt built in sinking 15′ line on a good stiff 6wt and my 5/6wt ross San Miguel.. I learned from experience you want a smooth drag when fishing for those big trout in the dark.. .. Yes I favor the sink tip for after dark streamer fish the west branch or east branch uppers are the only places I’ll bother this time of year.. And if it’s too cold I just try a few hrs.. much older now so unless it’s warm enough fall night and not freezing I look forward to trying this favorite passion for large wild night time brute size brown trout. Wish I had the time ..last few years i’m taking care of my folks have no DHS support and it’s kinda tough but i’m happy because I’m with them.. anyway someday I’ll get to go.. missed a good week ..now i just hope next week i can go a three four day fish golf camp trip before winterizing camper lol btw ,, the reports suggest it’s pretty slow lately and conditions in fall are usually less favorable for top or below once the leaves start falling in the way.. but for me it’s always fun and love the challenge it’s a personal choice caring working or fishing ..glad I have what I have and the time is a bonus ..tight lines friends

    Reply
  2. I love fishing jig streamers, but I’ve noticed they work best when fish are taken off guard, but once they give chase and have the opportunity to observe the fly they notice the unrealistic movements. Unweighted/lightly weighted flies on a sink tip make more natural fleeing movements. Not only that you can kill the fly and incite a predatory response. Jig streamers are my go to, but when trying to pull an aggressive prespawn brown out of slow moving staging pool in clear water- sink tip it is.

    Reply
    • Good stuff. I’m not a fan of the term jig streamer, just because it really seems like people are lumping in all head weighted flies into jigs now. Likewise, I do a lot more with jigheads than jigging presentations.
      That said, I agree with your point for sure. And that’s a great time to fish a sinking line.
      We fish a fly called the Grinch that has a 3.5 or 4mm bead head, but the materials of the fly keep it damn near neutrally buoyant. We fish this one mostly on a tight line. Has weight to cast and hangs in the column as if you’re fishing a sinking line.

      Reply
  3. Hi Dom,

    Have you ever tried throwing a poly leader or other weighted line at the end of the mono rig? Have thought about trying a short piece of lead core but have not got around to it

    Reply
    • Yes, I’ve tried all of that. I really like the direct, controlled, one point weight of split shot or weighted fly, when I want that kid of targeted approach. So I didn’t like sections T11 that made. They just drag more than shot and take my flies where I’d rather they not go. Likewise, for me, a poly leader is, once again, spreading the weight out too much. If I want that kind of approach and I have room for longer retrieves, I strongly prefer using a sinking line. That’s what it’s built for.

      BUT . . . those are my thoughts. And you should give all of it a go yourself. You might learn something that I didn’t.

      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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