fly fishing the bob marshall wilderness
Fly Fishing Techniques

To Tightline or Suspension Nymph?

While “to tightline or suspension nymph” may at first appear to be a binary question, it is not intended to be so. Each of these methods of nymph fishing has advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, it behooves a serious angler to be familiar with and use both.

First, let me make clear what I mean by tightline nymphing and suspension nymphing.

tightline nymphing
tightline nymphing with “sighter”

Tightline nymphing is a method of nymphing whereby the line/leader is kept off the water by holding the rod aloft. Therefore, there is a straight or tight connection between the tip of the rod and the nymph(s).

to tightline or suspension nymph
suspension nymphing with dry fly “indicator”

Suspension nymphing is a method of nymphing whereby the nymph is attached to or suspended from a dry fly or a strike indicator. There is a tight connection between the tip of the rod and the dry fly or strike indicator, but not always the nymph(s).

Tightline Nymphing

Tightline nymphing, sometimes referred to as Euro, French, Czech, etc. nymphing, is nothing new. But in the world of competitive angling, the use of split shot and strike indicators is not allowed, thereby eliminating suspension nymphing. Thus competitors developed work-arounds to increase the effectiveness of tightline nymphing. Rather than using split shot and light nymph patterns, they use heavily weighted, streamlined nymph patterns to reach the stream bottom. Colored mono, referred to as a “sighter”, is integrated into the leader. The colored mono provides a visual signal to a fish’s take or strike, essentially replacing a strike indicator.

As little or no line extends beyond the tip of the rod to help load it, a soft tipped rod is needed for casting. One casts, or more accurately flips, the flies from downstream to upstream. During the drift, the rod tip is kept elevated, much like high sticking a dry fly, keeping the leader off the water surface. A longer rod, usually 10-12 feet in length, is used to extend the reach of the drift.

Tightline nymphing is much like wet fly fishing. The angler leads the flies with the rod tip along a seam, and around structures likely to hold trout. The major difference is that wet flies are generally fished in the upper foot or so of the water column. Tightline nymphing is designed to fish deeper in the water column, near the bottom. A tight connection is maintained with the flies throughout the drift. While most “takes” are felt, watching the sighter and setting the hook anytime it deviates from the expected drift, increases the number of hook-ups.

The advantages of tightline nymphing include the ability to steer the flies about structure, and to adjust to changes in water depth. On any given drift, the water depth varies. With this method, the angler can adjust the depth of the flies during the drift. Upstream mends allow the flies to drop deeper into the water column, while simply stopping the drift allows the flies to rise in the water column.

fly fishing the bob marshall wilderness
An ideal stream for tightline nymphing

The major limitation to tightline nymphing is its reach, that is, the span of water that is fished. This is determined by the length of the rod. A 10-12 foot rod comfortably fishes 20-25 feet of water, or 2-2 1/2 x its length. Tightline nymphing is therefore best suited to small and medium sized streams.

Suspension Nymphing

When I think of suspension nymphing, the old saying “don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” comes to mind. Most noncompetitive anglers fish with this method and catch lots of fish. Casting is easier, as line is released outside the tip of the rod, loading it, just as when dry fly fishing. Therefore, a special rod for nymphing is not needed. In addition, a strike indicator or dry fly are both more readily seen and followed than a sighter.

The advantages of suspension nymphing include its ease, i.e. similar to dry fly fishing, and its reach. Because the line is not kept aloft, the only limit to suspension nymphing’s reach is one’s casting ability. Thus, suspension nymphing is well suited to streams of all sizes.

to tightline or suspension nymph
A large, deep stream, better suited for suspension nymphing

The major limitation to suspension nymphing is the inability to readily adjust the depth of the nymphs. Typically, the nymph is attached to a dry fly or strike indicator with a length of tippet 2-3 x the estimated depth of water. But the depth of a run is  not fixed. Rather, it is usually deepest at the head, fairly uniform through its mid-portion, and more shallow at its tail. Thus, during a drift, the suspended nymph is sometimes too shallow, sometimes just right, and sometimes too deep, catching on the stream bottom.

Also, as an angler moves to runs of significantly different depth, the length of tippet must be adjusted to place the nymph at the best depth. When using a dry fly as an indicator, this requires adding or reducing the length of tippet; this takes time away from fishing. Most commercial strike indicators do allow an easier adjustment for this.

The Comparison

When fishing streams well-suited to both methods, that is small to medium sized streams, tightline nymphing does catch more fish. This is most likely due to the fact that the angler is in direct contact with the nymphs at all times. With suspension nymphing, there is often a bit of slack between the strike indicator and the nymph(s) during a drift. This allows a wary trout to test and reject a nymph without “indicating” its presence. On pressured streams, this may account for a fair number of fish.

Also, because the depth of the nymph is readily adjusted during a drift while tightline nymphing, it is kept in the “strike zone” during most or all of the drift.

But tightline nymphing is more difficult, as most hook-ups result from feeling the take, rather than seeing it. It is also physically more demanding, due to holding the rod aloft. In addition, it virtually eliminates the pleasure of casting, generally requiring but a flip of the rod.

When fishing larger streams, requiring a reach beyond 20-25 feet, tightline nymphing with a floating line won’t cut it. To nymph them, large streams require anglers to use a suspension system.

So, to tightline or suspension nymph? In the words of Francis Francis (1867)-

“The judicious and perfect application of dry, wet, and mid-water fly fishing stamps the finished fly-fisher with the hall-mark of efficiency. All are right at times, and per contra, all are wrong at times. It requires the reasoning faculties to be used to know these times and their application.”

additional reading-

written by Al Simpson, May 2022.

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