Fall Edition

Fall Edition
Fall Edition

Saturday, September 2, 2017

High Stick / Tight Line Leaders and Thoughts

A recent blog post fueled my fire when it comes to High Sticking or Tight Lining, don't even mention the name Euro nymphing to me, I'm not buying it. Sure, they have their own way of rigging, but the actual presentation goes back long before the white man appeared on the rivers of Northern California. It was the native American Wintu women who created weighted flies while employing a short line technique for trout. Born out of necessity in northern California, this productive nymphing technique was passed on, and fly anglers Joe Kimsey and Ted Fay popularized it for the mainstream, while adding more flies to the rig creating the "Christmas Tree". My father learned it as well in his late teens, and perfected the technique years later. When I came onto the scene in the early 70's it was passed down to me. That's the only way of nymphing we knew, there was no indicators, and certainly not the High Stick leaders we use today.

The blog post I read stated "I’ve seen some wacky tight line rigs this summer that people have come up with from the internet, or on their own. While they work, most of them don’t work well here". My family's Tight Line rig of the 70's and 80's consisted of a short piece of florescent orange Amnesia (the sighter) off the fly line, with a 7.5 foot tapered leader to 3x, with one heavy fly. Additional split shot was added depending on the water conditions. Doesn't get much simpler than that. That rig caught many trout on the Truckee, Pit, McCloud, Trinity, NF Feather, MF Feather, WB Feather, Upper Sacramento, and Deer creek. It also worked well on the low flow section of the Feather, and the Mad for steelhead. If a guide tells you there is only one way to do something, doubt them. There is 10 different ways to achieve the same principal, it just comes down to your personal preference.

Fly fishing and the techniques we use are always evolving. Progression is a beautiful thing. With newer products available, more and more rigs are rising to the surface and going viral. Many of these leader systems are created just to create hype, or give an angler some recognition. Some rigs work better than others because of the mechanics involved. Explained below is the Tight Line leader I use, and I don't mind sharing, after all, you're only halfway to success without experience on the water.

I start with 2.5 feet of 40 pound stiff mono, size .024. I will often go with a longer length of the butt material depending on the size of my rod. This is the backbone of the leader system which aids in making a good load and lob presentation for a near vertical entry. I make a perfection loop on one end, this will be attached to your floating fly line. I always cut a little more leader material to account for the added length the knots will take up.

Next, I clip off 12" of RIO's 11 pound Two Tone Indicator high-viz tippet material for the next section, "The Sighter", which will give you the clues of any odd or irregular movements of the leader while making a drift. This will indicate a strike, or the bottom. Because of it's small diameter, and contrasting colors, it will pick up the slightest of variances within the rig. I like the main color to be chartreuse with the ends in hot pink.

The 2.5 feet of 40 pound mono is spliced to the 12" of Sighter tippet. Joining two sizes of mono that are vastly different in size can be difficult unless one uses the opposing barrel/nail knot splice. This is an extremely strong knot because the two nail knots butt up against each other. These knots will not fail, only the tensile strength of the mono will. 

One must use the Tie-Fast nail knot tool to achieve the opposing nail knot, with practice it becomes easy to tie. First the Sighter tippet is nail knotted around the 40 pound with 5 turns, do not tighten down all the way yet. Flip the leader around, now nail knot the 40 pound around the Sighter tippet, again, do not tighten down all the way. Moisten between the two nail knots and pull the 40 pound mono, and the Sighter tippet so that the nail knots come together. Now take your forceps and grab the short tag of the 40 pound, and with your hand grab the long end of the 40 pound and set the knot. Do the same with the sighter section. There will be a micro gap between the knots, so grab both ends of the 40 pound and Sighter tippet, and pull until the nail knots are butted up against each other for the final time. No connection is stronger for large freshwater fish.

Cut off 5.5 feet of 10 pound fluorocarbon tippet, or if your quarry is bigger with additional heavy flows, you can use 15 pound. By using a blood knot or double surgeons knot, tie the floro onto the Sighter section.

At the end of the 5.5 foot section of floro, tie on a #14 swivel. Weight is added as needed on the upside of the swivel towards the fly line. The weight will never slide down to your flies, the swivel prevents this from happening. 

Add 10 inches of 1 to 4x floro from the swivel down to your first fly, which will be about 8 inches after you have tied your knots. Keep in mind that tippet size will be determined by the size of the fly, flow, size of fish, and water clarity. Go heavier than lighter when in doubt, you can always downsize, but you can't bring back that trophy trout once you've broke it off.

Off the eye of the first fly, I tie in a 16" piece of floro tippet using the appropriate size depending on the conditions to a big heavy fly, like my "Madison Magic Stone" I developed for the Madison River in 1998. That's the complete High Stick/Tight Line rig from fly line to your bottom fly. Total length about 10 feet or a little more. It may not be as simple as the rigs we used back in the day, but it is very effective on ANY freestone river in the west.

Rigging for fly fishing depends on your own personal needs, ease of operation, and what gives you the most confidence. Feel free to tweak any leader formula, fly recipe, or whatever. In the end it's your call...


  1. Hi Jon,
    I see a lot of tight line/euro leader formulas these days call for a very long butt section before the sighter so that no fly line is outside of the rod tip while high sticking. I guess the thinking is that the heaviness of the fly line causes it to sag, thus pulling on your flies and creating drag. With your method I notice you have only 2.5 feet of mono before the sighter, so I assume you do fish with fly line outside of the rod tip. In your opinion is there any validity to the idea that the fly line creates drag? The majority of my experience with nymphing has been with indicators so I'm just trying to learn this new (to me) style, but there are so many conflicting ideas out there that it's a little hard to make sense of.

    1. Ryan,

      Most of my tight line nymphing is very close, my baseline is to start with 2.5 feet of butt material, but often I will go longer in length. My fly line does not create drag because there is little in the way of transition of the system down to the water. It has not hampered my success in the 70's to now, present day. My best advice is to start with a tight line leader you are comfortable with and get out on the water and experiment. You too will be modifying your own system to your needs, that's the human element of fly fishing. Good luck!


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