How to Euro Nymph (Tightline Nymph) From a Boat
Updated: Aug 28
Dry flies, dry-droppers, indicator rigs, and streamers, are all incredibly useful tactics to employ while drifting down a river, but leaving out the fifth option, euro nymphing, can limit your success for the day especially when the fishing is slow. Euro nymphing from a drifting or anchored boat is not only effective it is highly versatile as it can perform the job of all four of those other tactics, and that's something to consider before you launch your boat and leave the euro rod behind.
My homewater, the Spokane River, is a fast flowing, boulder-strewn river where redband trout hang below and out of the way of swift surface currents, and even when the water level is low these trout still tuck themselves into deep, turbulent pocket water and runs. The places in the river where these trout station themselves makes it challenging to get flies in front of them using indicators, dry-droppers, etc. Euro nymphing (tightline nymphing) this difficult river, and other watersheds like it, can turn it into an enjoyable day where you actually connect with fish while also growing your skills as a fly fisher.
Euro nymphing from a raft or drift boat is not just for experienced anglers either. I have guided complete beginners and started them off tightline nymphing, with success, and when I had them switch over to a standard indicator rig most ask to swap back to the euro fly rod.
(Check Out: How to Read and Fly Fish Pocket Water)
Necessary Gear for Tightline Nymphing from a Boat
There is a lot of euro nymphing-specific gear and rigging options that you can consider, and rather than diving too much into that I will briefly discuss three pieces of gear recommendations for when you use this tactic from a boat.
When tightline nymphing from a boat, I prefer a euro rod that's a minimum of 10' 6" or longer (like an 11' 2"). The longer length will help you to get your flies even further out from the boat. A longer rod will also help you to steer and direct a fish around the boat, oars, anchor line, etc. However, that longer length means storing the road when it's not in-use is a little bit of a pain. My 10' 6" rods stick out of the rod holder and that means I have to be careful when backing the boat into shore or walking around the raft in order to not break the tip section.
A longer rod can also allow you to drop your arm and still maintain some distance from the boat. Keeping your arm up and out will definitely help you achieve better drifts, but most people can only sustain that arm position for so long.
A 3 weight rod is a great all-around euro rod that will permit you to cast nymphs, streamers, and dry-droppers. A lighter rod, like a 2 weight, will cast lighter nymphs more easily and provide softer presentations when floating the sighter, so it could be a good option to use on smaller, calmer rivers that have a lot of glides. A heavier rod, like a 4 weight is great for heavier nymph rigs and streamer fishing.
Here the important aspect is choosing a reel that balances with the fly rod. There are some reels out on the market that have internal weights that you can add or remove in order to balance the rod right at the front end of the cork grip (there are also some rods that have a counter balance in the reel seat of the rod). This balance will help save your arm while you are working on drifting your flies.
I prefer to still use fly lines over something like a mono-rig. A dedicated nymph fly line (level .022") won't sag as much as a standard floating fly line outside of the rod tip, and it will provide a tactile feel when it is pinched against the cork. Having this tactile feel is also important when streamer fishing while you strip line in to retrieve and animate the fly. During cold weather, you can also feel and manipulate that nymph fly line more so than standard monofilament.
Angler Positions While Euro Nymphing on a Boat
Two anglers on a boat can absolutely tightline nymph simultaneously, and in my experience the angler in the stern position actually has a better opportunity for improved drifts. The stern angler is able to cast further upstream which helps the flies to get to depth during the drift. On the other hand, the bow angler can only cast back to the oars in order to stay out of the stern angler's drift, and this is especially true if the stern angler is using a more traditional method, like dry fly fishing with a floating line. If given the option, I would select the stern position if there were two anglers in the boat, and obviously the bow position if I was the only angler.
Maintaining a standing position will be the best way to ensure effective casting, drifting, and hook sets. A standing position will help you to cast your flies further out from the boat and to control the drift more easily. Standing is not always possible though, such as when the boat is going through pocket water and rapids. When this is the case, you can still euro nymph from a seated position and work on targeting the deeper, softer water close to the boat.
(Check Out: Review of the Flycraft 3 Person Raft)
How to Cast a Euro Rod While in a Boat
The water load cast, or water haul, (allowing the current to pull the fly line, leader, and flies into a straight line) is very important when trying to cast a euro rig from a boat. Since we are using lightly weight fly lines (or mono rigs) that don't load the rod as much as a normal fly line would, the water load cast will help us to come tight to the flies in order to send them back upstream. I like to teach and use this cast when in an anchored position, and it's a good cast to start with in order to develop your skill at casting a euro rod in a boat.
Accuracy, getting distance, and achieving depth quickly is limited with a water load cast and two other casts, the oval and tuck casts, are better suited for this.
While wading, the oval cast (or helicopter cast) is a go-to euro nymphing cast, and the same is true when casting in a raft or drift boat. The oval cast helps to get the flies further from the boat and will land them more accurately than a water load cast. Things to keep your eye on while making this cast are making sure the other angler isn't casting, that your flies are not near the oar blade at the start of the cast, and that you come tight to the flies before starting the cast.
While the tuck cast does not achieve the same distance as the oval cast, it will get your flies to depth quickly and with good accuracy. The tuck cast is great at getting a fly-first entry into the water before the sighter ever touches the surface, and when you are working a turbulent run or pocket water this cast is invaluable. I also like this cast when using a dry-dropper set up which will get the nymph to turn over and enter the water before the dry fly.
Whichever cast you use, the important next step is working on and improving your drift and that is through proper angles between the rod tip and sighter. Below, we will discuss achieving better drifts while the boat is moving, and then we will cover some considerations for when the boat is anchored.
Position of the Sighter While Tightline Nymphing from a Drifting Boat
When it comes to tightline nymphing from a drifting boat, the need to mend line is taken out of the equation, but once your flies hit the water it is still up to you as the angler to achieve proper angles between the rod tip and sighter. These angles can be subtle, but it means the difference between getting your flies to where the fish are or having your nymphs just ineffectively swirling around the river.
In the illustrations below, we'll be looking at a scenario where the angler is tightline nymphing with weighted nymphs with the goal of achieving as close to a dead drift as possible.
You may already be familiar with the idea of keeping the sighter close to a vertical position under the rod tip while wading and euro nymphing, and the same can be applied to when you are in a raft or drift boat. If your sighter is near vertical (see illustrations below) with no slack, you can be confident in that your flies are at depth, you are "in touch" with them, and you will have better indication of when a fish strikes.
Keeping the sighter near vertical is better said than done, and when you are in a boat drifting through the river the raft, current, and your body movement are all going to impact the angle of the sighter. To mitigate these impacts I will lead the flies downstream in order to stay in touch with them (see illustrations below).
What we want to avoid is any slack in the line and allowing the flies to drift downstream of the rod tip (see illustrations below). This takes you out of contact with your flies which limits detection of when a fish strikes.
You can absolutely drift your flies downstream of the boat and swing them up through the current to mimic a rising emerger, but you must still maintain a tight connection to the flies (see illustrations below).
We also do not want the sighter too far, horizontally, from the boat. If it is too far away from the boat then our flies will not obtain depth and the flies can be pulled into conflicting seams of current inhibiting a dead drift.
The sighter commonly tracks away or towards the boat while going through a bend in the river (see illustration below). It is important to watch for where the sighter is tracking, and if it gets too close then you should recast and set up a new drift. If the sighter is tracking away from the boat you can either recast or raise the rod to pull the flies back towards the boat and then lower the rod tip to establish a new drift.
(Check Out: A Guide to Feathers Used in Fly Tying)
Getting the Sighter into the "Fishing Zone" and Improving Your Drifts
After reviewing the illustrations above, we can begin to create a mental image of where the sighter should ideally be located in order to obtain more effective drifts:
In the illustration above, the "Fishing Zone" is denoted by the green area, and our goal is to have the sighter positioned just above the water in this zone. If the sighter is within the "Fishing Zone" our flies can obtain depth better, we can track them in the same seam of current, and we'll have better indication when a fish strikes. If the sighter moves out of this zone it is best to recast or pull it back into the zone.
The boat, current, and your arm will all move the sighter, but there are some tips and techniques that we can use in order to improve your drifts.
After a cast, our flies will enter the water and begin to obtain depth while also drifting downstream. As the sighter begins to drift downstream with the boat our goal is to bring it into the "Fishing Zone" and maintain it there for as long as possible (the person on the oars also plays a big part in this, more on that later). As the sighter drifts into this zone, slack may be induced in the sighter and we need to use our non-rod hand to manage that slack using short strips to pull line in or hand twist retrieves. All too often, I find anglers that try to manage this slack by raising the rod tip to come tight to the sighter, however this is ineffective because it will pull the flies up through the water column and potentially out of the lane that they are drifting.
Limiting Rod Tip Bouncing
As stated previously, one of the drawbacks of tightline nymphing from a drift boat or raft is that there is a lot of movement going on, especially when the boat is going through riffles or a run. Having a little play in the nymphs is not always a bad thing, but a steadier sighter tends to lead to more hook-ups.
While standing, I really lean into the standing braces/leg locks on the boat and let my lower body act like a shock absorber for any up and down movement, and this stable (athletic) position allows my upper body to move somewhat independent of the lower body. So, while my legs may bend to dampen the motion of the boat/current, my shoulder and rod hand remain relatively steady. Of course, when drifting through calmer water, such as glides, this becomes significantly easier.
A steadier rod hand will bounce the rod tip less which, again, helps us to obtain a more dead drift. Longer rods (especially those over 10' 6") have a tendency for the tip to bounce more and that is one of the trade-offs with that increase in reach.
Dealing with the Wind
Just like wading and euro nymphing, windy conditions can cause problems with obtaining effective drifts and hinders our ability to notice when a fish strikes. These issues can become more amplified when on a boat because we are elevated even more above the water. When dealt with windy conditions you can try:
Using heavier nymph patterns, especially the point fly, in order to have a tighter connection to the flies.
Try using a drop-shot rig.
Use thinner diameter tippet and sighter material which will cut through the wind more easily.
Keep a lower rod angle and lead the sighter more downstream, both of which will help to keep the sighter from catching too much wind.
Try a dry-dropper or jig head streamer with the euro rod.
Euro Nymphing from an Anchored Boat
This technique can be a very useful way to target fish in deeper runs of a river or pools when water temps are cold and fish are sluggishly lying near the bottom. When the water temps are the opposite and warmer (which draws fish to more turbulent areas of the river), I try to anchor up the raft or drift boat near currents that are swifter and more likely to hold feeding fish. However, even though I seek out swifter current, I pay particular attention to slower seams of water nearby on the surface. These slower seams of water will provide better lanes for the angler to drift the sighter closer to a "walking pace." This "walking pace drift" is particularly helpful when you have two anglers because the moderate pace will allow both anglers to euro nymph without having to repeatedly cast after only getting short, quick drifts.
If the anglers are fishing out of the same side of the boat, the stern angler can cast and begin their drift followed by the bow angler. If the boat is located more in the middle of the river then one angler can fish to one side and the other angler to the opposite side (see illustration below):
When anchored, it helps if the person on the oars tucks the oars up on the bow of the boat and out of the way. If you want to move into new water, it can be simple enough to pick the anchor up and let the boat slide downriver a few yards before dropping the anchor again.
This technique works best when there is some turbulence to the water's surface. If the river is relatively calm and clear, then the fish can spook due to the boat and silhouetted anglers. It may also help to keep a seated or crouched position before fully standing and reaching out to drift the sighter over fish before they get spooked.
(Check Out: 7 Useful Knots to Know for Fly Fishing)
When tightline nymphing from either an anchored position or while drifting, most of your hook sets will be made downstream. At times, when the sighter is parallel to you or downstream, your hook set will need to be made across and the towards the center of the boat in order to peg the fly into the corner of the fish's mouth:
Person on the Oars
The person rowing the boat can make or break the possibility to euro nymph while you drift with the river. After having rowed for a lot of clients, it is more work than maintaining a good drift while someone fishes with an indicator or dry fly. It can be twice the work at times because the raft or drift boat needs to be slowed down in order to allow the sighter angle to steepen.
It also helps if the person on the oars also has experience with euro nymphing, that will give them an eye for what to look for. If drifting and tightlining just isn't happening, then take a break and fish from an anchored position.
Here are some tips for the person on the oars and how they can better manage the boat to allow the angler(s) to euro nymph:
Make smooth back rows with the oar blades; keep the blades just below the surface of the water and pull back smoothly.
Keep an eye on the current and where the sighter is tracking. If the boat is going around a bend in the river and the sighter is tracking away from the boat, then allow the boat to follow. If the sighter is tracking towards the boat then you can pivot the boat (if there is only one angler) and gently back row away to help keep distance from the sighter.
If the sighter is tracking right into the oar blade, raise the oar, move it aside, and have the angler recast.
Always be back rowing.
Learning how to euro nymph (tightline nymph) from a boat opens up an entirely new way to fly fish on the river. When the fishing slows down and other traditional methods (indicators, dry flies, dry-droppers) quite producing, euro nymphing can be a tactic to turn the day around.
Be sure to read the next article, how to use streamers with a euro rod while in a raft or drift boat.
And be sure to also read:
Lastly, if you live in or are visiting Spokane, I provide guided fly fishing trips and instructional lessons around Spokane to include float trips on the Spokane River and stillwater trips across various Eastern Washington lakes. I guide with Fly Fish Spokane, and more information/trip rates can be found at the website: FlyFishSpokane.com