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Leader Formulas for the Mono Rig: Tight-Line Nymphing & Beyond

by Dar Naghshineh

Editor’s Note: Dar will be showing examples of these leaders and the materials used before the February General meeting February 1st at Aptos Grange.

A few members of Santa Cruz Fly Fishing Club recently asked me about how to make mono rig leaders for tight-line and euro nymphing, as well as other mono rig fly fishing techniques.  I was excited to share with my fellow club members some of the leader formulas I use, because fly fishing with a mono rig is one of my favorite ways to catch trout on small to medium size streams.  I decided to write this article to share some of this information with other club members who might be interested in these topics.  To start out I will give a brief summary of what a mono rig is, and why and how we use it—so folks who aren’t familiar with these techniques have a point of reference.  Then I will delve into the focus of this article:  Five mono rig leader formulas and their different applications in fly fishing.  

A mono rig is a long monofilament leader that is used in place of a fly line.  The leader is used for a wide variety of different fly fishing techniques for targeting trout in rivers.  Most of the leader is made up of a long level butt section usually between twenty and fifty feet long, followed by a short taper section ranging from two to five feet long.  At the end of the taper section of the leader is a short piece of brightly colored supple monofilament called a sighter, which the tippet section gets attached to. When fishing subsurface flies the sighter is used to detect strikes, as well as give the angler feedback about what their flies are doing beneath the water.  

The benefit of fly fishing with a mono rig is that it allows an angler to execute most of the same tactics they would use with a fly-line on small to medium streams, in addition to a variety of tactics that are not possible with a standard floating or sinking line.  One of the greatest advantages of using a long leader in place of fly line is that it allows an angler to have direct contact with their nymphs or streamers during tight-line nymphing and streamer presentations. More contact with the flies means more strike detection, and for most of us that means more fish in the net.

A mono rig can be used for streamer fishing, indicator nymphing, swinging wet flies, dry dropper, and even casting dry flies at a range of up to thirty or forty feet.  These tactics on a mono rig are similar to fishing with a floating line, with a few minor differences in the mechanics of casting and presentation in certain cases. In addition to the tactics that are similar to standard fly-line presentations, there are a number of other unique and highly effective tactics that a mono rig enables us to employ.  These tactics are tightline/euro nymphing, tight-line streamer tactics, and tight-line dry dropper.  

The first time I attached a mono rig to my reel and tried fishing with it, the thin diameter of the leader felt strange in my hands.  I remember thinking to myself, ‘how the hell am I supposed to cast nothing but a leader?’  But I soon learned that the fundamental principles for casting loops with a floating line are the same principles used to cast a mono rig:  Swift acceleration with the rod into an abrupt stop, executed back and forth between two points.  Whether you use a fly-line or a mono rig, the mechanics of casting a fly rod for the most part are universal, though you cannot roll cast a mono rig—sorry spey anglers.  It is important to note that when casting a mono rig with multiple weighted flies, split shot and/or bobbers, it is often necessary to open up your loops during the casting stroke to avoid tangles.  Two of the most useful casts for fishing a mono rig are an oval cast, and a tuck cast.  

I will cover five different leader formulas in this article, but having all five of these leaders in your arsenal is not necessary for success on the river.  Most of the time, it’s best to use one mono rig that is suitable for everything you need to do with your leader in a day of fishing.  So, if you’re new to fly fishing with a mono rig, a good place to start is learning to fish with the Leader for Versatility that is detailed further along in the article.  I acknowledge that some folks may feel overwhelmed by all of the materials they would need to acquire to make a few of the leaders featured in this article.  I’d like to point out that if you buy the materials to make one of these leaders that best suits your needs, the cost will be a fraction of the price tag on a euro nymphing fly-line sold at a fly shop.  

The ideal rod length for the techniques discussed in this article is between 10’ and 11’ long.  A 9’ rod or even an 8 ½” rod will work as well, but longer rods have more reach which is beneficial when tight-line nymphing.  If you are just starting out, use whatever rod you have at first if you like.  Then maybe get yourself a specialized rod later down the line if you stick with it.  The leader you are using and your ability as an angler are more important than rod type for these tactics, though a specialized rod will have better performance.  

To some, all of the information in this article may seem overly technical, but it doesn’t have to be.  Think of it like a cookbook—just pick a leader recipe, build it, then go out and fish!  To me the greatest quality of the mono rig is the versatility it offers me on almost every trout stream that I fish.  I can go from fishing nymphs to fishing streamers or dry flies, all while making very few changes my rig.  My favorite part of it all, is tight-line and euro nymphing—tactics that can’t be achieved with a standard fly-line.  I hope this article will be useful to folks in the Santa Cruz Fly Fishing Club who are interested in tight-line nymphing and mono rig tactics.  At the end of the article I have included a list of educational resources for folks who would like to learn more about these topics and techniques.  Fly fishing with a mono rig is an incredible way of expanding your horizons in the world of trout fishing, so go out and give it a try!  

* * *

Five Mono Rig Leader Formulas and Their Applications

Use blood knots for all line to line connections. Tippet rings should be attached using an eye-crosser knot or trilene knot.  To connect the leader to a welded loop on a fly line, use a four or five turn clinch knot *except when attaching a micro leader.  To attach a micro leader, attach a heavier mono rig leader to your fly line first, and wind it on the reel. Then clinch knot the micro leader to the tippet ring on the spooled heavier leader.  Alternatively, you can connect any of these leaders straight to dacron backing with a double uni knot (aka uni-to-uni knot), though I prefer to have fly line on my reel.  The reason I prefer attaching the leader to fly line is because I can quickly wrap my mono rig around a foam spool and clip it off my fly-line, making a fast switch over to casting my floating line when the dry fly fishing is spectacular.     

The leader materials in the following formulas are chosen for their specific qualities that include:  Stiffness, durability, and visibility for the butt section and taper section, and suppleness and visibility for the sighter.  

Leader for Versatility, great for beginners 

This is a good leader for a beginner to learn to cast and fish with a mono rig.  It’s also an excellent leader for a variety of techniques including streamers, indicator nymphing, tight-line/euro nymphing, jigging, dry dropper, and dry fly fishing.  The thicker diameter 20 lb butt section of this leader gives it enough mass to cast a wider variety of flies and tackle, making it a more versatile option.  This is my favorite mono rig for days when I’m mostly fishing streamers or heavier nymphs, but I also might have the opportunity to fish dry flies at a range of up to about 35—40 ft.  Pairs nicely with a 4 or 5 weight rod.  

  • 40’—50’  20 lb (0.017”) Maxima Chameleon
  • 2’  12 lb (0.013”) Maxima Clear or Maxima hi-viz
  • 1’  12 lb (0.013”) Suffix Superior monofilament neon fire (neon red)
  • 1’  10 lb (0.012”) Sunset Amnesia monofilament neon green
  • Small tippet ring (1.5mm-2mm)

optional (use when tight-line/euro nymphing)

  • 12”—18” 0.010” (1x) or 0.009” (2x) Cortland tri-color indicator mono (sighter) tied to the first tippet ring
  • small tippet ring (1mm-2mm)

Tight-Line Nymphing Leader

If I had to choose one, this would probably be my favorite mono rig leader for trout.  It is just light enough, and sensitive enough for excellent performance as a tight-line/euro nymphing leader, while still offering decent performance for a variety of other techniques.  The slightly thinner diameter 12 lb butt section reduces sag in the leader when tight-line nymphing, while still having enough mass to send a tuck cast out 35 feet with a pair of small nymphs.  Small to medium trout streamers, dry dropper, and nymphing with a yarn indicator are other useful applications.  Casting small dry flies with this leader is also possible with a decent casting stroke, but the effective range is limited to about 25 ft or so.  Pairs nicely with a 2 or 3 weight rod.  

  • 40’—50’  12 lb (0.013”) Maxima Chameleon
  • 2’  8 lb (0.010”) Maxima Clear or Maxima hi-viz
  • 1’  8 lb (0.010”) Suffix Superior monofilament neon fire (neon red)
  • 1’  8 lb (0.010”) Sunset Amnesia monofilament neon green
  • 16”—18”  0.009” (2x) Cortland tri-color indicator mono (sighter)
  • small tippet ring (1mm-2mm)

Hi-Viz Tight-Line Nymphing leader

Some of my favorite trout streams flow through landscapes where the background makes it difficult to see where the leader and sighter are at times. This can make it challenging to lead or track the flies through a drift, and detect strikes from the sighter.  When visibility is an issue, I like to tie on some variation of hi viz leader.  When I go fishing before dawn or around dusk when light levels are low, I also opt for a hi-viz leader.   The enhanced visual aid provided by this leader helps me stay focused on the sighter, and execute quality drifts when visibility is low.  The taper section of this leader is made from clear monofilament to create a break between the hi-viz butt section and the sighter.  This is done to make it easier for the angler to focus on the sighter at the terminal end of the leader, which is where strike detection occurs.   Pairs nicely with a 2 or 3 weight rod.  

  • 40’—50’  12 lb (0.013”) Sunset Amnesia monofilament neon green
  • 3’  8 lb (0.010”) Maxima Clear
  • 16”—18”  0.009” (2x) Cortland tri-color indicator mono (sighter)
  • small tippet ring (1mm-2mm)

Micro Leader

This is the thinnest diameter leader on the list, and I use it exclusively for tight-line/euro nymphing techniques.  The extremely thin diameter of this leader gives an angler more sensitivity and feel when dead drifting light nymphs. Since a thinner leader has less mass, it also reduces the need to add weight to your rig to counteract sag when tight-lining with light nymphs or at distance.  This keeps both the angler’s line-hand and the sighter in the leader more in touch with the flies that are at the end of the tippet.  A micro leader also makes it easier to achieve dead drifts when casting across seams to make a drift, rather than casting upstream along a single seam to make a drift.    

The disadvantage of a very thin micro leader is that it is not as cast-able as the thicker leader formulas I have listed.  This is because a micro leader lacks the mass needed to push the rig to turn over in the air the same way a fly line or a thicker leader would. When casting a micro leader you will have less control, and less options of how you can cast your rig.  Though it’s possible to cast loops with a micro leader by casting the weight of your flies, it often times is necessary to water load cast for more distance or when casting into tight quarters.  Despite the downsides, I often fish this leader when I’m tight-line nymphing with small lightweight nymphs or streamers.  Pairs nicely with a 0—2 weight rod.  

  • 40’   6 lb (0.009”) Maxima Chameleon
  • 2’   0.009” (2x) Cortland white indicator mono 
  • 18”—24”  0.008” (3x) Cortland tri-color indicator mono (sighter)
  • small tippet ring (1mm-1.5mm), or use blood knot to connect tippet to sighter for less of a hinge point at the connection. 

Steelhead and Streamer leader

This leader is made from monofilament that is stiffer and thicker than the other leaders that are detailed in this article.  The heavier materials give the leader more mass for pushing heavier flies and rigs to turn over to their target.  The downside of a thicker and heavier leader is that it is less sensitive to strike detection in both the sighter and by feel when fishing smaller flies.  The heavier leader will also sag much more when tight-lining with lighter flies.  Too much sag in the leader during tight-line/euro presentations will reduce both contact with your flies and strike detection.  For those reasons, I only use this leader for fishing heavier flies or rigs that weigh enough to counteract excessive sag in the leader.  I like to use this leader for steelhead fishing, and for a variety of streamer techniques for trout when bigger flies are necessary. It also performs well with heavier indicator rigs.  Pairs nicely with a 4 or 5 weight rod for trout and a 6 or 7 weight rod for steelhead.  

Learning to cast a mono rig with a heavier rod like a 6 or 7 weight can be more challenging than learning with a lighter rod that flexes more in the tip.  This is because a heavier rod will not load as much as a lighter rod when casting only a leader plus the weight of the flies.  Heavier weight rods also have much less feel when casting a mono rig compared to the lighter weight rods, making timing during the casting stroke and casting fundamentals more crucial. 

  • 50’  20 lb (0.018”) Sunset Amnesia monofilament neon green or clear
  • 18”  15 lb (0.015”) Maxima Clear
  • 18”  12 lb (0.013”) Maxima Clear
  • medium tippet ring (2mm-3mm)
  • 12’’—14” 0.013” or 0.012” Cortland tri-color indicator mono (sighter)
  • small or medium tippet ring

Rigging of Tippet and Flies for Mono Rig Tactics

Nymph & Streamer rig 

– Attach 3’—6’ long section of tippet to the tippet ring.  I recommend using a double Davy knot or Pitzen knot.

  5”—6” up from the terminal end of the tippet that was just tied to the tippet ring, attach a second section of tippet that is 16”—25” long using an Orvis tippet knot or double surgeon’s knot to create a dropper tag:  When tying the knot, create a 5”—6” long tag (dropper tag) with the knot’s downward pointing tag-end.  Keep the upward pointing tag short while seating the knot then clip it close while leaving the dropper tag intact.  The lighter nymph or streamer (dropper fly) is attached to the dropper tag.

-Tie your heavier nymph or streamer (point fly) to the terminal end of the second section tippet, or create a second dropper tag with another 16”—25” piece of tippet that leads to the point fly for a three-fly rig

Dry Dropper

-To convert the nymph/streamer rig into a dry dropper rig, shorten the upper section of tippet from the end that is attached to the tippet ring.  Leave about 3’ of tippet between the tippet ring and you uppermost dropper tag.  Then clip off your nymph from the uppermost dropper tag and replace it with a greased dry fly that is buoyant enough to suspend the nymphs below it. 

Dry Flies

To fish dry flies, most of the time I just shorten my entire tippet section to around 4 or 5 feet, clip off the nymphs, and add a small dry fly or tandem dry flies to the end of the tippet.  To avoid having to switch out to nylon tippet, I grease the fluorocarbon tippet to prevent it from sinking—though nylon does perform better for this task.  Building a short taper into the tippet section is another option and will cast better with 6x or 7x tip sections.  To build a taper in the tippet section for dry fly fishing with a mono rig, connect the following sections of tippet:

  • 12” 3x tippet
  • 12” 4x tippet
  • 24”—36” 5x—7x tippet


  • -12” 2x tippet
  • -12” 3x tippet
  • -24”—36” 3x—5x tippet

Large Articulated Streamers

When you wanna chuck some meat, tie on 4’—6’ of 2x—0x to the tippet ring of the Leader for Versatility, or the steelhead and streamer leader.  Attach a streamer to the tippet with a small non-slip loop knot.  You can also add a dropper tag 20” above the streamer at the end of the tippet and tie a wet fly or small streamer to the dropper tag. The large streamer behind the smaller fly can simulate a larger baitfish pursuing a smaller baitfish or invertebrate.  

Learning Resources for Tight-Line Nymphing and Mono Rig Fly Fishing Techniques

  • The blog featured on Devin Olsen’s website contains excellent instructional videos on euro nymphing techniques, casting light leaders, as well as a variety of other interesting topics.  I also highly recommend his book Tactical Fly Fishing:  Lessons Learned from Competition for All Anglers.  
  • If you want to learn how to use a mono rig for techniques other than euro nymphing check out Domenick Swentosky’s blog Troutbitten ( blog is probably the largest collection of information about fly fishing with a mono rig and tight-line nymphing on the internet.  Swentosky has authored thousands of articles about fly fishing for trout that can be accessed for free at  Troutbitten also features a variety of educational videos and an accompanying podcast series that I highly recommend. 
  • George Daniels is one of the foremost nymphing experts in the world.  He has authored two books on nymphing that contain excellent information: 

Dynamic Nymphing:  Tactics, Techniques, and Flies from Around the World

Nymph Fishing: New Angles, and Techniques

  •  features a twenty-part series of short videos on Euro Nymphing with George Daniels.  To Access the video-series click the main menu.  Next click the tab for ‘Video Lessons’ in the main menu.  Then the ‘Video Lessons’ menu will open.  Select ‘Advanced/Intermediate Fly Fishing Lessons’, and another menu will open.  Click tab ‘1. Euro Nymphing’ to access the lesson series.  

*Note the Orvis videos teach a different leader setup for tight-line nymphing because they want to sell you their brand manufactured euro nymphing fly-lines and leaders.  Euro nymphing fly-lines will not perform as well as mono rigs for tight-line tactics and offer less over all versatility.  Despite the differences in the leader setup, all of the euro nymphing techniques in the Orvis video-series are applicable to fishing the leaders that I have written about in this article.  

  • Members of Santa Cruz Fly Fishing Club are welcome to contact me with questions.