Totally Tenkara: Nymphing Naked (No Indicator)

When I present or talk about tenkara I often tell this story:

For years in my early days of fly fishing, I always fished dry flies. My fishing buddies called me the dry fly Queen. I had this magical effect – whenever I stepped into a river, a hatch would magically occur. It didn’t seem to matter where or when I was fishing, it just happened. I was so spoiled. But this meant, I never had to fish nymphs.

It was uncanny. I’m sure I don’t have a special power. I assume I just timed my fishing excursions to match hatches. And since I rarely fished nymph patterns I really got hooked on visual takes. It occurred to me, on that rare occasion I did cast a nymph, I was terrible. Even though I used an indicator, my hook sets were slow at best. I struggled with timing and noticed myself always looking for the fish. Even when I saw the indicator move, by the time I responded motorically, the instant was often lost. It takes time for that action to run up the length of the line and move the indicator. And because of the different water speeds throughout the water column, I missed the set.

After one such frustrating outing on deep-pool waters where nymphing was a must, I vowed to get better. Regardless of what was happening or hatching around me, for one season I would only nymph. And here’s the kicker, I would nymph naked – without  the use of an indicator. I wanted my timing and reflexes to improve and thought this would be the best way to do it.

Since I needed to que in on sensitivity and tactile feedback, it seemed only fitting to start my nymphing study by using a tenkara rod. With the line directly attached to the end of the rod, minus guides and reel, an ultralight, hollow fly rod would help me recognize hits earlier and speed up my response time. Increasing the feedback would result in me at least attempting more hooksets, which essentially is the same as getting in more practice. Practicing something more, should make me better at it. This was my linear thinking

Guess what? It worked! I started out with a short line and a tight set up as in traditional tenkara. With little to no slack in the line and everything off the surface of the water I was able to achieve a clean and nature drift. I got action and lots of if.

When I started, I got excited from simply recognizing that I had a hit. Over the span of a few outings, I started to improve my hook set and while I was still missing a ton of fish, I did manage to hook and land a few. In time I got better. Much better and then began lengthening my line and setup.

To cut to the chase, I improved. Eventually I transitioned into a rod and reel set up to try to reproduce my achievements. This also worked. Although the feedback was more discrete and the sensitivity dampened, I now knew what I was looking for, or rather feeling for, and could respond quicker to those minute taps and ticks. My reflexes had sped up. My focus was no longer on the visual but on the tactile, and I swear, my “naked” drifts were way more productive.

There was  definitely something to not using an indicator because I noticed, when I did use it, my numbers would often go down. I also noticed that when I used my tenkara rod to nymph, with it’s long length, my numbers often went up. And then I read this article and thought, “Hey, we’re thinking alike.” So I thought I’d re-post it here and encourage you to read it and while you do, think about tenkara. It makes sense.

4 Reasons to Ditch The Indicator


By Allen Gardner of The Catch and The Hatch

I get asked a lot, “What is the deal with this Euro-nymphing, tightline, indicator-less fishing method I keep hearing about.  Is it actually any better?”  (and yes, I get it asked exactly  like that.)  Well today, I’ve decided to answer this question from my own perspective and experience, and the results are actually quite impressive…

The reality is, that in most wade fishing scenarios, ditching the strike indicator has some serious advantages.  I used to be a pretty poor nymph fisherman and would usually catch more fish on dries than I would any method of nymphing simply due to my lack of skill.  After I dedicated a year to nymphing, I found some vast improvements.  I now catch way more fish nymphing most days than I do on dry flies.  Why do I share all of this? Well because it sets the stage for the next truth bomb.
After spending only 5 trips out on the water euro-nymphing, I was catching twice as many trout as I used to in regards to indicator-nymphing.  The difference was shocking for me.  I couldn’t see why this technique was any better, but the number of fish caught was clear evidence.
Over the years now, I’ve continued to unravel this success and I’ve broken it down into four key reasons why ditching the strike indicator is almost always the better way to go.
This article is going to convince you to try euro nymphing.  It’s ok, just go with it.  You’re also going to have a lot of questions on how to start euro nymphing, and we want to help you with that too.

1 – It Beats the Current


The current when using a strike indicator is often your enemy.  When you ditch the indicator however, you negate nearly all of the effects of the current on your flies.  The current in a column of water does not move at the same speed.  Water on the surface of the river almost always is moving faster than the water at the bottom of the river.  When you have a strike indicator floating at a faster speed than your flies down lower (where the trout are) it drags the flies and the trout catch on and will ignore your presentation.  When you remove the strike indicator, the only drag that happens from the current is on your leader/tippet, which is substantially less than before.  This difference is a key part to why tightline nymphing is so much more productive than traditional indicator nymphing.
Keep in mind this is not the case if you’re using a strike indicator from a drift boat.  On a drift boat, you cancel much of effect of the current as you’re matching the speed of the current to your drift, but there is still some that happens from the difference in speed from the top of the water to the bottom of the water.

2 – It Tightens Up Your Game


There’s a reason 50ft casts are called hero casts, because it takes a hero to make them work.  I don’t care if you’re the best angler in the world, you have a lower chance for a successful hookset and landing of a trout the further out you cast.  It’s just science.

In euro style nymphing, you make shorter casts with less line – this means you have a tightline the entire time you fish and the moment you feel a bump or see your line move in an odd way, setting the hook is near instant and results in more hookups.  (I still miss many fish this way because fish eat and spit flies quickly especially on pressured rivers so there’s never a 100% day with every eat being a hook up.  But this helps and teaches you a lot about how many fish that eat the fly and with an indicator you’d never even see it move, more or less be able to set in time.  It’s wild really.)

3 – Double Those Drifts


The more time letting your fly hunt for trout, the more trout you’ll catch.  The more time your fly can be drifting productively, the more fish you’ll catch as well.  Both of these are key as you can make a 100ft cast but only get 10ft of a good drift due to drag.
When you tightline, you get shorter, better producing casts/drifts due to what I said above.  This also means you can get more drifts in a day.  When I watch a friend fish an indicator and cast up stream 25ft and do a 15 second drift, I can fish that same water with 10 ft cast and 10 second drift.  Over time, i get more casts and longer drifts with each cast.  More drift = more fish, it’s just a numbers game at that point.

4 – You Can Adjust Your Depth With the Tip of Your Rod


It’s a pain in the butt to walk 10 ft up the river and have to mess with that strike indicator and adjust the depth.  Most of us just don’t do it and either fish the water with an improper depth, or skip the water all together to go find more water like you were just fishing.  It’s a huge mistake to do that.  What if I told you that all you had to do to adjust your depth 6 inches was raise your rod tip 6 inches?  Well now, that’s much easier isn’t it?

You can adjust your depth on every cast, or as needed.  This is huge when you’re wade fishing from a deep hole to a shallow riffle.  with an indicator, you have to adjust the rig every time you want to change depth in the river.  With a tightline technique, you can simply raise or lower your rod the amount needed to change your depth.  Makes it super easy to cover water as you wade of all different kinds (which in turn you’ll find fish in places you never thought and you’ll learn to stop walking over productive water)

And 2 Reasons to Keep the Indicator

While I’d say I tightline nymph about 80% of the time now, there are certainly some times you want to keep that strike indicator on.  let’s go over those to make this a well-rounded guide.


If you can’t reach where you want to cast with your rod tip, you won’t be able to tightline if very well, so that’s wen you use an indicator to cast further out.  There’s times where the river is too big, or the current is too strong for you to wade to the place you want. That’s when adding a method to suspend your nymphs works great.  I really like wool or yarn indicators as they are more sensitive and productive for me, but that’s a completely different guide I’ll do another time.


The other time you will struggle to euro-nymph is when you are on a drift boat.  You need to be 25-30 ft away from the drift boat most times in order to catch fish.  That’s further than you can tightline unless you have a 20ft fly rod (which i don’t think they make) so stick to the indicator in the boat.


So if you still aren’t convinced that ditching the incidator can improve your fly fishing game, then I challenge you to prove me wrong.  Go and spend 2 hours on the water.  1 hour with your method and 1 tightlining and see which catches you more fish.  I’ve done this test many times myself and I know how it turns out, which is why I tightline.

Try it out, you’ll be impressed with how easy it is to outfish your buddies and find productive water across the entire river and not just the holes.


  1. My flyfishig passion started 52 years ago and learnt all my nymphing tactics without an indicator.Overs the years have them at but was never convinced that i was hooking enough fish so always went back to fishing the way i learnt by concentrating on where line enters water.

    • Yes! So much of what we learn or discover today is really “old school methods” – that worked really well and for good reason.

  2. Michael Garrison

    Just discovered this article and thanks for sharing it Karin. I dived deep into the euro nymphing/tight lining world over the past few months and it was quite instructional. Ironically, it led me right back to tenkara. I will gladly give up the ‘versatility’ of the reel for the simplicity and focus of my tenkara set ups.

    • Thanks for reading it Michael. Tenkara lends it self to so many positive fishing outcomes. I continue to hope that this will become more and more evident to fly anglers and the industry in time. Most roads lead back to Tenkara, lol.

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