Early spring and late fall tend to bring out the smallest bugs on my local rivers. They’re almost always mayflies, though we get some prolific midge hatches here in Utah, too. Regardless, I spend a lot of my time fishing small dry flies (some would say too small), which means I spend a lot of time rigging leaders for those flies.
It’s not a complicated process. The only real hitch that comes up is when you decide to fish more than one dry fly, which I often do. I’ll explain the theory behind that, as well as rigging for fishing multiple dries, throughout the rest of this piece.
It all starts with tippet
Once flies hit the magical size 20 is when you have to pay attention to your tippet. Most folks run 5x to flies size 18 and above, which is a good rule of thumb. But that’s just too much for anything smaller than an 18, for one main reason – drag.
Thicker diameter line grabs more of the water’s surface, thereby increasing the amount of drag that currents can create. Thinner line doesn’t drag as quickly, or as disruptively, especially when tied onto a tiny fly hook. A big knot of 5x on a size 22 parachute midge causes all sorts of drag problems, and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a decent drift out of that setup.
You also need to take into account the fact that spring dry fly fishing usually means low, clear water. We’re getting these hatches before runoff hits, and even though the fish are ready for protein-rich food, they’re still skittish.
Since trout are so spooky this time of year, I like to fish a 12-foot leader with another 15-18 inches of tippet tied off the end. The length of tippet I tie on depends on the type of water I’m fishing. Long flat stretches will probably require 2-3 feet of tippet, whereas riffles or pools will only need 15 inches.
I always attach tippet to leader with a blood knot. The blood knot has a reputation for being difficult to tie, but it’s not really that bad. It offers a slimmer profile than a surgeon’s knot, and higher knot strength, as well. You’ll find that, if your leader breaks while fighting a fish, it often breaks at the knot. Blood knots tend to hold up better than anything else.
As a rule, I use 6x tippet on flies down to size 24, and 7x from 26-30. Anything smaller than a 30 gets 8 or 8.5x tippet. If I’m fishing really flat, still, low water, then I might bump down to 8x from size 24 flies on down. But I usually only make that switch if I’ve had my flies refused a few dozen times.
Use the right leader
Tippet matters, but you need the right leader, too. Small flies weigh almost nothing, which means there’s very little mass at the end of your leader and tippet, which can result in the leader not turning over effectively. This is, I think, the most common cause of tangled lines when fishing small flies. Folks tend to think that their leader needs to be both long and fine. Then, a stiff breeze picks up, or they mistime a cast, and suddenly they’re dealing with a bird’s nest of a tangle instead of fishing.
That’s why I tend to use heavier leaders, especially if I know I’m tying on a few extra feet of tippet (or more flies, which we’ll get to in a few minutes). A 4x leader makes a great starting point. It’s heavy enough to help transfer more energy down your tippet to turn over flies, but it’s not so heavy that it splashes and spooks fish.
More than one fly
If you watch carefully during a hatch, you’ll notice different rise forms when trout eat off the top. Sometimes they porpoise and show only their dorsal and tail fin. Other times, the rise is splashy and loud, or it’s the ominous slurp of a really big fish opening its mouth and sucking in dozens of flies at once.
What these rise forms tell you is what bugs the fish are eating. Often, trout may look like they’re eating a dun, when in reality they’re feeding on emergers or cripples. That’s why I almost always have at least two flies on my spring dry fly rigs. My go-to is a dun and a cripple, unless I’m fishing at the beginning of a hatch. Then the cripple gets swapped out for an emerger pattern.
In places where it’s legal, fishing the dun and two cripples, or a dun, cripple, and emerger in tandem, is one of the best ways to make sure you’re matching your flies to what the fish are eating.
Rigging this up is just like fishing a dry-dropper rig. I tie tippet off the bend of the hook, and usually put about 15 inches between the two flies. I only change tippet sizes between flies if I’m going down substantially in fly size.
Spring hatches are some of my favorite experiences, and rigging your leader for them is a lot easier than it’s made out to be. Get your flies ready and go hit the water.
Words by Spencer Durrant. Photo by @GreenRiverFlyFisher on Instagram
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor to Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.