I grew up in a family of fly fishers. I was five the first time I picked up a fly rod. For years, though, I labored under the delusion that fly fishing was only fly fishing if you used a dry fly. My grandpa preached the gospel of dry flies, and he’s the one who taught my dad to fish – who then taught me. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I tied on my first nymph.
These days, it’s rare that I’m not fishing a three-fly setup. I need as many chances as legally possible to catch fish, so using a dry-dropper rig just makes sense.
For those who haven’t fished more than one fly, or haven’t fished multiple flies without using a bobber, a dry-dropper rig can be a bit intimidating. Today, we’ll break down the basics of what you need to know about this effective method of fly fishing.
Why a dry fly?
Trout eat most of their food below the surface. While we all love catching fish on dries, the reality is that dry flies make up a tiny part of their diet. So, why would I tie one on, instead of fishing as many nymphs as I can beneath an indicator?
The answer is twofold.
First, you’ll get a better, more natural drift with a dry fly instead of a bobber. I can’t count how many times I’ve thrown a cast with an indicator, three flies, and some split shot, upriver, only to see trout scatter the moment all that junk hits the water. With a dry fly and a nymph tied below it, your presentation is much more subtle. Only the most skittish of trout swim off when a dry fly lands near them in low, clear water conditions.
The second reason to use a dry fly is that it’s often far more responsive than a bobber. Trout don’t always eat flies with enough force to drag a bobber underwater. Generally, you’ll see more takes – and theoretically catch more fish – when you fish a dry-dropper rig.
Think of it like this – a dry fly has less mass, and creates less surface tension (generally speaking) than a strike indicator does. This should mean that every movement of your dropper is magnified in your dry fly’s movements. So, when a fish does take your dropper, you’re able to set the hook quicker and more effectively than with an indicator.
I like fishing three flies where regulations allow. Some streams – including ones I’ve fished in Montana and Oregon – allow only two barbless hooks. So, check the regulations before hitting the water.
Regardless of regulations, though, you can follow the same formula I use here in the Rockies.
I start with a do-it-all fly on top, unless I see something specific hatching. Usually, I’ll fish a parachute Adams in a size 14-16. During summer, I swap the Adams out for a deer hair caddis.
After that, I tend to drop my first nymph about 15-20 inches below my dry fly. If I used 4x leader to tie down to my dry fly, I use 5x to tie on all my nymphs. I tie the tippet off on the bend of the hook with the tried-and-true clinch knot.
My first nymph is usually some variation of the Hare’s Ear or Frenchie. I’ve fished across most of the West, and up to Alaska, and I keep coming back to the same dozen or so nymphs that produce everywhere I find trout. Once, I even caught a king salmon on a Hare’s Ear – in Idaho.
The point is, go with a fly that you’re confident in here. But don’t make it too big, or it’ll drag down your dry fly. If I used a size 14 parachute Adams on top, I’ll fish a size 16 Hare’s Ear underneath. In the event I get to fish three flies, it’s hard to beat the venerable zebra midge. As my buddy Clark said once, “I don’t know if you need any other flies besides a caddis and a zebra midge.”
My bottom fly is almost always size 18 or smaller. As a rule, I put my smallest – and lightest – flies last. This turns your flies over better while casting, and reduces the chance of tangling up, in my experience.
This is the easy part – just go out and fish. It takes a bit of getting used to when you’re throwing flies rigged up like this, but it’s not too bad. Slow down your cast a bit and you won’t have too many problems. Remember to get a drag-free drift on your dry fly, and that if it does anything remotely unnatural, to set that hook.
That’s really all there is to dry-dropper rigs. I like them because it allows me to fish different parts of the water column at the same time, and it’s a great rig to use while prospecting a new river.
So, next time you head to the water, think about giving this rig a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Words by Spencer Durrant
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. Spencer is currently the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor to Hatch Magazine. His work has been published nationally for nearly a decade. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.