May 11, 2021
The hopper-dropper rig is legendary among trout fans for producing epic late-summer and fall trout fishing on some Western rivers. But as I learned on a trip to the Dan River in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s also a very effective combo elsewhere—and it works from spring through fall.
Guide Cole Stewart fishes the Dan, the New, the Smith and other mountain streams from early spring until the opening of the Virginia deer season, when he switches to being a whitetail guide. His favorite rig for the duration of that time is a version of the hopper-dropper rig.
“I like it because it’s easy for my clients to learn to use, they rarely miss fish because the hopper is a great strike indicator and also because that dropper skims along right where the trout want it,” says Stewart.
The “strike indicator” is the operative part of the hopper-dropper, and it doesn’t have to resemble a grasshopper. On many streams where fish are particularly selective, anglers prefer dry flies dressed with floatant as the indicator.
Whatever the surface fly is, it acts as a visual tip-off to the angler when a fish strikes and also as depth control—a short dropper keeps the lower fly shallow, while a longer dropper lets it drift deep. And, of course, now and then you’ll get a take on the surface offering.
The Dan River is a spring-fed stream in its upper reaches, becoming a tailwater farther downriver. The result is prime trout water year-round, and though the upper reaches are private water inside the vast Primland Resort property, the lower stretches are open and easily accessible from the road.
Stewart’s favorite hopper-dropper setup here is a nondescript size-8 or size-10 foam hopper he ties himself, drifting about 18 inches above a size-16 bead-head nymph on 5x tippet.
“Most of the fish in this stream have been caught several times,” he says. “So if you do things wrong, you don’t catch ’em.”
We apparently did things right. My first fish of the day, a sleek 15-inch brown posed for a few quick photos before sliding back to its residence next to a boulder. Not long after came a series of little 10-inch browns from riffle upstream, all of which were eager to eat. Those fish were followed by a nice rainbow from a pool below a small waterfall, and then, amazingly, a brightly colored 14-inch brookie that Cole speculated was a refugee from downriver stocking.
Most who fish the hopper-dropper rig frequently recommend keeping leader length no longer than 9 feet (shorter on smaller streams) to make it easily castable. The main leader is typically 4x to 5x mono, tied to the hopper or dry with any dependable knot—the improved clinch or the uni knot, among others.
The dropper is usually fluorocarbon, 5x or 6x, chosen not only because it’s a bit more durable than mono but also because it sinks more readily. The length is typically 15 to 30 inches long, depending on the depth of the water you’re fishing and where you anticipate the trout to be feeding.
In general, a dropper about 1 1/2 times the overall depth most often will be close, though fast water requires a longer dropper and slow water a shorter one. It’s tied directly to the bend of the indicator fly, again with an improved clinch or uni. The floating indicator fly is typically something like a foam-bodied Chubby Chernobyl Ant, Amy’s Ant or Mutant Stone Fly, or perhaps a Muddler Minnow. If you choose a more subtle indicator, any of the parachute ties will work.
The choice of dropper fly affects the depth it will run, of course. A small, unweighted fly will drift shallow, while larger bead-heads with wire wrap and/or epoxy run deeper.
If you suspect the fish are taking subsurface insects, for example, you might choose an unweighted fly like the Pheasant Tail in size 14 to 18 and tie it on a fairly short dropper so that it drifts near the surface.
More commonly, though, the best bite will be just off bottom, and for this a bead-head, wire-wrapped nymph like the Perdigon or Bead-Head Hare’s Ear in size 12 to 16, on a leader long enough so that it skims just above the bottom without dragging, is likely a better choice. During the spring runoff or after heavy rains, a San Juan Worm is often an effective dropper fly. Whatever the choice, if the rig frequently snags, shorten up the dropper a few inches at a time until you get a clean drift—or go to a smaller/lighter fly.
The rig is not just for hopper season or when there’s a surfacing hatch of insects, but when there is, you have a potential double whammy.
Though you’re fishing a floating insect imitation as part of this rig, it can be successful when there’s no evident hatch and no terrestrials falling into the water.
Sometimes the fish are eager to pick off an offering on the surface, even though it makes no sense to the fly fishing gods.
Flying ants, termites and other terrestrials that wind up in the water along with the aquatic insects cause trout to keep one eye on the surface for potential food, and that means bonus fish on the floater.
But it’s the ability to support a nymph just off bottom in the feeding lanes that makes the hopper-dropper effective pretty much year-round.
How to Fish It
The hopper-dropper rig is generally fished quartering upstream as in dry-fly fishing to allow the longest drag-free drift. As always, look for bubble trails to mark feeding lanes—where a bubble trail flows on top, the food flows on bottom and that’s where the trout are likely to be feeding.
The outside of bends are a good prospect, especially when hoppers and other terrestrials are around on a grassy or overgrown bank. And the hopper also does a nice job of snaking the nymph into the slick water behind midstream rocks at times.
Obey all the usual journeyman fly-fisher rules, of course—wear dark clothing, stay well back from where you expect the fish to be, move slowly and quietly and minimize false casts. Also, don’t give up on a pool too soon.
Repeated drifts just a foot or so apart sometimes turn up fish that you miss with only two or three casts on a pool. And the roll cast is your best friend.
On most Eastern streams, 3- to 5-weight gear allows comfortable casting and will handle any trout you’re likely to stick. Rod lengths from 7 to 8 feet work best on small streams with lots of shoreline cover. Floating lines make sense on light, slow-action rods—a line like RIO LightLine DT Fly Line is engineered to work with these rods.
FEATURED FLOWS IN THE EAST
1. Dan River, VA
The Dan is a good trout river in a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge. Premium accommodations at 15,000-acre Primland (aubergeresorts.com/primland) are convenient and full-service but pricey. They offer complete packages including trout fishing and/or turkey and deer hunting plus golf, skeet, etc. Or contact guide Cole Stewart (theexpfishing.com) to fish the Dan and other rivers in the area.
2. Van Campens Brook, NJ
Located in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (nps.gov/dewa), this is one of the few streams in the state that harbors reproducing populations of all three trout species. Wild brookies and rainbows are regularly caught in the vicinity of Millbrook, while browns are more common downstream where it empties into the Delaware River. This is beautiful mountain country, totally unlike urbanized coastal New Jersey.
3. Spring Creek, PA
This Keystone classic is challenging and requires fine tippets, but it’s loaded with large, wild fish and the hopper-dropper is a good way of fooling them. Limestone feeder creeks, including Cedar Run, Slab Cabin Run, Logan Branch and Buffalo Run are all good trout water, as well. There’s good public access in a number of areas. The 16.5 mile-section from Oak Hill to Bald Eagle Creek in Milesburg is catch-and-release, which is why this is the most likely spot in the state to catch a trophy brown from flowing water. Check regs here.
4. Ausable River, NY
Flowing into Lake Champlain, the Ausable is a storied trout stream. Though it gets plenty of pressure, it still produces, and the hopper-dropper combo gets the type of drag-free presentations you need to score. The river has both browns and rainbows, and is easily wadable from Ausable Chasm to Clintonville. (The Chasm is worth seeing in its own right; find details at ausablechasm.com.) To access the Main Stem, anglers can find good access points and public fishing rights in the Ausable Forks area.
5. White River, VT
Offering excellent fishing for wild trout, the White gets far less pressure than the better-known Battenkill—and less of a “tube hatch” from summering families drifting by on sunny summer days. This is the Green Mountain State’s only major river free of dams, and it holds some Atlantic salmon parr, along with plenty of quality browns and rainbows. Access is easy from routes 107 and 14, though some areas are posted. Get accommodations info at whiterivervalleychamber.com.