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Trout Fishing and the Dropper Fly

Trout Fishing and the Dropper Fly
Photo by Jimmy Jacobs

Here's what you need to know about fishing dropper fly rigs

An old adage reminds us that two heads are better than one. Expanding on that idea, it stands to reason that two hooks also should be better than one. Adding a dropper fly when rigging for rainbow trout is one way to prove the effectiveness of that supposition.

A dropper rig is essentially a method of doubling your chances of enticing a fish to bite. That goal is achieved by adding an extra strand of tippet material below the fly attached to the end of your main leader.

This method has become quite popular over the last couple of decades, as it moved into the mainstream of angling tactics throughout trout country.

dropper fly
A dropper rig is essentially a method of doubling your chances of enticing a fish to bite. (Photo by Jimmy Jacobs)

But, as with much in our society, what goes around comes around. Using two or more flies in tandem is not a new angling method. Some of America's earliest fly-fishing literature from the Northeastern states described fishing up to five wet flies on tandem rigs. Those were cast quartering downstream and swung across the current to fool the brook trout of the Mid-Atlantic and New England states early in the 19th century.

More recently there have been some innovations in this approach. Modern fishermen have added a bit of sophistication to this type of angling. 

This is a good spot to insert a word of caution. There are certain times and places when using multiple flies is not legal. In most areas where single-hook rigging is mandated, the rules also stipulate that using two different flies is permitted, as long as each has but one hook. 

On the other hand, there are waters where the use of tandem rigs of any kind are not allowed. Be sure to check the regulations covering where you plan to fish before tying on that dropper!

That said, let's take a closer look at how and why you might want to try fishing with a dropper rig.


The biggest innovation in tandem fly fishing has been the development of the dry-dropper rig. Simply put, it is a dry fly fished on the surface and usually a nymph pattern suspended under it. The rig also is used for suspending patterns such as San Juan Worms, egg patterns or offbeat offerings like the Y2K. It even is possible to put larger flies like a Woolly Bugger under bigger dry patterns.

Rather than the traditional swing across the current used with tandem rigs, the dry-dropper allows you to dead drift the lower fly with the current. If you avoid drag on the rig, this presents a very realistic motion in the current for the lower fly, which is the biggest advantage the rig offers.

This kind of setup provides a method of exploring all portions of the water column to see where most of the fish are feeding. By changing the length of the dropper section of leader, you can adjust where the fly is drifting in relation to the surface and bottom of the stream.

Of course, another advantage is that your presentations may tempt fish that are inclined to feed on the surface, as well as the ones staying deeper looking for nymphs. Ordinarily your top fly will be a big bushy attractor fly. That's because, if there is a hatch coming off and the trout are readily taking surface offerings, most of us would not bother with a dry-dropper, but rather would try to match the hatch. 

When there is no surface action, the attractor may prove too tempting a morsel for the fish, drawing them to the top. But if that's not working, we still have the dropper bumping them in the nose down below. 

Another place a dry-dropper can be effective is in pocket water within rapids or riffles. Trying to get a natural presentation with a sub-surface fly in a slick that is only a couple of feet long and surrounded by rushing currents can be tough. But, if that nymph is under a dry fly, the rig can be "high-sticked" from a distance by landing the cast at the head of the pocket. The drift is likely to be short and quick, but in such circumstances that's usually all that is required. A rainbow holding there likely is used to making quick decisions about possible forage that appears.

Keeping your rod tip high while the dry-dropper hits the surface can provide those important few seconds of drift that takes trout from spots most anglers never even attempt to fish.

dropper fly
A Wulff-style dry fly and a nymph dropper is a classic two-fly combo. (Photo by Jimmy Jacobs)


Now that we know why a dry-dropper is worth fishing, the next question is how to set up the rig. Probably the most common method is also the easiest. After tying the dry fly to the end of your leader, you next take a length of tippet material and tie it off the bend of the dry fly hook. Usually you want this dropper segment to be of lesser strength than the main leader. That way, if the nymph gets hung on an obstruction causing you to break off, you have a better chance of losing only one fly instead of two. You next tie the nymph or other sinking fly to the end of the dropper segment of tippet. 

Another facet of the rig for getting the fly deeper if necessary is adding some weight. Often a bead-head pattern is the choice for deeper presentations, or a split shot weight can be added to the dropper leader just above the lower fly.

A concern sometimes voiced by anglers is that the tippet coming off the bend of the hook may interfere with a hookup if a rainbow tries to take the dry fly. While that does seem like a possibility, years of fishing such rigs has shown that if it is a concern at all, it is a very minor one. The hook on the dry is still functional to do its work of hooking fish.


Another method of rigging that is less commonly used, but highly praised by some anglers, is using a tag end of the main leader for the dropper.

This rig is accomplished by threading an excessive amount of tippet through the eye of the dry fly. After tying the knot to secure the upper fly, this can leave as much as 18 to 24 inches on the tag end. The lower fly then is tied on this tag.

While setting up such a rig is a bit more difficult, it does provide several advantages. Most anglers find that this setup leads to much less tangling of the two flies during casting, which can be a problem, especially on windy days, than does the bend-of-the-hook setup. 

Additionally, having the dropper come off the front of the dry fly can aid in getting a more natural presentation on the surface. When the tippet comes off the bend, the dry fly can be more prone to "drowning" due to drag when the lower fly hesitates in the current


Another variation of the dropper system is taking a page from our forebears on the water and rigging more than one fly for fishing beneath the surface.

This can be done by setting up a rig with multiple nymphs or wet flies, but more often these days involves stringing a nymph pattern behind a Woolly Bugger or heavy streamer fly. This kind of setup can get a nymph down near the bottom, while at the same time providing another size of fly to tempt the fish.

This option also allows for the use of either of the rigging systems described earlier for the dry-dropper setup.


The modern incarnations of multi-fly rigs offer a variety of ways to put your offering in front of trout, regardless of where in the water column they are feeding. Whether you consider these rigs a step forward or a blast from the past, you are wise to have them in you arsenal of trout tactics.

You might even end up with the rare opportunity of hooking two trout on a single cast!

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