Updated: Jan 9
Dry dropper rigs are unique. They allow fly fishermen to cover various depths of the water column without giving up the opportunity to land a trout on a dry fly.
Picture this: You’ve fished hard all day and covered a lot of ground watching for rising trout. You finally spot the pod of risers that gets your heart pumping. You see the fish feeding right below the surface, and decide to tie on your favorite emerger pattern. After several perfectly executed slack line casts, you’ve landed exactly zero fish. You saw a few trout show interest, but once they came within 2 inches of your fly, they turned their nose in refusal. If there was ever a time for a dry dropper rig, this is it.
What is a dry dropper rig, how to set it up, and which flies to use?
A dry dropper rig is a technique that involves fishing two flies at the same time. One fly rides on/in the surface film, while the second fly (the dropper), is fished subsurface. This allows you to cover multiple levels of the water column, increasing the odds of presenting the fly at the same depth the fish are feeding in. So what are some ways to set up a dry dropper rig?
Dry dropper setup method # 1: Dropper attached to the tag end of the dry fly knot.
With this method, the dropper is attached to the untrimmed tag end of the leader tippet that’s used to tie on the dry fly.
1. Tie a dry fly onto the end of the leader as you typically would, EXCEPT, leave a long section (8-10 inches) of tippet (tag) hanging off of the knot. Typically you would trim this extra tippet off after completing your knot, but to set up this dropper rig leave it hanging. Preferably at a 90 degree angle pointing down from the dry fly.
To minimize tangles, keep your hanging tippet tag length between 8-10 inches long.
If possible, tie the knot to your dry fly with the tag end pointing down, this will decrease the side to side spinning if your dropper during the cast.
The dropper fly should be lighter in weight and approximately the same air resistant as the dry fly to prevent wind knots.
Choose your dropper fly wisely, you’ll only be able to change it once or twice before the tag end gets cut too short to work with.
Before attaching the dry fly, make sure to start with a tippet that’s 10-12 inches longer than you would typically use if you were fishing the dry by itself. This is because the dry will actually be tied in 8-10 inches shorter than the end of the leader.
Can be set up without needing to attach any additional tippet.
Feels similar to casting a dry fly by itself, so it won’t take long to adjust to.
Because the dry and dropper are both connected to the same tippet, only one or two dropper pattern changes can be made before the tag end is too short. After a few dropper pattern changes: the dry fly must be removed, a new tippet section must be tied to the end of the leader, then the dry fly tied back on, then the new dropper tied back on (A lot of time and work!).
The dropper fly is connected to monofilament tippet. Mono floats well, which is great for dry fly fishing, but it distracts subsurface flies from getting down to the depths that they’re designed to be fished in.
Best flies for this dry dropper rig:
Soft Hackle Hare’s Ear (unweighted)
Soft Hackle Caddis pupa (unweighted)
Attaching the dropper to the tippet tag is simple because there’s no additional tippet added to the rig. This is great for efficiency, so if you plan on fishing a dropper for a short stint on the water, it can save you time. However, Due to the limited number of dropper fly changes that can be made, this method makes it tough to fish a dropper for extended periods without needing to retie the entire setup.
Dry dropper setup method #2: Dropper tied to the hook eye of the dry fly.
With this method, the dropper is connected by adding 12-18 inches of fluorocarbon tippet to the dry fly’s hook eye after the dry has been tied to the end of the running tippet. Davy knots should be used for both attachments.
1. Start by tying a dry fly onto the end of the leader using a Davy knot. This is the preferred knot because it’s small and allows enough room in the hook eye for step 3.
2. Take a piece of fluorocarbon tippet and cut to 12-18 inches, the length depends on the depth you would like your dropper to be fished at.
3. Connect the fluorocarbon to the hook eye of the dry fly using a Davy knot, making sure the longer end of the tippet points down from the fly upon the knot’s completion. Snip off the shorter tag end of the fluorocarbon.
4. Attach the dropper fly to the free hanging end of the fluorocarbon tippet using an improved clinch knot.
The dropper fly should be significantly lighter in weight, and at least 2 sizes smaller than the dry. Because it sits directly below the dry, if the dropper is too heavy, it can easily pull the dry below the surface (using flies made of foam will significantly improve this and allow for heavier and larger droppers to be used, but at the same time decrease the ease of strike detection).
For the same reason, ample amounts of floatant should be added to the dry fly (make sure not to get any on the dropper or it will be a real pain to get it to sink).
Don’t be afraid to add some motion to this rig. The direct connection between the two flies helps them pull back and forth against each other, which fish often see as natural movement.
The dropper rides directly below the dry, so swirling surface currents won’t impede a drag free drift.
The dropper has a very direct connection with the dry, which helps with strike detection (less so if the dry is made of foam).
The direct connection mentioned above causes both flies to move in almost exact tandem. If there is a significant difference in current speeds between the surface and the dropper’s depth, they will unnaturally pull against each other, making a drag free drift very difficult to achieve. Because of this, fishing this rig in riffles with a fast surface current can be problematic.
When fishing small dry flies (size 20 or smaller) very small tippet (7x or lighter) must be used so both knots can fit through the hook eye.
Best flies for this dry dropper rig:
Elk Hair Caddis
Foam terrestrials such as Beatles, Ants, and Hoppers
RS2 (squeezed wet)
Caddis Larva (unweighted)
This dropper rig creates a very direct connection between the dry and dropper. This is great for strike detection as well as being able to add intentional movement to both flies. The challenge comes in fitting two knots through one hook eye, as well as limitations on types of water it can be fished in. This rig works best in uniform current seems that have a similar speed between the surface and the depth the dropper is floating in.
Dry dropper setup method #3: Dropper tied to the dry fly’s hook bend.
With this method, the dropper is connected by adding 6-24 inches of fluorocarbon tippet to the dry fly’s hook bend after the dry has been tied to the end of the running leader.
2. Take a piece of fluorocarbon tippet and cut to 6-24 inches, the length depends on the depth you would like your dropper to be fished in.
3: Create a loop on one end of the fluorocarbon tippet in one of two ways: Create a slip knot on one end of the fluorocarbon.
If you have a pair of forceps, try this nifty method: Quick Dry Dropper Loop.
4: Slip the loop you just created over the hook bend of the dry fly and pull slowly to tighten it down. Clip off the short tag end of the knot.
The fluorocarbon tied to the hook bend should be at least 1 size smaller than the mono that the dry is tied to. Example: if the mono tippet is 5x, the fluorocarbon tippet should be 6x or smaller
Strike indication can be a little challenging, set on any unnatural movement of the dry fly and keep your eyes focused below the surface. Even though the dropper is underwater, often times you can still see the fish take before the dry fly moves.
Shorten the length of the dropper tippet in windy conditions to minimize tangles.
Use the smallest dry you can that will stay afloat with the added weight of the dropper. The smaller the dry, the easier the strike detection will be.
Have your fly floatant handy, preferably the powder variety since you may need to reapply more often than usual.
Allows for wide variation in length of dropper.
The dropper has less of a “direct connection” with the dry fly than it does with the dropper tied to the hook eye rig. This allows the dropper fly to float more freely and naturally because it’s not as impacted by the dry fly’s movement.
Can use droppers that have some (not too much) weight built into the fly
Can be fished in several different water types, including fast riffles and runs.
Because of the decrease in direct connection, strike detection takes a little more effort.
Can be challenging to cast in windy conditions without creating tangles if the dropper tippet is too long
Attaching the dropper tippet to the hook bend is a little time consuming, and requires some practice at home before trying it on the stream.
Best flies for this dry dropper rig:
Parachute or other low riding flies with a very visible post. Examples: Parachute Adams, Klinkhammer, Floating Nymphs
Dry flies that ride too “up right”, including any fly with foam built into it, do a poor job of indicating a strike to the dropper.
As mentioned, flies with some weight built into them such as with sparse lead wraps can be used, but stay away from tungsten bead heads with this rig, most are too heavy and will quickly pull your dry underwater
Pheasant Tail Nymph
Any of your favorite subsurface flies minus streamers
This setup tends to be my go to. When I use a dry dropper rig, my primary focus is fishing the dropper. This method allows for the dropper to drift naturally even through faster moving currents. The only time I deviate from it is when wind conditions require me to. It takes practice to be able to attach the tippet to the hook quickly (and is pretty dang hard with cold hands!), but once that skill is developed, the pros far outweigh the cons.