Fly Fishing with a Dry Dropper Rig
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
A dry dropper rig is one of my favourite fly fishing methods and my first choice for many small streams and medium rivers. What is a dry dropper rig? It's a tandem rig of two flies with the dry floating on top of the water and a nymph hanging below, either tied off the bend of the dry or on a dropper tag. The same rig is used for hopper dropper fishing, the dry fly, in this case, being a hopper pattern.
When to fly fish with a dry dropper rig
I fish a dry dropper rig in many situations and it is often my first choice, particularly on small streams and medium-size rivers. It's also my first choice when sight fishing in clear shallow water. It can even be used effectively in lakes. Fly fishing with a dry dropper rig is a very versatile method.
The main determining factor for me to choose a different method is the depth of the water the fish are holding. There is a limit on how long you can make the dropper and still fish and cast effectively. I won't fish a dry dropper rig if the fish are holding deeper than 3 feet. It's not so much the depth of the water but where the fish are in the water column.
It's possible to fish with a dry-dropper setup in a deep pool if the fish are holding high up in the water, actively feeding and even willing to rise. But when the fish are holding hard on the bottom of a deep pool and aren't willing to move then another method is a better choice. That's why I normally swap to a double nymph rig in winter when the fish are holding deep or in summer on big rivers where I know the fish tend to hold deeper in pools. The same applies to lakes. If the fish are active near the surface a dry dropper rig may be a great option and is referred to as plonking.
How to set up a dry dropper rig
There are two basic setups that can be used to construct a dry dropper rig. The first is to tie the nymph from the bend of the hook of the dry and the second is to tie the dry on a dropper tag above the nymph.
Before we discuss the merit of each method, when and why to use it let's look at the general construction. This is essentially the same for each method.
A weight forward floating line is my preference for dry dropper fishing. Currently, I use a Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth Infinity fly line. I like to overline the rod to help load the rod more easily at short distances and make roll casting easier as well. Make sure your line floats well for easy mending to achieve a drag-free drift.
I use a tapered leader from the fly line and normally attach it with a loop to loop connection. There are endless discussions on the best connection but I prefer the loop to loop connection for the ease it provides in changing setups.
For most of my dry dropper fishing I use a 9' foot 3x - 5x tapered leader. It works well to turn over the flies up to a 12 to 15 foot total length (to the dry). I rarely fish more than this in the North Island, even when sight fishing. In the South Island it is apparently commonly required to fish leaders of 18-20 foot. While I have no experience fishing such long leaders I have watched videos of Alex from Trippin on Trout effectively using a 7 foot floating poly leader to turn over such long leaders and catch stunning browns in the South Island backcountry on dry dropper rigs. It's worth checking out his videos if you are planning a trip to South Island or that is where you are based. I will try a poly leader this summer to see how it works. Keep in mind that in the Taupo region there is a limit on how long your leader may be.
Tippet Length & Diameter
The length of the tippet from the tapered leader to the first fly varies based on a number of factors. Your casting ability, the diameter of the tippet, the size and resistance of the dry, the weight of the nymph and wind all have an impact on the length of the overall leader you will be able to turn over. The important part is that you are able to turn over and lay out the flies easily, gently and precisely.
If you struggle to turn over the flies, keep shortening the additional tippet you added to the tapered leader until you are able to do so. I usually start with 3 foot of tippet to the dry fly on a medium-size river while on small streams I generally add nothing. Instead, I use a 4x - 5x tapered leader or cut back a heavier tapered leader and replace it with a thinner tippet if needed.
The length of the tippet between the dry fly and the nymph should be roughly 1.5 times the water depth you are fishing. The water depth is the depth the fish you want to reach are holding, not necessarily the bottom of the river or lake. If you need to make your dropper longer than 3 feet you may want to reconsider the method you are using to go to the depth you need to be at.
If you ask any kind of question about which knots to use for connecting tippet to leader and tippet to fly etc. you will likely spark a lively debate. Instead I will tell you my preferred choices and you can do further research.
To create a loop in the leader (if there isn't one) I use a figure of eight loop knot but the perfection loop is also popular. I attach my tippet to my leader with a 3 turn surgeons knot and I also use this knot to create a dropper tag if that's how I am planning to attach my dry.
I used to attach my flies with a uni knot but I have recently shifted to a double davy knot, mainly because it works well on short dropper tags when I am euro nymphing. There are many other popular knots and if you are comfortable with a knot already there is probably no need to change.
Off the bend VS On a dropper
There is some debate about the best method and personal preference does play a role as well. My preference is to tie my nymph off the bend. I learnt that way and I feel the dry fly rides naturally on the water. The biggest problem I have with this method is that it's not great for barbless dry flies. I squash my barbs anyway but the tippet can't slide past where the barb used to be. When I fish with barbless flies I seem to lose my dropper mid cast at times. I can only attribute this to the tippet sliding off the smooth hook due to the effects of casting. I would be curious to hear if this is problem others have as well. Tying off the bend also requires a complete re-tie of the rig if you want to change out the dry fly you are using.
I have started using the dropper tag method a lot for my euro nymphing but have not used it at all for dry dropper fishing, so I can't really comment on the benefits of it. Obviously, it makes it easier to change the dry fly. But the one thing that is unknown to me is if a heavy nymph will pull the dry fly upright or make it sit strangely on the water if there is downward tension on the hook eye. It's something I plan to test this summer as I am more frequently fishing with fully barbless hooks rather than debarbed hooks. If you have experience with this method let me know what your thoughts are in the comments. Additionally, if the fish takes the dry and the nymph snags on something during the fight there is more chance of the nymph breaking off without pulling the hook out of the fish's mouth.
Choosing flies for a dry dropper rig
Fly choice is almost unlimited and can be daunting if you are new to this. The first thing I think of when I get to the water, after deciding to use a dry dropper rig, is how fast the water is flowing and how rough the surface is. Fast boisterous pocket water requires a dry that floats really well and is visible. It should be able to hold up a reasonably weighted nymph that can get down quickly. A crystal clear glide with a shallow sighted brown will require a delicate small fly and an unweighted nymph presented very carefully. Below are some flies I use very often with details of when and why.
My first choice when prospecting new water the Royal Wulff is an unbeatable fish-catching fly. It's perfect for dry dropper fishing as it floats really well. Go for a size 10 for faster pocket water.
Pair a royal wulff with another classic, the hare and copper. The size 10 can float a size 12 tungsten bead and floats well in rougher water. Rainbows and browns both love these flies in the backcountry.
Adam's Parachute (Red Post)
A great variation on the original Adam's parachute, the red post enhances visibility. Parachute flies like this float very well and you can easily hang small tungsten nymphs under this fly.
I use it for very skinny or slow water that needs a delicate presentation and they also work on fussy browns. Ideally partnered with a size 14 flashback pheasant tail nymph on a dropper to suit the depth of the water.
Flashback Pheasant Tail
My favourite fly of all time and my first choice for a dropper fly. Use a size 16 in skinny water under a parachute adams for shy fish or those fussy browns.
Size 14 is my go-to search pattern for a range of water. I'll go put to size 12 with a high floating dry fly like a royal wulff or cicada if I need to get deep or I am fishing fast and rough pocket water.
Hare & Copper
My second favourite fly, only by the smallest of margins. I often find a hare and copper outperforms the pheasant tail in the backcountry for some reason. I have had days where they don't want anything else.
This is my favourite pattern to fish under a foam cicada (hopper) pattern in size 12. I find they often work well in larger sizes so I rarely fish smaller than a size 14.
Tips for fly fishing with a dry dropper rig
Practice makes perfect they say and that is the case with any fly fishing method. You can speed up the process by learning from others. If you are new to fly fishing or have never fished with a dry dropper rig go with someone that knows their stuff and learn from them. Watching and learning from an experienced fly fisher is invaluable. A good guide can be worth every dollar spent when you are starting out and the same goes for joining an active club. I learnt a lot from joining a club when I started and I am again part of one. You meet like-minded people and inevitably that leads to new opportunities and learning from others.
Below are some videos of my fly fishing adventures where I am using a dry dropper rig on various rivers and streams. You may find some useful information in them along with hopefully some entertainment.