This guide is aimed at teaching you everything you need to know about dry-dropper rigs, how to set them up, and most importantly, how to fish them.

If you’ve read some of my articles, you know how much I love using a dry-dropper rig. It’s no secret that I think it’s the best technique out there. I’ve been using it for as long as I can remember, so get ready for an information overload.

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What Is a Dry Dropper Rig?

A dry dropper system allows you to fish a combination of a dry and subsurface fly.

dry dropper rig

Let’s look at each fly and what attributes it should have.

Dry Fly

The dry fly probably has the most demanding job of the two flies because it has three essential functions:

1. It needs to stay afloat even with the weight of the nymph suspended from it. For this reason, I choose a very buoyant fly like a Tabanas, CDC & Elk, or my Ultimate Parachute Adams.

2. It acts as a strike indicator when a fish eats the nymph. This means that it should be highly visible at all times to allow the angler to track it as it drifts down a section of water.

3. While doing all of this, the dry fly should also look realistic or at least entice a trout’s interest. After all, what’s more satisfying than seeing a trout slowly rise to a dry fly?

Subsurface

On the other hand, the subsurface has it pretty easy, but it still needs a couple of key features:

  1. The sink rate of the subsurface fly should be suited to the conditions. If the fish are holding deep, a heavy tungsten bead is required. In shallow water, a jig nymph with a 2mm bead is perfect.
  2. If trout are eating emerging nymphs, you can also fish unweighted flies such as the Iris Caddis.

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Benefits of Using a Dry Dropper Rig

So, why in the world would we strap a nymph to the back of a dry fly? Well, here’s a summary of the key benefits:

dry fly fishing fish on hooked on river in the fall spring

  • The dry dropper rig allows you to cover a wide portion of the water column.
  • On windy days, the nymph anchors your dry on the water, making it easier to control drifts and make casts.
  • If a fish rises to your dry fly and refuses or you miss the strike, it may still eat the nymph in the next couple of casts.
  • It’s easy to switch to full nymphing.

Where to Use a Dry Dropper Rig

I use the dry-dropper rig in two main scenarios, namely:

Small Streams

I always use a dry dropper rig on a small stream. The only time that I go to a single fly is when the fish only come up for the dry or if I decide to cast some small Micro Buggers.

Fly fishing on small streams

The rest of the time, you’ll find my rod rigged with a dry and dropper.

New Water

One of the best ways to explore new rivers and streams is with a dry dropper rig.

How to Set Up a Dry Dropper Rig

Although the principles remain the same in that you’re suspending a subsurface fly from a dry fly, there are three ways to do it. Each method has its distinct pros and cons, but all remain highly effective.

Each of these setups can be tied to your favorite leader, whether it’s a shop-bought tapered leader or a self-tied one. Let’s look at how to set each system up.

Surgeon’s Knot

I use the Surgeon’s Knot method most of the time.

Pros:

  • Least visible to fish

Cons:

  • The strength of the connection relies heavily on your knot-tying ability, so practice the setup repeatedly.
  • It takes longer to reset and retie if a problem occurs or the dry fly’s tag becomes too short.

Process:

surgeon's knot step 11. Tie a 3- or 4-foot piece of tippet to the end of your leader. I recommend using a tippet ring here because the leader won’t shorten every time you need to replace a tippet section.
In this way, you’ll be able to fish one leader for almost an entire season.

2. Cut another 2 feet of tippet from the spool.

surgeon's knot step 33. Join the loose end of the first piece of tippet (orange) to one of the loose ends of the other piece of tippet (chartreuse) with a double Surgeon’s Knot.

4. Trim off only the tag end of the second piece of tippet (chartreuse).

5. surgeon_s knot step 4The dry fly will be attached to the tag end of the first piece of tippet (orange), but the problem is that this tag end tends to turn around the second piece of tippet (chartreuse).

6. We need to create a right angle between the tag end and the tippet line to mitigate this. We achieve this by making an overhand knot with the tag end around the tippet’s second section (chartreuse).

surgeon's knot step 67. Attach the dry fly with your favorite knot to the short tag end.

8. Attach the nymph to the end of the other piece of tippet.

Truck and Trailer

I know many anglers that only use the truck and trailer method. With this system, the nymph’s tippet section is attached to the dry fly’s hook’s bend. This detail is why it’s not the preferred method to use, as you see many fish missing the fly or foul hooked.

I recommend practicing this method as it’s a speedy way to incorporate a nymph into your dry fly rig if you need to make a quick change.

Pros:

  • Quick to adapt and tie
  • The dry fly does not spin around the tippet.

Cons:

  • In my experience, fewer fish stick when they eat the dry.
  • There’s a potential to foul hook fish, especially if the dropper section is too short.
  • The dry fly’s movement is much more restricted, resulting in an unnatural drift.

Process

  1. truck and trailer step 1Tie a 3- or 4-foot piece of tippet to the end of your leader. I recommend using a tippet ring here because the leader won’t shorten every time you need to replace a tippet section. In this way, you’ll be able to fish one leader for almost an entire season.
  2. truck and trailer step 2Attach a buoyant dry fly to the end with your favorite knot. (I use a standard clinch knot here.)
  3. Attach a new piece of tippet to the bend of the dry fly’s hook with your preferred knot.
  4. Measure the new piece of tippet to be around 2 feet long and cut it to length.
  5. truck and trailer step 3Attach a nymph to the end of the tippet section with your preferred knot.

Tippet Ring

The third option you have is to use a tippet ring, which essentially replaces the Surgeon’s Knot in the first method. Tippet rings are small and durable, making them perfect for this purpose, especially when you’re fishing in slightly off-colored water and to fish that don’t see many flies.

Pros:

  • Easy to set up and quick to replace if anything goes wrong. I know many guides that also prefer this method, especially when guiding new anglers.

Cons:

  • Weary fish spook easily for the excess bulk of the tippet ring and accompanying knots.

Process

  1. tippet ring step 1Tie a 3- or 4-foot piece of tippet to the end of your leader. I recommend using a tippet ring here because the leader won’t shorten every time you need to replace a tippet section. In this way, you’ll be able to fish one leader for almost an entire season.
  2. tippet ring step 2Tie a short 4-inch section of tippet to the same tippet ring.
  3. Attach the dry fly to the short piece of tippet.
  4. Attach the nymph to the long piece of tippet.

How to Fish a Dry Dropper Rig

Dry dropper rigs work well on both rivers and lakes. Let’s look at the fundamentals of each method.

Rivers

One of the best things about the dry dropper is the versatility it gives you on the water. You can fish it in a traditional dry fly style, making relatively long casts and setting up long drifts.

A fly angler wading through a river and fishing in a beautiful day.

On the other side of the scale, dry-dropper rigs work exceptionally well in close-quarter fishing, like pocket water. In this scenario, the best way is to use Euro nymphing techniques to allow short but dragless drifts.

In both cases, setting up a drag-free drift is of paramount importance. In most cases, with the odd exception here and there, a fish won’t eat either fly if there’s any drag. So the key is to allow the fly to drift down naturally while maintaining enough contact for an instant hook set.

Lakes

When using a dry-dropper rig on a lake, the wind is your friend. Use the wind to set up long drifts to cover as much water as possible. Cast the flies into likely fish-holding areas and allow the wind to drift them into the zone.

Fly Fishing in lakes

Keep a close eye on the dry fly, as fish will sometimes take the nymph very subtly.

Conclusion

Whether you are a lake or river fly angler, I’m confident that the dry dropper rig will up your game. If you haven’t tried it out before, give it a try for a day on the water, and I’m sure it’ll help you catch more fish.

Please share this article with your fellow anglers and friends. Also, leave any comments or questions at the bottom of the page.

Until next time!