Brown trout on an emerger
Tactics and Techniques

Targeting the Middle of the Water Column and Alternatives to the Hopper Dropper

There’s no good place to stand on the bank in the canyon.  The rocks slide down the edges until they cradle the the water that crashes over the boudlers that that make the pockets and pools for trout.  I was thigh deep in that water, rigging up and watching those pockets for clues to start my day.  I had fished the canyon a good bit since moving to Utah and it had taught me a lot already, when I watched closely enough.  

The seams in the current were out of place from when I had fished here with more water flowing from the dam, but I could still recognize the spots that had fished well.  

I tied on a guide’s choice hare’s ear with a zebra midge dropper off the hook.  It was a good set up in this section and today it seemed like a good start.  My intent was to nymph along the bottom with both flies.

Right away the fishing was good, but not what I expected.  Most of the fish were taking the  midge early in the drift as my flies were sinking in the current.  I still managed a few hook ups along the bottom on the hares ear, but it soon became clear the fish were feeding mostly in the middle, and mostly on the midge.

After an hour I’d fished a few sections of good pocket water and caught several nice browns. There was still no risers but I was seeing mayflies in the air along the bank.  Fishing was good, but more on accident than intentionally.  Time to make a change…

Clues It’s Time to Target the Middle 

I spend most of my time fishing close to the bottom when I nymph.  That’s where most of the fish are, right?  And that’s where the bugs are… most of the time.  If trout are not feeding on the bottom then there’s always dries on the surface.  We all love a good dry fly day.  

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | A Dozen Techniques for Getting Your Flies Down While Nymphing

But its not always as simple as fishing the bottom or the top.   Sometimes the trout are feeding in the in between.  Here’s a couple clues it might be worth your time to target the middle.

First, I will often switch to a mid column strategy when fish are taking the flies on the drop.  The drop is the part of the drift when the flies are still dropping down through the middle of the water column into  the strike zone along the bottom.  If trout are taking my nymphs before they have a chance to reach bottom, then it’s all happening somewhere in the middle.  

Second, when I see bugs in the air but no risers, my first thought is usually emergers.  I’m careful to observe the water to see if the trout are eating just beneath the surface.  At first, it can be hard to discern the tails or dark backs of fish pushing mounds of water on the surface, from fish eating on the surface, but after a while it will become more obvious when trout are eating bugs just below.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Emergers.  Four Ways to Fish the Forgotten Fly.

But even with no surface activity at all, if there are flies in the air, then there have been bugs hatching, and this means insects traveling up through the water column. Up through the middle.

Where to Target in the Middle

Where I attempt to place my flies in the water column depends on where I think the trout are eating.  It’s not a science, but none of this stuff is.  

The basic premise is the more action I see on top, the closer I will put my fly to the surface.  The less I think the fish are feeding in relation to some hatch, the closer to the bottom I want the flies.

Sometimes sight fishing will help you realize where trout are eating in the middle as well.  If you can see the fish rising up in the river to feed, you can start to see how deep your nymphs or emergers should be.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | What to do When it’s Raining Trout

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Sight Fishing. – Part 2 Observation

When I first started fishing to the middle of the water column, it was typically to trout eating just below the surface.  The hopper dropper (or dry dropper) was my primary tactic.  But the more I fished, the more I saw opportunities to fish the middle of the water column that were not best suited for the dry dropper technique.

Hopper Dropper – The Good

Let’s start with the good.  One of the great benefits of the hopper dropper is that there’s always a chance that the fish will take your top fly as well as the nymph or emerger that trails it.  

The other benefit is that you can fish your nymph or emerger at various depths in the water column depending on the length of your tippet to the tag fly.  This means you can show the fish your nymph floating through the strike zone on the bottom or just below your dry fly, and everywhere in between.  

For more about the benefits of fishing the Hopper Dropper:

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | When and How to Fish a Dropper. It Depends.

Hopper Dropper – The Bad

The hopper dropper (or dry dropper) is an effective way to fish the middle water column, but it’s not always the best tactic for the problem at hand.

Fishing the big dry up top can be exciting because of the chance of a take on the surface, but what about when the odds of fish eating off the surface is low.  The dry fly on top becomes more of an indicator.  This can be a good technique, especially in small streams where you want a soft presentation of your nymph, but when its obvious your not likely a fish will come up for your big foam hopper or chubby chernobyl, that lead fly is more of a wasted opportunity.  Why not fish the middle without the dry?

Also, the dropper that we fish off of the dry fly is often affected by different water speeds than those affecting the dry on the surface.  This typically means more drag on the tag fly causing it to trail behind the hopper and rise up in the water column. Something we may not want for a natural presentation.

You can mitigate this with thinner tippet and heavier droppers to help get the fly down, but what if you don’t want to fish those flies?  More importantly, what if the fish aren’t eating them?

Hopper Dropper – The Ugly

I’m sorry to disappoint, but I can’t think of anything terrible enough about the hopper dropper tactic to qualify as “ugly”.  I truly enjoy fishing dry droppers – when it makes sense.  Here are three alternatives for when it doesn’t…

Alternative 1.  Tag Fly Above Your Lead Nymph.

If there is little to no activity on the surface, I’m probably not fishing dries.  That’s just me.  I like to meet the trout on their terms and give them what they want to induce an eat.  

I have started to fish the middle of the water column from the bottom up.  I first tie on a heavier lead fly or use a drop shot method of getting my lead nymph down into the bottom of the water column.  The point is to fish that lead fly as I normally would be nymphing.  

Then, rather than tie my second fly off of the hook bend of the lead fly, I tie the emerger or nymph that I want to target the middle of the water column further up in my tippet above the lead fly.  I typically do this by tying a triple surgeon knot with an extra long tag end that becomes the tippet I use to tie on my tag fly above the lead nymph. 

As a technique, I also take that tag line and put in a single overhand knot.  This helps keep that tag fly sticking straight out at a ninety degree angle from my line and helps avoid tangles. It also helps to avoid making that tag line too long. Six to nine inches works good.

This method lets me nymph and fish the middle of the water column.  I find it keeps everything nicely in line, and in many ways makes a natural presentation in the middle easier.

Alternative 2. Fishing Flies on the Swing.

There’s another way to fish the middle of the water column that doesn’t require tag flies.  Fishing emergers, nymphs, or soft hackles on the swing is a great way to target fish feeding on emerging insects.

The biggest benefit of fishing your nymphs or emergers on the swing is that natural motion of the fly rising up to the surface.  I think this is a convincing sight for a trout.  The downside is that your fly is only in the middle for part of the drift.  This requires moving to cover water, and you are never actually set up to fish the top or the bottom.  But when it works its fun. 

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Fish the Whole Drift

Alternative 3. High Stick or Tight Line.

Finally, it’s possible to elevate your flies in the water column by simply high sticking your fly as it travels downstream.  It helps to have some type of indicator as to how deep your fly is in the water column.  This could be the sighter on a tightline rig or simply utilizing your indicator above the water.  Either way the goal is to judge how deep your flies are as they travel downstream. 

A few hookups will help you dial in where you want to be as well. That’s always the fun way to know for sure…

Finding the Sweet Spot

I didn’t change flies.  The flies were working.  I kept my hare’s ear as the lead fly and tied the midge above it at what I thought would be about halfway between the top and bottom of the pools that moved around the rocks and made the pockets that held the fish.  About three feet up.  My indicator was up another three feet from there.   I also tied a BB sized split shot about five inches below my lead fly to help get the whole rig down and help with the weeds along the bottom this time of year.

It’s hard to change things up when you’re catching fish, but sometimes it works out. The cadence picked up and the fishing did too.  The kicker was they were all on the midge, and right in the middle of the water column.  Some nice fish as well. 

I never fished a dry that day, and I never saw a riser, but it didn’t matter.  I had something even better. Figuring it out.  That’s what made that day special. 

The trout give us clues if we watch closely.  Keep an eye peeled for the clues trout are feeding in the middle and realize you have more tools than just the hopper dropper to target them. Wadeoutthere.


Jason Shemchuk

What’s your favorite way to fish the middle?  Leave a comment below.

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