Tactics and Techniques

When and How to Fish a Dropper. It Depends.

Fly fishing is problem solving in the pursuit of fish.  Fishing a dropper solves many problems, but when and how to do it still “depends”.  Upon what?  For me, a lot —

If you don’t know what a dropper is, when you fish two flies at the same time, the second fly you tie on is the dropper.  There are many reasons why fishing a dropper is an effective tactic for netting more fish.  I fish a dropper nine out of ten times, but there are some situations where I do not. 

When Do I Fish a Dropper?

  1. To increase the odds. I fish a dropper when I am nymphing or dry fly fishing to increase my odds of a fish taking my fly. This is the basic principle of fishing a dropper. It is all about return on investment. I usually catch more fish with a dropper set up, and it rarely costs me anything to have another fly on.
  2. To find the right fly. Fishing a dropper gives you more chances to discover the best fly for success when you are unsure of what the fish are feeding on. This is especially useful when you begin your day on the river. Hmmmmm. When was I ever unsure what the fish were biting on…?
  3. To get the fly down. The lead fly is typically the heavier fly. Tying a dropper on to a big fly such as a Wooly Bugger, or a Pats Stone can get a tiny midge down along the bottom where you want it. READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Give Your Nymph a Head Start in Deep Water.
  4. To see the fly. Often at dusk or dawn it becomes difficult to keep sight of your fly on the water. Trout eat some miniscule creatures that we mimic with flies. If you cannot see your fly on the surface, setting the hook is difficult. Tying a larger more easily acquired fly such as a Hopper, Stimulator, or Chubby Chernobyl keeps your eyes close to the smaller, harder to see fly as it drifts downstream. In the same way I choose my lead fly with a nymphing set up, I try to pick a dry fly that not only helps me see the smaller fly, but also might entice a take.
  5. To fish emergers. If the fish are feeding just below the surface, a dropper is an excellent way to reach them. In this case the lead fly acts like a strike indicator for the emerger dropper.
  6. To fish the ole “Hopper Dropper”. Mid to late summer, as the terrestrial fishing gets good on most rivers, the Hopper Dropper is a classic tactic for catching fish. Any combination of fishing the hopper as the lead fly with a dry, nymph, or emerger behind can work. There is also the “Hopper, Dropper, Dropper…” Again, I think the return on investment is just not there, but it is fun to try, and it works —sometimes.

When Don’t I Fish a Dropper?

  1. As a beginner.  As a budding fly fisherman, I fished quite a bit less with two flies because it took me longer to tie the flies on.  I understood the value of the dropper, and having patience, but I also wanted to fish.  I would tie a dropper on more and more as I got more proficient at tying the knots.  Good news!  Practice makes perfect.  If you are new to fly fishing, a dropper set up is something I would practice, but don’t let it frustrate you too much.  Take some time when the fishing is slow to work on tying on your dropper.  Once you are comfortable setting it up, my guess is you will fish a dropper quite often.
  2. In high winds.  If there are heavy winds, I usually have my hands full with just trying to manage my casts and my line.  Multiple fly set ups can be a hassle and make casting more difficult in these conditions.
  3. Around debris.  I FEAR NO TREE.  That being said — if I am fishing along the bottom or against the bank and tend to be getting snagged up and losing flies, I may back off and settle down to one.  Especially if I am running out of flies.  Flies cost money!
  4. If I am dialed in.  If I know what they are biting on and I am having great success with a particular fly, especially a dry, I will sometimes not take the time to tie a dropper on.  It’s not broke.  Don’t fix it.
  5. If I am streamer fishing.  Streamer fishing is a great way to target big fish and cover lots of water.  When I am streamer fishing, I am being deliberate with the type of fish I am going after and the ways I am fishing for them.  When I drift a streamer, I may tie a dropper on, but if I am stripping line, its usually one fly at a time.

How to Tie on a Dropper.

There are several ways to get a dropper set up, but I have settled into two basic techniques that I am comfortable with.  Both get the job done, and the only knot I use for each is the simple clinch knot.  Choosing one method is mostly personal preference.    

Tie it to the Hook. 

This involves three knots.  First tie the lead fly onto your tippet or leader with a clinch knot.  Then, tie a piece of tippet onto the bend in the hook of the lead fly.  Finally, tie the dropper onto that tippet.  This is the method that I most often use.  The hardest part is tying the tippet to the bend in the hook on the lead fly.  It helps to keep the line tight, as you work the clinch knot onto the hook bend.  I have started experimenting with using my forceps to help expedite this process.  Check out this awesome YouTube video from Kayak Hacks Fishing to see an excellent technique for tying the dropper to the hook with the help of forceps:

Tie It to the Tag. 

This involves two knots.  Tie the lead fly on as normal with a clinch knot, except, leave a very long tag line.  Then, simply tie the dropper to that tagline.  Tying only two knots can save time.

Both techniques discussed above work well for me.  I believe that tying the dropper to the hook keeps the fly down in the water column a little closer to the bottom.  The tag line method tends to cause the dropper to travel downstream a little higher up from the heavier lead fly.  It’s not much, but it is a slightly different presentation. 

What Is My Dropper Strategy?

I always tie the bigger, heavier fly as the lead fly.  I almost always use a tungsten bead head or weighted fly.  This helps balance the weight for casting.  Also, for nymphing, it helps both the flies get down to the bottom, and in front of fish.  I treat my dropper as my searcher.  I will change out the dropper more often, and leave the lead fly alone, as I attempt to find what works.

When I tie on the tippet to the lead fly, I always use the same or smaller sized line as what I have tied the lead fly on with.  This also helps with balancing the weight of the line for casting and preventing tangles.  If I am fishing very clear water, with a dry fly I tend to use one size smaller tippet to tie on my dropper.

I typically do not tie my dropper too far back from my lead fly.  Eighteen to twenty inches is about where I max out.  Twenty is stretching it.  Any more than that and I start to feel like I lose control of the flies, and that I am missing fish.  I will shorten it up to about 12 inches if I am fishing the lead fly to help see the dropper.  Keeping the flies closer makes it easier to track them, see the take, and set the hook.  I will also shorten it up to about 12 inches if I want to have less slack line while nymphing and more control.  The more tippet between the lead fly and the dropper, the more of a chance you might miss the take on the dropper, as the dropper gets caught up in different seams and currents. 

For the same reason I mend slack line during a drift for timely hook sets, I don’t want slack between my lead fly and my dropper. 

Finally, I might shorten the distance if I am fishing emergers to trout that are feeding just below the surface.  I will go as close as six to nine inches in these scenarios.  If I know I will be changing the dropper out a bit, searching for the right fly, I may be closer to the 18-20-inch range to help with eating up line as I swap out flies. 

The lead fly often helps with getting the dropper fly down, but I will still use split shot as required.  With a heavier lead fly, I may be able to use less split shot, and this helps with smooth casting.  I do not want too much weight if I am casting further out and need to build action with false casts.

I mostly cast with a dropper the same that I do with a one fly set up. The only slight difference is that I am a tad more conscious of and deliberate with my false casting. This helps prevents flies catching each other and snarls in your line. I don’t believe in a ton of false casting anyway, but with a dropper I limit it even a bit more.

Why Not Fish Multiple Droppers? 

Why not tie on 3, or 4, or 5?!?!?!  It increases the overall odds of successful hook ups, right?  I could be catching fish all day!  Hang on there ladies and gentlemen.  Two flies on the end of your line very rarely gets tangled, but the problems with twisted lines and lost flies tend to increase exponentially as you increase flies.  I do not notice a significant increase in the number of snags I am managing on the river when I fish a dropper, but I do with three.  Have I fished three?  Yes.  Do I think I earned much benefit?  Not really.  Stick with two, I say.

There are many ways to utilize a dropper.  If you are fishing well, you are problem solving.   Fishing a dropper can help you increase the odds of hooking up, find the right fly, get the fly down to where the fish are feeding, identify the fly in poor visibility conditions, fish emergers, and double up on fishing terrestrials.  Sure, there are times I do not think a dropper is best, but they are rare. 

Fish a dropper.  Catch more fish.  And as always, Wadeoutthere.

Jason Shemchuk

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  • Reply
    mike tapscott
    March 25, 2020 at 3:05 pm

    I’ve had on rare occasions used a dropper beneath a wooly bugger and it’s produced. But it seems counter-intuitive because I fish a bugger differently than, for instance, a nymph, I swing and strip a bugger but I drift a nymph, careful to avoid any drag. What do you say to what seems to me a contradiction

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      March 25, 2020 at 4:41 pm

      I have fished a bugger like a streamer and like a nymph. But that’s a great point Mike. Wooly bugger lead fly is not often my go to set up for sure…but it made a nice picture! Thanks for reading and the excellent comment. Cheers.

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