What is a Dry-Dropper Rig, and Why Is It an Effective Fly Fishing Technique?
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
What Is a Dry-Dropper Rig?
You might have heard this term before from other anglers on the river or while you walked around inside a fly shop. A dry-dropper rig is simply fly fishing with both a dry fly and a nymph simultaneously. In this rig, the dry fly is taking the place of an indicator and will float on the surface while it suspends a nymph under the water. Typically, the dry fly will be floating on the surface with the nymph drifting 12-24 inches under water beneath the dry.
If a fish takes the dry fly you will know it...because you visually see it happen. If the fish takes the nymph, you will see the dry fly dip under the water or stall out in the current. Lesson being: always be ready to set the hook if that dry fly goes under, it could be a snag or it could be a fish eating the nymph.
Another term this rig could fall under is hopper-dropper, and that is simply using a grasshopper pattern for the dry fly and suspending the nymph underneath it. And while this article will focus on using this technique for trout, it is definitely effective when you fly fish for bass, panfish, carp, perch, and so on.
There are a few ways to tie on a dry-dropper rig to your leader (Read: 3 Ways to Create a Dry-Dropper Rig). For now, below is an illustration of a basic dry-dropper rig:
When and Why Should You Use a Dry-Dropper?
Here's a common situation you might run into while fly fishing:
You show up to a new river, a new stretch of river, or your home water and look out into the current. There is not a lot of activity going on. There are a few insects buzzing about and a single trout rose downstream, but besides that the river is not offering a whole hell of a lot of information about what the trout are feeding on. So, what fly should you tie on and try first?
In general, we know that trout primarily feed on aquatic insects under the water so we would like to use some nymphs, but there are those bugs fluttering around the air so it could also be worthwhile to also cast a dry fly. So, we would like to use two flies to work the water in order to help us narrow down which fly patterns are productive on this given day. Using the dry-dropper, you can do this and begin to cover water to key in on what the trout are eating.
You tie on your dry and nymph, and begin prospecting. Maybe nothing takes either fly, so you change out the dry, the nymph, or both and continue fishing. After a while, and perhaps a few more fly changes later, you start to connect to trout. Great! Was it on the nymph, the dry, or did both flies get bites? Take a mental note and keep fishing.
Further along, you might notice that the trout are just taking the dry. Perfect, then clip off the nymph and just cast the dry fly. Or, if they are only taking the nymph, then clip off the dry fly, tie on a second nymph (the same pattern or different), add an indicator (or euro-nymph), and now fish those two nymphs.
What the dry-dropper has just done for us was help crack the puzzle of what the fish are biting on. You also figured it out a lot quicker than if you had only been using a single fly pattern.
On the other hand, if nothing struck the dry or the nymph, then it is time to either employ a different technique (indicator fishing, streamers, tightline nymphing, or wet flies) or just keep exploring the river with the dry-dropper making a fly change here and there, and trying different water (runs, riffles, glides, etc.). Some days are tougher than others.
All in all, the dry-dropper is a very practical technique to use while trying to determine what the trout are feeding on, and there are still a few other reasons to use a dry-dropper. The first (and most obvious) reason is that you are using two flies (both a surface and subsurface fly), so it doubles your chances of hooking into a fish. I am all for covering as many bases as possible to increase the likelihood of catching trout which can be very picky eaters at times.
Second, it can be employed before an insect hatch really gets going. If you show up to the river knowing that some bugs are supposed to hatch, but don't see any rising fish, then employ a dry-dropper. Before the hatch, trout might be actively feeding on nymphs subsurface. So, while those trout are feeding on the nymphs that are moving up through the water column, you could hook into them with your dropper nymph. Once the hatch really starts, and the trout are rising regularly, then just clip the nymph off and cast the dry.
Third, a dry-dropper rig is more subtle than an indicator landing on the water. Those foam or hard plastic indicators make a decent plop onto the water and potentially spook fish in the process. If you are fishing over an area of smoother/calmer current (that is not too deep..think 3 feet or less), try using the dry-dropper. The dry will land easier on the water and might not spook trout that are a little more on-guard in those calmer waters.
Lastly, there is a dry-(dry) dropper rig. This is just using two dry flies, one large fly and one small one. If the trout are feeding on small little bugs on the surface but you just can't see your tiny dry fly floating along, then tie on a larger, more visible dry fly with it. After you cast, you should be able to see your larger fly floating along. Knowing that your tiny dry fly is a foot or so nearby, gently set the hook to any trout that rises in the vicinity of that larger dry fly (because it could be eating your tiny dry fly).
However, there are certain situations that I really do not employ a dry-dropper. During winter when the trout are holding super deep, or when the river levels are very high in the spring, I prefer to use an indicator or tightline nymph which is better suited to suspend multiple nymphs that are going to be down deep. Dry-dropper fishing can be thought of as shallow to medium depth indicator fishing, the real deep stuff is better left to normal indicator or tightline fishing.
Where Can You Use a Dry-Dropper?
Using Dry-Dropper Rigs in Rivers
For rivers, there are a number of spots that work better than others when using a dry-dropper. Pocket water (i.e. where the current is broken up by boulders or logs) is a good place to prospect with a dry-dropper. However, you will want to use more buoyant flies since the turbulent water will
pull a dry fly under more easily. It is also best to high stick (keeping the rod up high) in order to keep as much of the fly line off the water, this will help the dry-dropper to float along in the pocket water more efficiently.
Runs that are three feet or less in depth are another spot for the dry-dropper rig. For runs deeper than that, it is better to use an indicator in order to get multiple nymphs down deep (if the fish are holding near the bottom).
Long glides (smooth water that has a mellow current) are very well suited to dry-dropper fishing. The fish in glides can be extra spooky, so using a dry-dropper that lands on the water more subtly than an indicator is ideal. Again, if the water is deeper than three or four feet it is probably too deep for the dry-dropper rig.
Most pools are too deep for a dry-dropper, but the heads and tails of pools are great spots for it. As the water enters or exits a pool it will go from shallow to deep, or vice versa. Trout in these transitional zones are more actively feeding than trout that are holding down deep in the bottom of a pool. A dry-dropper is a practical way to fish for trout that are stationed in the head/tail of a pool since they won't be nearly as deep.
Using Dry-Droppers in Streams and Creeks
For streams and creeks, we are talking about water that is roughly five yards or less in width. It could be a boulder studded mountain stream or a meandering meadow creek. Dry-dropper fishing is a go-to technique anywhere on these types of watersheds. Most trout living in these streams and creeks can be very opportunistic and willing to take either a dry fly or nymph. At times, they may prefer the dry over the nymph or vice versa. Either way, the dry-dropper technique will help you to figure that out.
Using Dry-Droppers on Lakes and Ponds
Yes, the dry-dropper is even useful on lakes and ponds. Typically, I like to be out on the water casting towards the shore, or on the bank casting along the shoreline with a dry-dropper. The shoreline will have more shallow water and fish in this zone will be more in range of at least the nymph which is suspended beneath the dry fly. Further out in lakes and ponds, the dry-dropper just does not reach deep enough to where the fish might be holding.
The only time I will use it beyond the shoreline is if there is a hatch taking place on the lake. Then I will make casts further out to where the fish are rising, and since they are nearer the surface they could take the dry or the nymph.
How to Rig a Dry-Dropper
There are a few different ways to rig up a dry-dropper. For a look into how to set up this rig, check out: 3 Ways to Create a Dry-Dropper Rig.
To sum up the dry-dropper, it is an incredibly efficient technique to fly fish and prospect a river, stream, or lakeshore when you are not quite sure what the fish are feeding on. You are able to simultaneously fish two flies, a dry and a nymph, which covers two sections of a water column. Lastly, for those of you that just have to fish with a dry fly, the dry-dropper rig is a great way to keep you in the game when there are no rising fish.
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