The Dry Dropper Rig: Using a Dry Fly as an Indicator

The Dry Dropper Rig is a popular set up for trout anglers fishing in rivers. The beauty of it is that is that it gives you two options – a …

The Dry Dropper Rig is a popular set up for trout anglers fishing in rivers.

The beauty of it is that is that it gives you two options – a dry fly on the surface and a nymph trailing underneath.

The dry fly doubles as an indicator but can also bring fish that are looking up to the surface.

Fished correctly, it is a really efficient way to fly fish if you remember to lift the rod to strike any time you see the surface fly go down.

Compared to euro nymphing, fishing the dry dropper rig is a relatively simple form of nymph fishing.

How to tie the Dry Dropper Rig?

There are several ways to set up the Dry Dropper Rig. I will focus on the three simplest methods.

Double Surgeon’s Knot

Dry Dropper Double Surgeons (3)

The quickest way to tie the rig is using the Double or Triple Surgeon’s knot or (my preference) the Orvis Tippet knot.

  1. Take a section of tippet of your chosen length.
  2. Use a double or triple surgeon’s knot to tie the tippet to the mainline but keep one a long (4 inches or so) tag on the tippet.
  3. Lubricate the knot and pull it tight from each direction to ensure it is snug.
  4. Then tie the dry fly to the long tag end of the tippet and the nymph to the other end and you are done.

The best thing about this tag end method is that it is quick and simple and is really convenient for fly changes as you can change out the dry without having to worry about the nymph and vice versa.

The downside to this method of tying the dry dropper is that it is not nearly as strong as tying the nymph off the end of the dry. I’ve learned through bitter experience that when you are targeting fish of four pounds and above, this method can let you down!

Tying the nymph off the bend of the dry fly

Dry Dropper Tied off end of Fly
Dry Dropper Tied off end of the end of the dry fly

This method of tying a dry dropper rig creates the strongest possible configuration of this rig.

  1. Tie the dry fly on to the tippet as you would normally (we use the Pitzen Knot because it is simple and strong)
  2. Then take a section of tippet of your chosen length and tie this to the bend of the dry fly hook (we also use the Pitzen knot for this).
  3. Tie the nymph to the other end of the tippet and you are done.

The biggest advantage of this method is that it creates the strongest possible connection.

The main disadvantage is that if you change the dry fly, you have to remove the nymph at the hook bend and retie it to the new dry. As we often change dry flies more than subsurface flies, this rig can be a bit more inconvenient, but if there are big fish to be caught, it is the best.

This is not recommend if fishing with a barbless hook on the top fly as the line can slide off the hook bend.

Using A Tippet Ring to Tie a Dry Dropper Rig

Tippet Ring Set up dry dropper
Tippet Ring Set up dry dropper

This is another way to tie a dry dropper rig that effectively solves the strength issues of the Surgeon’s Knot method and the inconvenience issues with tying the nymph off the bend. This involves using a tippet ring.

  1. Tie a tippet ring to the end of your leader (again, we recommend the Pitzen knot)
  2. Tie both a small (four inches) and a longer length of tippet to the tippet ring
  3. Tie the dry fly on the short section
  4. Tie the nymph on the long section of tippet and you are done.

The main advantage of this rig is that it gives you the best of both worlds and it preserves the leader as you don’t need to encroach into it when you retie tippet. The only real downside is that tippet rings are tiny and unless your eyesight is great, they can be a fiddle to tie on!

Pros and Cons of the Dry Dropper Rig


  • It is a versatile and simple way of fly fishing for trout
  • In the right situations it catches more fish than dry fly fishing or traditional nymph fishing
  • Using a dry fly rather than a standard indicator means you nail those fish that rise to the indicator


  • This rig is more likely to tangle and harder to cast accurately than a single fly rig
  • It is harder to adjust the depth of the dropper fly in the water column compared to a standard indicator where the strike indicator can be slid up and down the leader
  • The bouyant dry flies are a little harder to pull down than, say, a New Zealand strike indicator so in some circumstances it can be easier to miss a trout with this rig

When to use Dry Dropper Rigs?

Dry dropper rigs are great prospecting rigs. The best time to use a dry dropper rig is when you can’t see an obvious surface activity on the river – no rises or boils. Having the two options allows you to still catch fish that are sitting deeper as well as tempting those that are looking up.

I’ll often start fishing with a dry dropper from early morning and see how things unfold. If the majority of fish I am catching are taking the dry, then I will go with dry only. Likewise, if I am only catching fish on the dropper fly down lower in the water column then I have the option to go with a nymph only or nymph plus indicator rig. Adjustable indicators allow you to fish at a range of depths, whereas with the dry dropper you need to and remove tippet to vary the length, which can be a bit of a fiddle and adds more knots.

The other great time to fish this set up is when visibility is poor – it could be because or glare, or the sun being low in the sky or poor lighting conditions. The bigger profile of a large dry fly is easier to see than many indicators. Make you still keep a relatively tight line so you can set the hook swiftly when the top fly goes down.

We also use the dry dropper when fishing to cruising in low light and feeding subsurface in still water. This kind of water means you can’t really keep a tight as that simply begins to retrieve the nymph. And if you can’t see the white of the their mouth when they’ve eaten the nymph, you don’t know when to strike and set the hook. Putting the nymph on a dropper under a fly ensures you don’t miss the take. This method is really good in lakes fishing with stick caddis patterns.

Where to use a Dry Dropper Rig?

Dry dropper rigs are best used on freestone streams and tailraces. There is no doubt having the two options when you are dry dropper fishing increases your strike rate. Using a really buoyant foam or deer hair fly as the dry allows you to fish pocket water well. This where a hopper dropper rig comes in handy.

The dry dropper system is good for fishing drop offs and runs and glides and most sections of trout streams.

Fishing dry dropper is less effective in a few different types of water though:

  • Deep glides – the dry dropper combination doesn’t really allow the nymph to get down to where it needs to be in these areas – right near the bottom. Traditional indicator rigs are better for this type of water.
  • Pools – there are some exceptions, but the dry dropper is not always the best rig for pools. Again, the nymph isn’t down deep enough and the kind of bulky dry fly you usually use as an indicator in faster water often isn’t subtle enough to get the eat.
  • Stillwaters – when you are lake fishing you often need to strip the flies and create movement. You can do that by fishing streamers or fishing nymphs with no strike indicator on a tight line. And if there is a hatch, you really want to be fishing dry fly only.

Best dry flies to Use in a Dry Dropper Rig

Here’s are some my favourite surface flies to fish as the dry fly in this rig.

  1. Humpy – the Humpy is a great choice in this two fly rig. It’s big, buggy and buoyant thanks to the deer used in tying it and is one of my first choice flies
  2. Hopper Patterns – the backbone of the classic hopper dropper rig, grasshopper patterns are usually tied from foam or deer hair (or both) and are highly visible. That makes them a great choice as the dry fly in this rig.
  3. Foam Beetle patterns – beetle flies always catch fish and they are also an excellent choice as the top fly in this rig. They sit a bit lower in the surface film than hopper patterns and Humpys, but are a good choice fished in smooth water.
  4. Stimulators – They are colorful and bouyant (again with deer hair) and are an excellent choice as the first fly for fishing pocket water where the added bouyancy and bulky profile helps keep them at the surface
  5. Chernobyl Ants – a larger dry fly and another foam pattern that can suspend even heavy tungsten nymphs without being pulled through the water’s surface
  6. Parachute Adams – the Para Adams is not as buoyant as the other choices here but is a better imitative fly. If you are fishing in relatively still water with non-tungsten nymphs they are a good choice. It may not be able to cope with the added weight of tungsten nymphs.

Best Nymphs to Use in a Dry Dropper Rig

Fly selection is not as important for the nymph, but here are some of my favourites

  1. Glister Nymph – simple, buggy and easy to tie, these nymphs are great on the dropper tippet and trout love them.
  2. Hare and Copper – another great candidate, in the bead head variant, to be fished in this way.
  3. CDC caddis nymph – these are usually tied small with a tungsten bead, making them a good choice as the second fly for dry droppers
  4. Copper John – they sink quickly and grab the attention of trout. Rainbow trout seem to love this weighted nymph.
  5. Perdigon – the best option as a dropped fly for ensuring you get down quickly to the feeding zone thanks to the smooth profile
  6. PT Flashback – another solid all-rounder nymph that works well under the first fly

How Far Under the Dry Should the Nymph Sit?

This where you have to balance fishing as close as possible to the bottom with practicality.

Dry droppers are suitable for fishing water up to five feet deep or so. That means fishing with a dropper length of four feet or so. Any longer than that, the two fly rig becomes a big unwieldy to cast and you can miss subtle subsurface takes or get a poor hook set due to the length between the two flies.

Three feet is a great compromise between getting deep enough and having a rig that’s easy to cast accurately without developing wind knots.

Final Thoughts on Fly Fishing with the Dry Dropper Rig

Dry dropper rigs are the real workhorse of summer river fishing. They are fun to fish, very effective at catching trout and adaptable. For example you can fish dry dropper up to dusk then convert the rig to a double dry to make sure you nail the correct insect that’s hatching during the evening rise and enjoy great success.

Dry droppers do increase the chances of tangling both around the fly rod and on the bottom of the river, or bankside vegetation when you are fly fishing. But when you get used to casting a two fly rig smoothly these issues are mostly avoidable for a competent angler.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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