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My buddy Hyrum Weaver hollered from downriver. I turned to see his rod bent double, a big grin splitting his face, and another acrobatic rainbow leap from the water. I’d lost count of how many fish Hyrum put in the net, but was acutely aware that I was still 0-100 that afternoon. Swallowing my pride, I walked downstream to see just what flies Hyrum was using. (Because of course it’s always the flies that make the difference, and not how you fish them.)
That was the first time I saw the dry-dropper-dropper rig. Hyrum had three flies, all fairly small, tied on nearly four feet of tippet at the end of a 5x leader. As far as fly fishing rigs go, that was the weirdest thing I’d seen to that point (Euro nymphing hadn’t yet exploded in popularity at this time).
Hyrum continued to fish circles around me the rest of the day, which is normal. He’s the sort of guy who could catch fish from a pothole after a rainstorm. It didn’t help that I stubbornly refused to tie on a dry-dropper-dropper rig, because I was convinced it’d inevitably turn into a tangled mess, and I’d spend the rest of the day tying and re-tying my setup.
Finally, a few weeks later, I relented. I tied on three flies, paused a bit more on my back cast to allow for larger loops – and therefore fewer chances for my flies to tangle – and gave it a shot.
Now, the dry-dropper-dropper setup is my go-to fly fishing rig. For trout fishing anywhere in the Rockies, or the West, it’s one of the most effective ways to both prospect water and match a hatch. Plus, I think it’s just plain fun to fish. I reckon other anglers will feel the same way, which is why I wanted to dedicate an entire article to this rig – including why it works, how to set it up, and how to fish it.
Setting Up The Rig
This is a basic illustration of how I rig up most days. I start with a pretty large dry fly – size 12-14 – followed by a 24-30-inch-long length of tippet. I like to try and taper this rig as well, by which I mean that I use tippet that’s a size smaller than the section of tippet above it.
So, if I tied my dry fly on with 4x, the piece of tippet between my dry fly and first nymph would be 5x. The tippet between my second and third nymphs would be 6x.
I’ve noticed that tapering the rig in this manner helps the entire setup turn over more effectively, especially on long casts or against a stiff breeze. On top of that, the thinner tippet on your bottom nymphs gives you more feel and feedback from those flies. As my friend Domenick Swentosky of Troutbitten says, anglers in contact are anglers in control.
I use the clinch knot to connect everything in this setup. Also of note – I frequently use barbless hooks, and I’ve never had a problem with my tippet between two flies sliding off. I know some anglers worry about that – and rightfully so – but it’s never been an issue for me. If you use this rig and have that problem, let me know. I’d love to help devise a solution to the problem, if it arises.
When I’m guiding, the question I hear most is “what flies are you using?” followed closely by “why are you using those flies?”
In the illustration, I gave some general size guidelines, but you certainly don’t have to follow those exactly. Some days, especially in early spring or late fall, when the water is low and clear and fish are more easily spooked than normal, I’ll have a size 18 parachute with a size 22 midge and RS2 below it. The key in fly fishing is adaptability, and that’s why I love this rig so much – it’s easily adaptable to a variety of fishing situations.
To make this rig work, though, you do need a dry fly that’s stout enough to hold up your nymphs. That’s why I default to something like a size14 elk hair caddis or parachute Adams. They’re sturdy flies that support heavy nymphs, but that size is still small enough to function as a good indicator for subtle subsurface strikes.
Since I live and fish in the Rockies (almost exclusively) I tend to default to the same mix of dries and nymphs:
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Parachute Adams
- Chubby Chernobyl
- Royal Wulff
- Emerging/Crippled Mayflies
- Hare’s Ear
- Flashback Pheasant Tail
- Zebra Midge
- Micro Mayfly
- Rainbow Warrior
- Partridge and Orange
- Pat’s Rubber Leg Stonefly
- Cranefly Nymph
I like to keep things simple, and thankfully, the trout here in the Rockies usually acquiesce. I wouldn’t call this a complete list of what’s in my fly boxes at any given time, but it’s pretty close. I do have a big collection of small dries for match-the-hatch fishing, but that’s a topic for another day.
Distance Between Flies
The other big variable in this rig is the distance between your flies. I recommend at least two feet between your dry and first nymph for most trout streams in the Rockies, because that distance still allows your nymphs to get down to the bottom, even in swift current.
Obviously, you should adjust for the depth of the rivers you’re fishing, but you want your nymphs to drop from your dry fly down to where most trout in a river hold – the bottom third of any given moving body water. This is commonly referred to as the strike zone.
Trout hold in the strike zone because they operate under a simple instinctual mandate – don’t expend more energy than necessary for food. Down in the strike zone, the current runs much slower than it does on the surface. Even the middle of the water column trucks along at a healthy clip. Trout don’t actively feed and hold in this water unless they have a good reason to do so – like a big hatch of bugs.
That’s why I suggest using such a short section of tippet between your bottom two nymphs. You place one nymph at the top of the strike zone, and another right above the bottom of the river, and you’re presenting flies where trout are most likely to move to eat them.
Getting flies in front of trout has less to do with fish seeing them (a trout’s eyesight is astoundingly good) and more with putting flies in a place where a trout can expend minimum energy for the maximum reward.
You want your nymphs bouncing along just above the bottom of the riverbed. Consistently snagging on rocks and other debris means you’re an inch or so too deep. Yes, some trout hold directly on the bottom, but they’ll move an inch up in the water column to eat your flies. Setting your rig up this precisely helps you keep flies in the water longer, since you’re not constantly re-rigging after yet another rock stole your flies.
Fishing The Rig
Unlike some specialized fly fishing rigs, this one doesn’t require any special technique to make it effective. The only word of caution I’d give is to avoid roll casts, since I tend to get more tangles with three flies when I roll cast than any other situation. Then again, that might be an indictment of my roll casting skills.
Also, don’t be afraid to fish this rig on small streams. I love using it in pocket water. If you build a long leader, you can almost dap the rig from pocket to pocket, following your dry with the tip of your rod. It’s like a combination of tight-line nymphing and tenkara. Since fish living in pocket water tend to be more opportunistic when eating, it’s a safe bet they’ll take one of three flies presented to them.
In fact, pocket water is where I really refined this rig for my own uses. I have tons of small streams near my home, and they’re all full of tight pockets. The ability to dap a rig of three flies into a pocket has exponentially increased how many fish I catch. I also lose fewer flies because I’m not throwing my back cast into trees on these small waters.
Of course, you can – and should – fish this rig on bigger water, too. I’ve found the most success with it, though, on smaller water.
And, I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but do make sure to leave more time on both your back and forward cast when throwing three flies. You need larger loops to avoid wind knots, and pausing just a beat more on either cast helps those loops open up, and helps you avoid tangled lines.
The dry-dropper-dropper is one of many fly fishing rigs, but it’s the one I turn to about 90% of the time. I grew up in a family of dry fly purists, but I’m hard-pressed to fish only dries these days. The opportunity to throw three flies, and cover all the areas of the water column where fish are actively feeding, makes this rig very effective, especially if you’re on unfamiliar water.
Don’t get intimidated by three flies. Practice the casting on a pond with nothing behind you that can snag your flies. Then take it to your local stream or river, and tweak the rig for yourself.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and guide from Utah. He’s the Lead Guide/Owner of The Utah Fly Fishing Company, the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spener_Durrant.
Not sure I would have tried this until I read your article. I have used two nymphs and a dry dropper, but never tried three flies.I read some comments on T. U. about flies coming off barbless hooks, I have not experienced this. Others tie their second fly in the eye of the first, I’ve read that this isn’t a good idea, but don’t remember why. Another good article, Spencer.
I think the reason we hear to not tie flies off the eye of each other is the implications on a drift. Two knots on a hook eye can, I think, restrict the free movement of the fly you get when it only has one knot on the eye. Again, this is just speculation on my part.