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  • Writer's pictureMarc Fryt

Fly Fishing How To: 3 Ways to Create a Dry-Dropper Rig

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

What Is a Dry-Dropper Rig?

Before diving in on how to rig a dry-dropper, if you are unsure of what a "dry-dropper" is then check out my other article that goes over what it is, when to use it, and why you should try using this effective fly fishing technique: What Is a Dry-Dropper Rig, and Why Is It an Effective Fly Fishing Technique?

This how-to article will cover:

  • Leader and tippet to use with dry-dropper rigs.

  • 3 dry-dropper rigs and how to set them up.

  • Recommended flies to try out with dry-dropper rigs.

  • Additional tips and insights when using dry-dropper rigs.

Leader and Tippet to Use with Dry-Dropper Rigs

to rig a dry dropper fly fishing

With any of the following three dry-dropper rigs that we will discuss below, you can experiment with the length of leader you want to use. Typically, a 7.5 to 9 foot leader that is tapered to 2 to 5x is a good place to start. A shorter leader will help to turn over the dry and the nymph, while a longer leader could be useful to keep the fly line further away from the flies in order to keep from spooking fish. The larger tippet size (2 or 3x) is useful if you want to float larger, more buoyant dry flies, and that larger tippet diameter will be able to turn that larger dry fly over while casting.

Next, we will discuss how to choose the appropriate tippet diameter and length leading to the dropper. The first thing to keep in mind is that the nymph (i.e. "dropper") should always be tied on with tippet that is smaller in diameter than the tippet leading to the dry fly. A main reason for using smaller diameter tippet for the nymph is that it can get snagged onto the river bottom, rocks, logs, etc. and we would want the nymph to break off and still leave us the dry fly attached to the leader.

Here's an example: You have a 9 foot 4x leader with a dry fly tied on at the end. The nymph should then be tied on using 5 or 6x tippet. Hence, the nymph, if snagged, should break off since it is tied onto thinner tippet diameter.

Also, I prefer to use 5 or 6x tippet for the nymph since 3 or 4x is just a bit too thick to get the nymph down through the water column quickly. At times, I may also use 7x if I am using a size 20-24 nymph.

Second, the tippet length leading to the nymph can vary based on the depth of water. You will see below that most of what I recommend for tippet length for the dropper is 12-30 inches. You will have to decide on what length to go with, but typically 12 inches is enough to not foul hook a fish, and 30 inches is long enough to still stay in contact with the nymph. If you are fishing shallow riffles that are only a foot deep, then elect for 12 inches of tippet. If you are fishing a deeper run that is 2-3 feet deep, then 24-30 inches of tippet is better. It is all trial and error, and if you find yourself snagging the bottom way too often, then shorten the tippet length.

Dry-Dropper Rig #1: Tied Off the Bend of the Dry Fly Hook

This first rig is the quickest way to get your dry-dropper set up and to start fishing. All you need to do is:

  1. Tie a dry fly onto the end of your leader.

  2. Clip off 12-30 inches of fresh tippet from its spool.

  3. Tie the tippet onto the bend of the dry fly hook using a clinch knot.

  4. Tie a nymph onto the tippet end.

how to set up a dry dropper rig fly fishing

This rig is great due to its simplicity, and there are several other benefits. Adding or removing the nymph can be done easily which allows you to swap between single dry fly fishing and dry-dropper fishing. This rig is also a good way to fish riffles and pocket water with dry-droppers since it keeps the dry fly and nymph more in-line with each other. When fishing two flies in water with multiple seams (such as pocket water), it is tough to get both flies to drift properly. With this rig, the dry fly will help to pull and then stabilize the nymph into the same seam of water, thus leading to a better overall drift for both flies.

Now, there are some downsides to tying off the bend of the hook. The first is that the dry fly hook should be a barbed hook, or at least be a hook that had a barb pinched down. For hooks without the barb, the "dropper" tippet could slip off the hook. Not ideal. Another issue with this rig is that if you want to change the dry fly out, but keep the nymph, you will still have to clip off and re-tie the nymph to the new dry fly hook.

The tippet leading to the nymph could also impede fish when they are trying to take the dry fly, but I have used this rig plenty of times to not be overly paranoid about that. Lastly, although the flies may drift more in-line with each other, there are times when you want the flies to float along more independently. When you are fishing long smooth flowing glides, where there isn't the concern of multiple conflicting seams, you may want the nymph and dry fly to float more naturally rather than trying to pull each other in-line.

Dry-Dropper Rig #2: Tied Through the Eye of the Dry Fly Hook

The second dry-dropper rig is very similar to the first, the only difference is that the "dropper" tippet is tied through the eye of the dry fly hook:

  1. Tie a dry fly onto the end of your leader.

  2. Clip off 12-30 inches of fresh tippet from its spool.

  3. Tie the tippet through the eye of the dry fly hook using a clinch knot.

  4. Tie a nymph onto the tippet end.

So with this rig, you will have two clinch knots tied onto the dry fly hook. This gives us the obvious benefit of not having to worry about the "dropper" tippet sliding off the dry fly hook like it might in Rig #1. That is why I prefer to use this rig with barbless hooks since I know that the nymph will still be there cast after cast. Additionally, since the "dropper" tippet is tied to the eye of the hook, there isn't a concern with it getting in the way of fish that are trying to bite down on the dry fly.

Just like with Rig #1, this set up will also help to keep both flies in-line with each other, so it is a great option for riffled and pocket water (but might not be ideal when you want them to move more independently from each other, like in smooth calm currents). Also, just like Rig #1, it is easy to clip the nymph off and just fish the single dry fly.

Some downsides are that tying through the eye of the hook can be a bit tough for some anglers, so having to do it twice is just adding more time to rigging up. When using smaller dries and nymphs or emergers, this can be even more of an issue. Thus, Rig #1 might be preferred. Another downside is that you will also have to cut the nymph off if you want to tie on a different dry fly.

Rig #3: Dry-Dropper Rig Using A Triple Surgeon's Knot

While this last rig might seem a bit more complicated to set up, there a some great advantages compared to the first two rigs. To set this rig up:

  1. Take 12-30 inches of tippet and clip it off of its spool.

  2. Taking your leader (with no fly attached to the end of it), move your fingers 8-10 inches up from the end.

  3. At this point on the leader, tie on the tippet using a triple surgeon's knot.

  4. After tying the triple surgeon's knot, you will have three pieces of tippet coming out of the knot. There will be one short piece of tippet that points back up the leader, clip this tippet end off. This will leave you with another short piece of tippet that should be 6-8 inches, as well as the long tippet that is the new terminal end of the leader.

  5. Tie on the dry fly to the shorter piece of tippet (called the "tag end fly") and tie on the nymph (called the "point fly") to the new terminal end of the leader.

  6. For a video walk-though of this, check out out this video.

Why go through all of this effort? Well, it is an ideal way to use a dry-dropper while tightline nymphing (which is an article all on its own). This rig also allows both flies to move more independently from each other which is great when fishing calmer runs, glides, and pools. Additionally, the tippet does not impede a fish from taking the dry fly like it could in Rig #1.

This rig also makes it easy to switch out the dry without having to clip off the nymph. So if you are someone that really likes to switch up your flies, this is a preferred rig. Eventually, that tag end where the dry fly is attached will get too short, so tie on a new piece of tippet using a uni knot:

  1. Clip the dry fly off the tag end tippet.

  2. Clip the remainder of the tag end tippet off.

  3. Take 8-10 inches of new tippet (of the same or smaller diameter) and tie it above the original triple surgeon's knot using a uni knot.

  4. Slide the uni knot down until it rests against the triple surgeon's knot. You now have a fresh tag end tippet piece (that should be 6-8 inches).

  5. Tie on your next dry fly.

However, the downsides are that it is more complicated/timely to rig up and it can get tangled more easily than the other two methods. Also, unless you are tightline nymphing, it isn't the best way to fish riffles, pocket water, and rougher currents where the flies can get pulled away from each other into separate seams.

Recommended Flies to Use with Dry-Dropper Rigs

how to tie a dry dropper fly fishing

When using a dry-dropper rig, I prefer to use flies that have a lot of hackle, hair, yarn, foam, rubber legs, or combination of those materials integrated into the fly pattern. These materials all help add buoyancy to the fly so it can suspend a heavier nymph underneath it, think: Amy's Ants, Chubby Chernobyls, Stimulators, large Parachute patterns, Hopper patterns, Foam Beetles, large Elk Hair Caddis, Hippie Stompers, Moodah Poodahs, Royal Wullfs, and so on.

For nymphs the choice is really up to you, but make sure that it is not so heavy that it sinks the dry fly. If you need a large heavy nymph then you will need to use those bulky dry flies to keep it suspended.

There is also the opposite of using heavy nymphs and large dry flies, you could use tiny nymphs (or emergers) paired with smaller, lighter dry flies. You can get away with using a size 18 Parachute Adams with a lightly weighted or unweighted nymph underneath.

A final tip on dry-dropper fly recommendations, if you are fly fishing for bass and panfish then try using a popper as the dry fly. This can be a killer combo for smallmouth bass, bluegill, rock bass, and crappie.

Final Tips on Dry-Dropper Rigs

how to set up a dry dropper rig fly fishing

When using these rigs, keep in mind that they are essentially shallow water indicator set-ups. They cannot fully take the place for an indicator set-up. There are times when the fish are several feet deep under swift and heavy current, and a dry-dropper just won't get down to them. So, in these situations an indicator rig is more preferred.

To help those dry flies float even better, remember to apply fly floatant to the dry fly before getting it wet. Once it starts to get water logged, do some false casts, squeeze the water out of the fly using your shirt, then shake it in a bottle of desiccant powder or brush it on.

Finally, don't just limit yourself to a dry-dropper rig, try it out with two dry flies...a dry-(dry) dropper rig. There are times when a fish might be eating small insects on the surface and you might be forced to use a size 20-24 dry fly. It can be hard to see those tiny dry flies on the surface, so also tie on a larger, more visible dry fly and use it as a reference point. Once the two flies land on the surface, you should be able to see the larger dry fly. When any fish rises in the vicinity of it, it could be taking your smaller dry fly so gently set the hook to check.

And be sure to also check out:


Lastly, if you live in or are visiting Spokane, I provide guided fly fishing trips and instructional lessons around Spokane to include float trips on the Spokane River and stillwater trips across various Eastern Washington lakes. I guide with Fly Fish Spokane, and more information/trip rates can be found at the website:

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