Improve Your Nymph Fishing - How to Set Up A Drop Shot Rig
Updated: Mar 5
You arrive at the river for a day of fly fishing, it's swollen and high from recent snow melt or a large rain storm. After watching the river for a moment, you figure the trout might be holding deep or maybe tucked up near the banks but still near the bottom. So, you settle on nymph fishing under an indicator in an attempt to place your flies where the trout are. But, how do you get your flies through all that fast, heavy current and down to where the trout are, and how are you going to accomplish that without snagging your flies on every other drift?
A great solution to this, and other similar scenarios, is the drop shot rig. While a common technique for bass fishing, drop shot rigs are very useful for fly fishing to trout in a river when you need to get your flies closer to, but not snagging on, the bottom.
What is a Drop Shot Rig in Fly Fishing?
At its most basic, a drop shot rig places weight below the flies. The weight, which is typically split shot, hangs below your flies and runs near or on the river bottom. A drop shot rig is commonly used when nymph fishing (either under an indicator or tightline nymphing) and is not as confusing or troublesome to set up as you might think.
Why Use a Drop Shot Rig When Fly Fishing?
You will lose less flies. Having weight below the flies means that they won't be running on the bottom and snagging into boulders, rocks, and logs. Rather, the split shot runs along the bottom and has less of a chance of snagging up (and split shot is easier to free from a snag in comparison to a hook). This also means that if you do hit a tough snag then the split shot is lost instead of your flies. On days when you need to target deeper in the water column, using a drop shot rig will place your flies in the zone with less of a chance of actually losing them.
When we also think of fishing deeper, we actually do not want our flies dragging across the bottom because trout typically don't feed off the bottom (like whitefish or largescale suckers). Trout will take food that drifts right at their level or slightly above, so if our flies are scraping beneath them then we miss our opportunity for trout to take them.
There are also days when the trout just key onto small nymph patterns and it becomes difficult to get these smaller fly patterns down through heavy currents. However, drop shot rigs are very effective at punching through heavy current and placing those small flies in the right zone. You can easily add more split shot to achieve this, and even if the fly is completely unweighted, the drop shot rig will send those tiny flies to where you want them.
Drop shot rigs also slow the pace of your flies down and presents them to the fish for a touch longer. The current near the bottom can be significantly less than the surface (hence that's why the trout may be located there). The combination of the heavy split shot and the slower current helps to keep your flies from being zipped right past the trout.
Lastly, drop shot rigs are great to use if there is woody debris in the river. Few things are as frustrating as when trout are tucked up against log jams feeding on subsurface food. This forces you to try nymph fishing which exposes your flies to innumerable snags and break-offs in the timber. Again, the split shot has less of a chance of snagging into this crud while at the same time getting your flies near the trout.
When and Where to Use the Drop Shot Rig
The drop shot rig can be used year-round with an indicator or tightline nymphing, yet there are times when it really strikes gold. During winter months, when the water is higher and colder, the trout are most likely down deep feeding on food as it slowly passes by. You can use a drop shot rig during these cold months to target pools and deeper runs to get your flies right in front of the trout.
Spring runoff is also another time to focus on using the drop shot rig. Many anglers loathe runoff because they think it is impossible to catch any trout. However, the trout are still down there feeding and doing their thing. The drop shot rig can save the day if you have planned a trip and show up to a high, swollen river.
How to Set Up a Drop Shot Rig for Fly Fishing
There are a number of ways to set up a drop shot rig, and we'll look at my preferred methods for 1-2 flies under an indicator. This set up can be easily built at home with just a few materials and knowing a couple knots. Start with the single fly rig first and practice casting it before moving on to the double fly rig.
(Read: 7 Useful Knots to Know for Fly Fishing for more information on tying knots)
With these rigs, you will notice that it has a heavy butt-end section and then level tippet after that. The reason for this is that we want the thinnest diameter tippet going down to the flies in order to get them to depth and stay there.
Where the larger diameter monofilament and tippet meet (at the tippet ring or swivel), a hinge is created. This hinge in the system further aids in getting the flies deeper and hanging a little more underneath the indicator.
The heavy butt-end section will also have enough stiffness to help turn over the leader, indicator, flies, and split shot. It is clunky casting nonetheless (casting tips further below in the article).
*Note- If you don't have .020 monofilament just lying around, then take a normal leader (like a 9ft 4x leader for example), chop it, and use 2-3ft of the butt-end.
Single Fly Drop Shot Rig
Notes on the Single Fly Drop Shot Rig:
The length of the 3-4x tippet will depend on the depth of water you are trying to reach. If you are fishing 4-6 feet of water then 5-7 feet of tippet to the first fly would be a good place to start. You can also shorten or lengthen the depth of the fly a little by moving the indicator along the butt-end of the leader.
The fly is on a 4-6 inch dropper tag that is formed by tying the 3-4x tippet to the 6x tippet via a triple surgeon's knot. Once the dropper tag gets too short (from fly changes), just tie a uni knot with a new 6-8 inch piece of 3-4x tippet above the original triple surgeon's knot for a new 4-6 inch dropper tag.
Double Fly Drop Shot Rig: Dropper Tags
Take a moment to notice how the tippet size is stepped down throughout the rig. This is to aid in getting the flies down to depth, and it also helps in case the lower fly gets snagged so that only it breaks off. If you use 4x tippet leading to the upper fly, use 5x tippet for the lower fly.
Both dropper tags for the flies are 4-6 inches. Once the dropper tag gets too short (from fly changes), just tie a uni knot with a new 6-8 inch piece of tippet above the original triple surgeon's knot for a new 4-6 inch dropper tag.
Having both flies on dropper tags gives them more animation in the water as opposed to tying them "in-line."
Double Fly Drop Shot Rig: In-line
In this two fly drop shot rig, the lower fly is attached by tying both tippet strands to the eye of the hook (i.e. tying it "in-line"). This set up helps to minimize tangles. The only problem is that if you want to change out the lower fly then you have to cut the split shot strand off as well.
Other Notes on Setting Up the Drop Shot Rigs
Tie a perfection loop into the .020 monofilament to connect it to the fly line loop.
I like to use a clinch knot to connect the .020 monofilament to the swivel/large tippet ring, and a trilene knot to attach the tippet to the swivel/large tippet ring.
The terminal knot at the end of the rig is an overhand triple surgeon's knot (or triple surgeon's loop knot). Check out this video on how to tie it. Once you have tied it, cut the loop off close to the knot. This knot will be large enough to act as a stopper so the split shot doesn't slide off. If you need a larger knot, then tie an overhand knot on top of the triple surgeon's loop knot.
The strand of tippet leading to the split shot is thin (6x), because if it does get wedged into some boulders then only the split shot will break off.
You can incorporate this into tightline nymphing just by adding the split shot segment to your tightline leader.
Use lightly weighted or unweighted flies in the rig. This helps to create a straighter, tighter connection to both flies allowing you to be more in-touch with them. You can also tie on small streamers, crawfish, and wet flies and dead drift them just like the nymph patterns.
In order to get to depth, add split shot incrementally. The goal is have the indicator 'tick' as it floats on the surface. This ticking motion tells us that we are running the split shot right along the bottom and it is bouncing against the rocks. Wait for the indicator to plunge under or stall out before setting the hook. Here is what it should look like underwater:
Casting Tips When Using the Drop Shot Rig
No matter what, casting the drop shot rig is clunky at best. The main thing is that we want to take our time casting otherwise it will tangle into a rat's nest. The roll cast will be your best bet most of the time, and you may need to perform several roll casts in order to send the rig further out. Water load casts are also highly useful.
If you have to false cast, then minimize the number of false casts you perform. The more false casting you do will just increase the odds of tangling. When false casting, open up your loops and use a slower tempo. Think wide, slow, open loops.
At the end of a cast, if you think you botched it, then immediately bring the rig back to you and check for any tangles. Don't let the rig swing through the current as this will make the tangle even worse.
Try the drop shot rig out the next time you need to run your flies deep. This rig can be very effective when the fish are holding tight to the bottom under heavy current. Experiment with the rig and adjust it based off of what works for you. Feel free to drop any questions into the comment section below.
Also check out some of the other fly fishing blog how-to articles:
What Is A Dry-Dropper, and Why Is It an Effective Fly Fishing Technique?
Fly Fishing How To: 3 Ways to Create a Dry-Dropper Rig
How to Use Wet Flies - Rigging
Wet Flies: Tactics and Techniques for Multiple Fish Species
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: FlyFishSpokane.com