Fly Fishing Strategies: Tags and Trailers

by | Mar 18, 2016 | 16 comments

Sometimes trout are feeding so aggressively that the particular intricacies of how nymphs are attached to the line seem like a trivial waste of time. Those are rare, memorable days with wet hands that don’t dry out between fish releases. More often than not, though, trout make us work to catch them. And those same particulars about where and how the flies are attached can make all the difference in delivering a convincing presentation to a lazy trout.

The upside of multiple flies is obvious: giving trout more choices gives them more opportunity to be convinced — they make a mistake, so you catch and release another fish. But there are downsides as well. And like all things, multi-nymph rigs come with a price.

Troubles

With just one nymph, you can make a tangle-free cast and gain complete control over the fly in the water, steering it and directing it through mixed currents. I do love the smooth feel of tight lining a single nymph through heavy pocket water, and I find myself choosing just one nymph often enough.

With two nymphs, more tangles inevitably happen, so your responsibility to keep lines free and tie more knots increases.

With three nymphs things stand a good chance of getting seriously out of hand.

Another trouble with multi-nymph rigs is the loss of precise control over each nymph. Depending on the weight and material bulk of each fly, nymphs can easily fall into different current seams, pulling against each other throughout the drift, moving unnaturally and putting a major dent into a solid presentation.

However, there are a few tricks to setting up multi-nymph rigs that will help you enjoy hauling in more fish and keep the difficulties to a minimum. Here we go . . .

Droppers – Tags and Trailers

Droppers are the add-on or secondary flies. I think of my nymph rig as being built around weight. Beads and lead wraps tied into the fly usually provide enough weight to carry my flies to the bottom and get in the trout’s face. The heaviest fly in my rig is the main fly, the parent fly, or the anchor. Sometimes, for various reasons, I choose split shot for the weight instead.

READ: Troutbitten | Split Shot vs Weighted Flies

Either way, whatever is heaviest on my leader — that is what I am fishing. That’s what I’m casting. And that’s what I have control over during the drift. Everything else is pretty much along for the ride. Those flies are the droppers.

Tag Droppers 

Tags are tied from an extra 4-6” piece of tippet somewhere on the leader. Most often, I tie my tag droppers about 20” above the point fly, but I adjust that distance according to where I want the dropper to fish in the vertical water column. I keep my tag droppers smaller and lighter than my anchor.

Final (Tag Dropper)-R2

Trailer Droppers

These flies are tied behind the anchor fly (after it), on a piece of tippet from 10-20” long, depending on the effect that I want to achieve. Most guys tie the extra tippet to the bend of the hook, but I prefer to add the second piece of line around the main line directly above the anchor fly (I use a uni knot). Then, if I want to change flies, I can slide the trailer line up the main line, change out the anchor, slide the trailer line back down and quickly get to fishing again. I also keep my trailer flies lighter than the anchor.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Strategies — The Add-On Line

Final (Trailer Dropper)-R2

Yours or Mine?

By now, you’re probably thinking about the way you rig your flies, how different it is from what I’ve written and how great it works. There are so many ways to set up rigs that I’d be foolish to tell you my way is best. It isn’t (necessarily). But I will share the way I set up multi-nymph rigs and explain why it works.

I’ve thought about and experimented with this for years, and it’s one of my favorite topics to discuss with other fishermen who have clearly thought through the complications and benefits of both methods. I use each dropper style a lot, and I have particular reasons for choosing one style over the other at certain times.

My Rig

For dead drift nymphing, my preferred rig is a heavier fly on the point (sometimes called the anchor) and a smaller weighted fly on a tag dropper. I rarely use unweighted flies on the tag. Instead, I believe that weight built into the tag nymph helps to stabilize it in the water column and appear more natural.

I usually reserve the trailer system for small, light or unweighted flies because they don’t seem to fish as well on a tag. I think these flies benefit from the extra freedom of movement (i.e., the slack) that the trailer provides. So, if I’m trailing, I most often use small, unweighted nymphs like Zebra Midges, RS2’s or WD40’s behind my anchor fly.

Happy Trout 1

Happy Trout — photo by Pat Burke

Tags

My favorite days are when I’m fooling trout on the tag dropper. Because of the setup, the takes and hookups are usually solid. The trout rise from the bottom, grab the nymph, quickly turn back down, and I am tight to another fish. I most often use flies in the #14-#18 inch range on the tag dropper, and I like them weighted.

If I want to be in touch and have excellent strike detection on both flies, then I fish a tag dropper. The tag system allows me to be in touch with both flies. And that’s an important distinction from the trailer system.

Picture the following on the tag setup: When a fish takes the point fly, the main line moves immediately, and I’ll either see the sighter move or feel the hit. Likewise, if a fish takes the tag dropper, the main line moves immediately and I detect the strike. The same is not always the case with a trailer.

I do better with a tag dropper in most situations. However, any time two flies are in the water, control issues can arise. The flies may become divided into two different currents and pull against each other. But with a small, weighted fly on a tag dropper I have control over the rig by fishing the anchor. The fly on the tag dropper has to stay with the main line, so I have a very good idea where it is in the drift. Most importantly, because I have contact with both flies, my strike detection is excellent.

By keeping the distance between flies to about 14″ and the tag itself about 5”, you can use a tag dropper and keep both flies close to the bottom. With a weighted fly on the tag, it is near the bottom but rarely on it — just slightly above a trout’s nose. That sounds like a good place for a nymph to me! I use the shorter distance in the colder months or any time when the trout seem to be holding tight to the bottom. But, as trout start to rise up and capture active nymphs, I like to use a tag dropper further up my leader (back to 20” or greater).

READ: Troutbitten | The Go To Nymphing Rig

Trailers

When I use a trailer nymph (trailing a lighter fly from the anchor), I’m quite often not in touch with the fly. With the anchor in between me and the trailer, I cannot feel what the trailer is doing (I can only feel the anchor). The trailer is just along for the ride, and it can easily develop slack.

For me to feel the hit on a trailer fly, the fish has to take the trailer and then move the anchor. If there’s any slack in the trailer line, there will be a delay from the time the fish hits the trailer nymph until the anchor moves. Because of that delay, I will miss and lose many fish that aren’t solidly hooked, and I’ll never know about hits from countless others. The longer my trailer is, the more slack can occur, resulting in more fish taking the fly and spitting it out without me knowing about it.

Again, I can only fish the weight in my rig. So I have little control over long trailers with nymphs lighter than my anchor fly. They are at the mercy of the current. Often, the trailer does not track behind the anchor as we expect that it should.

Try using bright, visible flies in clear water sometime just to watch what happens to the trailer fly. It’s often nowhere near where you expect it to be.

Final (Trailer Dropper Overhead)-R

Variations

There are a hundred variations for rigging multi-nymph setups, and they probably all work. When fishing is slow, it’s often helpful to start changing the positions and the weights of your rig. Sometimes, the “right” things make a difference — then sometimes the “wrong” things seem to make a difference and leave us shaking our heads.

Another option is to run the heavier fly on a tag and tie a smaller, weighted fly on the point. I often use this rig in shallow water, or when I want to fish only the bottom. This rig allows for contact with both flies for better strike detection. Control over the path of the second fly during the drift is still a problem (similar to when trailing the second fly), but a weighted nymph tracks more predictably than an unweighted one.

Balanced rigs can also solve problems. Instead of choosing one larger fly and one smaller, it’s often helpful to fish two equally weighted flies. I prefer a tag dropper for the top fly, but the system is also very effective when fished with the second fly as a trailer.

Even though I would prefer to fish with only weighted flies, I frequently use split shot. Some flies just fish better without built in weight. I tie most of my egg patterns and worm variations without weight and fish them about 4-6 inches behind a shot. I prefer to keep the shot close to the fly because, again, the weight is what I’m fishing. The fish has to take the fly and move the shot before I can detect the strike, and I like to keep all the possible slack to a minimum.

Whew …

Talk of rigging systems can get confusing, and reading through all of the above may have turned your head around a couple times. But it’s all there, and it all makes sense if you break it down and start experimenting with the ideas for yourself.

Final point: the best way to get an excellent dead drift with a multi-nymph rig is to set it up with a good cast. Learn to cast the nymphs so that all the flies land in the same current seam. Watch for the small splashes as the nymphs enter the water, and you will notice how difficult it can be to get both nymphs in the same seam.

READ: Troutbitten | One Great Nymphing Trick

When you do . . . you’ll have the start of a very realistic dead drift.

Fish hard, friends.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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16 Comments

  1. Very good write up. Keep up the good work

    Reply
  2. Good info thanx

    Reply
  3. I always ask people how they set there tag system up. I use to fish a tippet ring (sometimes still do) but now i mainly tie a surgeons knot and use the tag end but the main thing i hate about that is wasting all of that tippet when i need to make a adjustment. What system do you use?

    Reply
    • Hi Anthony. Yeah, I start with a long tag coming from a double surgeons or Orvis Tippet Knot. When that gets too short after a couple fly changes I simply tie a new tag AROUND the main line with a Davy or clinch knot. Slide it down to the knot where your tag was and tighten it down. Done. It’ll slide a bit, but not much if you tighten it. Make sense?

      Reply
      • Yea it makes sense, i have done that a few times using a clinch knot but just didnt care for it. I will give it another try. Thanks for the reply

        Reply
  4. The main issue I have with a tag dropper is going heavier tippet than I would like. I feel like atleast 4x but often 3x is a must to keep from tangling. I don’t like what that does to the drift of most dropper flies. What do you do tippet strength wise when your using a tag dropper above your point? Any suggestions on keeping the tangles out beyond no false casting?

    Reply
    • Hi Ryan. Most of my tags are 4x or 5x. Again, if I feel like I need more freedom of movement for the nymph, I’ll use a trailer, but the trade off is loss of contact, strike detection and hooking percentage.

      Reply
  5. Damn good write up! Thanks for all the work you do with this site. I’ve been reading around and thoroughly enjoying it. Such a great resource. I’m also a PA boy… but unfortunately for me I’m dead nuts in SEPA. Wild trout can still be found here but it’s tough going!

    Reply
  6. Geeeeze… I just want to go fishing and let my mind wander…but I want to catch trout too…can’t let those buggers beat me. Just slap me around.

    Reply
    • I know what you mean. And I know all the technical stuff seems a little much at first. But to many of us, figuring out the puzzle, day to day, is the enjoyment. And honestly, all that thinking and adjusting and guessing and adapting is something I sink into. It actually helps me get lost in the experience and forget about everything else. I love it.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  7. Like you, I’m an inveterate tinkerer. Something I’ve been think a lot about recently, and experimenting with on the water, is different ways to fish small unweighted nymphs (scuds, midges, etc.).

    I’ve come up with three ways:

    1. A drop shot or bounce system.
    2. Using a midge as a trailer like you recommend in this excellent article.
    3. Using a midge nymph with a split shot a few inches above it.

    They all work under different circumstances, so I just keep tinkering. I’d love to hear your thoughts, Dom.

    Reply
    • I fish unweighted midges off the dropper using a slightly longer dropper and tag to give the dropper a little more freedom.

      I try to avoid trailers when nymphing unless I am too lazy to properly re-rig streamside – too many horror tangles in the past.

      Reply
  8. Dominick,
    I recently started using the tight line system in earnest and I’m happy to say that, I’m catching more on a consistent basis.
    Fished this week in some cooold water and I had one of my best days on the river.
    Thanks Domenick, good stuff

    Reply
  9. Nice! I tie my dropper on after I choose my total length of tippet also, but with a triple surgeons knot. After it becomes too short-then I go to the uni. Still liking the Davy knot?

    Reply

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