Multi-fly rigs are nothing new. We pair one nymph with another all the time. Many of us fish two streamers, and most of us cast a dry fly with a nymph for the dropper once in awhile, but the pairing of a streamer and a nymph is less common. Maybe that’s because the typical presentations for each fly type are quite different — we tend to think we’re either streamer fishing or nymph fishing, but rarely both at the same time.
The Big Rig combines two nymphs and a streamer. With some minor leader adjustments and some outside-the-box thinking on tactics, you can kinda have it all.
It’s like ordering a shot and a beer — both are good things that get the job done, and both are great in the right surroundings. Who says you can’t have both? Why choose? Order a shot and a beer, and fish the Big Rig.
With all the options on the Big Rig, you can show trout a streamer presentation on one cast and a nymph presentation on the next. Or, start the drift with a nymphing look and finish on a streamer swing. Hit the pocket water with some tight line nymphing, and then shoot a long cast under the hemlock branches and strip a streamer past the log pile.
And while we expect the streamers to work best with added motion and nymphs to work best under a dead drift, it’s eye opening when trout take an animated, quickly moving nymph or a lifeless, dead drifted streamer.
Here it is
The Big Rig covers all three sizes of flies: small, medium and large. The trailer nymph is #18-20, the tag nymph is #12-16, and the streamer is #4-10.
Whether nymphing or streamer fishing, I prefer to fish with just one diameter of tippet under the water wherever possible. For the Big Rig, I most often use 3X or 4X fluorocarbon to the streamer.
The streamer can be weighted with lead, bead or conehead, or supplemental split shot can be added to the line. Either way, the weight for getting to the bottom of the river is with the streamer — the streamer is the main fly. It’s the one that dictates the positions of the other two flies, and that’s important to understand.
The upper nymph should be on a tag dropper, about 20 inches above the streamer and weighted. The trailer dropper is unweighted (or lightly weighted) and small.
READ: Troutbitten | Over or Under — Your best bet on weight
Fish the Big Rig on an extra long leader or with the Mono Rig. Fish it with tight line nymphing principles in mind, and then take some of that to a greater distances (that’s where the Mono Rig helps).
Let’s break it down further . . .
For the Big Rig, I stay away from jumbo, extra large streamers. Rarely do I fish articulated flies full of fur and feathers with this setup. I prefer streamers in sizes #4-10, on a single hook. Extra large streamers don’t dead drift as well as smaller ones. With less material being pushed around by the currents, smaller streamers are better for achieving a dead drift, especially in swift and mixed water. Since the Big Rig is just as much about the nymphs as the streamer, and since the ability to present a dead drift is vitally important, I choose streamers that are suited to dead drifting as well as stripping. (Take note, this does not mean I’m dead drifting the streamer all the time. I simply want to have that option. More on this below.)
Notably, some streamer designs are built for stripping, and their form falls apart while dead drifting the bottom. So I like deer hair sculpins (like my Bunny Bullet or Ed Shenk’s Old Ugly). My Half Pint Streamer and John Barr’s Slumpbuster are favorites as well. And often, a simple Wooly Bugger variation outperforms anything else tied to the Big Rig.
The Upper Nymph
The top nymph is tied with a tag, because going in-line (tying off the bend of the fly) limits the movement of the nymph too much, especially when it’s attached to enough weight to drop the streamer to the bottom. Tag nymphs move more freely and catch more fish.
I tie the nymph about 20” above the streamer. The tag method also allows for the nymph to drop a few inches below the tie-in point, closer to the rocks and tree parts on the stream floor, where most trout live. And yet, higher in the water column, the weighted tag nymph covers a second level, giving trout another option and expanding the effective range of each cast. That’s a good thing.
The Lower Nymph
The bottom nymph is tied on a 14” trailer, behind the streamer. I prefer to tie the trailer tippet around the main line, just ahead of the streamer eye, but tying off the bend is fine too.
Trailer setups are inherently prone to slack, so I keep the distance from the streamer to the bottom nymph relatively short (approximately 14”), to limit the loss of contact with the trailer fly. For the angler to detect a strike on the trailer nymph, a fish needs to eat the nymph and move the streamer (or the split shot). So keeping that distance long enough for some separation from the streamer, but short enough to minimize slack in the system, is important.
The lower nymph is small and unweighted. A small nymph doesn’t catch the current and affect the dead drift of the streamer like a large or bulky nymph can. Likewise, an unweighted nymph doesn’t pull the rig off course. Unweighted nymphs also hang up on the bottom less.
The lower nymph is an add-on to the system, but it’s well worth the addition, and oftentimes trout key on the small trailer over and over. Those are good days.
For the lower nymph, I like Zebra Midges, small Pheasant Tails and WD40s. But any of your favorite small, unweighted flies are a good choice.
The Big Rig works best on a long leader setup. I prefer to eliminate the fly line altogether by using a Mono Rig, and that gives me exceptional control over what my flies do under the water.
Tie on the flies, start with a tight-lining mindset, and get a couple of good dead drifts. Then cast the rig over to the bank and strip it back. On the next cast set up a dead drift, and then slowly strip just enough to make the streamer slide over the bottom — headfirst and downstream faster than the current. Then let the rig swing out at the end of the drift.
Experiment day to day, or hour to hour, and see what works.
READ: Troutbitten | Category | Streamer Presentations
— It’s not always legal to fish 3 flies.
— 3 flies tangle more than 1.
— 3 hooks can snag fish more than 1. Snagging fish is bad. Keeping the trailer fly small and unweighted reduces the problem.
— 3 flies make 3 splashes when they hit the water. And some fish are afraid of some splashes . . . sometimes.
— Any system that intends to do multiple things makes it a struggle to do any one of those things perfectly.
The Big Rig is a great change of pace. After spending all morning maintaining the hyper-focus that good tightline nymphing requires, or after stripping streamers for endless hours, having the option to choose either method on any cast is liberating. The Big Rig is fun to fish and remarkably productive. Have fun with it.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
This will be tried in the Little J this Sunday.
Have you fished this set up in the winter? Have you used an egg pattern as a trailer? Pretty genius idea, outside the box.
I’ll have to give it a try next time I’m out.
Well I disagree with the genius idea part. Ha! Just fishing.
I don’t care for eggs as a trailer much, no. Eggs get pushed around a lot by alternate currents. That’s my take on it. And . . . fish want REALLY good dead drifts on an egg.
Not as a unified theory of relativity, but for fishing it’s pretty close.
Thanks for the tip
Dom – This is a great idea and I gave it a shot. You are right, it tangles, a lot. That is probably my biggest struggle as I sort out this style of fishing, all the snags and tangles. However, the fish make it worth the effort. Thank you for all the advice you’ve shared here. It has made my stay in Central PA a lot more enjoyable.
Sure thing, Joel.
So I wouldn’t say that it tangles a lot, but it does tangle more than one fly, that’s for sure. And it takes more rigging, obviously, so it’s not for every situation.
I don’t tangle it up a whole lot, honestly. If you keep the distances and the fly weights and sizes like I describe, all the flies kind of find their own space.
I have been fishing two flys for fifty years….my own buck tail minnow and a small soft hackle wet on a short stiffer dropper about 2 feet up from the minnow. Caught thousands of trout this way over my fishing life. Never thought to add the extra fly in front of the buck tail as you describe! Will definitely give it a try. Occasionally I have hooked two trout, one on each fly on the same cast….fun to try and land both…only succeed about fifty percent of the time!
I wonder if I can hook three …. and how many can I land? An interesting question to answer!
Thanks for the tip..fly fishing for fifty years and still learning!! That is the challenge of fly fishing!!! Tight lines!!
Another great tactic to add to our arsenal’s. I can’t wait to employ this in the Upper Delaware system! I got a good feelin about this one. Thanks Dom for all the game changer info you give us.
This would (or will) be a clutch rig on a specific stream I fish. Largely because the fish there flat out refuse to take a nymph that isn’t atleast slightly animated 80% of the time, but will also spurn streamers much of the time, all on such a case-by-case basis that switching between rigs would have to happen constantly.
Nice. Give it a shot.
Wow. There are no rules for fishing. Just wish I could come up with some of your methods. How many days a week do you get to fish? Love this sport and this blog..thanks
Vincent, I’ve often said that the only thing that separates “good” anglers from “average” is time on the water and a desire to get better.
I’ve been lucky and/or I’ve purposely lived a life that gives me a lot of fishing time. I worked at night for 16 years. So my days were open. Before we had kids, I fished for about 6 years 5-6 days a week. And that’s where I really dialed some things in. There’s no substitute for time as a teacher. But you can certainly make quick progress by knowing exactly what you want to work on next.
I like these tips,and have had good luck tying nymphs off streamers,but never used upper nymph. You are so correct,3 flys can be a handful,I’ve lost a few good fish when that extra fly gets snagged,then fish breaks off and yur standing there like a idiot,thinking fish is sulking. Keep up the great posts
Thanks for reading, Rich.
Was wondering was is the total length of your leader? This sounds interesting and will tie one up to use at the Farmy next week.
The size and drag of a streamer should help anchor it in a seam when dead drifted. Do you find this is so? Should be useful when you can’t wade close.
You can look at it two ways. It can help anchor you into a seam like you said, or it can get pushed and dragged around unnaturally, because it’s bigger than a nymph. The truth is probably in the middle, and we work with it.
Gotta try this on the Savage River this March 2023, sounds like it would cover all the bases for an early Spring outing with discerning Brown Trout. Sounds like a job for a fiberglass 8’6 6WT.
Right on. I feel like you can fish it on whatever rod makes you happy.
Is there a reason you tie the trailing nymph like you do vs. adding another dropper knot and fishing the streamer on a short dropper tag?
Yes. I want the trailing nymph to track in the same seam as the streamer — in the same line. It’s what I call a bait and switch. See the streamer, be attracted, take the midge. I gage a MUCH better chance of things tracking in the same line with a trailer system rather than a tag system. I prefer tags in most situations, but not in this one.
What about tying the trailing nymph to the hook eye of the streamer? Will that track the way you describe? Thanks so much for all your hard work.
Yeah, I think it would track the same way.