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
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.
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
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.
— 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.
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