Fly Fishing Strategies: Tangle-Free Tandem Rigs

March 7, 2018

Multi-fly rigs allow for more chances to screw things up, and that’s undeniable. In tip #31 of the Fifty Tips series, I brushed off the tangles problem like it’s not a big deal. With experience (and some resignation to the inevitable errors), it really isn’t a big deal. So, here are some ideas to keep the tandem rig tangles to an acceptable minimum.

Keep in mind, that I’ve grown into these strategies. I’ve done a lot of fiddling and wiggling with rats’ nests out there. And remember, the thing they don’t tell you about trial and error is how much the errors suck the life out of your will to keep trying.

It takes many seasons and a lot of mistakes to understand what causes two flies to tangle. There aren’t many shortcuts on the way to being a good angler — it’s all about time on the water — but I know first hand that a jump start on this kind of stuff is a big help. So whether you’re a veteran fly fisher on your tenth pair of leaky waders, or you haven’t yet patched your first pinhole, these ideas should ring true.

How to rig ‘em

There are a bunch of different ways to tie up tandem rigs: two nymphs, a couple streamers, three wets or dry-dropper. And most of these tips apply to all of them.

I’ve written before about tags and trailers. I prefer the tag option, because I can be in touch with both flies, and that’s important. Tags also allow for freer movement to the fly, and natural movement, of course, convinces trout. Although I run a tag system in most cases, I do use trailers in some situations, and I don’t believe that one way tangles more often than the other.

There’s an apparent misconception about tags — that they are more prone to tangles — but rigged with a few things in mind, they tangle no more than trailers.

The right length

A shorter distances between flies equals more tangles. I like a my flies at least 16 inches apart (usually 18-24). Any closer than that, and I just accept that the flies will tangle more.

Generally, lengthening the distance between flies results in fewer tangles. However, the opposite can be true with a dry dropper. If the dropper nymph is too light and the tippet is thin, the nymph often lags behind. It never turns over to pass the wind resistant dry fly, resulting in two flies and a bunch of tippet landing in the same place. Tangle city.

Limit the tag length to five inches

Longer tags theoretically allow for more movement, but it’s not worth the added propensity for tangles. Try tags from four to six inches.

Use an Orvis Tippet Knot

The Orvis Tippet Knot is just as easy to tie as the Double Surgeon’s Knot. I use it because I like the way the upper tag sticks out from the line. It angles up, but hangs down with the weight of a fly, apart from the mainline.

Orvis Tippet Knot there. See what I mean?

Importantly, the upper tag is actually from the added (lower) line. If you use the upper tag from a Double Surgeon’s knot, it often breaks under the strain of a big fish or a tough snag, so if you want to use the upper tag for a Surgeon’s Knot, try going with one more turn and make it a Triple Surgeon’s Knot. Better yet, use the Orvis Tippet Knot!



Weighted flies tangle less

Whether a tag or trailer, using flies with at least some added weight results in fewer tangles. A weighted fly helps turn over the tippet, so each fly can land in its own space.

That leads to the next point …

Keep ‘em down

Many tangles happen while fighting fish. Inevitably, it’s the smallest fish that cause the biggest tangles. Small, spunky trout like to dart around actively at the end of the line. Combine that with the speed at which we bring small trout to hand, and it’s a situation ripe for trouble.

To fight back, try keeping trout underwater the whole time. Keep the rod low, and play the fish below the surface. Small, wiggly trout arielizing on the way to the net is an unwitting invitation for disaster.

Weighted flies tangle less (Part Deux)

Again, a little weight built into a fly is a big help. When trout do break the surface during a fight, they tangle a lot less on a second fly if it’s weighted. Weighted flies find their own space and maintain separation better than unweighted flies.

Be the boss

Cast with strength and be deliberate. When I’m guiding, I notice some anglers grow more cautious when a second fly is added. The opposite should be true. Take charge. Stop at ten and two and punch those flies around. Yes, opening up the casting loops a bit is often necessary, but in general, people take the open loops thing too far. The only way to put two flies where you want them is to make it happen. Be deliberate. Be the boss.

It takes two to make a thing go right . . .

Limit the number of things on your leader. Sure, two flies don’t tangle much, but adding split shot and an indicator adds up to a grand total of four things to interact. You just exponentially increased your chances for tangles. It’s math, man.

And Rob Base never made any promises about threes and fours. Hit it!



Use the Mono Rig . . . just sayin’

Yeah, I push the Mono Rig a lot on Troutbitten, and that’s because it solves so many problems. The Mono Rig helps cut way back on the need for mending, therefore limiting the extra chances to tangle.

The Mono Rig (for tight line or indicator nymphing, for two streamers, or for dry-dropper) allows for more control of fly placement and less line management. Hey, that sounds like it would tangle less. It does.

Wait for it . . .

This one is important. 10:00 and 2:00 is a good place to start your good casting habits, but you have to get the timing right. And it’s different for a weighted rig than it is for dry flies. For that matter, it’s different for a twenty foot cast than a forty foot cast.

Fly fishing “is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock,”writes Norman Maclean. Sure it is, but the beat changes. And contrary to the metronome scene in A River Runs Through It, life ain’t that easy.

Limit your false casting

Yes, it can be tough to get the timing right for a cast. So cast less. False casting is largely unnecessary, and if you watch the best anglers, you’ll notice that it’s standard operating procedure to pick up the line, back cast once and then forward cast, delivering the fly to the next target. False casting and drawing loops in the air is for artists or chumps. So if you’re not an artist, well then . . .

Learn the water haul

Most tangles happen when our flies are in the air. So we should limit false casting, right? Try skillfully eliminating the back cast altogether.

If the flies are below your position, downstream of you and under tension, then they’re ready to deliver back upstream. Lift and shoot in one motion. Not that tough.

Call it. Clip it. Re-rig it.

Shit happens. The key is how you handle it. Learn to recognize a tangle that is irrecoverable. In fact, I’ll say most tandem rig tangles are better-off clipped and re-tied. It’s better than wasting your river-minutes picking at a birds nest. Just call it. Save time, and tie it up again.

READ: Troutbitten | You’re in too Far Now

Be a seamstress

Anglers who have the knots expertly under their fingers fish without fear of snags. They cast into the darker recesses of logjams, they boldly probe the depths of tangled trout lairs because tying knots is not a big deal. No one wants to snag up, lose flies or tie more knots, but when the twists and turns for tying on new tippet is second nature, life on the water is easier.

What else?

I don’t know. You tell me. Share your own strategies for tangle-free tandem rigs in the comments section below. You’ll help us all out.

Fear no snag, friends.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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10 Comments on "Fly Fishing Strategies: Tangle-Free Tandem Rigs"

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It goes along with the tip of keeping the flies out of the air as much as possible, but I found roll casting can be an effective way to limit tangles as well.

Thanks, Dom.

Like you, I don’t use the upper tag from a surgeon’s knot because it pulls against the knot and breaks off under less stress than the lower tag. As I understand you, the same thing doesn’t happen with the Orvis Tippet Knot. Is that correct? If so, do you have a theory as to why the upper tag (the one going back toward the rod) from an Orvis Tippet Knot is as strong as the lower tag to one pointing toward the point fly)?


I found that if i use 4x or even 3x to connect my top fly to my leader, the tag is less likely to wrap around the leader as oppose to using 5 or 6x.


Awesome info for newbie Mono Rig with Tandem Rig. Bird Nest are going to be pain in the butt. I don’t bother going in too far, Nipper is my fave tool. Relax and look around, what a good place to be.

Dom Petruso
For the longest time I only used the mono rig on big water because I struggled with the waterhaul when there’s no room to back cast. I went to a fly fishing show and attended George Daniels’ seminar which changed everything. I realized I couldn’t just waterhaul as my drift was near the end. I needed to pause… There’s more to it and maybe I’ll just say some of us could use a lesson from Domenick (or buy Daniels’ new book) but now I can use the rig on my little creek with his tip. Had the same question as… Read more »
One tip that I recently learned was that clipping off the flies will help greatly in untangling the line. Sometimes the knots will almost untangle themselves as soon as the weighted danglers are removed. My worst tangles come from little fish and setting the hook on bottom pauses, when the flies come loose and slingshot back at me. My little trick is to set the hook at a downstream angle with the anticipation of having to swing the rod in a broad semicircle if the flies come loose. This usually lessens the chances of the hook set becoming a stuttered… Read more »
Domenick Swentosky

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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