Fly Fishing Strategies: Tangle-Free Tandem Rigs

by | Mar 7, 2018 | 35 comments

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 can tangle less than trailers.

READ: Troutbitten | Six Knots to Know for Anglers on the Fly

The Right Length

A shorter distances between flies equals more tangles. I like 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 will break under the strain of a big fish or a tough snag. “Improving” the knot to a Triple Surgeon’s does not help. You simply cannot use the upper tag on a Surgeon’s Knot. Learn the Orvis Tippet Knot instead!

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 aerializing  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.

READ Troutbitten | Put More Juice in the Cast

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. 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 isn’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 and under tension, then they’re ready to deliver back upstream. Lift and shoot in one motion. It’s 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 a lot 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.


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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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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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  1. 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, Cole. I actually have the opposite experience with roll casts. You need to show me your trick.

      • Picking the line off the water using a roll cast causes less disturbance and may not need a back cast. As you say the fewest false casts possible, always in the air ( some drop every false cast on the water scaring the fish away) The heaviest fly on point will reduce tangles. A slightly larger diameter line for the dropper helps reduce tangles. ( I use a tippet ring ) To make the dropper hang free of the leader/tippet use the dropper line to throw a simple 1/2 hitch around the main line below the knot ( or tippet ring ). Opening the loop on the back cast by dropping the rod slightly lower behind you will also reduce tangles. The dropper length you suggest is good. All this from my U.K. masters who may fish a point fly and up to 4 droppers on a cast, but usually no more than 2 droppers. They typically rig the flies about 5 feet apart. More often they are fishing Stillwater, as do I.

    • You and your friends need to do a podcast on this!

  2. 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)?

    • Right, Alex. The upper tag in the Orvis Tippet Knot is ready for action. It doesn’t break.

      I don’t know about having a theory, but if you look at a diagram of the knot wraps, you can see the difference, compared to a double surgeon’s. So it’s really just the angle of the pull and what it’s pulling on, I suppose.

      • In regards to breaking, I believe the “Ashley Book of Knots” explains that when a line cuts across itself at about 90 degrees it causes a sheering force when weight or pressure is applied to the knot. It will break at that point. One of the purposes of all the twists and spirals in line knots from my understanding is first to help provide grip to keep the knot from slipping, and second to lessen the load on that vulnerable intersection where the line crosses itself at a 90 deg. angle. In most knots the tag end is a critical point. There are no buffering turns to lessen the load. if you pull the tag end it will shear the line. Dom thanks for bringing your valuable information to the fishing community. Tight lines, Cheers!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 Alex too so thanks!

    • Right on, Dom. We are still CASTING the fly. That’s why I keep calling the Mono Rig a fly line substitute — it casts best with fly line type casting. And yeah, the pause required depends on the weight and the length. I’m glad it’s working out for you.

  6. 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 back cast and keeps the flies away from my face & rod.
    Thanks for such a great blog with many original insights & great information.

    • Your thoughts on a small,double arm swivel to attach the anchor fly on the straight arm and dropper fly on the side arm.

      • Hi Fred,

        You asked, so I’ll tell you the truth. I really, really don’t like adding swivels in the tippet section. I’ve tried it. You can make it as small as they manufacture, but it’s still WAY too heavy for a tippet section.

        This is a finesse system. It’s not chuck and duck. We are casting and not lobbing. The swivels, or anything like it, take away too much of the finesse.

        It also takes more time to incorporate a swivel than to just tie an Orvis Tippet knot or Double Surgeons. Why tie three knots when you can just tie one?

        Make sense?


  7. two more

    follow the 2 minute rule- If you can’t untangle in two minutes or less clip it and start again.

    When you get stuck on the bottom right underneath your rod. Do not pull straight up as everything comes up and grabs your rod. This one can bugger up the mono rig if you’re really unlucky.

    Thanks Dom. Hey 25′ of 30 lb. braid (backing) works great as well instead of maxima. you can use it as an upper sighter and its as thin as 8lb flouro and has no stretch so setting is great. Not sure it tangles in birds nest as much but it will wrap around your tip top and if your not paying attention could cause it’s removal. I’m still experimenting. Nothing tragic yet but that’s my big disclaimer on this idea. It casts and handles great plus it comes in tons of colors. Also now that rio made a 25′ nymph line you can use that as well. I like handling it better than mono but it casts about the same. Actually the braid works great for handling and casting its the tip top thing I’m going to have to see how annoying it gets. of course if I break my rod I’m guessing I’ll change it. but if your paying attention its not a problem 🙂

  8. I tie small fo8 loops inline for dropper.I then loop to loop my dropper on.When dropper become too short.I just loop on another dropper.I will usually bite my flies off to untangle.If it’s bad i will try to cut bellow the top dropper Fo8 loop.To add my new tippet section.I make a fo8 loop then loop round the mainline above the existing fo8 loop.Then i fo8 loop another short dropper on.My droppers stand out from the main line with doubled over tippet for part of the dropper.Seems complicated.But it isn’t really.I can tie fo8 loops lightning fast with my forceps hanging from my vest.If I want to add shot & sometimes putty.I make a fo8 loop 6 inches from my point fly & add shot behind the loop.Sometimes I will add shot behind the top dropper fo8 loop too.Flourocarbon tippet being stiffer.Helps keep & helps sort tangles out faster i find. Works well for me.

  9. I really enjoy your articles my home river is the Cumberland river below wolf creek ,it’s a trophy size area that’s how they manage it , good most of the year ,also like white river in ark. I’m tiring 65 and hope to cut back work and tie more flies and give them a go,,again thanks for the good tips and reading!

  10. To add droppers I use a small tippet ring at the dropper location and tie on my tippet for the point fly. I pre-tie droppers and carry them in a cigar tube in my vest. The fluorocarbon droppers are pre-tied with a rather large perfection (about one inch) loop on one end. I pass the distal end of the dropper through the tippet ring then through the loop in the perfection knot and pull the dropper tight. The stiffer fluorocarbon dropper now has two (each leg of the dropper knot) pieces of line supporting it out from the ring. Then I tie on the dropper fly. The combination of the two legs of the loop protruding a short distance from the ring combined with the stiffer nature of the fluorocarbon holds the dropper fly at about a ninety degree angle from the ring. With this method you can change droppers rapidly without re-tying the the leader. Just nip the dropper at the ring and re-rig with a fresh dropper. I save a lot of tippet material waste on the point fly too. Just add tippet material to the ring and go.

    Of course good casting is imperative as well.

    • Alton, I do the same except I tie dropper loops in the leader at the dropper locations and attach the droppers with perfection loops

  11. Something I am playing with is a 4 inch tag with a loop on one end and a fly on the other. I keep them pre-made on a foam spool and add them when needed by wrapping them around the leader, and then passing the fly through the loop. Pull tight. This sits against the nearest leader knot and when the fly moves during the cast or when under water, the short dropper just rotates around the main leader – very few tangles. 5x minimum for tag helps. It is something I saw when watching Kelly Galloup demonstrate drop shotting rigs. Also, you can add a sliding barrel knot below the dropper (an idea from troutbitten), so you can adjust the dropper position precisely.

  12. Another great article Dom. I’m one who uses the risk/reward judgement. I’m 61 now, and thanks to my buddy Rich getting me to return to fly fishing a few years ago, not knowing the advancements that had been made, tippet rings (saving so much line and time), CLIP ON magnifiers (if not for these I wouldn’t be fishing!) to mention only a couple.
    Back to risk/reward – keep in mind this is primarily for stocked rainbows and browns here in Central Ohio. The majority of the water we fish usually is 4ft deep or below. I’ve tried the tandem rigs many times. The majority of fish I have caught have been on the point fly, probably 90%. The resulting tangles I’ve gotten for varying reasons, another not mentioned is the dropper tangling when netting the fish which is on the point fly, but for the risk/reward reason I’ve pretty much given up on droppers. Would be interested to know from you, as well as others, of your fish caught what percentage would you say are on point vs dropper?

    • Hi Tommy,

      Tangling is a rare issue for me. I think that has to do with casting — mentioned above. It mus be deliberate. More power and speed rather than less, usually is best.

      We catch a LOT of fish on the top fly. Percentage varies with the day, of course. But many days I catch 80 percent or more on the top fly. Plenty of days the ratio is flipped. Overall, averaged, probably about half and half. ‘

      I’ve seen and heard your account before. I suspect that your lower fly is not low enough often enough to make the upper fly viable.

      Those are my thoughts.


  13. Dom, You did not mention fishing 2 dry flies in tandem. When fishing tiny bugs(20’s and smaller) I tie on a larger fly like a sulfur CET or Poly Caddis to 5x then tie an 18″ piece of 6x or 7x tippet to the hook bend with an improved clinch knot and the tiny fly to the end. I watch the larger fly and estimate where my tiny fly is. If anything rises within the foot and a half circle, I raise the rod for a hook set. I have often guided people who say they won’t fish midges or tiny olives because they cant see them on the water. The big fly small fly tandem puts them back in business. I also fish two CET drys in a hatch of sulfurs or other mayflies. One with the wings up and one with the wings down for the spinner sippers.

  14. I will try the Orvis Tippet Knot next time out, even though I am quite happy with the technique I have been using for about 3 years: I tie a triple surgeons’ with about 2 feet of added tippet and leave about 6” of tag from the main tippet line (the one closer to the reel). Then I tie a simple overhand knot with the tag around the new tippet below the surgeon’s knot. I can’t remember a fail for this system. That said, I am ALWAYS looking for better methods. The Orvis knot will definitely get some water time. Thanks!

    • Good stuff, Roger. I’ve seen that done too. It’s weaker, and it requires a few extra steps, so it is not my choice. But, like you, I enjoy exploring options.


  15. When nymphing I prefer the drop shot method proposed by both Rothrock and Galloup in their videos. Having shot attached to the very end of a two nymph set up seems to work best for me. Always practice tying dropper loops during the off season to re-train the hands and mind as brain cells are gradually diminishing with age.

    • Hi Fritz.

      Thanks for your comment. I have a full series on drop shot nymphing here at Troutbitten:

      You might like that.

      I link to Galloup and Rothrock as well as credit both, at the beginning of that series. They both attach flies differently, especially the lower one, and that makes a big difference.

      I’m not at all a fan of the dropper loop, and I think it’s one of the reasons don’t use drop shot more often.

      You can read more at the link above.


  16. Dom-
    I have reluctantly warmed to tippet rings for certain applications. I love to have pre-rigs on hand for quick changes when fishing is on. Seems like a couple of nymph leaders with two rings spaced properly would give you versatility. Tags could easily be tied on with a clinch knot and tippet strength could be varied depending upon conditions. Sorry if this was mentioned above. I didn’t read all the comments.

  17. Great article as always. A double surgeons has always been my go to, and it has served me well by being strong and keeping mostly tangle-free. The few failures Ive had with it Im confident rest on me rather than the knot. But after tying a handful of orvis knots, I feel like the orvis knot has to be stronger and is certainly easy and fast.

    Personally, I have grown to really love the micro-swivels. Ive been using them for about 9 mo and now use them in every leader I have, the exception being dry leaders. On my nymph and streamer Mono Rig leaders I attach them at the end of the sighter before the tippet section. And have loved them.. did I mention that?

    There is a noticable difference (but still very sublte) in how it fishes with/without it, because it does add a tiny bit of weight where it is. But I find it negligible. And you can still float the sighter with some Payette paste.

    What it does do is help SO MUCH with the twisting of your entire rig, from the fly(s) all the way back to the reel. Especially when fishing a multi-fly set up. Further, when you do catch a little dink (or Jaws) that goes nuts it gives your flies more freedom for the rotation rather than trying to bind.


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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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