Three Styles of Dry Dropper: #2 — Light Dry Dropper

by | May 21, 2019 | 3 comments

** NOTE ** This is part of a Troutbitten series on three styles of dry dropper. Here are links to all articles in the series:
Three Styles of Dry Dropper (Overview)

#1 Bobber Dry Dropper
#2 Light Dry Dropper
#3 Tight Line Dry Dropper

— — —

My buddy, Steve, hates nymphing. More accurately, he’s not any good at fishing subsurface because he’s never learned the ins and outs of the whole thing. But Steve will drop a dry fly on a dime at fifty feet — in the wind. And he’ll build enough slack into the leader using crisp, precise aerial mends, landing a fifty foot cast with slack in all the right places and getting a twenty foot drift across multiple current seams. (Remember that last part for later.)

So I felt kinda bad as Steve approached from upstream. I was fighting another good trout, and the rod bounced and throbbed in my hands. The fish surged while Steve watched, hands on his hips.

“Did I ever tell you I hate nymphs?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, I think you’ve told me a few times,” I said.

Pulling with hard side pressure on the wild trout, my fish moved over into the slack water near the bank, where it promptly swam toward Steve. Standing in calf-deep water, he swiftly unhooked his net and nonchalantly swept my trout through the hoop. But Steve never stopped talking.

“I mean, all these caddis — and the sulfurs — look at ‘em.” Steve gestured into the air with his right hand, holding hemostats to remove my fly. “There have to be . . .”

Steve interrupted himself and looked at the trout in his left hand. “Hey, that’s a really nice fish, Dom.”

“Yeah, you know what he ate?” I asked.

Steve slid the brown trout back in the water, and held up his hemostats — my fly in the metal jaws. “Sulfur nymph,” he said with a scowl. And I smiled back.


I reeled in some line after Steve threw my nymph back into the river.

“Asshole,” Steve muttered. “Ya know, I tied a nymph on behind the dry for a while — a couple hours ago, up beyond those hemlocks.” Steve motioned upstream.

“And?” I asked.

“And it just destroyed my whole drift,” Steve said angrily. “I didn’t even like fishing anymore. That’s what always happens when I fish dry dropper stuff.”

I paused before I started casting again. Then I finished out the seam I was working on. But in a couple minutes, Steve was still standing there, as if his last statement required a response. So I paused again and turned to Steve.

“Were you fishing the dry or the nymph?” I asked.

“What’s that mean?”

“With the dry dropper — were you trying to get good drifts on the dry fly or the nymph?” I used my hand to signal a high or low position.

“Both, I guess.” Steve replied.

“Well, you can’t fish both. You have to pick one or the other. I think you’d like fishing light dry dropper, really.

“What the hell does that even mean?” Steve asked.

I waded over to meet Steve. And I reached into my vest for a pre-rigged leader section.

“It means you’ll fish the dry.”


Light Dry Dropper

I think of dry dropper techniques as three separate styles, each of them suited to specific goals, each having some strengths and weaknesses. In the companion articles to this one, I cover those three styles of dry dropper fishing.

READ: Troutbitten | Three Styles of Dry Dropper

READ: Troutbitten | Three Styles of Dry Dropper: #1 — Bobber Dry Dropper

Fishing a nymph under a dry is not as simple as looping on a nymph and casting. And some forethought into what your objectives truly are, measured against your options for rigging and fly selection, goes a long way toward filling the net with trout.

Do you want to fish the nymph or the dry? That’s the first question to ask. Of course, each style allows the opportunity to catch trout on both flies, but only the light dry dropper style is tuned in for a guy like Steve.

While bobber dry dropper and tight line dry dropper are great for fishing the nymph first, light dry dropper is perfect for offering the dry as a primary choice. And sometimes, the frequency of takes on the nymph is stunning.

What’s the Trouble?

Good dry fly anglers are frustrated when they attach a nymph, because it changes the cast. Worse yet, the weight of the nymph pulls out all of the slack that anglers, like Steve, build into their casts.

Remember Steve’s aerial mends? Remember the crisp, precise rod tip movements that provided s-curves to the dry and allowed for those twenty foot dry fly drifts? That’s all gone when a weighted nymph turns over on the forward cast. It tugs at the dry fly and pulls out all the built in slack along with it — before the fly ever hits the water. That is why Steve hates dry dropper.

Trying to achieve good drifts on the dry fly, with no built in slack on the surface, with heavier nymphs and the wrong leader, is like trying to change a tire with a screwdriver — wrong tool, wrong job.

But that’s why I teach three styles of dry dropper fishing. If a weighted nymph (or split shot) must be used, then standard, or what I call bobber dry dropper, is the way to go. Mix in some tight line dry dropper tactics on a Mono Rig with those weighted nymphs or shot, and you have some deadly techniques for fishing the nymph under a dry fly.

But light dry dropper is for fishing the dry first.

Photo by Austin Dando

The Leader

For light dry dropper style, I use the same leader I always use to fish dry flies. It’s a George Harvey leader design. With a thinner than average butt section and a balance of stiff and soft materials, the whole leader falls in s-curves on the water, providing enough slack to a dry fly to give picky trout a chance.

Here’s my favorite dry fly leader

20” — 20# Maxima Chameleon
18” — 15# Maxima Chameleon
18” — 13# Maxima Chameleon
12” — 10# Maxima Chameleon
8” — 8# Gold Stren
12” — 2X nylon tippet material
12” — 3X nylon tippet material
14” — 4X nylon tippet material
20-48” — 4X, 5X or 6X nylon tippet material (to match fly and conditions)

Any good dry fly angler knows that the tippet sections in front of a dry fly require some adjustment. Swap out a #12 Parachute Adams with a #16 CDC & Elk, and the tippet section should then be rebuilt. Maybe you cut back on the 3X, lengthen the 4X section and add another foot of soft, limp 5X nylon.

Once the leader is built perfectly for the dry — when the fly lands with s-curves of nylon behind it without costing the angler any accuracy — then we don’t want to screw that up with a weighted fly. Enter: light dry dropper.

READ: Troutbitten | Dry Flies Need Slack — So Give it to ’em George Harvey Style

The Flies

The dry should be whatever you expect the trout to eat. Since the dry doesn’t need to support any significant weight, almost any dry fly, in any size will do.

Remember: fish the dry. So choose a pattern that trout will eat.

Then add a small, unweighted nymph to the dry with a ten to thirty inch piece of tippet (usually 6X fluorocarbon). Mount the fly however you like. I tend to come right off the bend of the dry for this style, because I don’t want to rebuild my leader and add a tag. You may also choose to come back out of the eye, directly. But because we are not asking the dry fly to suspend any weight, the choice of mounting to the eye or the bend doesn’t matter much.

The nymph must be light. It should have no tungsten bead and no lead built into the body. A small wire rib might be alright, but even the water weight of heavy dubbing can be too much. Keep the fly small and light. Anything more, and slack given to the dry during the cast will be pulled out, as described above.

RS2’s, WD40’s, Zebra Midges with a glass bead, soft hackles, small pheasant tails — I like nymphs no larger than a #16, usually #18’s and #20’s.

But you can get away with #14’s and even #12’s, if you keep the material sparse and the dry fly has enough air resistance. It’s a balancing act. (Think hard about that last part.) You’ll know the nymph is too heavy if it changes the cast of the dry — if it pulls out the s-curves before the flies ever land on the water.

Remember, keep the nymph small and light. Fish the dry, and be ready for takes on the nymph.

Photo by Austin Dando

Where it Fishes

Obviously, with a light fly on a short leash, the nymph in a light dry dropper setup will not reach the bottom. Good, because that’s not what we’re going for.

When trout are active, when they’re eating nymphs, emergers and dries during a hatch, when they’re swirling under the surface to capture caddis, mayflies or midges, this is the time to fish light dry dropper.

And when the water is low — even without any active hatch — fish an appropriate dry on top and drop a prospecting nymph below.

In my local waters I often choose a small cress bug for the nymph, because it does the job year round. And in the summer, I might tie a wet ant or soft hackle pheasant tail behind a dry ant.

The water need not be low, either. This same light dry dropper tactic can work in the shallows or during high water events. When trout are pushed over to the banks, they may eat both the dry and the nymph. And because the nymph is so light, it’s perfect for staying off the bottom and not hanging up, even in the back eddies and swirls behind rocks and tree parts.

Good Times

Fish it hard and cover water. Focus on getting excellent drifts on the dry, and set the hook any time the dry dunks or jiggles.

Hang on and keep the line tight!

Fish hard, friends.


** Up next, this Three Styles of Dry Dropper series concludes with #3 — Tight Line Dry Dropper. **


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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. Dom: Are you using a tippet ring below the gold stren?

    • Hi Jim,

      It really doesn’t matter. Either way is fine.



  2. In the bug rich waters of the Upper Delaware system, the vast majority of rising fish I observe are feeding on emergers either in or under the surface film. This “light dry dropper” would be ideal, and I’d bet the nymph would be the primary. This rig is a go-to for many guides on the system for that reason.


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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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