Three Styles of Dry Dropper: #3 — Tight Line Dry Dropper

by | Sep 10, 2019 | 22 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

— — —

Matt was full of questions. With more lines of thought and angles of approach than he knew how to manage, his questions spilled out in rapid fire. We talked and waded upstream together all morning, in search of wild brown trout.

Occasionally, Matt would catch himself talking a lot and look at me sheepishly, making a bashful apology about wanting to be a better fisherman and needing to make up for lost time. To which I assured him, there was no need to be sorry — I love the enthusiasm of die hard anglers, and I’m the same way around my Troutbitten friends. Let’s talk shop. Tell me why you fish a certain way, and I’ll have a dozen follow-up questions — rapid fire.

We were in the heart of a nice, even riffle. It was eighty feet wide and half-shaded from the pines on the east bank. And we’d nymphed on a tight line for most of the morning. Focusing on the shaded lines of current, we’d picked one lane, learned its contours, refined the drift and moved on. Our conversation was in a good rhythm, and we occasionally stopped for commentary about the gorgeous wild brown trout that reached our net. The fishing underneath was solid.

Late in the morning, I noticed sporadic rises on the sunlit side of the river. Just upstream and across from us, the sizable rise forms were hard to ignore.

“You see those rings to the left?” I asked Matt.

“Yeah, but I’m on a nymph rig,” he replied in between casts. “Do you think we should swap over to a dry leader? It’s hard to switch when the action is really good like this.”

“Nah,” I told Matt. “Stay on the Mono Rig, but let’s run a tight line dry dropper and fish both levels.”

He paused and scanned the rise forms in sunny water.

“Sounds fun,” Matt said. “But what’s tight line dry dropper?”

“This is gonna open up a whole new line of questions,” I told my friend.

What It Is

Tight line dry dropper is for fishing dry flies and nymphs on a long leader at the same time. By long leader I mean what I call the Mono Rig or what some might call a Euro Nymphing setup. (I previously discussed the details and differences of those terms in another article, found here.) This is a tight line setup. And by adding a dry fly to a long leader nymphing rig, we are now tight to — or in contact with — the dry fly. That’s where the magic starts.

Tight line dry dropper is the third and final dry dropper method in this series, but it’s arguably the most effective. I saved the best for last. With deadly accurate presentations, tight line dry dropper provides the angler full control over the course of both the dry and the nymph. It’s extremely versatile. And it’s just plain fun.

The dry fly gets amazing drag free drifts, because there’s no line on the water to drag the fly off course. Imagine watching your dry drift downstream and mixed in perfectly with the bubbling current. It’s the kind of drift you’ve wished for your whole life.

This is a short-game method, best practiced at thirty feet and under. And although the style can be stretched out further, most good fishing happens within this short range anyway, regardless of the tactic.

Now let’s do the details . . .

Photo by Austin Dando

The Leader

I fish a Mono Rig a lot, because fly line is only good for one thing — pushing unweighted or bushy flies to a target. That’s what it was originally designed for, and that’s the only way I regularly use it. When I have any amount of weight in my system, with bead head nymphs, split shot or weighted streamers, the fly line does nothing for my presentation but get in the way.

Importantly, my Mono Rig is built to function enough like a fly line — to push flies to a target — that it casts beautifully in the hands of an angler with the right skills. The Mono Rig, as I build it, can even cast standard dry flies alone, without the weight of a bead head nymph on the rig. Material choice for the butt section in a tight line leader is important. Transition and sighter sections also make a difference, and if any of the leader is too long or thin, casting of the leader is limited. Then you’re stuck with lobbing weight around.

Here’s the Mono Rig with a tight line dry dropper setup.

— — —

Tight Line Dry Dropper Formula

24 feet — 20 lb Maxima Chameleon
2 feet —12 lb Maxima HV
12” — 12lb Red Amnesia or 12 lb Sufix Neon Fire
12” — 10lb Gold Stren (Backing Barrel with tag, attached here)
Tippet Ring (1.5 or 2mm)
24″ — 4X Fluorocarbon Tippet
— Tag for Dry Fly
24-40″ — 5X Fluorocarbon Tippet
— Nymph —

— — —

Notice that not much changes from the standard Mono Rig. In fact, I simply add a dry fly somewhere on the tippet section. I also removed the 1x Rio Two Tone Tippet Material for this leader formula, because a limp sighter is not helpful here. But you can work with it.

READ: Troutbitten | Is a soft sighter best? Not Always

I fish tight line dry dropper a lot. And this is why I prefer a sighter with a bit of backbone — for a little easier turnover. Sighters or tippet sections that are too thin or limp can be difficult to cast on this rig, especially with undersized nymphs and over-sized dries.

My goal is to make casting easy and efficient. I despise trying to force a leader into situations for which it’s not built. The leader listed above is designed for the job.

If you change the first piece of tippet to 5x, you will lose power. Likewise, you can run four feet from the sighter to the dry . . . but you will lose power. As you fish this style, you’ll learn what works with your casting style, and you’ll understand what flies are a good match.

How it works

Now Matt and I stood mid-riffle, right on the transition line of sunlight and shade, watching a river divided down the middle — like we were standing on a zipper — with rising trout to the left and none to the right.

“So will those risers only eat the dry?” . . . Matt asked more questions as I tied a Klinkhammer to the tag and shortened the tippet a bit.

“Nah,” I replied and pointed into the sunlight. “They might eat the dry or the nymph. And I’m sure there’s other fish around them too. It’s fun to have a target, though. It’s a sure place to put your flies, because you know for certain there’s a fish down there seeing them.”

Then I pointed to the shade on our right side. “And we won’t ignore the trout over here either. This is where we’ve been catching them. And on this rig, they’ll still see our nymph in about the same way as we’ve been showing it to them all morning. But now they have the option to take the dry fly as well.” I paused for a moment before I finished. “They’ll eat on top over there too, I think.”

So we fished. And I told Matt to continue with the casting stroke he’d been using all morning, with no significant adjustments.

“Don’t let the dry fly change your cast. You’re still nymphing. Think of it that way,” I suggested. Matt nodded, and he caught on quickly.

We worked upstream and caught fish on both flies. His forward cast stopped high, and the nymph tucked into the water first. Then the dry fly landed in the same seam, just downstream of the nymph. The dry gained contact with the nymph and did the work of suspending it. Matt stayed tight to the dry from the beginning, with no line on the water — tight from rod tip to Klinkhammer.

And when everything lined up just right in a prime seam or ahead of a rising trout, the anticipation was palpable. You just knew they’d eat it. And they did . . .


Balancing the two flies

This doesn’t work if the flies aren’t paired properly. And understanding this match-up might be the most challenging aspect of fishing tight line dry dropper.

It’s a balance between buoyancy, air resistance and weight. All three variables factor into finding a good pair.

A #14 Parachute Adams is a good match with a #14 or #16 Bread-n-Butter nymph. But a #12 Parachute is too bushy to pair with a #16 bead head. You must have enough weight at the nymph to overcome the air resistance of the dry fly in flight. That’s the trick.

A #10 PMX is usually a good match with a #10 beadhead stonefly. The PMX has a lot of air resistance, but the #10 stone has a lot of weight to aid the cast. And the PMX can support that weight once on the water.

The Mono Rig helps push the dry to the target, but not as much as a traditional fly line. So the weight of the nymph also helps to carry the line and the dry to the target. And, of course, the dry must have enough flotation to suspend the weight below. If you understand all of this, pairing a dry and a nymph for tight line dry dropper becomes intuitive after a bit of experimentation. So go fishing.

READ: Troubitten | Fly Fishing the Mono Rig — Thicker leaders cast more like fly line


I’ve said this many times before: What we do with the Mono Rig is casting. It’s not lobbing. You can lob when you’re tight lining nymphs, but fishing tight line dry dropper is a sure way to show why casting and not lobbing is so important in the first place. So, learn to cast (not lob) a Mono Rig from the beginning, and use a leader designed for this kind of versatility.

Cast with authority. Build speed between two points, and stop the rod tip high. Tuck the nymph in, and then land the dry behind it. Be ready for a strike, because it’s coming.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing the Mono Rig — It’s Casting, not Lobbing

Tag or In-line?

Notice that the dry fly is attached on a tag, in the formula above. This is an odd concept to many anglers. But there are good reasons for tying from a tag rather than going in line.

First, the dry has more range of motion when tied on a tag. It moves more naturally.

Second, the dry on a tag gives the angler a little wiggle room. You can actually do the job of suspending the nymph with your rod tip for part of the drift. Then hand the suspension work back to the dry. I call this “slipping contact.” When the dry fly is just barely buoyant enough to support the weight, this joint venture in suspension is a great tactic.

In fact, slipping contact runs much deeper than can be addressed in this paragraph, and I’m sure I’ll expand on it in a future article. Understand this function though. And realize what is possible by fishing with intention.

I love the tag method, but you can also run a trailer line from the dry fly — coming either off the bend of the hook or back out of the eye. There are even more ways to rig two flies, and all of them can work here. So choose whatever you’re comfortable with at first. In the end, I use a tag most times. Because it’s more efficient and most flexible.

Here’s the tight line dry dropper rig tied with the dry inline. The line to the nymph can come out of the eye or off the bend of the dry fly hook.


Here the dry is on a tag. Notice how the tag permits a few inches of wiggle room. The angler can slip in and out of contact with the nymph, allowing the dry to suspend the nymph or transferring the weight back to the rod tip. There’s a lot to be explored here.

Twitch and Dap

Ever watch a mayfly take a couple shots at liftoff before its wings are fully dry? It appears to hop on the surface before finally taking flight. Motion like this can drive trout crazy. And I’ve seen fish target only these struggling insects, leaving the rest undisturbed.

Many caddis species do something similar. The flying adult females slam their bodies onto the surface, over and over, to dislodge the eggs and keep the life cycle going.

With the tight line dry dropper rig, you can simulate these movements. First establish the drift, then hop the dry with slight lifts of the rod tip. The weight of the nymph underneath anchors the drift. So the dry goes right back to its place on the water. This is impossible with a traditional leader and fly line setup, but it’s an amazing look with a tight line dry dropper on a Mono Rig. Incidentally, this works better by connecting the dry with a tag rather than in-line.

Couple more things . . .

— Although this is primarily a short range tactic, that range can be extended. And on longer casts you’ll do better to lay a little line on the water. Cast upstream. The sighter and even some of the transition or butt section may need to ride on the surface at first. (Grease it up.) But as the rig drifts downstream, always pick up whatever line you can. Remember, the advantage here is being tight to the dry, keeping line off the water and having more control over a drag free drift while being in direct contact.

— In this article, I’ve written most about weighted flies. And while I prefer beadhead nymphs, I also use split shot with this rig. How the weight is added has nothing to do with the effectiveness of this rig, whether bead, lead on the fly or split shot. The type of weight is not what makes it work.

— Like all tight line tactics, this can be a struggle in the wind. On breezy days, I often move to a tight line dry dropper because the dry anchors my rig to the water. But on very windy days, it can be hard to push the dry through the resistance. In high winds, I often choose a hard indicator for a suspender on a tight line rig rather than a dry fly.

READ: Troubitten | Tight Line Nymphing with an Indicator — A Mono Rig Variant


A tight line dry dropper rig may be my favorite variation to fish. I prefer methods that lend excellent control to the angler. And tight line rigs, with direct contact as the primary feature, are built for just that. It feels like we can make something happen rather than hoping to get lucky with a trout. I like that.

With tight line dry dropper, I get the effectiveness of a nymphing rig and the excitement of a dry fly rig. It’s worlds different than the other styles of dry dropper because it’s built on the Mono Rig. The catch rate, on average, is doubled or tripled.

Watch the nymph tuck in exactly on target and the dry fly land downstream of the nymph. You’re tight to the dry, from rod tip to fly, as it bobs and weaves back toward you. And when a trout comes for the dry, you’re close enough to see him coming. It takes discipline not to set the hook too early. When he eats, you’re immediately tight to the fish, with no slack. You’re connected to a trout on a tight line only a rods length or two away, and the fight is on.

These are good times.

Fish hard, 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. Great article, Dom. Thanks for bringing dry/dropper to life for me.

  2. I never thought about this before. Thanks for the writeup! That was a long one too.

    Now off to tie some leaders . . .

    • Ha! Do it. Go tie some blood knots.



  3. Love this stuff! So have you ever tried it with 6X coming off the sighter?

    • Hi there.

      Yes, for sure I’ve tried it. I find that 6X doesn’t have enough meat to easily turnover the dry the way I want it to.

      Using just one diameter of tippet under the water is one of the things that makes the Mono Rig work.

      But I often set my Mono Rig up with a bit of a compromise. I run 4x for the first two feet and 5x for the rest. That way, when I attach a dry fly two feet down from my sighter, I have enough turnover power to cast comfortably. Know what I mean?


  4. Dom, are you tying the 5x to the end of the 4x with, say, the orvis tippet knot and using the 5x upper tag to tie to the dry? Seems like it might keep it out of the way a bit and reduce tangles.

    • Yes. Exactly this, Matt.

      I really don’t have troubles with tangles on tags, especially when using the Orvis tippet knot. But even with a double surgeons’s not many tangles.

      I think people look at the tag and how it wraps around the leader a bit when out of the water and think that’s a tangle. But it isn’t. It will unwrap on the next backcast or as soon as it enters the water. Now, if there’s a knot in there, then yes that’s a tangle. But I can go 2-3 trips without that happening, and I use tags constantly.

      Do you have much trouble with tags tangling?


      • Not when I pay attention to making good casts, ha. And using the top tag of the orvis tippet knot has helped a lot. Most days here are spent fighting the wind, but if I stay vigilant it’s usually ok. And, it’s good advice about balancing the flies’ weights and air resistance.

  5. Dom, so are you fishing the dry or the nymph? Like what is the focus of the drift? If that makes sense?

    • Emmett – I think from the context of the article it’s both. The whole point of the mono rig is drag free drifts right? So you’re just switching up the tag nymph in a two fly mono rig to a dry and tweaking the leader for castability. Mentally it could help to just imagine you’re fishing the nymph so as not to change the presentation otherwise, but I think it would be over simplifying it to say you’re fishing one or the other. I know you wrote the question to Dom though and I’m sure he’ll reply.

    • Good question, Emmett.

      With light dry dropper, I am fishing the dry. With bobber dry dropper, I’m really fishing the nymph. And with tight line dry dropper, I’m honestly fishing both. More accurately, I am focusing on either one, from cast to cast. The rig provides so much contact and control over both flies, that I can put the dry or the nymph wherever I want it to drift. And that’s really what makes it so fun and so deadly to fish.



  6. Dom, why not just use 30 inches of the 15# Amnesia if it has the same diameter and flexibility as the 12# Chameleon?

    • Hi Bill. Good question. And it’s one that I get often enough that I have a plan to write it out in a full article. Really, the answer is already here in a group of articles I’ve written about adapting the Mono Rig and making best use of the variations available. You can find a deeper answer here:

      But the short answer is this: The transition piece, before the sighter is where I make the changes. Meaning, if I’m on a pair of nymphs and want to quickly swap to a pair of streamers, rigged up and ready to go on Loon Rigging Foam, I clip at the top of the sighter and tie on the streamers (with a different sighter and thicker tippet) at a tippet ring at the top of the sighter.

      I make other changes that way as well. Everything from the sighter down I change out multiple times on some days, to different things. It takes a minute or less to make wholesale changes that way.

      So the design of my sighter section has the future changes in mind.

      You could certainty make the substitution that you stated. And it won’t hurt anything. If it suits your own goals, then do it. For me, that would put more colored line in the water when I swap over to streamers and I’m stripping. I would not like that.

      You can play around with the sighter section a lot to suit your goals. I do.

      Make sense?


      • Makes sense. Thank you.

  7. Hi Dom, if I were to fish this using a euro line, would you recommend cutting back the 20# chameleon to 4′?

  8. I’m going through and reading all about the Mono rig and tight line nymphing. I am very new to fly fishing, sorry if this is a silly question. Do I understand right that at the end of your sighter you attach a tippet ring, and tie both flies to it separately? Two separate tippets with the ring being the thing connecting the two?

  9. Hi Dom. You say in an other comment that “. . . with tight-line dry dropper, I’m honestly fishing both” light-line and bobber styles. Regarding tight-line dry dropper, then, Is your tippet length to nymph a compromise? I mean, In four feet of water, I feel uncomfortable with a four-foot tippet under the dry. And in warmer water, I’d like to fish just a foot down to nymph as a kind of sunk emerger strategy. If any depth is possible, what would be a good starting distance to drop the nymph under the dry? I hope this makes sense. Thanks, Toney

    • Hi Tony, not sure I fully understand. But the tippet length is not something I should determine for you. That’s up to you and the current situation and your goals. Do you want to get the nymphs two feet under the surface? Okay, is the current fast? Okay, is the fly about 30 centigrams? Then you’ll probably end up with about a 45 degree angle, with the nymph towing behind the dry, pretty quickly after entry IF you line everything up well. If you do, then you’d need about 3-4 feet of tippet to make that happen.

      Here’s an article that will help you out:


  10. Hmm. I see my problem now. I need to do more reading in your articles and start simpler. Story of my life! One thing is clear, I need to start with light line dry dropper and a 12-inch tag attached with maybe a cinch knot and just see how it goes. Afterall, my goal all along was to approach warmer June water with a dry and emerger approach for my PMDs and caddis, so I’m sure I’ll have a blast doing this. After that, when I gain comfidence, I’ll worry about depth adjustment. Cheers, Toney

  11. Thanks Dom. I read your response after I added my 2nd follow-up. What you say makes sense. I’ll study your article link. I knew I’d need my high-school trig some day! Toney


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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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