Light Dry Dropper in the Flow

by | May 10, 2020 | 17 comments

My hands are cold. It’s the second week of May, and I’m caught unprepared by a cold front that has moved in with more wind, more rain and more of the wet stuff than was predicted.

“Last night’s forecast promised better than this.” I think it before I catch myself.

Forecasters sell us on the idea that warm and sunny is what everyone wants — that warmer is better — that rain is worse. But not for me. And not for other die hard anglers. Not for the guy I passed on the way in at 7:00 am either. He was waist-deep and casting hard to the inside bank, ripping long strips back to midstream before repeating in rhythm with his slow steps downstream. He was sideways to me, and I don’t think he noticed when I passed. I hopped above to the upper trail to give him more space — to provide him the illusion of solitude. No doubt that’s part of what inspired his early start, his long walk in and his eagerness to fish under stormy skies.

Me too. We’re the oddballs who welcome dark and dreary days that threaten rain. Bring it.

But now, as I make my own casts and wade upstream, a good half-mile below my unknown compadre, wind surrounds every gap in my raincoat. The cold air finds my weakness. It enters the cracks, and it chills the raindrops that have run down my casting arm, to my elbow and beyond. I feel that cold air merge with the invasive gust that finds its way down my neck.


I overdress most every other morning. But somehow, I’m now caught with nothing but a long sleeve tee shirt covered by my Simms wading jacket. Not a good decision.

I fish through it. And about an hour later, a strong sun fights off the thick clouds to make an appearance. Warm rays cut through the mist and reach the water to illuminate the riverbed and burn through my chill. The jacket dries quickly. And in no time at all, everything has changed.

Photo by Bill Dell

The early morning was for nymphs. And I don’t know if my struggle to catch fish was mostly the trout’s fault or it was my own misery and loathing that kept me from netting more than a few fish.

Either way, with the new sun, the forest now comes alive, and the bugs go into motion. Caddis start first. And soon enough, Sulfurs and Olives join in, until the trout begin to pop. Nothing crazy, but it’s enough of a sign to change rigs that I don’t dare pass it up.

Off with the Mono Rig and on with the Harvey leader. I’m ready for dry flies in two minutes. Extending the 5X nylon gives me a chance to look around. A rise here and there — one by the log and two in the soft riffle. There’s another trout, upstream of the limestone lip in the next level.

All of the rises are in calf-deep water or less. So I draw a line in my mind — one that curves around structure and will take me near enough to all the likely water to fire off good casts with five-foot dead drifts. I wet the knot to the Sulfur Parachute and secure the nylon. This should be fun.

It is.

For the next thirty minutes I walk the drawn path, carefully remaining disciplined to the original course. The flow of the fly line in the air is finesse and freedom. Contrasted with nymphing, streamer fishing, or any other method that adds weight to the system, casting the weightless dry fly with a fly line is poetry.

The first few rising trout are convinced. But as I work upstream, their willingness stalls out. Something has changed. And trout back away from the dry just before they eat it. In this water, they don’t have much time to look, but their quick dart toward the dry is now finished with skepticism and refusal.

I reach the end of the level and the finish line of the mental path I’d drawn earlier. Intuitively, I know the solution. There’s no internal debate about this, no second thoughts about my topwater pattern or suggestion that another dry fly will seal the deal. I know that some trout will still take this dry, but I know that most trout want something easier. The sun has changed things. And while good fish are still feeding in the shallower parts of these high flows, they’re now more on guard. They’re vulnerable. And they know it.

So my solution goes their way another few inches. I change to a Light Dry Dropper style.

READ: Troutbitten | Three Styles of Dry Dropper: #2 Light Dry Dropper

Photo by Bill Dell

The rig addition is a simple piece of 5X fluoro to a soft hackle wet fly. The tippet is about twelve-inches long and comes back out of the eye of the dry. I prefer it this way so the hook bend stays clear. The additional tippet is short because the current is mixed. And with attentive, deliberate casting I can land both the dry fly and the soft hackle in the same seam.

I do this on the first cast, and the flies cooperate. I know it because the dry is unaffected. It drifts as if nothing is attached because I’ve set it up that way. The small soft hackle is nearly weightless, and it tumbles along with its dry fly companion, offering to the trout a secondary option that’s just inches under the surface.

The next trout is drawn in by the dry and sold by the soft hackle — it’s a bait and switch. He eats it greedily. And I see his large broadside coming hard to the dry before falling off course at the end. I don’t even consider that he took the soft hackle until the dry goes down a split second later.

Hook set.

After a few solid thumps against the rod tip, he surges across stream toward the bankside brush pile, forcing me to put the brakes on — hard.

I fear the tippet will break, but it holds. And a good Whiskey slides into my net a minute later.


The Light Dry Dropper rig produces over and over. Hours pass, and the fishing could be called easy if it wasn’t also technical. The casts must land just right to make the sale — everything in one seam. But as I work up the river, I marvel, as I always do, at how effortless the addition of the second fly casts. That’s Light Dry Dropper.

On the Harvey leader, I make no adjustments, save a six-inch trim of the length when I bump up the size of my dry an hour later. The dry lands with s-curves behind it. The cast is unaffected because the small soft hackle on a twelve-inch tether simply isn’t heavy enough to steal any provided slack from the dry. It’s an elegant addition that keeps the art of dry fly fishing intact.

And because these trout are ready, because they’re looking up, the small dropper seals the deal for fish that are too shy for the dry. It works — over and over.

It’s good to feel warm again, too.

Fish hard, friends.

** Find all articles about Dry Dropper styles here **
Troutbitten | Tag | Dry Dropper


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. I love to fish dry/dropper rigs. Especially in shallower rifles up to thigh deep water. Have you ever tried putting your dry on a 3″-5″ tag? I’ll tie a section of 2′-3′ flouro onto the end of my dry fly leader with a triple surgeon, leaving that tag of nylon for the dry. Tangling typically isn’t an issue as long as it’s not too windy, and your casts are relatively short. The tag allows the dry to float a little freer. It’s been working well for me.

  2. WOW !! You put me in the moment .. I’m rigging up now and going out ! Thanks Dom

  3. The Harvey leader appears to be a study in knot tying and many ingredients. Are there any commercial tapered leaders that come close to being acceptable? How different is the Harvey leader from the commercial tapered leaders in its casting or presentation capabilities?

    • Sort of, in my opinion. If I’m going to use them (I occasionally do), you can just lengthen the tippet section substantially, this will decrease the turnover ability of the leader and will prevent the leader from completely turning over / fully straightening. I also will store them very tightly coiled and leave the memory coils (i.e. not pull on the leader to straighten it before I start fishing) – this also creates a leader with some give/slack in the system and can prolong your dead drift for a couple of seconds.

      I usually use hand tied slack leaders, but the ability to fully turnover/straighten a leader can be useful in pocket water that requires pinpoint accuracy with large bushy dries and where drifts are essentially only a second at most. While you could cut back a hand tied slack leader to improve turnover, in these situations a commercially tapered leader works very well.

      Just my 2c.

    • Hi Nick.

      In short, no. I kind of explain that in the Harvey Dry article:

      It’s mainly because the butt and mid sections of the Harvey design is much thinner than any manufactured leader. So the butt and mid sections also land in s-curves.

      What Greg is suggesting can be fine. But it is a shortcut that will not have the same results. By extending the tippet, you lose some accuracy, and without the butt and mid sections also in s-curves, drag happens sooner.

      I guess the knots of any of these leaders is not a big deal to me. But I learned to build leaders as part of fly fishing. I swear, if you build your own leaders, you will be a better angler, because the adapting your leader streamside is not a chore, but something you enjoy doing, to adapt to conditions.


  4. Yep. Friday was 43 degree water and I thought for sure it was going to be a subsurface day but the contact nymphing game I started with just wasn’t producing. Sun came out, no fish rising but switched to conventional fly line and a dry fly leader and had a banner day.

  5. Dom, I have question. It seems like the way to get a dry, or a dry dropper, in the direction of the current, is to fish directly downstream from where you intend the the dry to land. To do that, the fly line will hit the water where is fish is, unless the leaders long enough and thin enough to not splash the water and spook the fish.

    On the other hand, if you. cast 2-3 feet above the feeding fish at an angle (however small that angle is) , the fly line will hit the water far away from the rising fish. Am I missing something here?

    • Hi Mike,

      No, I don’t think you’re missing anything. I think everything is SO conditional and based on your rivers and your fish.

      Personally, I very rarely fish areas where trout care much if the leader passes over them. And my leader usually lands very lightly — unless I’m doing a Crash Cast.

      But, to your point, there are mends and things you can do while fishing upstream to avoid part of the leader lining the trout, if that is a concern.

      Your suggestion to approach from across is something I do as well, of course — sometimes. But I constantly am aware that by crossing seams, more drag occurs — whether with nymphs or dry flies. That simply cannot be changed. If you get everything in the same seam, by fishing more upstream, better and longer drifts happen. Cross stream angles force us to compensate, that’s all.


  6. Very nice article and a good reminder. I think many of us know this but sometimes get hung up on just working the dry.

  7. I have a variation of the “light” dry dropper rig that has provided exciting fishing when there is no hatch. I call it the “Drop and Twitch”. Here is how it works. Tie a 20 inch, 5x Fluoro tippet to your standard 9 foot tapered leader (or hand tied as Dom prefers) with a blood knot. Leave a tag end dropper off the blood knot about 5 inches long. Then tie a heavy wet fly to match any hatch you expect, such as sulfur SH or weighted sparkle caddis on the end of the tippet and a high floating Polywing* caddis on the blood knot tag. This dry must have enough buoyancy to easily float the dropper. Now you are rigged for the Twitch”. The best water is moving pretty fast, even choppy. It can be deep or shallow. Fish this rig across and down. When the flies land (no finesse needed) raise your rod high and start the dry fly dancing on the surface while the heavy wet stays submerged. The wet fly will act like a sea anchor, allowing you to hop your dry throughout the down and across swing. This method works great for me on the Little j providing smashing takes (on either fly) and excitement, especially when trout are looking for motion. I tie my Polywing caddis with a little extra polypropylene yarn (indicator material) for Twitching. see YouTube video for my pattern on Trout Boomer video.


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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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