How to fly fish with droppers

Learn how to fly fish with droppers and you'll be able to use several flies at once, cover more water and different water depths and potentially catch more fish.

How to fly fish with droppers
© Fly and Lure
How to fly fish with droppers
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
How to fly fish with droppers
Estimated reading time 15 - 24 minutes

What is a dropper?

A dropper is a short section of tippet tied to your leader to allow you to fish several flies on the same leader or cast. Using droppers lets you increase your chances of the fish finding your fly which means you should catch more fish. It could even mean you catch two at once! Here are the main reasons why you'll want to learn this vital fly fishing technique:

Use different types of fly
Can't decide which fly to use? Want to hedge your bets and try several patterns all at once? Using droppers lets you do this which means you'll find that winning fly pattern much faster.

Cover different water depths
Fishing several flies on droppers means that you can fish at several different water depths. Since finding the feeding depth is crucial to catching fish, covering different water depths via droppers lets you determine where the fish are faster.

Attract fish to imitative fly patterns
Fishing a brightly coloured attractor pattern, such as a blob, FAB or booby, can draw fish in for a closer look. While they might not be fooled by the attractor, they may be misled into thinking the imitative nymph patterns on your droppers are the real thing.

Control your fly depth
If you want to keep your droppers or point fly at a specific depth you can fish a buoyant fly pattern, like a FAB, booby or popper hopper, on the point or droppers. This can keep your flies in the feeding zone with precise control.

Catch more than one fish at once
While it's a rarity, there are few other methods that increase your likelihood of catching several fish at the same time. You might not land both of them, as it's extremely challenging to net one while the other remains attached, but you'll get the fight of your life.

The double-header is the fly fishing equivalent of the hole in one.

When should I fish droppers?

Droppers can be used in pretty much every fly fishing situation and on almost any kind of fly line. You can fish a team of dry flies, a team of wet flies, a selection of nymphs, a group of lures or any combination of the above that you can imagine. The use of droppers is very common on both rivers and stillwater and many people fish them nearly all the time.

Whether you're fishing rivers or stillwaters, you'll benefit from learning how to fish droppers.

What length should I make my droppers?

The optimum length for droppers is generally around 8-10", a bit short on the river. Some people do fish them much shorter than this and you do see the odd crazy person fishing much longer droppers. However, if they're much shorter than this the fly won't waft around in the water quite so naturally, and if they're much longer than this you're more likely to get tangles.

Obviously, your droppers will initially start out a bit longer and then gradually reduce in size during your trip as you change the fly, which shortens the line each time. If you start off with droppers of 10" or so, they'll be fine for use most of the day. For river nymphing, about 6" is probably best as the French and Czech nymph style of "casting" can result in tangled droppers with longer lengths.

Keep droppers relatively short - about 8-10" is ideal on stillwaters.

How do you tie a dropper knot?

The three-turn water knot is the most commonly used knot for attaching droppers. With this knot you can take a length of leader material, say around 18"/45cm long and position it alongside your main leader in the place where you want the dropper knot to sit. You then create a loop and pull the long side of the dropper and the long end of your line through the hole three times. When you pull slowly and moisten the line a little figure eight shaped knot will appear. Pull tight and trim off the upper tag end.

Which is the easiest dropper knot to tie?

There are a few different knots you can use for tying on droppers. They can be a bit fiddly to get the hang of. However, there is a really quick and easy way to tie them that totally changed my success with the knots. Rather than going through the hassle of pulling a really long piece of line through the hole three times, instead you use your fingers or a pair of forceps (or hemostats as they're called in the US), and turn them three times. All you need to do then is pull the dropper and the long section of the line through once and tighten. It takes just a couple of seconds. It's dead easy too.

Gink and Gasoline / YouTube.

What if I am rubbish at tying knots?

If you're hopeless at tying knots, don't worry. Invest in a packet of tippet or leader rings. These tiny metal rings are about 2-5mm across and are used to connect several pieces of line together. For a couple of pounds, you can get a pack of 10 Riverge or Stroft Leader Rings which will let you add and remove droppers with ease. You only need to know one knot - the grinner or uni knot - and you're up and running.

If you can't tie dropper knots then tippet rings are well worth considering.

How can I fish two flies when it's windy?

Since droppers are prone to tangling when it's windy, you might want to remove them or use an alternative method for fishing tandem flies. The New Zealand style method is worth considering. However, it's also good for beginners and river fly fishers using the klink and dink method. Here, you tie on a buoyant fly to the point position at the end of your leader and then tie a length of tippet to the bend of the hook, with your smaller fly - usually a nymph - attached beneath.

You can catch a fish on either fly and the leader with the nymph attached does generally stay attached if you hook a fish on the lower fly. Some fly fishers who fish North Country spiders even use more than two flies using a similar method, but just two flies is the norm. It's an effective method for grayling and trout on rivers, but it does work OK on stillwaters too.

The klink and dink or New Zealand style methods let you fish two flies without droppers.

Are there are any drawbacks to fishing droppers?

There are a couple. The first and most obvious is that they're prone to tangling, especially in windy weather. You will need to adjust your casting stroke to open up your loop otherwise you may find your droppers are getting tangled every few casts, which can be extremely frustrating. The other drawback to droppers is that they add potential weak points to the leader, which can result in the odd snap-off.

Tangles are a fact of life with droppers. Store the waste bits in a Monomaster to keep the environment free of discarded line.

How many droppers should I use?

It depends on how and where you're fishing. Most people fish a single fly on the end of their leader, known as the point fly or just the point, and then use one or two droppers further up the line. On reservoirs you might also see the more competent fly fishers fishing as many as three droppers, however, most fisheries will limit you to 2-3 flies so check the rules first. The more flies you attach to your line, the more likely the line is to tangle, so start off with a single dropper until you learn to control your loop and minimise tangling through better fly casting.

You will need to adjust your casting stroke to open up your loop otherwise you may find your droppers are getting tangled every few casts, which can be extremely frustrating.
Most fisheries will let you fish 2-3 flies on the same leader, but on reservoirs you can often fish 4 if your skills are up to it.

What are the best dropper spacings?

This is a subject of much debate and there are lots of differing opinions. It really depends on the weather, the water conditions and your proficiency in casting a long leader. Dropper spacings differ quite a lot, depending on the sort of fly line you're using and whether you're fishing on a river or a stillwater.

Some competition stillwater fly fishers will often fish huge leaders of 25 or so. However, these can be a real challenge to turn over if you don't know what you're doing. The average fly fisher will probably be more comfortable fishing a leader of 12-16' before things get tricky. On leaders of around 16' you can fish one or two droppers fairly comfortably. If fishing two flies on a floating line, I'd space them equidistantly, so the first one would be at 8' from the tip of the fly line and the next one 8' later. With three, space them about 4' apart.

Small boobies work on both the point or the droppers, but keep the spacings between them large, especially on clear or pressured waters.

On a sinking line, you can fish with a much shorter leader, allowing you to keep your flies closer to the bottom of the lake. Sometimes these can be as short as four feet, sometimes with the first dropper just a couple of feet from the tip of the fly line. This tends to be a common method for fishing FABs and boobies popped up from the lake bed, which can be a deadly method during the summer months when the fish are lying in the deeper water.

On rivers, you can reduce the spacing quite a lot. When fishing nymphs using the French nymphing technique, you'd typically place the two droppers about 18" apart, with the point fly about 24" below the bottom dropper.

Dropper spacings can be closer on sinking lines, providing flies aren't too colourful.

What if the water is clear?

In some circumstances on stillwaters, such as when the water is clear, the fish are heavily fished or your flies are very brightly coloured, you'll want to increase the spacings between them. Fish can sometimes get spooked if they see several flies zooming past, especially colourful ones, so keep them at least four feet apart, ideally much further. On stillwaters, I wouldn't go much closer than three feet between flies.

 More natural looking fly patterns can be fished closer together than really gaudy attractors with less risk of them spooking wary fish.

How can I stop my droppers tangling?

Using a stiffer or thicker line for your droppers can help. Finer diameter lines will give your flies a much more natural presentation and should catch you more fish. However, when used for droppers they are more likely to tangle, especially when combined with a bushy, air-resistant fly. Slightly thicker diameter lines or stiffer line such as some of the harder fluorocarbons can reduce dropper tangling.

The other handy tip for reducing tangled droppers is to tie in an addition overhand knot on the dropper to kick the line out at a right angle. However, the downside is that this adds another knot and a further weak point to your leader.

Using thicker or stiffer line can help reduce dropper tangles.

How do you cast droppers?

Droppers are prone to tangling and you're likely to find them annoying when you're learning the technique to fish them. What you'll need to do is open up your casting loop. Ordinarily, most fly fishers are aiming to achieve a tight, narrow loop when casting as it's more aerodynamic, cuts through the wind better and looks cool! Throwing a tight loop is generally a sign that you know how to control a fly rod. However, a tight loop means your droppers are more likely to collide in the air and you'll spend half of your trip untangling them and tying on new ones.

Instead, adjust your casting stroke so you dip the rod a bit lower on the back and forward casts and the loop will widen. The bigger gap between the upper and lower legs of your casting loop will keep the droppers further from each other and you'll get fewer tangles. If it's windy, you'll probably want to remove the droppers...

Opening your casting loop will minimise tangles.

What flies work well on droppers?

Some fly patterns are considered "classic" dropper patterns. Buzzers, diawl bachs, crunchers, muskins and other nymph patterns tend to be the favoured patterns on stillwaters but small lures such as blobs, boobies and cormorants also work well. When the fish are higher in the water, you can fish dries on your droppers too. You can fish several lures on the same line, but if they're heavily weighted with beads casting them can be a bit challenging. With brightly coloured ones, you'll definitely want a good gap between them to prevent spooking the fish.

Blobs, FABs and boobies all work well on droppers.

How far from the end of the fly line does the first dropper go?

Most fly fishers aim to keep the first dropper, or top dropper as it's known, a good distance from the tip of the fly line to keep this thicker and more visible line away. I wouldn't go closer than a few feet. If you can handle a longer leader, a good six to eight-foot gap is better. Of course, on a sinking line, where the line might be well below the fly and is camouflaged better by the substrate, it doesn't matter quite so much.

Keep your top dropper a good distance from the tip of your fly line - 4-8' is ideal, depending on the depth.

What flies should be avoided on dropper rigs?

Bushy flies and those that are prone to spinning will have you pulling out your hair. They're best kept for the point fly, otherwise, they'll quickly tangle around the leader and leave you with a mess to sort out. Boobies can have the same effect if they have large booby eyes, or if they've not been neatly rounded off.

Nymphs are a better choice on droppers than bushy patterns.

What's a dry dropper rig?

A dry dropper rig uses a buoyant fly on the top dropper and weighted flies beneath. This is a good technique for controlling fly depth and is great for fishing small nymphs, such as buzzers, on stillwaters. Both the dry dropper fly and the nymphs will catch fish so it's a good choice when fish are rising from time to time 

Klinkhamers are ideal on dry dropper rigs.

Is there anything I can do to save time when using droppers?

To save time you could tie up your dropper rig before you leave and then place the prepared leader in a resealable plastic wallet or wrap it around a rig holder. All you need to do to prepare it for use is unwind the rig, give it a gentle stretch and then tie on your flies. It's really quick and easy if you find droppers fiddly to tie on by the waterside.

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