Selective Droppers

A bit of “re-play” from an old “Fly Fish America” article (which I think made the rounds three times in various states of tune).

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The use of droppers is a staple technique for many fly fishers around the world. During opportunistic (“eat what comes by”) feeding periods, droppers not only allow an angler to fish two (or more) widely different patterns, but they can also provide a fish-inducing fly-as-indicator system. Opportunistic feeding, however, is not the only place where droppers can shine. Multi-fly rigs can also be used with success during periods of selective (organism-focused, often hatch-based) feeding.

Just because fish are keying in on one food organism (mayflies, for example) doesn’t mean all the fish are keying on the same stage of that food organism. Some fish may be taking adults, others emergers. In addition, there may be multiple sizes of one type of organism (caddises, for example) hatching at the same time. Some fish may be taking the big ones, others the small ones. To make matters even more entertaining, there might be multiple types of insects hatching all at once (mayflies and midges, for example). Some fish may be taking emerging or dun mayflies, others midge pupae.

While there are many ways to build a dropper system—some very specialized—this little article will focus on a system that requires no pre-meditated leader design or presentation forethought. You begin with a standard leader and single-fly arrangement. Extra tippet material to make the dropper system is simply tied to the eye of the existing fly, or to the hook bend if you so prefer. Another fly is then tied to that extra piece. All in all, it amounts to not much more than a couple of minute’s work.


Let’s begin with a midge-based selective dropper designed to fish an adult midge along with a pupa. In this case, we’ll use a trailing-shuck Griffith’s Gnat as the dry adult and little copper Brassie as the wet pupa. While we’re at it, I’ll give you an easily-made, monofilament, dry-fly leader design. Start with 4 feet of .020”, then add 1 foot of .013”, 1 foot of .010” (1X), 2 feet of .007” (4X), and 2 feet of .006” (5X) or .005” (6X). If you aren’t comfortable building a leader, just use a pre-made dry-fly leader ending in 5X. Tie the Griffith’s Gnat on to the end of the leader and then tie an 8-inch piece of 5X or 6X to the eye of the Gnat (on the opposite side of where the end of the eye wire meets the hook shank). Tie the Brassie onto the end of that. You can grease the leader (rub part of it with floatant) in addition to greasing the Gnat if you want extra floatation.

Using this dropper set-up, the Gnat floats where you and the fish can see it, and the Brassie rides just below the surface film. You’ll know quickly if a fish takes either fly. Let’s keep the same dropper layout, but move to a complex hatch.

Last October I fished a spring creek where both Blue-Wing Olives (mayflies) and midges were hatching simultaneously—and different fish were taking different insects. I rigged up a black, size 22 Griffith’s Gnat as my midge along with a size 22 Low-Rider Emerging Nymph as my mayfly, both on 7X. Even though the Gnat looked to be about 10 sizes too big for the midges that were on the water, I still managed to hook (but not necessarily land) 7 of the 11 or 12 fish in one particular pod. The hooked fish preferred the Gnat about 2 to 1, but without the Low-Rider on the drop, I might have missed a shot at that other one-third. The next day, however, it was the mayflies that were predominant, and the hook-up ratio flip-flopped.

You could adapt the described dropper rig to fish two adult imitations or two nymphs, depending on the circumstances. On example of this would be a tan, size 14 X-Caddis on the main tippet with a black, size 18 Z-Caddis as the dropper. If you really wanted to get adventuresome, you could add an EZ Caddis, an F-Fly, a Z-wing PMD, and a CDC BWO, and have a veritable alphabet soup of flies lashed to your line!

Creating a usable dropper system requires little beyond attaching an extra piece of tippet and a fly. A quick knot, an added fly, and you’re ready to meet twice the selective challenge.

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