Tandem Tactics for Trout. Part One: Touching The Surface

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For a whole lot of reasons, two flies are better than one.

There’s nothing new about fishing teams of flies. European fly anglers have fished elaborate multi-fly systems, called casts, for generations. Most serious trout anglers here in the US regularly fish two or three flies, where regulations allow. Still, there are many anglers who resist this technique. These anglers are often intimidated by casting a team of flies and, perhaps more often, just not sure what to tie on.

Nymph rigs, with split shot and indicators, are a challenge to cast but the second fly is really not the problem. When the setup tangles, the split shot is generally the culprit. If you are comfortable casting split shot, you will likely not have trouble with the extra fly but if you are still concerned, consider replacing that split shot with a weighted nymph. A tungsten bead or some lead on the hook shank can sink your setup as effectively as shot and may catch a fish.

My nymph rigs almost always include two or three nymphs and at least one split shot. Yes, like everyone else who owns a fly rod, I occasionally get a tangle. I’m pretty good at getting them out and adhere strictly to the two minute rule. If it’s going to take more than two minutes to untangle, I cut my flies off and re-tie.

There are a couple of things you can do to reduce tangling with weighted set ups. Tangles usually result from slack in the system. Slow your cast down and focus on making nice clean loops. The smooth application of power and abrupt stop are never more important. In truth, most tangles do not form in the cast itself but are due to a failure to control your line while not casting. Fish often help with this. Missing a fish on a small trout stream often ends in tree climbing. Be conscious of you rig as you move from spot to spot and set up to cast. This will cut out a lot of the birds nests.

Dry Dropper rigs

The most commonly used team of flies is the dry dropper. There are two common strategic ways of looking at this technique. The first is searching the water with a dry fly and adding a nymph or emerger pattern to pick up the fish who don’t want the dry. The other is fishing a nymph with a dry as a strike indicator and picking up the occasional fish who looks up. There are only two practical differences in the set up. Your frame of mind and possibly the distance between the two flies, with the indicator idea being the longer.

A third and more technical strategy is to cover a hatch with flies that represent the same insect in different life stages. This is not a searching tactic but a way to really maximize your opportunity on a good hatch. It usually involves an adult dry and an emerger or floating nymph.

Golden Stone

Ben Smith of AZ Wandrings

Hopper and adult stone fly patterns (shown) are great dry flies for dropper set ups. These flies generally incorporate foam, bushy hackles, deer hair wings or all of the above. They will float a weighted nymph with ease and are productive searching patterns with the stone flies working in the early season through summer and hoppers in late summer and fall.

tungsplitpmd_300x200_Bead head nymphs are a great choice for these teams with one of my favorites being a split case nymph with a tungsten bead (shown). Old standbys like hairs ears and pheasant tails always produce. Even medium size stone fly nymphs are a great choice where the naturals are present. Caddis pupa and midge larva are great choices as well.

cjIf you’re confident throwing a three-fly rig the popular Hopper, Copper, Dropper set up is a proven producer. This system utilizes your hopper or adult stone fly as an indicator and trails a Copper John (shown) or other heavily weighted fly, which in turn trails a small nymph or midge pattern. It is effectively a nymph set up with an eatable indicator and split shot. It’s very effective.

KlinkhammerBig bushy flies are great for floating droppers but the dry dropper technique is not limited to big flies. Many smaller caddis and mayfly patterns float a nymph nearly as well. On broken water an Elk Hair Caddis is a great choice and deadly in pocket water. Many mayfly patterns, even parachute patterns work well where the water is softer. Don’t rule these patterns out as they are often more productive than the larger flies. Pay attention to the naturals which are available on the water and imitate them.

rs2Even legitimately tiny flies can work in the lead position. A number eighteen Klinckhammer Special (shown) will not float a bead head nymph but teamed with an RS2 (shown) it is one of the most effective tactics I know. The parachute post of the Klinckhammer works well as an indicator for the super subtle RS2. It may not go under but having the awareness of your fly’s location gives you the confidence to set on a nearby rise form. This team is amazing for covering a Blue Winged Olive hatch.

caddis-with-cdcOther great match the hatch teams include caddis emergers dropped behind adult dries like Elk Hair Caddis, Trudes and my favorite, the CDC Caddis (shown). Pheasant Tail nymphs dropped from an Adams cover many species of mayflies and adding a parachute pattern to a winged adult is always productive.

When a hatch is heavy and your offering has to compete with hundreds of naturals on the surface don’t be shy to tie on two identical flies of the hot pattern. During spinner falls and trico hatches this can literally double your odds. It’s a great way to cover BWO, Caddis or any blizzard hatch.

The distance between your lead fly and dropper, or droppers, depends on the water and the tactics you are using. It’s usually between two and four feet with the shorter lengths working well for random dries, dry and emerger teams and searching teams. Longer droppers are generally reserved for water where getting a weighted nymph down to hungry fish is key. Don’t be lazy. Change your rig as conditions change.

Fishing tandem rigs is not rocket science and I guarantee these tactics will put you on more fish. Give it a try and don’t be afraid to experiment. Unconventional tactics often produce great results. If you have favorite teams of flies, please share them in the comments section for others.

In part two we will take the team sub surface.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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17 thoughts on “Tandem Tactics for Trout. Part One: Touching The Surface

  1. Great post, Louis. I do not understand the reluctance to fish multiple flies on the grounds that it is “cheating” or not consistent with the spirit of fly fishing. The fish are used to seeing different options, and multifly rigs, including dry-emerger or dry-dropper or nymph-nymph or streamer-nymph actually replicate a condition that fish face: choosing food options. It is also a great way for prospecting to determine the target of selective feeding with less fly changes.

    I personally use all the methods you discuss at one time or another. Two of my winter/high water favorites in north Georgia are a weighted wooly bugger- small nymph combo and a weighted stonefly (rubberleg)-small nymph combo. In spring I prefer dropping two nymphs off a stimulator, most often a soft-hackle pheasant tail and a flashy dropper like a rainbow warrior or flash back PT. However, the combos are endless. If I see caddis in the air with sporadic rises, for example, I may try a caddis-caddis emerger or caddis-caddis pupa or all three.

  2. Tandem Streamers is one of my favorite techniques, especially this time of year. In my mind the second fly appears to be chasing the first fly and causes fish to strike out of competition. But, that could also be total B.S. I try not to over think it. Good post.

    • This is only my third year fly fishing, but I’ve always wondered why I haven’t read more about tandem streamers. I fish them all the time, and I feel like they are always more productive then fishing just one.

      Great article Louis.

  3. I always just called it a “Hobo Hatch” a term a friend of mine lovingly coined when he discovered me fishing a string of dries with a string of nymphs below them one late summer evening a few years back… after some tinkering one can come up with some pretty effective ways of doing it… not sure which phase of a particular bug they’re taking? tie em all on … no joke. I’ve been known to do it… more than once…

  4. The only scenario that I entertain throwing a single fly is when I’m throwing big, articulated streamers, and there have been times where I’ve tied on a smaller streamer behind them. I always fish with multiple flies. The more flies you have in/on the water, the more chances you have to catch a trout. Like you said, it ain’t rocket science! I like to downsize my dry/dropper and use parachute flies as well. Dropping a midge pattern, or rainbow warrior, off of a Klink, or sedghammer has been very successful for me.

  5. Can you talk in more detail about the knots you use to set up your rig and you keep the split shot from sliding around on the line? Thanks.

    • Sure thing Josh. I use a blood knot for all of my leader connections. I tie all of my own leaders so it’s easy to put the blood knot where I want it. I then put the shot above the blood know so it can not slip down. I attach nymphs and dry flies with a clinch knot and I use a no slip mono loop or double figure 8 loop for streamers. I hope that helps.

  6. I’ve heard of a modified loch-style technique used by an English pro who fishes three dries and “fan casting”, or laying them on the water and if there are no hits picking them up and dropping them a few feet to the left or right.

    Apparently this fast, repeated pick and lay down can fool a fish into thinking there’s a hatch on.

    Have you heard of this method? How would you tie on three dries?


    • I’ve never tried it. Seems like it would catch fish. I don’t know about making them believe it’s a hatch. During the hatch there is subsurface activity fish see and take advantage of to feed

  7. Pingback: Tandem Tactics for Trout Part Two: Below The Surface | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

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