Tandem Tactics for Trout Part Two: Below The Surface

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

Dry dropper set ups are only the beginning. Some of the most effective teams run deep.

Tandem nymph rigs are hands down the most effective way to catch trout. Let’s leave behind the aesthetic arguments about dry fly fishing for the minute, there’s a reason that all competitive trout fishing is done with teams of nymphs. It works and it will increase your numbers.

There are a host of ways you can choose to fish nymphs. I’m not going into the details of Czech Nymphing vs. French nymphing or Merican nymphing, but I will include some links at the end of this article. For now I’m going to focus on choosing and rigging nymphs that work effectively as teams.


There are two common ways to rig tandem nymphs. The simplest and most commonly used for indicator set ups is to tie the dropper off the bend of your lead fly’s hook. Sixteen inches of tippet between the flies is a good average length. You might assume that the dropper would fish sixteen inches deeper than the lead, but that’s not the case. It all depends on the distribution of weight.

It is pretty common to fish a weighted lead fly with an unweighted dropper. This team will fish at about the same depth. This tactic offers the fish two choices at the same depth. If your goal is to fish different levels of the water column, you must use a weighted dropper or a split shot four inches or so above the dropper. An unweighted dropper with a split shot will have better action but is a little more maintenance and can compromise your tippet strength. The difference in depth between the two flies will only be about half the length of the tippet which separates them so you may want to go longer than sixteen inches, depending on conditions.

This is the setup I use most commonly. I place a split shot above my last blood knot on the leader, ten inches above my lead fly. My lead fly is usually weighted and the dropper set up varies between unweighted fly, unweighted fly with split shot and weighted fly. It has been my experience that most anglers do not fish enough weight. If you’re not finding the bottom once in a while, you aren’t nymphing this rig effectively.

The other common method for teams of nymphs is to tie each fly from the tag end of a blood knot. This method is most often used for tight line methods like Czech nymphing, because it allows the flies to move naturally in the water while the leader itself remains under tension.

Leave the tag end of your leader about eight inches long when tying on tippet and tie your fly to it. It’s important that the fly is tied to the leader end of the knot rather than the tippet. This way the fish will pull the knot tighter and not apart. Repeat this procedure for the second and even third fly. Tie the entire leader before adding the flies.

The weight for this kind of rig is traditionally incorporated in the flies. The set up is challenging enough without split shot. There are many schools of thought but putting a very heavy fly in the middle of a three fly team with a smaller weighted fly in the lead and an unweighted fly at the termination of the leader is a common and effective method. The flies fish in a kind of W formation. You can also attach the three flies by tags and terminate the set up with split shot.

If you choose this type of rig, save yourself some grief, and minimize your casting. Lifting the flies to the surface and flipping them upstream is the best way to avoid making a mess of it. A classic dead drift with no indicator, or a tight line method yield best results.

Selecting flies

Fly selection is a matter of psychology. Whether fish psychology or angler psychology is debatable. Effective anglers, sane or otherwise, employ some kind of strategy in selecting a team of flies. Often a given fly is only effective when paired with the right partner. Here are some strategies I commonly use.

Big / small

This is almost always at play in my nymph rigs, sometimes incorporating another strategy as well. The larger fly is always in the lead position and is generally weighted. On streams where stoneflies are present, those are my go-to patterns. I may select a natural dropper like a Hare’s Ear, a Caddis pupa or midge larvae, or I may choose some type of attractor.

Attractor / natural

Hot Spot nymphs, flashy nymphs and bright colored patters like San Juan Worms get fish’s attention. They catch fish but they can also make your natural patterns more effective by drawing the fish’s attention. I decide which is the dropper by weight and size.

Nymph / emerger

This is a great technique for taking advantage of pre-hatch insect activity. Target a species of insect you expect to be active and use a nymph and emerger that imitate that same species. There is no wrong way to set these flies up but I like to put the nymph in the lead and use unweighted patterns for both. You can fish them in the film or add a split shot. CDC emergers are my favorite and will still ride higher in the water column than the nymph, especially with split shot.

Junk / subtle

I have found it very productive to pair subtle, natural patterns like RS2s or tiny Pheasant Tails with junk flies, especially egg patterns in the lead. Whether or not you like egg patterns they get the attention of fish. On highly pressured waters where fish will refuse eggs, they still look at them. You can use this to draw attention to a pattern they might eat, but might not see otherwise. This trick works well when water clarity is poor. In this case I keep the dropper no more than a foot from lead fly.

The hot ticket

When fish are keyed in on a particular pattern, there’s no reason you can’t fish two, or three of them. You can vary the size and color slightly to increase the attraction. Spreading the patterns out let’s you cover the water more effectively and increase your odds of a hook up.

Built to swing

One if the most productive teams you can fish is a Woolly Bugger followed by a soft hackle. Both flies work as dead drifted nymphs but they are both supper effective on the swing. I will typically cast this team upstream for a dead drift presentation, then swing and lift them at the end of the drift. You can cast them down and across for the swing or straight across and strip them back. You’ll even catch fish casting upstream and retrieving. There’s no wrong way to fish this team, which makes it a great choice for beginners.


Yep, even streamers can be fished in teams. You can combine two flies of the same size or fish a small streamer behind a larger one. Flashy nymphs work extremely well dropped from streamers too. The fish who may not have the confidence to eat the streamer may eat the nymph. Larger patterns like size eight accommodate the heavier tippet needed for streamer fishing.

A word of caution

Fishing tandem set ups can sometimes end in foul-hooked fish, and anglers. Keeping your flies at least sixteen inches apart will help reduce this but foul hooking is usually a result of a slow hook set. If your timing is good, it shouldn’t be much of an issue. It’s a good idea to fish barbless hooks, especially on random set ups. This will reduce the chance of seriously injuring a fish or yourself. The worst hooking I ever got was from a dropper pulled into my hand by a fish. The hook went through my thumb and came out through the nail. I was never more thankful that I’d crushed the barb.

Tandem flies are a powerful tool for putting fish in the net. This should give you some ideas and get you catching more trout. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Find what work for you on your water. There are no wrong answers.

Read Tandem Tactics for Trout Part 1

Read about Czech Nymphing

Read about Merican Nymphing (indicator nymphing)

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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5 thoughts on “Tandem Tactics for Trout Part Two: Below The Surface

  1. Running a tight-line, multiple nymph rig is deadly. When I first began competing, and learning these techniques I couldn’t believe how much my catch rate went up. These tactics truly are effective in nearly every situation. Now, there have been days when I’ve faired better with a good ol’ dry/dropper rig, but the majorty of my fishing is done using euro nymphing techniques. I, too, often use attractor patterns, as well as larger patterns, as my lead fly, with a more natural offering as my second fly. And I love using jig patterns as my second fly. Hooks ’em right in the brain and puts ’em in the net! I also love swinging these rigs as well. I’ve had some awesome days swinging big, attractor patterns and streamers. When it comes to fishing these techniques I have to recommend getting comfortable with tying your flies off of tags. This allows for a ton more movement, especially with your lead fly. Tying a fly off the bend of the hook really inhibits the leads fly’s ability to move freely in the current. Good stuff Louis!!!

  2. I began using some new techniques when nymphing this past winter. I still have trouble with the czech setup as far as tying flies off the tag end of the knot on my leader. I typically don’t cast when using nymphs and usually I am not using any line at all, but my fly tied off the tag end seemed to wrap around my leader every time. I even employed tying a simple overhand knot above my blood knot to make closer to a 90 degree angle between my fly and the leader material, which I had heard will decrease the fly tangling around the leader. Any suggestions from anybody on how to fix this or is it always going to be the case? My go to method has become tightlining using a multi colored sighter tied out of fluorescent monofilament.

  3. One method I have been using a lot for nymphing: tie your tippet to the leader leaving a 6″-8″ tag end, then tie an emerger or smaller fly to the tag, and at the long end of the tippet tie on a heavy, weighted fly (streamer or stonefly nymph). Weight can also be added near the larger fly to keep it on place. This is highly effective for tight line nymphing, or when you want to fish multiple depths in the water column.

  4. You guys are making your tags WAY TOO LONG. 4in max is all you need. Also shorter tags will help with twisting. Also, you cant try to cast a tight loop with multiple flies….especially when you have them on tags. You need to open up your cast and throw a very open loop. If you put your heaviest fly on the point and the lighter fly on the dropper, you will be able to keep your flies at different depths, which is what you want when European style nymphing. Or you could just do yourself a favor and pick up George Daniel’s book “Dynamic Nymphing.” You will learn a TON from probably the best nymph fisherman in the US.

  5. Pingback: May 23, 2014: Feather and Fin Link Round-Up | Feather and Fin

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