Attractor Flies in Tandem Rigs

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Owyhee River Brown Photo by Louis Cahill

Owyhee River Brown Photo by Louis Cahill

A large part of fly fishing is problem solving.

Problems are just part of the game and the better you are at solving them, the more effective an angler you will be. Often the solutions require tactics that are unusual or counter intuitive. When fish are being stubborn a creative solution may be just what is needed.

On our recent trip to the Owyhee River in Oregon, Kent and I encountered such a problem. The Owyhee (the part we were fishing) is a tailwater. It’s a highly pressured and very technical fishery full of picky brown trout. That’s a big enough problem but there were other factors we were dealing with as well.

The Owyhee has an amazingly abundant insect population and the insects are very small. This means that your #22 fly is competing for the fish’s attention with thousands of tasty naturals. The fish do not have to move for food so the only way to feed them is to put the fly right on their nose.

No problem, and anglers generally do this by targeting rising fish because the waters of the Owyhee are stained with dissolved lime and calcium carbonate, a very fine silt that does not settle and gives the water an opaque green tint. The color makes it nearly impossible to sight fish when there are no fish rising. When we were there strong winds had put off the hatches so we were fishing blind. We were catching fish fairly regularly by reading water and being persistent and observant, but I kept thinking there had to be a better approach.

One of the fundamentals Kent and I believe in is going with what we know. As southern fly fishers we are accustomed to perusing fish by any means necessary. Here in the south if you sit on the bank and wait for the hatch, as many of my western friends do, you’ll likely have quite a wait and a long beard to go with it. We believe strongly that many of the tactics we learned fishing in the south bear value anywhere there are trout and we’ve proven it many times.

One thing I know about trout for sure is that they like eggs. You can feel any way you like about fishing egg patterns and beads, I know how the fish feel about it. And in the spring, brown trout can not resist a yellow egg. These fish however are too educated, on average, to eat an egg pattern and frankly I’m glad for it. It makes me respect them more. However, their instinct tells them that it’s food, so they have to have a look.

I tied on a bright yellow egg that the fish could see in that stained water and only eight inches below it I tied on a #20 nymph. My catch rate tripled. The fish’s instinct made them move the crucial couple of inches. They passed on the egg, but they ate the nymph. It works for all kinds of fish, even steelhead. There are always guys who will grumble, scowl or give you shit about it, but they usually S.T.F.U. when you catch more fish than they do.

The idea works with any attractor fly in a tandem rig. Large flies like Stoneflies or Wooly Buggers call attention to smaller patterns. Bright flies like a Woods Special get fish to look at more natural patterns and even big dries attract fish and double as indicators for midge patterns in the film. Tuck that egg pattern in your bag of tricks and try it next time the conditions are right.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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14 thoughts on “Attractor Flies in Tandem Rigs

  1. Can’t agree with you more Louis. I use this method A LOT and it definitely works. Around here I often use big stoneflies with hot spots, Vladi worms, or egg patterns with a trailing natural and it almost always pays off. Especially in off-color water.

  2. Louis,
    My buddies and I fish the O all the time. Curious if you were using any kind of indicator above the egg pattern or if the egg was bright enough to see through the colored Owyhee water.

    • Sean,

      Sorry if you wanted Louis to respond specifically. I thought I’d respond since I saw the comment and also because Louis is out of town on a photo shoot.

      Yes, we used a suspension device (thingamabobber) when we weren’t dry/dropper fishing. With the flows we had, and the dingy green water, I don’t think most fish minded them. Plus they aloud us to better control our fly depth for longer presentations and drifts.

      I am very jealous you get to fish that tailwater all the time. I’m having withdrawals from fishing that river still. If you don’t mind me asking, how’s the terrestrial fishing there?

      Thanks for comment.


      • There’s not much of a terrestrial thing going on that I am aware of. A few guys will fish hoppers in late summer, but flows can drop significantly, water temps rise, and it can get weedy. We usually stick with spring and fall on the O and head to some of the bigger rivers like the SF Boise or over in East Idaho for the big bug action.

        There is a brief little flurry of Skwalas in the early spring, so you can catch a few on bigger bugs on top…but it’s really hit and miss.

        Only one way to solve that jealousy problem…move to Boise. 😉

    • Sean, you lucky devil. That is a great river. I wish I could fish it more.

      With that rig I used a thingamabobber. With smaller flies I used a New Zealand indicator.

  3. I have been using this technique on some picky, educated fish in a trophy stream I’m on frequently. These fish are known for taking small natural patterns well, but some will take attractors too, so lately my go-to rig has been a #18 pheasant tail and a #18 rainbow warrior together. I catch fish on both flies all day. I’m always searching, changing to different kinds of flies, trying to find what the fish want that day, and I find this rig to be a great starting point. I haven’t had to switch to anything else since I started fishing it a couple of months ago.

  4. As far as a tandem rig, are you mainly just tying a length of tippet off the bend of the hook or a different method? And are you using split shot in-between the flies or making sure to weight them when you time them?


    • Dusty,

      Yes, most of the time I do tie my droppers off the bend of the hook on my lead fly. It’s the easiest. Every once in a while I’ll mess around with other rigging methods we’ve talked about in the past. I usually only do that when my catch rate is really low and I’m trying to trouble shoot why I’m not getting bites. Most of the time I put my split shot in front of my lead fly, but there are some situations when I do place a split shot in between the two. Check out this link below for an article I wrote on this subject.

      Lastly, I do tie my favorite fly patterns in different weights and beadless. This does help to limit the amount of split shot I use or even allow me to eliminate it all together. Water conditions are the determining factor in this.



    • Dusty, I do run my droppers from the hook bend. I’ve played with tag ends and I’ll use them once in a while for special circumstances but IMO they are more trouble than they are worth.

      In the set up I described I did not use split shot between the flies. When I’m really trying to hit different spots in the water column I will. Kent does more of that than I do. It’s a solid technique.

  5. I’m facinated with the whole egg fishing you have over there. Does it work on waters that only has brown trout and no salmon run? Probably not to the same degree.

    • It does. All fish have the instinct to eat eggs. Dead eggs, which fish clear from their redds, will spoil other fish’s eggs, so they all have the instinct to clean them up. They are also a great source of nutrition and trout will eat eggs of any species of fish, not just salmon. Here brown trout love small yellow eggs, especially in the spring.

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