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Stillwater Droppers

With the exception of a few states and provinces such as British Columbia most jurisdictions allow the use of multiple flies or droppers.  To be certain, check the regulations, especially when travelling to new destinations or unfamiliar waters for the first time.  Local fly shops are a great source for regulation information as are a few valuable minutes surfing the Internet.  Even if droppers are a permitted presentation tactic verify the number.  Some states and provinces only allow up to 2 droppers and only under certain circumstances.  Others like Alberta permit the use of up to a team of 3 flies.  Other provinces and states vary their regulations based upon the fish being targeted.  For example, Newfoundland allows liberal regulations when pursuing trout but only 1 hook per line when Atlantic Salmon is the quarry.  Prudence saves potentially embarrassing situations or costly errors in judgment. Regulations permitting, stillwater fly fishers should add dropper tactics to their repertoire.


So why would a fly fisher wish to turn a simple, efficient one fly system into multi fly potentially tippet consuming nightmare anyway?  The reasons are numerous, providing advantages that work wonders for versatile stillwater fly anglers.


Choice is an obvious reason.  Multiple fly rigs allow simultaneous presentation of multiple sizes and colors within a particular pattern style.  Chironomids are a prime example, as they often hatch in varying sizes and colors.  Using droppers  fly fishers quickly determine the preferred size and color enjoying a successful outing before the hatch ebbs.  Using a single size or color in the same situation adds time and in some instances results in discovering the winning combination far too late.  When there is little in the way of clues as to what might be on the menu droppers allow fly fishers to suggest a cross section of possible prey items.  Potential combinations are limited perhaps by only the fly fisher’s imagination.  One approach involves suggesting the predator prey relationship.  Placing a dragon nymph pattern on the point, the pattern located at the end of the leader furthest away from the fly line and a scud or other dragon fodder can be the key to seducing discerning trout.  Choosing patterns that can be presented at varying pace is another option.  Leeches, baitfish, scuds, water boatman and damsel nymph patterns can all be presented through a range of retrieve speeds.  Blending these pattern types with imitations known for more a sedentary pace such as chironomid pupa or larva patterns affords fly fishers additional options.  Offering trout a choice enables the fly anglers the ability to eliminate non-productive pattern types, pattern colors or specific food sources, unravelling the mystery in an efficient structured fashion.


Droppers also put the theory of attraction to work.  Large, gaudy, bushy or awkward looking patterns have the ability to draw trout from a considerable distance under a variety of conditions.  Trout may decide the attractor pattern isn’t to their liking but a smaller imitative pattern tagging along behind suits their appetite perfectly.  European competition anglers have been subscribing to this tactic for years with stunning results.  Buoyant surface disturbing patterns such as Booby’s and other foam based patterns lure trout from the depths, overpowered by the waking charms of these patterns.  During low light hours or cloudy water conditions bushy water pushing patterns such as a Booby presented using sinking lines provide an acoustic signature for trout to home in on via their lateral lines.  Once again, trout may smash the attractor out of predatory aggression or circle to inhale a smaller subtle offering.  In the early evening trout often dine on egg laying chironomids.  Under calm conditions fish adopt a random and unpredictable feeding pattern.  Duping trout in these circumstances can be difficult and frustrating.  The next time this situation pops up trail a small soft hackle behind a buoyant adult pattern.  Cast the fly into to the rising fish allow the rings of its arrival to disperse.  If there are no immediate takers begin a steady hand twist retrieve creating a restrained wake on the dry fly, similar to the natural ovi-positing females.  Trout drawn to the waking dry often pounce on the smaller soft hackle.  Takes tend to be soft, signalled by a mere tightening of the line or resistance to the retrieve. 


Placing the attractor on the top dropper and the imitative behind is the typical pattern order when fishing attractors.  This arrangement takes advantage of a trout turning away from the attractor and crossing paths with the imitative flies.  There are times however, when this relationship works better in reverse.  Be prepared to experiment.


Depth is one of the key success factors for stillwater fly fishing.  Light, surface texture, suspended matter, weed growth and water temperature all affect trout location within the water column.  Evenly spaced droppers allow fly fishers to explore different depths throughout a single presentation.  Placing the heaviest pattern on the point allows exploration of a variety of depths while lessening the risk of leader tangles.  Make note of which fly is garnering the most attention to isolate the preferred feeding depth.  Once the depth is determined presentation methods can be altered to consistently hook fish such as use of a strike indicator to suspend a fly or altering fly lines to better present the team of flies at the correct depth.  A heavy point fly or a team of weighted patterns allows fly fishers to battle wind induced circulation currents.  These circulation currents affect floating line long leader presentations in the same manner as river or stream current.  Flies tend to drift horizontally rather than sinking down to feeding fish.  Last spring in the Cypress Hills region of southeast Alberta strong winds was having an adverse effect on our success.  It wasn’t until Al decided to add a third Ice Cream Cone chironomid pupa pattern to anchor his presentation down did he begin to experience consistent success.  His two fly rigs just didn’t have enough mass to get down to the 10 to 12 level trout were dining at.  


Dropper systems also provide tactical solutions to many on the water challenges.  Stillwater weed beds are prime trout lies worthy of angler exploration but appear more suited to the fish and not necessarily the fly fisher.  Trout prowl under and through these aquatic jungles with relative impunity.  Frustrated fly fishers are left to probe the perimeter or having to clear constantly fouled flies.  The English developed a dropper technique christened the “Washing Line” that is a perfect solution to weedy challenges.  The washing line involves placing a buoyant pattern on the point so it suspends traditional patterns from the droppers.  A personal favourite during the late summer and fall months features a foam bodied water boatman or backswimmer pattern on point and traditional boatman or scud patterns hanging off the droppers.  A stillwater “hopper dropper” of sorts.  This rig can be placed over weed beds and amongst emergent vegetation with minimal hang-ups.  During a hatch try placing an adult pattern on the point and emergers on the droppers.  Other buoyant pattern choices include Boobies and floating fry or baitfish patterns.  These patterns styles double as attractors when fished at the surface as the wake they create when stripped draws fish from distance.  The washing line method works well both at the surface and when skittering a team of flies above the bottom.  


Make a point of fishing the hang when using droppers.  Trout are often attracted to the flies but hesitate upon final commitment to a pattern.  As the flies approach the angler in preparation for the cast their retrieve angle alters, further enticing the trout.  Picking up and casting in front of an inquisitive trout often results in a vicious swirl at the angler’s feet as the trout accelerates to snatch the escaping pattern.  Fishing the hang is simple.  As the top dropper reaches the surface suspend it for a few seconds.  If there are no takes bring the next dropper to the surface and repeat the pause.  Continue this process for all the patterns.  It is surprising how often hanging the flies in this manner turns curious fish into taking fish.


There are a number of dropper set up methods and styles of for fly fishers to choose from.  Each method has its own strengths and weaknesses.  Anglers may opt for one method throughout their presentations or use a variety of methods depending upon the presentation challenges they face.


For my dropper fishing I have 3 preferred set ups.  My first method involves forming a team of flies by tying off the hook bend of each pattern.  Begin by tying on the top dropper.  Using a Clinch or Improved Clinch knot tie a length of tippet directly to the bend of the first dropper pattern.  Continue this process until the team of flies is complete, typically 2 to 3 patterns is ideal.  This set up is simple to construct and is relatively tangle free as compared to other dropper options, a valuable consideration for new fly fishers or those trying out droppers for the first time.  Some may think that the top and middle droppers of this rig might be tough for trout to get their mouths around.  Experience has taught this not the case as trout have no problem hooking up.  The drawback to this method is that if the top or middle dropper has to be changed the whole rig needs to be broken down.  The hook bend method is a favoured chironomid rig or when suspending flies beneath an indicator. 


Creating droppers from a Blood or Surgeon’s Knot is another favoured dropper option.  Of the two knot options I prefer the Surgeon’s Knot as the flies run at an acute angle to the leader during the cast and retrieve, reducing the risk of tangles.  When using this method use the heaver diameter leader or tippet material from the fly line end of the knot as the dropper.  When a fish takes the fly the direction of the pull supports the knot.  If the opposite end of the knot toward the fly line is used as the dropper struggling trout stress the leader causing knot failure, lost flies and fish.  If possible, use the same breaking strain throughout to maintain leader integrity.  Dropper length for this method should be between 5 to 10 inches, the clearer the water the longer the dropper.  Keep things balanced as excessively longer droppers are prone to wrapping around the leaders and fouling the system.


Trout taking the fly and not hooking up can be frustrating when using droppers as the angler wonders which fly is garnering the trout’s attention.  The “tell tale” dropper addresses this.  After the dropper is formed from the Surgeon’s Knot form a half hitch around the leader on the lower side of the knot, opposite to the fly line.  This causes the dropper to stand out from the leader.  If a fish grabs the fly the dropper now hangs down parallel to the leader identifying it as the fly of interest.  The Blood or Surgeon’s Knot method allows for simple fly changes without disassembling the leader in the process.  But there are drawbacks.  After a few fly changes the droppers soon become too short for practical presentation and the leader must be retied.  This method is also more snarl prone than the “off the bend” approach.  Casting droppers requires a smooth deliberate casting stroke.  Consider breaking the wrist slightly to open the casting loop.  Tight narrow loops are a tangle taunter, especially with long leaders.  When using dropper systems watch the flies as they land, look for distinct evenly spaced plops as the flies hit the water.  If the flies don’t land evenly spaced bring the flies in and inspect for tangles.  Make use of your ears, a whistling sound during the cast is another tangle indicator.  Ignoring these signs leads to incredible messes of flies and leader in short order. 


My third method involves creating a leader system using Perfection Loop droppers attached to a leader.  To begin, form a Perfection Loop at one end of an 8-10 inch length of tippet.  Remember, long droppers cause tangles.  Loop the dropper through itself around the leader above a Surgeon’s Knot to form the dropper.  The Surgeon’s Knot acts as stopper so the dropper does not slide down the leader.  This method quickly converts a single fly rig into a dropper rig and allows anglers to reattach droppers to a Surgeon’s Knot set up without major leader reconstruction.  As with the Surgeon’s Knot system, tell tale droppers can be easily adapted.


No matter the system there are a few basic considerations regarding pattern spacing and their effect on overall leader length and presentation.  The first dropper should be approximately 4-6 feet from the fly line.  Space the balance of the flies 3-5 feet apart.  As with dropper length, clear water dictates a greater degree of separation.  For example, a 3 fly floating line chironomid rig without an indicator for working 12 or 14 feet of water would have an average overall length of 16 feet to ensure adequate fly spacing and overall length for proper presentation.  When using floating lines and weighted patterns the longer the leader the greater the fly spacing.  This approach ensures problem free casting as the leader and flies turn over easier.  Sinking line fly spacing should be further apart as well so as not to draw suspicion of flies being too close together.  An average sinking fly leader could be long over 12 feet depending upon the number of flies in the team and water clarity.  For upper column presentations keep the flies closer together as the trout’s window of vision near the surface is narrower.  The only time flies I typically place flies close together is under an indicator.  Due to the vertical manner that the flies are presented, working distances of 16-24 inches are fine. 

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