A Fly Fishing Magazine Unlike Any Other
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photo by Kaitlin Glines Barnhartphoto by Kaitlin Glines Barnhart

Hopper-dropper in early Spring, late Fall, and wait, even Winter? 

I became serious about the dry-dropper set up, outside of grasshopper season, after starting my journey with tight line nymphing. I was quickly addicted to jig-hooks, tungsten bead nymphs, landing big fish on a 3 wt 12ft rod, with 6 or 7x tippet size, and learning a new way to drift that is so effective. 

I realized one day in late winter, that despite my rod length, I couldn’t reach out to the sections of water that looked super fishy due to the depth of the pools. In order to get a premium drift, I needed to be closer to those sections of water.

I remembered my buddy, Jess Westbrook, telling me about using a dry-dropper set up to extend the reach if needed. I asked him why I couldn’t just use a bobber (also known as an indicator so don’t be offended), and he just said, “Trust me.” The only way I would learn why a dry fly was better than the plastic indicator year-round, was to try it. 

photo by - Kaitlin Glines Barnhart

A big old Chernobyl instead of a bobber (ok, an indicator).

I grabbed the biggest fly I had in my box, a size 8 purple Chernobyl, guessed how deep the water was, then added the dropper about 2 ft from the top fly because that’s how I did things in the Fall with hoppers and emergers. I fished through the deep riffle about five times, careful to mend, and kept my eye on the dry fly for any movement. I caught nothing. 

I started to talk to myself: I know this is fishy. I want to sink the dropper lower, but I don’t think my dry fly can handle it. Seems ridiculous to hang this nymph 5 ft from the dry fly?

Puzzled, and not wanting to waste any time, I did something I was completely against - I made a phone call while on the river. 

“Hey, JessBrooks. What should I do here?” I explained the situation and he responded, “You’ve got to drop that bottom fly about 6 ft if the water is that deep. Just keep trying with different depths, and you will hook into a fish, no doubt. Trust that dry fly and also, you need to slow down. I know how quickly you move along.”

photo by - Maylee Barnhart

Sheesh, he knows me well, I thought to myself instead of admitting it aloud. I hung up, added more tippet to my dropper than I was comfortable with, and sure enough with the first drift, I hooked into a big cutthroat trout. Sure, I could have caught this with a big indicator too, but this triggered a science experiment through the rest of my fishing year. (Also, don’t let Jess know he was right. I hate it when he’s right, but I’ve sure learned a lot from him.)

This is what I learned during my science experiment dry-dropper year (not real science, just to clarify):

1.  The big dry fly was more responsive to underwater takes than the good ole' plastic indicator. I learned that even the tiniest twitch of that big fly, I had to set the hook. I set the hook on everything and realized I no doubt had missed many fish with the plastic indicators. Also, I could always tell where my nymph was in the water because of the responsiveness of the dry fly. This helped me judge when my fly would be most likely in the strike zone and adjust accordingly.

photo by - Maylee Barnhart

2.  Many say this isn’t true, but I believe that the plastic indicator bombing the water may have scared fish away when the dry fly was less obtrusive. I base this premise on the fact that I would follow my friends fishing bobbers with the same nymph, and I would catch fish that wouldn’t take their indicator set up. I learned that the dry-dropper is great for deeper, slower water, and it also generates the same amount of stealth-action in shallow water with spooky fish. When I mend and move the fly a little bit, it just looks like a bug twitch, versus a wake from a big ball of plastic. 

3.  Trout would look at my dry fly and then go for my dropper. Sure, they aren’t the pickiest eaters certain times of the year, but I definitely saw the attractor fly doing its job and then the lazy trout eating what was closest to it. Also, catching fish on the top fly and then the bottom fly makes for a great day of fishing. I had fish go for my dry fly in a snowstorm, so I know it evoked curiosity at least. 

4.  Depth of course matters. If there was some dry fly action and I was using a dry-dropper, I would make my dropper hang in the middle of the water column to imitate an emerger and to also be in the eye line of fish closer to the surface. If the hatch was minimal, or the water was really cold, I would drop my dropper fly to be bouncing along the bottom. It wasn’t just on the bottom where I caught fish, it depended on the water temperature, the hatch, the type of water, and the weight of the nymph I used. After every five drifts, if I wasn’t catching fish, I would drop my dropper 2 to 3 more feet. Yes, Jess told me to do this, so he gets the credit.

5.  The dry-dropper is a great set up if you just get to the river and aren’t sure what type of day it will be. If you’re like me up North, you like to dry fly fish when possible and nymph, when it isn’t, so starting with this set-up will help you decide what works best.

photo by - Kaitlin Glines Barnhart

Maylee Barnhart using the dry-dropper for cutthroat trout.

From my experiences fishing through all of the seasons, the dry-dropper caught more fish than dry fly fishing alone or indicator nymphing alone. I caught many different species as well besides trout, using the same set up for local lake fishing. 

The best thing about fly fishing is there is always more to learn and many ways to try to catch fish, so I encourage you to think outside of the box, get out of your comfort zone, and maybe phone a friend during desperate times on the river.  

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