fly fishing knots
Return to all Knots Articles

Useful Tandem Fly Combinations

by Phil Monahan
illustrations by Bill Tipton
Once you've mastered tying the in-line dropper rig, your options are wide open. Here are just some of the common situations and strategies in which two flies work better than one.

The combination of a heavy beadhead and a more buoyant nymph can be deadly. Dead-drifted, this rig puts the larger fly on the bottom, while the bottom fly imitates an insect that has been knocked into the drift. If you twitch your rod tip, you can make the bottom nymph dive and rise again, which often triggers a strike.

Two Dry Flies

When fish are feeding on very small flies, it can be difficult to see your tiny imitation on the water. In such situations, tie on a big, bushy fly, and then add the smaller fly on a 24- to 30-inch dropper. That way, the big fly serves as a locator and a strike indicator — when a fish hits the size 22 fly, the big ol’ size 10 fly will disappear, too. If you know exactly which flies the fish are hitting, you can simply tie on two of the same pattern, thus doubling your chances of a strike. The two-fly rig also helps when you’re trying to figure out which patterns work. You can test-cast twice as many patterns this way.

Dry Fly and Emerger

Oftentimes, when insects are hatching, fish will key on a particular stage of the hatch cycle. If you’re not sure whether you should be casting a dun or an emerger, fish both, and see which one works. I suspect that, even when they are eating duns, some trout can’t pass up a crippled-looking emerger. It’s easy pickings for them. I like emerger patterns that feature a Z-Lon or Antron shuck.

Attractor Dry Fly and Nymph

When you have no idea what the fish are eating and you want to cover a lot of water, you can’t beat this setup, which is a favorite among drift-boat guides. Use an large attractor-pattern dry fly, with a real generalist nymph — such as a Bead-Head Hare’s Ear Nymph or a Bitch Creek — as a dropper. (The length of the dropper should be determined by water depth and current speed.) The theory behind this rig is that you’re going to present each fish with two options. The dry fly acts as a strike-indicator for the nymph, and the beauty of this system is that it allows you to fish the nymph at a very specific depth. If you get consistent hits on the nymph, you may consider switching to the next option….

Two Nymphs

The double-nymph rig is based on the same theory as the double-dry, and it also helps you to control the depth of the flies. If you know that the fish want something diminutive, such as a size 18 Pheasant Tail, right on the bottom, instead of loading up the line with split-shot, drop the PT from a heavily weighted fly. It’s much easier to cast, and there’s always the chance that some lunker will find your larger offering attractive.

Streamer and Nymph

This is the least common tandem rig, but I’ve used it a lot, especially in still water. When I worked in Montana, my favorite set up was an Olive Woolly Bugger, with an olive, jointed damselfly imitation as a dropper. I found that the larger fly would often get the fish interested, and when the nymph came swimming by, they’d jump on it. I’ve also had good luck dead­drifting a Black Ghost and a large Kaufmann’s Stonefly during the early, high-water season in the Northeast.

A more unusual combination is a streamer dropped off a nymph. The rig is designed to look like a baitfish chasing an ascending nymph. Large browns feed almost exclusively on other fish, and the theory here is that the big ‘ol brownie will ignore the nymph and pounce on the baitfish pattern in “pursuit.”

Three Flies

Many of the European fly fishermen who regularly win the World Championship use rigs with three flies. I’ve never really felt the need to try it, but I’m sure it works. The only problem I see is that your leader ends up being really long, which might cause some casting problems.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at Copyright © 2005 by Philip Monahan.
Bookmark the permalink.
  • Little Gray

    It’s worth a discussion on the best kind of knot to use for the first fly.

  • Everett Hall

    I fish a hi low rig with a three inch dropper 3to4 feet above the nymph usually the top fly is a soft hackle this allows fishing at two levels and results in double hookups the first fly is taken and if there is another fish in the vicinity the second fly is grabbed because of the erratic motion imparted by the first fish

  • altaopie

    the problem with the hi lo rig is that when you hook a fish on the the top fly, you got the bottom fly goin all over the place as the fish fights and it snags on stuff occasionally and allows the fish to break off. especially if your lower fly is heavy. same thing w/ bottom bouncing. just gotta mind all the stuff below the fish when landing

    • Andrew Perry-Rowe

      That is why I made a side by side fly rig.

      • Andrew Perry-Rowe

        Plus, what’s the point in fishing if you don’t lose a fly or two?

  • Andrew Perry-Rowe

    I am twelve, and I have been trying to sell some home tied flies I made.would you like to buy some?