Pro Tips: How to Set-Up Rigs for Nymphs, Streamers, and Dry-Droppers

Written by: Luke Lowery

If your nymph isn’t at the right depth, the fish won’t eat it.
Photo by Sandy Hays

With the nice weather we’ve been having in Montana, anglers are flocking to the Madison. The most common questions I get in the shop are about how to set up a rig properly. I will go through how I like to set up my rigs, whether I’m nymphing, throwing streamers, or running a dry-dropper tandem.

Nymph Rig

Nymphing is all about depth. If you are nymphing, it’s usually because trout are not looking up at the surface or there aren’t any bugs out for the trout to rise to. This alone should tell you where the trout are: deep. In order to catch these fish, you have to present the fly where they are. I see a lot of people throwing nymph rigs that are just two or three feet long from the indicator to the second fly. Fish are usually not looking for a size 10 stonefly just below the surface. Though the Madison is fairly shallow, a nymph rig must be between 6 and 8 feet, at a minimum. From there, you can add or subtract weight to adjust the depth at which the flies drift.

I like to take a 9-foot leader and cut off 12 to 14 inches of the tippet, and then re-attach that tippet with a surgeons knot. This creates a perfect place to clamp split shot so they don’t slide down to the point fly. SInce I’m 6 feet tall, I can use my wingspan (which is about 6 feet) to measure the length of my rig, and I attach my strike indictor above the 6-foot mark. Fly fishing is a game of inches, and while you may be using the right flies, if your rig is just inches off the target, the fish won’t eat.

Check out this video, made by our friends at Blackfoot River Anglers, detailing how to set up a nymph rig:


Throwing steamers is by far my favorite style of fly fishing. There is nothing like watching a big trout chase your fly and absolutely demolish it. That said, if you’re going to streamer-fish, you need to set up your rig properly in order to be effective. Some folks prefer sinking-tip lines  or poly leaders, and those work fine. However, since I mainly fish the Madison, there is no need for these measures. The river is very shallow and sinking tips tend to get snagged pretty easily. I throw my streamers on a floating line with a 7.5-foot 0X leader. The shortened leader gives me more control over my fly, but it is still long enough to let my streamer get down.

If you are using a bulky streamer that is having a hard time staying down in the water column, throw some lead on about 6 or 8 inches above the streamer, using the same surgeons knot technique described above. The positioning of the lead is important; you don’t want your weight too close to the streamer, as it will affect the movement of the fly in the water. But you don’t want it too far away because the lead will then sit lower in the water than your streamer.

Another thing I do with my streamers (and most of my larger flies) is use a non-slip mono loop instead of the classic clinch knot. The non-slip mono loop allows the flies to move and swing better in the water. This is a great knot for non-articulated streamers because it will give them some extra movement. I also believe that the non-slip knot is stronger than the regular clinch knot, which also helps when throwing large meat. Here is a link to a video explaining how to tie the non-slip knot:


The dry-and-dropper technique is a very effective way of picking up fish in the summer and fall months. Many of you have heard of the “hopper dropper” (or as Hank Patterson has taught us, a “hopper, hopper dropper with a dropper hopper”). The idea of this technique is to combine dry-fly fishing with nymphing. I find that a lot of anglers struggle with this set up, again because of the depth they are fishing their nymph. The dropper (the nymph) needs to be at least two feet behind your dry fly. I see a lot of guys dropping their nymph just inches below their dry.

Like nymphing, if you’re not presenting the fly to the fish they aren’t going to eat it.

The classic “hopper-dropper” is a summertime staple on the Madison.
Photo by Phil Monahan

I like dropping my nymph an arm’s length from my dry fly, about three feet. This allows me to effectively fish both a dry and a nymph because I am presenting both flies to the fish. If you want, you can even drop two nymphs, but make sure you are in compliance with your local regulations. Here in Montana, you are only allowed to fish two hooks. Sometimes, I will cut the hook off my dry fly so I am only fishing two hooks, making the dry just an indicator.

Luke Lowery is the manager of The Tackle Shop, in Ennis, Montana.

18 thoughts on “Pro Tips: How to Set-Up Rigs for Nymphs, Streamers, and Dry-Droppers”

  1. This does not always hold true. I found out just this past week. I was fishing different water all week. Not just the same body of water. I done everything wrong that trout snobs say won’t work on purpose. Guess what I found out? Alot of other fishermen claimed it was doing it wrong…. what they found out was my fly rod stayed bowed up. I fished only one nymph. Not 2 or 3. I kept it 2 to 3ft from my indicator. I even swung it at the end of the drift. People couldn’t figure out how or why I was doing as well as I was. Yet I know why…. I stopped being the ‘golfer’ robot . You’d be surprised that doing the ‘wrong’ things will produce plenty of fish. I watched people to the left and right giving it the perfect presentation ect ect not get bit…. they figured out how I was doing so well, as soon as they grew a pair and tried what I was doing, then they too were hooked up. Trout is by far the simplest fish to catch on the fly… Take the chip off your shoulders, grow a pair and try something different.. people like me will prove you wrong time and time again.

    1. I’m sorry but your statement that a trout is the easiest fish to catch on a fly is way off,. I’ll put you on a river with 200 fish rising . If you don’t have your sh…t spot on you won’t catch a fish for a week straight . I’ll look in your box and I’ll place a large bet you won’t get a trout to breathe on your fly unless it’s spot on. The nymphing technique you explained does work , I use it frequently, I call it suspension nymphing,,,,,keeping the fly in the lower to mid water column under an indicator. Wild trout are definitely not the easiest of fish to catch on flies bud!

  2. It’s fun matching wits with a creature with a brain smaller than a pinhead. What’s even more fun is ripping a streamer by a rising trout that’s “totally keyed” into a tiny BWO only to have it do the quickest u-turn you’ve ever seen and smash the streamer. I love fishing.


  3. Theese articles are to help people learn. All the info was accurate. If you already knew what they mentioned great, your doing your homework. But never hate on another’s tactic just because you don’t agree help each other out guys

  4. Nice video, thanks. Even with much lighter tippet segments , I got so many nuisance hits (mistaken for tiny bugs) on my surgeon knots in calm clear water I had to go back to tapered under those conditions. I try to pre-make leaders on the kitchen table to keep the floro/mono trimmings outta the river. A wind breaker/hat in the lap serves to catch the trimmings in the field. Yeah I know – mountains out of mole hills – but an angler changing flies or adding tippet 10-20 times/day adds maybe 2ft of mono to the river. Times 100-1000 angler trips/yr for your river (or your clients for a guide) adds up year after year after year. Or knot.

  5. I am 77 ….. been a fly fisherman since age 6 ….. my father was a fly fisherman and we fished together for 64 years. What we know about trout and fly fishing is that on any given day one can be well behind the information curve necessary to fish well and effectively. Other days, sometimes measured but in only minutes, we seem invincible. From this I have learned to never diss fly fishing techniques employed by others … I try to avoid bias in any form. No two days on any stream are identical …. we take our best shot based on what we think we know (but are often mistaken) and reach into the closet of experience knowing full well that the closet is not an endless supply of tools/techniques. But we learn ….we get smarter but, quietly, we are made more aware of what we don’t know!

      1. These videos are a good/nice idea but I have no experience fly fishing and have no idea what is being talked about. I want to take up the hobby but I need a complete beginners video.

  6. Easiest fish to catch maybe that day Try an evening hatch of sulfurs and every fish in the river is rising,and you’ve tried every fly in your box and the only bite you get are from bugs.Tell me how easy they are to catch.

  7. Love reading about others experience fly fishin. A wonderful hobby I tie my own flies and build a variety of rods, for myself and four sons and several grandsons. My father , bless him got me started on little sandy creek In Pennsylvania . Never forget my first trout, caught at age 6 , with a metal casting rod and level wind casting reel. I,m now 85 and had a wonderful life, fishing the west all over, Canada, and Alaska also. Been retired 30 years spending a lot of. That fly fishing! The wonderful thing about fly fishing is there are always new things to learn and places to fish. More..michael grajcar,Arcadia, mi.

  8. Reading through the comments here, it’s interesting to note that those who older and have the most experience fly fishing for trout tend to be the most humble and respectful in their commentary. Lessons learned over decades of fishing provide one with humility and wisdom.

  9. Well said, Derek. Relatively new to the sport and I am frequently amazed by the insight and humility by those who have been willing to share their knowledge with me. I have found the that the more humble the fisherman, the better the wisdom they impart.

  10. interesting to see the set up for nymph fishing. I am a bit surprised that Orvis haven’t seen that the video showed all of the offcuts of line just being left to fall on the floor. Not great for wildlife or the environment.

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