Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

This technique was developed out of a dire need. Everyone agreed that spring 2015 was one of the toughest ever for catching trout in our area. No one was catching or even seeing many fish on my two favorite rivers. Tried and true methods from past years failed completely. I had not been skunked in years. It took me four outings to hook and land my first trout.

Obviously, something had changed. I was befuddled and frustrated as I was watching the river while eating a sandwich on the bridge next to my parking spot. After a couple of minutes an over twenty inch brown slowly inched its way out of the bridge’s shadow and moved up to a holding spot in over five feet of water. Spell bound I watched as the fish started moving sharply to either side or up. Each move was followed by an open mouth and returning to the holding spot. The fish was feeding on nymphs! I watched for several minutes astounded by the flurry of activity by such a large fish.

Eventually I scanned the remainder of the hole and saw another large trout feeding vigorously in deep water. Amazingly, it was midday on a cloudless day! All this happened during the early catch-and-release season. These are pre-runoff conditions when the water is low, cold (40-50), and exceptionally clear.

Armed with this observation, I immediately changed my approach. Scrapping the typical set-up of a strike indicator with a medium-sized, heavily-weighted lead fly (#8-10 bead head girdle bug or wooly bugger) with a 15-20” dropper to a smaller bead head nymph (#16-18 bead head pheasant tail, lightning bug, or zebra midge), I switched to a #12 parachute Adams with a 24-36” dropper to a small bead head nymph.

My earlier observation from the bridge suggested focusing on deeper water with current. So I did just that. The first spot I came to was a long, slow pool with a nice riffle at the head of the pool. The riffle empties into a three to four foot deep pocket that slowly rises to the tail of the pool. Just to be sure, I quickly covered the usual good spots from the tail of the run to the targeted area. Nothing at all in the tail – just as suspected – given the observations made at the bridge.

Now I was at the head of the pool drifting the bobber-combo through the deeper water just below the riffle. To my great delight, I hooked four fish and landed three nice browns while losing one. All of them were packed into one small deep pocket just below the riffle. All the fish took the bead head nymph. Continuing upstream, I focused on water that was over three feet deep with current. The pattern persisted and delivered more fish.

The true test came in a very deep hole with a large tangle of willow tree roots extending about halfway across the pool. Nothing came from the tail of the pool where the current was slow. However, upon reaching the roots where the current increased, I caught two seventeen inch browns on consecutive casts, a fifteen inch brown, and had an over twenty incher break me off. All of them took the bead head nymph.  That pool alone would have constituted a great outing, but I continued to catch nice fish for several more holes until I had to go home (work can be such a pain!).

The pattern proved to be successful for a several weeks until run-off came and the river returned to its normal flow. It should be pointed out that the lead dry fly periodically took a nice fish throughout the period where this approach and set-up excelled. After that, the water warmed and the usual patterns started working again.

In reality, this is an extension of a well-known two-fly technique. In the summer, a hopper-dropper combo can be very effective during hopper season. The lead fly would be a hopper pattern of your choice with a dropper to a nymph. Usually it would be a bead head pattern of some sort. One can use whatever nymph pattern is productive on your local streams, with or without a beadhead.

There are two differences with this set-up. Neither is earth shattering but together they create a potent combo for certain early season situations. First, the lead parachute dry fly replaces the hopper. Secondly, typical dropper lengths are 15-22.” Here I use 24-40” droppers so the beadhead nymph is “in the fish zone.” The lead parachute dry fly serves as an edible, yet ultra-sensitive “bobber.” I began referring affectionately to this as “bobber fly fishing.”

In my area, during pre-runoff conditions, the rivers are usually lower and very clear. This set-up provided another significant advantage over using other more robust strike indicators such as Thingamabobbers and floating putty. It lands very softly on the water. In years past, I have watched fish scatter when these heavier strike indicators hit the water. When you use this set-up in shallower water you will need to shorten the dropper to no more than 1.5X the depth you are fishing (unless you enjoy snagging, in which case you can leave it longer). In addition, if you are fishing in water as shallow as 9-20” you will want to place the fly upstream of where you hope the fish is. Casting right to the fish will most often flush the fish.

Practicalities for using the “bobber fly fishing” set-up:

  • Casting Stroke: One must adjust the timing of your cast to accommodate the longer dropper. At first, I recommend watching the forward and back casts to make sure the casting loop completely straightens. If you don’t do this, you are likely to create a spectacular bird’s nest between the dropper and the dry fly. It doesn’t take long to develop the feel for the small tug that occurs when the loop straightens. You will find a small delay on the back and forward cast is all it takes. It just takes a little practice.
  • Tippet size for the dropper: I always go down one tippet size for the dropper (that way you only lose the dropper when you get snags in the river or in trees). I generally start with a 4X tippet with a #14 or #16 parachute lead fly. So, I use 5X tippet for the dropper. This allows the dropper nymph to tumble and drift more naturally. In addition, it helps the nymph to sink more quickly so it spends more time in front of the fish. This works reasonably well up to #16 tungsten head nymphs. Anything larger than that I would recommend going to a 3X lead tippet and a 4X dropper. If you don’t, it will be difficult to cast and tangles are much more likely.
  • Lead and dropper fly selection: The objective is to select a lead fly that might actually get eaten AND still float the dropper. The chart below will help you select a useful combination. This is just a starting place. You may find your lead fly will not float a dropper nymph. If the lead fly sinks, either use a larger lead fly or downsize the nymph one size.
Lead Fly Size Lead Tippet Dropper Nymph Size Dropper Tippet
#16 parachutes or caddis flies 4X Up to:Tungsten head #18;Beadhead #16 and smaller;#10-12 unweighted, depending on the hook weight 5X
#14 parachutes or caddis flies 4X Up to:Tungsten head #16;Beadhead #14 and smaller;#8-10 unweighted, depending on the hook weight 5X
#12 parachutes or caddis flies 3X Up to:Tungsten head #14;Beadhead #12 and smaller;#6-8 unweighted, depending on the hook weight 4X
#10 parachutes or caddis flies 3X Up to:Tungsten head #12;Beadhead #10 and smaller;#4-6 unweighted, depending on the hook weight 4X


I should also point out that this set-up can be adapted to work all season. Select lead and dropper combinations based on what is hatching on your rivers. Remember, this is an adaptation for deep-water applications.

  • Recognizing takes: Takes can be as aggressive a hearing a pop as the lead fly is quickly pulled under. Even the most casual angler can recognize those takes. On the other hand, a take can be as little as a slight pause of the lead fly. It is usually best to set the hook when you are in doubt. Most of the time the lead fly will slow and go under in a steady action. Usually it is best to wait until the lead fly goes under. If you keep getting misses, first make sure you are eliminating any slack in your line. If you are still missing fish, try setting the hook earlier until you figure out what works. There can be some trial and error. Just yesterday, I had a situation where the lead fly was going down all the time. At first, I thought it was the bottom. But then, I eliminated more slack and watched the lead fly intently. As soon as the fly was fully below the water, I used a gentle wrist snap and started hooking fish.

This should be enough to get you going. I just used this technique recently and caught twelve fish. The largest was a frisky fifteen inch brown. It can be a real savior in the early season. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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