10 Tandem Rigs for Trout by Gary Lewis

10 Tandem Rigs for Trout by Gary Lewis

For bigger fish from streams and stillwaters, try these tempting two-fly setups.

trout tandem fly rigs

The first trout grabbed my fly, streaking six feet from his lie to nail it. I fought him downstream, but now the rest of the pod was on alert.

It was Geoff’s turn. A 16-inch rainbow eyed the Orange Scud as it drifted with the current. He backed down, alongside, inches away then rejected it, as he had done on the last several drifts. “It might be time to pull out the secret weapon,” I whispered.

Geoff Chackel was leaned up against an old snag he was using for cover. He stripped in line while I searched my fly box for something small and subtle. The secret weapon this time was a No. 16 red chironomid. It could have been a Zug Bug, a San Juan Worm, or a Hare’s Ear, the key was to provide a choice. Instead of grabbing the flashy-looking thing, the trout would turn and eat the fly that looked like a natural.

I cut an 18-inch section of 6X fluorocarbon and Geoff tied it to his primary fly.

“Fish psychology,” he said.

“Exactly. We want to give them options.”

Geoff worked out line. We held our breath as a rainbow peeled away from the pod. Tempted, the trout grabbed the primary and went airborne. Five minutes later, Geoff caught his second.

fly fishing

When you can see the fish, they can see you and are on high alert against sharp-beaked raptors and predators armed with four-weights. The stakes are high.

If a trout comes to the surface, the temptation is to go with a dry. But in the absence of a hatch and surface activity, a dead-drifted two-fly rig can be deadly.

Going back through my journals showed that I turned to tandem rigs far more in the last three seasons than in years past. On one swing to Trillium, Timothy and Harriet lakes, my primary fly was a Rubber-Legged Hare’s Ear, trailed by a soft hackle Callibaetis Emerger. The fish applauded my choice.

At Anthony Lake, I pulled a beadhead Hare’s Ear with a soft hackle Callibaetis behind it. When I lost that rig to a fish, I tied on a French Pheasant Tail and a tiny Zug Bug. In two hours, I brought 23 trout to hand and even caught two on the same cast.

Tandem rigs give the fly-fisherman a chance to double their chances of a take by running two or more flies. The combinations are endless, but here are 10 tempting two-fly rigs to take to streams and stillwaters this season.

Sparkle and Stone

For about 30 days a year, two flies generate a lot of hum. As the water warms in late May, salmonfly and golden stonefly nymphs crawl toward shore.

The migration creates a buzz in the taste buds of trout that key on these golden mouthfuls. If the fish are feeding subsurface, you need to reach them fast. The best way is with a big, weighted nymph. Tie on a No. 2-6 stonefly imitation like the Kaufmann’s Stone.

sparkle and stone fly

Tie the dropper fly on a 12-inch leader and knot it directly to the bend of the larger hook. Fix a foam float indicator with the stub of a toothpick to the leader above the flies. Try a No. 16 Red Bubble Back Emerger, a Pheasant Tail or a Copper John as the dropper.

The indicator serves three purposes. First, it allows a presentation with less unnatural drag than can occur when casting and drifting. Second, it allows the flies to fish at a controlled depth. Third, it affords a visual indication that a trout has taken the fly.

Set the indicator to deliver the flies at the depth where the fish are feeding. In slow water, it’s a 1:1 ratio of depth to leader length. In faster water, set the indicator at two times the depth of the water.

Minnow Chaser

Big fish eat little fish and lots of things that look like little fish. And big trout don’t brook competition from the bait.

minnow chaserWhen predatory browns and rainbows are on the prowl, provoke them with a baitfish imitation. Start with nine feet of leader and add two feet of tippet terminated at a two-inch baitfish imitation. Above the blood knot, clinch on eight inches of dropper and an unweighted Hare’s Ear, Zug Bug or Woolly Worm. The trout will think the baitfish is chasing its dinner and, thus distracted, an easy target. Prospecting the depths of a slow-moving creek, tie on a miniature Zonker as the top bug on a nymph rig and see if you don’t get more takes on the dropper.

A Clutch of Chironomids

Chironomids are midges, true flies which resemble mosquitoes. On many lakes, midges make up close to 40 percent of a trout’s annual food intake. If there’s nothing else going on, you can bet the fish will eat a chironomid.

tandem rigMidges don’t have legs or tails like mayflies or damselflies. They don’t swim, but rather wriggle upward in the water column. The presentation is vertical instead of horizontal. As they hatch, they come up out of the mud and suspend a foot to eighteen inches above the bottom, for up to an hour. That makes them vulnerable. One of the best searching rigs is the two-fly chironomid setup with a strike indicator.

Tie on a No. 12 Pearl Pupa and then knot 18 inches of fluorocarbon tippet to the bend of the hook and tie on a No. 14 Ice Cream Cone. Figure out the depth of the water and then bring the bottom fly up about 12 inches over the tops of the weeds. Now your flies are in the danger zone. Adjust the indicator to raise your offering when fish are higher in the water column.

A Brace of Snails

Early in the morning, watch the shoreline. Sometimes trout shoulder into the tules to search out crustaceans. When the reeds are shaking, fish can be tempted with a snail pattern. If one is good, two are better. They can be fished at the surface, but the effectiveness of the cast increases as the flies sink.

snails fly tandemThe lowly snail doesn’t spark the imagination of most fishermen, but is often found in the bellies of big trout. There are hundreds of snail species, but not that many snail patterns available to the angler. Some options include the Woolly Worm, Renegade, Sparkle Snail, Tom Thumb and Cutter’s Snail. Use a floating line or a sinking line. Instead of weighting the snail, let the line take it down. Forget about the retrieve until you need to reposition the flies. If you are fishing slow, you are probably going too fast.

Woolly Bugger Duet

In the Woolly Bugger, you have an effective fly pattern. Take another look at it and capitalize on a big trout’s innate greed. That is the thinking that produced Leon’s Double Bugger, a pattern I found in Gary Soucie’s Woolly Wisdom (Amato Publications, 2005).

wooly bugger duetSnell a section of 40- or 50-pound mono to the shank of one hook knot it to the eye of the other. Super-Glue the snell. Kink the mono so the teaser runs behind the main hook. Tie a black Woolly Bugger on the main hook and a brown red-tag Woolly Worm on the teaser.Two baitfish fighting or a pair of leeches, whatever it resembles, it looks like a mouthful. I fished this pattern on a clear October day and caught my biggest rainbow of the year. The fish grabbed the teaser fly and thebattle was on.

It is not a pattern for all seasons, but it’s a good one to have in the arsenal to shock a big fish into striking. Fish it like a Woolly Bugger, varying the retrieve and depth until a fish falls for it.

Mayfly Dry and Nymph/Emerger

mayfly and nymphWhen a few mayflies dance over the water, it could be the signal of a coming hatch. If you must tie on a dry, grease it up with floatant then knot 18 inches of fluorocarbon to the bend of the hook and run it to a nymph or an emerger pattern. A fish might go for the dry, but grabs on the subsurface fly will probably outnumber surface takes three to one. That dry fly makes a good indicator.

Hopper and Dropper

hopper and dropperIn September and October, consider fishing a hopper with a dropper. Use a foam or deer hair grasshopper trailed by a No. 14 caddis pupae or midge larvae pattern. A lot of times, a trout will rise to the dry and turn to grab the “safer” looking natural beneath it. With a tandem rig, you get to run two different patterns at different depths to see what trout want to eat. The downside is twice as many tangles and snags. Control the line with a larger loop cast or a roll cast to minimize the time the flies are in the air.

Dragon Attack

When damsels and dragonflies flit over the surface of the lake, you can bet the trout are feeding on the nymphs beneath the surface. Dragonfly nymphs may take as long as three years before they mature and emerge as adults. This is good news for big trout which feed on them in weedbeds and along the bottom.

dragonfly tandem rigDragonflies are at the top of the insect food chain, predators that eat other insects as well as tiny fish. Start with a sinking line, tie on a damsel fly nymph then knot a dragon fly nymph to the bend of the hook on 18 inches of tippet. Retrieve with three-inch strips punctuated by a 12-inch “kill” strip to simulate the dragon trying to overtake the damsel. On a slow-troll from a float tube, a twitching action can be effective. If you have trouble hooking fish, wait for the second bump. Often, the trout will strike the fly to stun it then swing back around for the grab.

Subsurface Indicator

subsurface indicatorWhen sight fishing, use a high-visibility primary fly to track the progress of the dropper. Invest your confidence in one well-thought-out pattern like a caddis larva with a tungsten bead. To the main line, tie on an egg pattern or an Orange Scud or any other small highly visible weighted bug to act as a subsurface indicator. Knot the primary nymph on 15 inches of leader to the bend of the hook.

Instead of watching the trout, keep your eye on the visible fly. If it moves upstream or goes sideways, set the hook.

Down and Across Wets

A couple of years ago, I fished the McKenzie with my daughter Mikayla and our friend and guide Jim Berl. The river was running high in the shoreside willows, but the water was clear. Berl handed out 7-1/2 foot 3-weight Redingtons rigged with eight-pound mono and three flies on each line.

Unlike most anglers these days, Berl builds his own leaders, tapering them the Ernie Schwiebert way, with a short, heavy butt and successively lighter sections that provide good energy transfer. He ties a beadhead Woolly Bugger to the end of the tip section then uses clinch knots or surgeon’s knots to drop smaller wet flies off the leader.

gary lewis photo

With the boat positioned upstream from a likely run, we paid the line out, about 40 feet downstream. Berl pulled the boat sideways across the current and our flies would swing then lift at the end of the drift.

“We do things different on the McKenzie,” Berl said. “We tie our droppers in front and we use three flies because it gives the fish more options.”

Even when fish are feeding on top, more are feeding in the water column. When you use a small, subtle dropper, you put options on the menu. It is the secret weapon that doubles the odds of a hookup.

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- Written by Gary Lewis


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