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Are Two Flies Better than One?

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by Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell and a good-sized striped bass - photo by Phil FarnsworthIt was 3AM as Phil Farnsworth and I headed toward the car, which was over mile away. So there was plenty of time to talk over the night's fishing. This was our third evening swinging flies through these rips. We had not hooked anything terribly big, but between us we had released well over a hundred stripers, with a fair number weighing ten pounds or better -- anyway you cut it, fine fishing. Still our conversation centered not on the amount of fish we caught, but rather how we had caught them. Something odd had been going on here.

During all three nights Phil and I had used the same basic rig, an intermediate line, a short stout leader and two sand eel flies - one on the point and one as a dropper. Furthermore the flies Phil and I are using are all the same; I know that since I personally tied them. Ready for the kicker? All but handful of the fish we landed ate the dropper fly. Why would the fish consistently pick the dropper over the point fly if both flies were identical? I 'm not at all sure, but at the end of this article I will venture a guess. Regardless, it indicates that droppers work and should at time be part of your game plan.

In freshwater fly-fishing, droppers have been around since I can remember, but in the salt few fly rodders use them. Surfcasters, on the other hand, have long reaped the rewards of casting two things at a time. Sometimes called a 'teaser' rig, a typical combo for a surfcaster might be a swimming plug on the end of the line and a smaller offering, usually either a fly or a soft-plastic bait such as the Red Gill. If you wonder about the wisdom of serving up dual offerings consider this -- In 1981 Tony Stetzgo caught a world record 73lb striper on Cape Cod using a 6' dropper fly ahead of a live eel. By the way, the big bass picked the fly!

So why don't saltwater fly rodders use droppers? Nearly every fly rodder knows intuitively that droppers can be trouble. They are right, no question, droppers can be a pain. Still I also think that few saltwater fly rodders understand the gain, why and where droppers can be a real help. So what I want to do is give you several reasons why you might want to try using a dropper next time you head to the coast.

Searching the Water
Lets start with a very common fishing situation. Many times you find yourself searching a large expanse of open water where there are no visible signs of activity. Faced with this event I pick a searching pattern, something relatively large and easy for fish to find. It is an idea that has worked well for me. By adding a second fly as a dropper, however, I think I improve my odds of hooking up. After all two flies should be easier for fish to find that one. And even if it only gets me one extra fish per trip, I feel it is it worth it?

Giving them a Choice
Beyond helping fish locate your offering, searching with two flies has another advantage -- you give the fish a choice. When covering open water, frequently it is difficult to identify what the fish are feeding on. By using two dissimilar flies you can better cover the bases. For instance, I recommend a 2/0 Lefty's Deceiver on the tippet, and a slim size 1# sand eel pattern as a dropper. As soon as the fish show a preference for one fly over the other, use that fly alone.

Matching Two Baits
Here is another situation you will find yourself in sooner or later. Many species of forage fish are plankton feeders and plankton tends to concentrate in certain spots because of wind and tide. Therefore it is possible to have two schools of bait feeding very closely together. Unlike the first situation I mentioned here you might be able to identify the forage. The question becomes which bait to imitate. With a dropper you simply match both.

Now let tell you about a similar scenario, one I come across every year in the late spring. On a particular beach there are heavy concentration of sand eels extending out from the water's edge. Immediately outside of them - roughly 80 feet off the beach- are pods of squid feeding on the sand eels. Naturally the stripers feed on both baits well into the night, but the question becomes which type of fly to use since the two baits are very different in size and shape.

In my experience, the bigger bass focus more on the squid, and the smaller stripers are in closer to the beach feeding on the sand eels. So on the tippet I tie a fair size white fly that resembles a squid. On the dropper goes a small sand eel pattern. Since I can't see where the two schools of bait are in the dark, I let the two flies do the talking. At the end of the cast the larger fly is most productive and during the retrieve gradually the smaller fly comes into it own.

In Two Places At One Time
Still not convinced about droppers? Lets look at another reason. When you use a single fly, in effect you are also deciding what part of the water column to fish. You pick a popper or slider to work the top, a streamer to work subsurface, and a weighted fly to work deeper. A dropper rig, on the other hand, allows you to fish in two places at once. For instance using a sink tip line you can have an unweighted dropper up near the fly line, and a weighted fly on end of a long tippet. Furthermore a floating fly and a subsurface makes a useful combination. Think of it as an 'over & under' rig. Striped bass love a popper, but at times bass can be very picky, swirling under the popper yet refusing to hit it. One solution to this dilemma is to tie a small fly, such as a streamer or a shrimp pattern, off the bend of the popper. The popper is still what attracts the bass; yet the dangling streamer may induce the bass to strike. Try it. I think you will like the results.

Want another 'over & under' rig? Recently Eric Petersen, one of the best tiers in the Northeast, told me of trick he was using during a worm hatch. He suggested using a floating line with a slider on the end of the tippet and a worm fly up the leader as a dropper. The slider is easy to see and allows you, even in very low light, to gauge where the worm fly is. By making adjustments in your presentation, you can position the worm fly in the exact zone where the fish are feeding most actively. Petersen tells me it works like a charm.

Now For Bad News.
Up to this point I have been listing the good side of droppers, now let me point out the bad news. Clearly a two-fly rig is going to be harder to cast. The difficult depends on the size of your flies, their bulk or wind resistance, the size of your rod, and your casting ability. Generally speaking, you have to use a bit of common sense in selecting your rig. Here is a starting point. For an experienced caster two sparsely dressed flies are not a problem to chuck on a nine-weight, especially if neither fly is larger than 1/0. A ten-weight makes things even easier.

Without a doubt the single biggest hassle with a dropper rig is that they tend to tangle. To minimize that problem you should do the following. Use a very stiff leader. For example I common use 12-pound test tippets with a single fly. With two flies my leader tapers to 20-pound test.

Tangles are inevitable, so you should come prepared. Always carry spare leaders ready to roll. When a tangle arises, simply swap the old leader for a new one. Even when the existing leader looks fine, after a few fish, it is probably getting weak or ready to tangle. Change it before you get broken off or messed up. Next, carry a conventional leader straighter (piece of rubber inner tube) the type used by freshwater fly rodders. It is a help in straightening your leaders.
The way in which you attach the dropper fly also has a significant effect on the number of tangles you get. Unfortunately many anglers simply tie a dropper fly off the tag end of a knot. Bad news. It's a weak connection and highly prone to tangling, especially if the tag end is long.

A Better Dropper Rig
Here is a far stronger method to attach a dropper, and one that rarely ever tangles. Construct your dropper flies on a size 1# hook with turned-up eyes or turned-down eyes. It doesn't matter which. Or you could simple bend the eye of a stainless steel hook; cadmium and nickel hooks are not ductile and will often snap. 

Built a 3 section leader- butt, midsection and tippet. For a 9 or 10- weight rod this might contain a 40-48', 40 pound butt section, a 30-36', 30 (or 25) pound midsection, and a 18-24', 15-pound test tippet. Connect the 40 to the 30 using your favorite knot; a convention barrel knot works fine. But before attaching the tippet to the 30-pound midsection, slip the end of midsection through the dropper fly's eye. Now slide the fly up the line and tie a surgeon's loop in the end of the 30-pound. Tie a surgeon's loop in the tippet section and attach it to the midsection loop-to-loop as you normally do. Lastly, tie your point fly on the end of the tippet.

At this point the dropper fly is free to slide on the 30- pound midsection of the leader. It may look strange but believe me it's going to work great. Notice too that the dropper fly can revolve 360 degrees around the leader without tangling. Beautiful! In fact this rig will reduce your tangling problems to nearly zero. Try it you'll see. As you retrieve, the dropper fly slides down the midsection and stops at the surgeon's loop. It can't go any farther for a simple reason. A surgeon's loop tied in 25 or 30 pound test forms a knot that is too big for the eye of the dropper fly to pass over. So what happens when a fish latches on? The fly hooks and holds just fine.

Improved Action?
When rigged this way, your dropper fly may ride on a slight angle; in other words the shank of the hook may not be perfectly parallel with the leader. Not sure what I mean? A dropper fly with an upturned eye may slant downward from the leader on roughly a 45 degree angle. Not to worry, however. This angle can actually impart an enticing action to the fly. More on this interesting subject at the end of the article.

Two Fish at a Time?
At times you are going to hook, not one, but two fish on one cast. That may sound like a bonus, but it often ends in a broken leader. Furthermore two fish twisting on the end of your line may produce a nasty snarl in your leader. Therefore I suggest you avoid dropper flies in situations where the fish are numerous and aggressive. In fact as soon as I find myself getting double hookups, I cut the leader and remove the dropper. I suggest you do the same.

Safety Considerations
Droppers require you be to extra careful. When using a dropper rig, never forget you have two hooks to contend with. Therefore you must take your time when landing and releasing a fish, especially in the dark. If the fish is on the point fly, then obviously there is a hook dangling off the leader between you and the fish. If the fish is on the dropper, things are less problematic, but care is still in order. When using a dropper, I prefer to beach a fish if possible. Then I can put my rod down, turn on my light, and find both hooks before proceeding. Play it safe.

Because of the problems I just mentioned, when using a dropper --- both flies must be barbless. Now on to rule number two. You need to be careful transported a rod rigged with two flies. Anglers using a dropper rig for the first time tend to stick the point fly in the keeper or reel seat and then move off. Unfortunately there is a second fly up the rod someplace dancing around. If you take a rod rigged in this way and stick it in the back of your car, or in the roof rack, or even if you walk with it in your hand -- trouble is a brewing. The free hook is will eventually grab something or somebody. With that in mind, cut the dropper off when transporting or storing the rod. It will save you a lot of grief.

That Night
Now lets get back to what happened to Phil and I during those three nights. The question remains-why did the fish nearly always take the dropper? There are several possible explanations. It may show that when fishing down and across in a rip, the fish we catch are first attracted not by the fly, but the fly line skating by overhead. After all that's the thing making the largest commotion. Once drawn to fly line, they then see and hit the nearest fly. In this case, it was the dropper. If this is so, than it makes a case for using shorter leaders and droppers when fishing across a fast current.

There is a second possibility; one that I feel is a bit more likely. As the two fly rig swings across current the dropper fly could well behaves more erratically - more like a wounded prey- than the point fly. Why you ask? For two reasons: Because of the way the dropper sits on the leader, and because the dropper it is freer to wiggle around. Consequently the dropper attracts the attention of the fish quicker than the point fly. If this is so, it means dropper flies deserve to be used more often then we think Food for thought.

Courtesy of Ed Mitchell who you can find at www.flyroddingthecoast.com

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