A dry-dropper nymphing approach for low water

Using an indicator fly rather than a bobber-style indicator or Euro-tactics can pay dividends when flows are low
dry dropper nymphing low water
Photo: George Daniel

What makes fly fishing for trout so special to me? It’s the dynamic nature of weather, stream conditions, and trout behavior. Almost nothing stays the same. As a result, the approach that worked today won’t always work tomorrow. As anglers, we need to adapt to these changes in order to achieve success, even if, from time to time, it means using some of your least favorite tactics.

If given a choice between Euro-nymphing and suspension nymphing, my preference is for the simplicity and effectiveness of Euro. But low water conditions can make it difficult to catch fish using Euro tactics. Currently, a lack of rainfall has my local waters spitting just a trickle of water, creating challenging conditions even for experienced anglers.

Distance and stealth are usually a fly fisher’s best friend when dealing with low water and spooky trout. Unless you’re willing to crawl on your hands and knees to get into close casting position, then your next best option is adding distance between you and your target. Euro-nymphing tactics may be the most effective fly fishing tactic—which is why it accounts for over 80% of my nymphing—but employing this approach requires being within 2-3 rod lengths of your target. When I begin spooking too many trout, despite a stealthy but up-close approach, it’s time to switch gears and adopt suspension nymphing tactics so I can distance myself from my target.

The key to finding success when suspension nymphing during low flows is using the right tactics. I stay away from hard plastic or cork-style bobbers during low flows, even if colored white or clear. In general, you should stay away from any indicator which lands hard on the water. Such indicators can create an impact that will spook any fish within casting range. I also avoid bright colors like chartreuse, yellow, and orange, as they seem to put some fish down during low flows. During these conditions, I prefer using high-floating dry flies as my indicator. I have no quantitative figures to share, but in my experience, switching to a natural-looking dry fly as my indicator produces much higher success rates, even when compared to using white New Zealand Wool or white pinch-on-style indicators.


The Chubby Chernobyl is a favorite dry-dropper pattern for anglers across the country. I also like to use the chubby, but only when I’m fishing out West, casting heavier flies, and fishing waters where trout are more likely to eat the dry fly. Additionally, low water conditions demand not only a stealthy approach, but often, a long leader to help make delicate presentations. My preference for low water nymphing is fishing a longer and lighter leader (15’ or longer tapered to 6X) in combination with smaller/lighter nymphs (#16-20 with a 2.0mm tungsten bead or lighter). Trying to cast a wind resistant chubby with a long leader is challenging, even for more skilled fly casters. The long and light leader, often necessary for fishing low water, lacks the power to turn over such dry flies, causing constant tangles and twisted tippets. Therefore, I use more natural looking dry flies for my low water dry dropper setups, where the dry fly not only acts as an indicator but has a good chance of catching a fish.

dry dropper nymphing low water
Photo: George Daniel

My two favorite dry-dropper indicator flies are the original stimulator and X-caddis. The key to both patterns is using a hollow enough hair to increase the patterns’ buoyancy. Good hair is hard to find and is the reason I purchase all of my stimulator and X-caddis hair wing material from Blue Ribbon Fly Shop, West Yellowstone, MT. I’ve been using this shop as my primary hair wing material supplier for the last 10 years and find their hair easy to tie with while offering excellent floatation. Both stimulator and X-caddis patterns (tied in a variety of sizes and colors) are buoyant enough to float any medium to light weight nymph rig, are easy to cast with a long leader, while offering an attractive surface pattern worthy of encouraging a trout to feed on the surface.

For X-caddis or stimulators I plan to use as an indicator fly, I’ll bulk up the deer hair wings to provide a little extra floatation. I also prefer to use light-to-medium-colored deer hair, allowing me to easily locate the pattern on the water. If needed, a high-vis wing post can be added to create an even easier to see pattern. I tie X-caddis in sizes #6 to 14 for indicator patterns. I use larger #6 patterns for fishing medium-weighted nymphs while using smaller #14 for light nymph patterns. Pair the size of the indicator pattern with the weight of the nymph, creating a tipping point. If the pattern is too large and buoyant and paired with an ultra-light nymph, a trout take may not move the indicator fly enough to register a strike. Strikes are more easily seen when the two are better paired together and this is the reason I tie these patterns in several sizes to better match the weight of the nymph I fish.

dry dropper nymphing low water
Photo: George Daniel

And don’t be surprised if the fish of the day eats the dry fly instead of the nymph. Some of my best trout this fall have eaten the X-caddis or stimulator dry fly. Furthermore, this nymphing approach has salvaged several of my Penn State Fly Fishing Program field trips during the semester, where beginners were tasked with tackling extreme low flows on spooky brown trout waters. But don’t take my word for it—try it out for yourself.


I came across this discovery this last summer. I’ve been a successful high-sticker for 45 yrs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and beyond. In teaching my 11 yr old grand nephew, I decided to set him up on a dry dropper for a small creek as he was having trouble in strike detection. It worked for him.
As we hit a dry spell here, I used the method to work long shallow tail outs where wild, trophy browns often hang out. Expecting a hit on the dropper nymph,
I got my largest brown this year on the big bushy dry I selected to suspend the BH nymph! It came clear out of the water!

Can you give an example on pairing the dry with the nymph? Say I have a 4wt rod at I going size 12 stimulator and size 16 nymph?