Skip to main content

Drop Shot Nymphing: Rolling in the Deep

Presenting your flies when nymphing a dynamic range of water types and depths.

Drop Shot Nymphing: Rolling in the Deep

There are times when additional weight is needed, in the form of split-shot, to obtain a successful drift where the trout are feeding. (George Daniel photo)

Believe the real estate slogan “location, location, and location” also applies for nymphing presentations. Trout will not buy into your fly if you don’t offer it in the right location. The right location (aka position in the water column) is what nymph fishers always strive for, and the drop-shot approach can position your nymphs in prime real estate.

For nymph fishers, the goal is to present your flies within the strike zone. You can’t be a one-trick pony when nymphing a dynamic range of water types and depths.

Trout spend an overwhelming majority of their lives feeding near the stream bottom. In many cases, the use of a dense, European-style beadhead nymph is all the weight you need to achieve the correct depth. These sleek flies coupled with a thin line/leader held above the water allow the patterns to drop quickly into the strike zone. Compared to split-shot rigs, Euro systems tend to tangle less, provide greater connection with nymphs, and are easier to cast. This is why I spend the bulk of my time using European nymphing tactics.

However, I always cringe when I hear other anglers claim that “Euro nymphing is all you need” to catch trout. While Euro tactics succeed in many situations, there are times when I need additional weight, in the form of split-shot, to obtain a successful drift where the trout are feeding.

Euro tactics involve using an “anchor” fly­—a weighted nymph tied on the tippet end to drop into the strike zone and take any additional nymphs with it. Using a heavy anchor pattern in deep, fast water is common practice in international fly-fishing competitions, since the use of supplemental weight such as split-shot is prohibited. In many instances, the sacrificial anchor fly is used to sink a second or even a third pattern. By “sacrificial” I mean the pattern is not likely going to catch a fish. It is used solely as a dead weight to sink the rest of the rig. It often snags the bottom and needs to be replaced.

A heavy anchor fly is necessary when you’re competing at the World Fly Fishing Championships, but it’s usually a waste for most recreational anglers. In some waters, you are legally allowed to use only two flies—so why use one of those patterns as a dead weight? Instead, why not use split-shot in the anchor fly position, and use flies with the correct size and shape to catch trout?

There are times when I can just no longer achieve the right speed and depth using the weight of the flies alone, and I need extra split-shot. It’s at those moments I set up a drop-shot rig.

A fly angler casting into the upper Madison River under cloudy skies.
In deep, swift Western waters, it’s often impossible to get small flies down to where the fish are without using split-shot. The drop-shot rig gets you down into the strike zone, and the chain of small split-shot tends to snag the bottom less frequently than other setups. (George Daniel photo)

My favorite example of this is when I’m fishing the swift Madison River with small nymphs. I love the ease of using just weighted flies, but there’s only so much weight you can build into a small fly. Large, heavily weighted patterns like large rubber-leg stonefly patterns obviously work on the Madison, but I prefer to use #16-20 patterns. Smaller patterns and deeper, fast water may require extra weight, and this is when the drop-shot approach often outperforms Euro-nymphing tactics.

Drop-shot rigs are pure efficiency. They rely on supplemental weight attached to a tippet end to quickly gain depth. You can add a nearly unlimited amount of weight to deal with almost any water type, and by adding weight in a series, the weight rolls along the bottom instead of snagging as a single large weight might do. When you do snag the bottom, you lose the split-shot and not valuable flies.

Chain Effect

In a drop-shot rig, you pinch a small chain of split-shot at the tippet end to anchor the entire rig. The main idea is the chain of split-shot will slide or drag along the stream bottom. Spreading the weight over a longer area reduces the chance of the rig snagging.

Using only one large split-shot acts more like an anchor, and tends to grab and hold onto stream bottom. This is even more pronounced on certain types of stream bottoms. For example, many of Pennsylvania’s smaller Lake Erie steelhead tributaries have jagged shale bottoms. I’ve snagged and lost multiple rigs while using just one large split-shot. Switching to a drop-shot rig solved the problem.

This chain effect may not be as important when fishing streams with sandy or pea-gravel bottoms where split-shot is less likely to snag. However, in boulder water, ledgerock, or any bottom terrain that is highly variable, the weighted chain reduces snags.


Basic Drop-Shot Rigging

A drop-shot rig is simple. Start with a long and level tippet section below indicator or sighter. When I’m drop-shotting with a modified Euro approach—tight line and no indicator—my tippet length is 1 foot to 2 feet longer than the average water depth. If I’m drop-shotting with an indicator, my tippet is 1.5 to 2 times the average water depth.

For example, if I’m drop-shotting with a modified Euro approach in water that is on average about 4 feet deep, I add 5 feet of 4X tippet below my sighter. I add a single overhand knot at the tippet end to prevent split-shot from sliding off the tippet, but I pinch on the split-shot last.

Next, I add 4-inch to 6-inch dropper tags onto the level tippet using a double or triple surgeon’s knot. I usually cut 12 inches of tippet material from the spool to provide ample length to work with when constructing my dropper knots.

Remember, the fly hangs down toward the split-shot, so make sure the knot connection is located on the tippet high enough to maintain 8 to 12 inches between the lower fly and the terminal split-shot.

I trim the upward tag end of the surgeon’s knot flush, and use the downward tag end to attach the nymph. You can use longer or shorter droppers, but 4 to 6 inches works best for me. The length allows the fly to move adequately during the drift, and tends to tangle less than longer droppers. With that dropper length, I can make several fly changes if necessary.

Lately, I’ve found myself using only one dropper fly above the split-shot, but I sometimes add a second dropper tag 16 to 20 inches above the bottom fly, especially if the trout begin feeding higher in the water column.

George Daniel holding a large brown trout in one hand, wading in a river.
Start by adding just two small split-shot, and slowly add until you can feel the weights bouncing and rolling along the bottom. If you’re using a strike indicator, you should see it tick-tick-ticking as the chain of weights moves along the bottom. The strikes are often savage. (Amidea Daniel photo)

While adding a second fly may double your chances of catching more fish, it also quadruples your chances of getting tangled due to casting errors or while playing fish. Stick to one fly if you rank your casting and fish-playing skills as beginner to intermediate. Otherwise, you’ll spend more time untangling or re-rigging than fishing. Even the most experienced anglers sometimes tangle these rigs.

The distance from the bottom fly to the split-shot is determined by the preferred depth you want to fish your flies, but I prefer at least 10 to 12 inches of separation, for three reasons. First, nymphs don’t need to drag right along a stream bottom.

Trout holding near the stream bottom are usually looking up for food. My experience has taught me that a fly riding 10 to 12 inches above the bottom is the optimum distance when the trout are not feeding aggressively.

Second, a fly riding closer to the stream bottom is more likely to snag. I think a prevalent nymphing myth is that you need to roll your nymphs right along the stream bottom. It’s not true. With a drop-shot rig, the lead rolls right along the bottom, and the fly is elevated into the strike zone.

Third, tangles between the split-shot and fly occur more often if the distance between them is much shorter than 10 inches.

Of course, you should be aware of how each situation varies, and be ready to adapt to the current situation. For example, if you’re fishing in an area with long aquatic plants growing on the bottom, you may need to move the dropper up to avoid snagging the weeds.

If the water is very cold and the fish are unwilling to move, you might need the fly a little closer to the split-shot. And during hatch periods, when the trout are feeding higher in the water column, you should adjust the dropper position upward.

Adding Weight

Add your small split-shot 1 to 2 inches apart, and just above the overhand stopper knot. I use a short string of #4 and #6 split-shot for my home waters, and I use #B and #BB size when fishing larger Western waters like the Madison. The number of split-shot depends entirely on the water depth and speed. Start with two split-shot, and continue adding them until the shot is bouncing off the bottom.

If you are using a tight-line technique, you will feel the weights bouncing on the bottom. With an indicator you will see it tick-tick-ticking as it bounces, and the indicator will move slower than the surface current. If the shot isn’t ticking off the stream bottom, you need to add weight.

It’s easier to add split-shot than it is to remove it, so add the weight incrementally and make a few drifts after each addition to get a sense if you’re getting deep enough.

A common mistake is adding too much split-shot at one time, and snagging the bottom. Start with less and add more as you need it.

One of my favorite methods for adjusting weight is using two smaller split-shot 1 to 2 inches apart for fishing slower/shallower water, and then molding tungsten putty around the split-shot when I need additional weight. The putty also smooths out the chain, and tends to hang up on stream bottom less than split-shot alone.

Reducing Tangles

There’s no way around it—the frequency of tangles increases the moment you add split-shot to any nymphing rig. Tangles are inevitable, but there are things you can do to reduce them.

Side by side illustrations of examples of drop-shot nymphing
There are differences between indicator drop-shot nymphing and Euro drop-shot nymphing. (Rob Benigno illustrations)

First, with a drop-shot rig, you can increase the tippet diameter for both the main tippet and the droppers. When you are truly Euro nymphing, you need small-diameter tippets (5X-7X) to slice through the water column faster and get your weighted nymphs in the strike zone. But with a drop-shot rig, the chain of split-shot takes care of that, and gets you deep even when you’re using 4X or 3X tippet. This larger-diameter tippet will tangle less, and is easier to untangle and salvage when things do go south. It will also break off on the bottom less often.

A good question I frequently hear is, “Why not use small-diameter tippet and split-shot for an even greater sink rate?” This is a solid question, as the combination of split-shot and small-diameter tippet would certainly create a rapid sink rate. However, split-shot tends to tangle no matter how cleanly you cast, or how smoothly you play a fish.

Using a larger-diameter tippet may not entirely reduce tangles but it creates workable tangles. Based on my experience, knots in 5X and smaller diameters are rarely reversible. Thicker and stiffer monofilament is less likely to tighten. With a drop-shot rig, I use 3X tippet for many larger Western waters and 4X tippet for most Eastern waters.

To reduce tangles, you should also focus on casting with smooth tension throughout the backcast and forward cast. Using short, jerky casting motions will likely create a collision course between the split-shot and the fly. Using a smooth but wide casting arc keeps the heavy rig moving high over the rod tip rather than through the rod tip. [For more specific information on casting a nymph rig weighted with split-shot, read George Daniel’s story “Loop Control: How to squeeze your loop for sneaky presentations, and open it up for indicators and split-shot” in the Aug-Sep 2022 issue, or online at The Editor.]

To avoid tangles, you should also try to keep a hooked trout from jumping out of the water. That’s easier said than done, but one of the biggest culprits of drop-shot tangles is an airborne fish or a fish making an alligator roll. Sometimes you need a high rod tip angle to lead fish around obstructions, but lifting on the rod tip also may encourage the fish to jump or roll on the surface.

When possible, try to keep a low rod tip angle when you are playing fish—use side pressure to encourage the fish to stay below the surface. You may have to lift the rod tip at the last moment when you slide fish into the net, but at that point, the fish should be tired, and should track straight into the net.

Just as important, avoid lifting the net out of the water once you’ve netted the trout. A “fish out of water” thrashes and rolls inside the net, so keep the fish comfortable and in the water while you unhook it. It will reduce tangles and is better for the fish.

Reading the Drift

You want the split-shot to bounce or tick along the bottom during your presentation. If you’re using a modified Euro approach, you’ll feel the weight ticking along the bottom. When you’re using an indicator, you’ll see the indicator bobbing at the surface as the chain of split-shot progresses along the bottom. Make sure this ticking occurs when your flies are drifting through your targeted area. If no ticking occurs, you may need to add weight or lengthen the cast to allow some time for the split-shot and flies to sink into the strike zone.

Strikes are easy to register, as the line tension created by the split-shot causes you to feel the pickup, or see the indicator get violently yanked under. The strike often feels savage. There’s no doubt when a trout takes a nymph while using the drop-shot approach.

Fly Patterns

When I use a drop-shot rig, I try to use lightweight or completely unweighted patterns. What I enjoy most about this approach is that you don’t need tungsten beadhead patterns. In fact, I feel weighted patterns may take away from the overall presentation. With this rig you can use nymphs that more accurately imitate specific food items—no beadhead required.

Nymphs are often active in the water, swimming, moving, and bobbing. The bouncing of the drop-shot rig sends vibrations along the tippet and into the fly, and helps create that illusion of life. Lighter nymphs may have more “hop” in their step, with more movement without the loss of contact.

The drop-shot approach has allowed me to use up many of my forgotten lightweight patterns that won’t work when I’m strictly Euro nymphing. In many ways, I feel this approach may be just as effective if not more effective than a true Euro approach, except for the hassles always associated with split-shot.

Quick Fixes

I always hope for the best but plan for the worst. Since some drop-shot tangles are unfixable, I carry one or two spare rigs that are ready to go when disaster strikes. Pre-rigging these time-intensive drop-shot rigs saves you fishing time.

Tangles also frequently happen when you are transporting the rod in your vehicle or just walking to the stream. Dangling split-shot or flies will wrap and tangle if they aren’t tied down.

A series of split shot on a tippet in a hand.
Use of split-shot may be banned in some fly-fishing-only waters. (George Daniel photo)

To combat this, I use small rubber twist ties or elastic orthodontist bands to strap down all the loose ends. Taking precautionary measures like this will save you hours of frustration.

Final Thoughts

We all love casting dry flies to rising trout, but that’s often not possible. Drop-shot nymphing may not be pretty, but it gets the job done in the most extreme water types, and when the fish aren’t actively feeding. The casting is cumbersome and is prone to tangles, but there’s no doubt the drop-shot technique gets your nymphs in the strike zone. I wouldn’t want to be without it in my bag of nymphing tricks.

It paid off for my wife Amidea while we were fishing a stream near our home last summer. There is a run there that connects a shallow riffle to a deep, slow pool. The trout feed in the riffle in the night and early morning, and then drop slowly through the run and eventually into the deep hole, where they spend most of the day. That transition area is often a money spot in early mornings during the summer.

It’s a deep run—likely 4 to 5 feet with medium current, and the only way to get down that deep with small flies is with a drop-shot rig.

Amidea caught the biggest fish I’ve seen from that area—and that fish is on the cover of this magazine. It was taken on a drop-shot rig with 6X tippet, two #4 split-shot, and a small black sunken ant as the only dropper. It was proof once again that if you want to get down deep with small flies, a drop-shot rig gets the job done.

George Daniel is the author of Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole, 2018). He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and owner of Livin’ on the Fly, an educational/guide company in Pennsylvania. He was a coach for both the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team and Fly Fishing Team USA and now teaches fly fishing at Penn State University, following in the footsteps of his predecessors Joe Humphreys and George Harvey.

@georgedanielflyfishing |

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Tying Rene Harrop's Hairwing Dun Fly

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Tying Barr's Damsel Fly

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Tying the Pheasant Tail Nymph Fly

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Tying the Hare's Ear Fly

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Tying the Famous Woolly Bugger

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Tying the RS2 Mayfly Emerger Fly

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Free Fly Presents “Sage”

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Tying the Sparkle Caddis Pupa Fly

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...
Fly Tying

Perdigon Fly

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Mag Promo April-May 2023

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Finding and Catching Trout in Mountain Lakes

Fly Fisherman's digital editor Josh Bergan shows us the gear and accessories that he has found to be useful when hiking ...

Packing for Fly Fishing Mountain Lakes

Fly Fisherman Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Fly Fisherman App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Fly Fisherman subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now