The Complete Guide to the Tandem Rig

January 2, 2013 1:56 pm  /  Fly Fishing Basics  /  , , ,

written by staff

We break down everything you need to know about the tandem rig, including what it is, how to set it up, and when and where to use specific fly combinations.

The fact that there are seemingly hundreds of different setups can be intimidating. The truth is, the basics covered in this article are all that are needed to successfully fish any combination of flies in any situation. The tandem setup is easy to learn and is often the secret weapon on the water, especially when the bite is tough.

A tandem rig is simply a multiple-fly setup. While some anglers will use three or more flies on one line, the most common rig is a two-fly, inline setup: the fly tied to the main line with a second fly tied to follow behind it.

The physical construction of the tandem setup is often what scares people away from trying it, but tying the rig is the easy part. The trickier part is figuring out the best combination of flies and how they will behave with each other based on the conditions. First, let’s learn how to tie the basic tandem rig, and then worry about selecting specific flies for the given conditions.

These three basic tandem setups are all you will need for any situation, and in most cases the inline method will get the job done:

The Complete Guide To The Tandem Rig - Inline Hook Bend
This setup is likely going to be the most used in your arsenal. Simply cut an additional length of line, leaving an extra few inches for your knots. (This length will be determined by the conditions on the water, which will be covered in the next section.) Tie your trailing fly to the extra piece of line with your knot of choice, and tie the front end of that line directly to the bend in the hook shank of the lead fly. If you find the line is slipping off of the hook shank when you are tying your knot, just hold the fly upside down when you are tying to line to the hook.

Anglers with barbless hooks may find the trailer line slipping off of the hook shank while fishing. If that is the case, you may want to consider one of the following setups instead.

The Complete Guide To The Tandem Rig - Inline Hook Eye
This tandem setup is the same as the previous rig, except this time you are tying the trailing line to the eye of the top fly, instead of the hook bend. Instead of the fly trailing straight back, it will tend to drop slightly below the lead fly, especially with a shorter distance between the two. One of the setbacks here is, depending on the size of the eyelet in the hook it may not be possible to fit a secondary line in the opening of the hook eye.

The Complete Guide To The Tandem Rig - The Dropper Loop
There are some old methods for a similar setup that require leaving a long tag end of line off of a blood knot or surgeon’s knot, but a dropper loop is much simpler to tie and manage. After tying your top fly to the main line, make the dropper loop in the line above your fly. Once the loop is made, tie an additional section of line to the dropper loop. Then tie your dropper fly to the end of the added line.

This rig is beneficial for covering two different levels in the water column at the same time, since the method is more of a vertical setup than an inline. Here is how you tie the Dropper Loop.

Many resources and anglers preach a set of standard setups – usually 12-, 18- or 24-inches between flies. Erase this from your mind immediately! You would never go out with the same three flies in your arsenal for every situation, so why would you use “standard” lengths between your flies? What if the fish is feeding 5 or 6 inches below the surface? If you are fishing 24-inch deep water with a fast current and need to get to the bottom, you might need 36 or 40 inches of length to even get close to the river floor.

Also, the second fly itself is incredibly important and will interact differently with the lead fly – it is not just a hopeful “extra chance” at getting a hit. Almost every time in a productive tandem situation, the fish will hit the trailing fly instead of the lead pattern, so the second fly needs to be chosen very carefully.

There will never be a “standard” out on the water, so the flies and length of the setup must be determined by the depth and speed of the current, where the fish are feeding in the water column and knowing how the flies will behave in the water.

Three steps to constructing any tandem rig:
STEP 1: Identify and understand the water conditions, including the depth and speed of the current.
STEP 2: Try to identify the depth of where the fish are feeding in the water column, and what they are feeding on.
STEP 3: Based on the first two steps, construct the right combination of flies to best manipulate the water conditions and capitalize on the feeding habits and location of the fish.

Steps one and two are pretty simple, as they simply require you to sit down for a minute and observe the environment. Step three is where it starts to sound tricky, but it really is simple once you learn and understand a few of the basic tandem combinations, and the purposes for which they serve.


Water column coverage: Surface
The double dry combination can serve a few purposes. The first is to simply be able to see a strike when using a very tiny fly. Connect your small dry fly to the back of a large, buoyant dry, which you will use as both a visual to follow on the water and as a strike indicator. A second use for fishing two dry flies is for a hatch when fish are actively taking insects off the top of the water. If you successfully match the hatch, you can tie on two of the same flies, and instantly double your chances of hooking up, and maybe even get simultaneous strikes. If you are not sure which fly to throw, another reason for using a dry + dry tandem is simply to find out what is working. Test out two different flies at the same time, and see what is consistently getting the hit. If fish are visibly taking insects from the surface but neither fly works, replace both flies with two new patterns and continue until the right one is discovered.

Water column coverage: Surface to middle
If you find yourself in the midst of a hatch cycle, but you aren’t sure if the fish are more keyed in on the film or on the subsurface insects emerging to the film, tie on buoyant dry fly with an emerger dropped behind it and cover both sections of the water column. If fish are not feeding heavily on the surface during a hatch, this combination can be deadly as it presents a free subsurface meal in the most vulnerable section of the water column.

Water column coverage: Surface to middle/bottom
The dry fly and nymph tandem is similar to the previous combination, and is used for similar reasons. The main difference with a dry and a nymph is deeper coverage in the water column. A large, buoyant dry fly rides the surface and also acts as a strike indicator, while the heavier nymph crawls and bounces along the bottom. A couple light shakes of the rod tip can make the nymph rise up in the water column, mimicking an emerging insect or a bottom bug that was knocked into the current. Many times, this rising action will trigger the strike. Consider the speed and depth of the current, and adjust the distance of the line accordingly to get the nymph to the bottom.

Water column coverage: Bottom to middle
The opposite of a dry + nymph trailer, a weighted wet fly like a nymph or beadhead drifted along the bottom, with a dry fly or buoyant nymph behind it floating up off the river floor is a deadly deep water combination. This pair imitates a bottom-crawling insect, with another that was dislodged and caught in the current. Twitch the rod tip periodically to make the flies rise and dive against each other and incrementally increase your chances of a strike.

Water column coverage: Bottom
Fishing a pair of nymphs serves a few investigatory purposes, in that if you do not know exactly what the fish are hitting on, you can test two different flies out at one time. If you do figure out the bite, tying on two of the same nymphs can literally double your odds, and potentially even lead to the rare double hook-up. Another practical purpose of the double-nymph tandem is for getting a small nymph to the bottom without bogging down the line with split shots. Instead of weighting the line and hindering your casts, tie on a heavier nymph to the main line to get the flies to the bottom, then your smaller, lighter nymph can trail behind and bounce off of the floor.

Water column coverage: Bottom to middle
This is a highly effective combination that takes advantage of the aggressive nature of predatory fish. This rig imitates a baitfish chasing a rising insect in the water column. Aggressive fish will almost always pass on the nymph to hit the larger offering that is giving chase to it. This is a tandem food chain combination that attracts the largest trout in the system, and is most effective in medium depth, medium to fast currents.

Water column coverage: Bottom to middle
This combination is the exact opposite of the Streamer chasing the nymph, both in setup and purpose. The idea is to “wake up” a passive fish by drifting a large baitfish imitation through the zone. Then, when the smaller nymph comes passing through the fish hits the helpless offering. This combination is most effective is still and slow water, but is not used very frequently.

Water column coverage: Middle
The double streamer combination is another that will catch the largest, most aggressive fish in a system. Try to choose contrasting baitfish imitations, meaning a large and a small streamer, one in a light color and another dark. The streamer + streamer combination is like lobbing a squirrel’s tail out on the water, so you’ll want to modify your cast to avoid both tangles and snagging the heavy flies in your body or head. In fast water, dead drifting may suffice, but in slower water experiment with short, sharp strips to make the streamers dance and swim in the current.

Water column coverage: Bottom to middle
This combination is unusual, in that as far as we know, baitfish do not attempt to eat eggs in nature. Then again, there is no natural basis for the legendary Egg-sucking leech fly pattern either. All that matters is, the combination of an egg pattern with a streamer chasing from behind is a deadly one, particularly for Steelhead in the Great Lakes tributaries during the spring and early fall seasons. Much like the nymph + streamer combination above, fish will often pass on the egg to slam the baitfish imitation that is giving chase. Since eggs flow powerlessly through water currents, it is best to fish this pattern in fast water and always on a dead drift. Twitching the rod tip to give the streamer action will also give the egg action, and this unnatural movement will be a warning sign to wary trout.

Water column coverage: Middle
If it is already established that fish are hitting on egg patterns, tie on another one and drift two through the current. Basically the goal is to double your chances of a hook-up, and much like the double dry and double nymph patterns, there is always a possibility for a great tale of the double hook-up. And if you want to get even wilder…

Three flies on a single rig sound a bit excessive, but it works. In fact, it is a popular tactic in many parts of Europe. The benefits of tripling up are pretty obvious, but there are a few downsides to a triple-fly rig. For one, casting can become a mess and tangles can take up the bulk of your day. Second, to fish three flies usually requires a very long leader. Also, there are many places that enforce specific regulations against tandem rigs that exceed two flies. The San Juan is an example of a river with a two fly or less regulation, so check your area first to avoid being ticketed.

Although it may be intimidating at first, the assembly of the tandem rig is quite simple. After studying and understanding the water conditions and feeding habits of the fish, all that is left to do is to find the right combination of flies to capitalize on the conditions.

Ask yourself what it is that you are trying to do with your setup. Then, decide on the right combination to achieve that goal. If you frequently fish a specific location, and you know the conditions inside and out, you can even pre-tie a variety of tandem rigs at home, and then just tie on the main fly when you get to the water.