How to built a wet fly leader for a team of three flies

One of the most frequent questions I get is, “How do you build a wet fly leader?” This material originally appeared in my article “Wet Fly 101: Take the ancient and traditional path to subsurface success” (American Angler Nov/Dec 2013) but I wanted to give it its own place here on currentseams.

At first glance, building a multi-fly dropper rig looks complicated. But basically, you’re just tying three triple surgeon’s knots. You’ll need a 9-foot, 3x or 4x tapered leader for the butt section, and some 4 or 6-pound Maxima (I prefer Chameleon [AUTHOR’S NOTE: I used UltraGreen four-pound in 2014 and it worked just as well as Chameleon]) for the droppers. I’ve tried a lot of different leader materials, and Maxima is by far the best because of its stiffness. I use the 4-pound in lower, clearer flows. 

Wet Fly Three FLy team

Here’s a pdf of the diagram: Three-fly wet fly leader

Step 1: Cut off the bottom three feet of the tapered leader. Discard this bottom section.

Step 2: Knots are not worthy of your trust. Wet every knot before you pull it tight, and test every knot by giving it a good tug. The heat of battle with a trophy trout is a bad time to discover you tied a substandard knot.

Step 3: Tie just over a foot of Maxima to the tapered leader with a triple surgeon’s knot. The bottom of this section will form the first dropper. Trim both tag ends.

Step 4: The ideal length between wet flies is somewhere between 18 and 24 inches; I prefer my dropper tags between 4 and 6 inches. If you’re going to build a dropper rig with the flies 24 inches apart and the tags 6 inches long, you’ll need a 30-inch section (24 + 6 = 30) of Maxima for the next step.

Step 5: Take the first, shorter section of Maxima (the one you tied to the tapered leader) and hold it 6 inches from the end. This will be your first dropper. Join the 30-inch section to the shorter section at this point with a triple surgeon’s knot.

Step 6: Trim the excess of the second section above the knot (the part you trim is on the butt side of the leader). You should now have a dropper tag about 6 inches long, pointing away from the butt, and about 30 inches of Maxima below it.

Step 7: You’re in the home stretch. This is basically a repeat of step 5. Grab the second section of Maxima 6 inches from the end, and join another 30-inch section of Maxima to it with a triple surgeon’s knot. As with Step 6, trim the excess above the knot.

Step 8: You should now have a rig that looks like the one the diagram: two shorter tags, to which you’ll tie dropper flies, and a longer end section, to which you will tie the point fly.


Good things happen when you give the trout a choice.


21 comments on “How to built a wet fly leader for a team of three flies

  1. Michael Silfen says:


    I modified your leader design a bit. Instead of using triple surgeon’s knots for the droppers I tied a 2mm tippet ring between each section. I then tied the dropper(s) to the tippet ring(s). Two advantages here. 1) The tippet ring allows the fly to “spin” freely in the water giving it a little more life and 2) no knots around the leader whatsoever.


  2. Ray says:

    Thanks for the reminder about the leader. I use it a lot.

    I would like to be entered in the fly contest to celebrate 300 followers of Always look forward to whatever is here or in one of your published articles. Keep fishing, tying, and writing.

  3. Ted Rzepski says:

    Steve thanks for the diagram. I use a small swivel at the 4 foot end of the tapered leader. Then I add 5 feet of 4x. To make droppers I use 8 inches of 5x and use a triple surgeons loop along the 5 feet of 4 x. This way if I decide to streamer fish I cut off the droppers and to tie into the end. In the future I’ll try using stiffer material for the dropper.
    Have you ever used fluro for this set up?

    • Steve Culton says:

      Hi Ted. The tapered leaders I use are 9′ long — 6′ after I cut off the bottom 36 inches.

      I have not used fluorocarbon for this leader system. With certain exceptions, I’m not a fluoro fan. But you can use whatever material you like.

  4. Steve M. says:

    Use your leader recipe with a tippet ring at the end of the tapered leader, before the Maxima. First time I could ever make a cast of three without ending up with frequent tangles (even after netting fish)! Thanks very much.

  5. Gil says:

    Gil asks, this leader looks great but is it the one you use on the small streams you often fish?

    • Steve Culton says:

      Gil, I rarely fish droppers anymore on small streams. If I were inclined to, I would probably tag a nymph pr wet off the bend of a dry. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use a system like this on small streams.

      Another item to consider is leader length. I generally fish a leader that matches the length of the rod. On a small stream, that would be (for me) 6 or 7 feet.

  6. Ed Hovsepian says:

    Thanks Steve for the post, much appreciated.

  7. Gil says:

    Much appreciated, Gil

  8. Alex Argyros says:

    Great article. Thanks.

    I was wondering whether you use Maxima Chameleon or UltraGreen these days? Do you prefer one over the other depending on stream clarity?

    • Steve Culton says:

      Hi Alex,

      I have gravitated toward the UltraGreen the last couple years, and like it in lower, clearer wear. BUT. I fished with Chameleon in those conditions for years and caught a bazzilion fish — sometimes on size 18 flies in slower water — so I can’t tell you that one is definitively better that the other. This is probably one of those “no wrong answer, only the right one for you” situations. It’s a great question, and I thank you for asking it.

  9. […] What knot do you use when you build your wet fly team leader? A: I’ve been using a triple surgeon’s knot for years. It’s easy for me to tie, […]

  10. […] for feeding and hatch activity. What was a learning experience for me was my success presenting a team of three wet flies upstream to feeding fish. I caught four of the six trout I took on wets this way. All the takers […]

  11. […] the fish a choice. Droppers are always the fastest way to find out what the fish want. Different sizes, colors, species, life […]

  12. […] fish was on lockdown, but just as I arrived, an angler left, leaving a prime lie open. Armed with a three fly team of wets, I proceeded to wreak havoc upon the residents. This was one of those days where I quickly lost […]

  13. […] in this pre-hatch time frame. (Of course, you’re fishing a team of three wets. Here’s how to build a wet fly leader.) And so, in no particular order, these are some of my favorite Hendrickson wet fly and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s