I was dry fly fishing in Montana a number of years ago on a small trout stream outside of Missoula.
There was this crazy hatch going on and the fish were on it. We were approaching dark so every cast felt critical as we ran out of time.
Myself and another buddy were picking up some nice fish. But Ryan, our newbie to the dry fly was struggling to make the presentation. He was giving it his all but he just seemed to miss the mark or get his fly caught in the tree every time.
It came to a head about 30 minutes before dark after we heard a loud snap behind him. He had obvoiusly lost his fly. After verifying this he completely lost it, he went crazy……
He took his rod, turned to the bank and hucked it as hard as he could.
I’m done with fly fishing!
This was pretty extreme but I think we have all been there when fishing dry flies. You either don’t have the right pattern or can’t make the right presentation.
Either way it’s a major downer.
I will provide a few steps and simple tips to get you out dry fly fishing and into a few fish. I’ll minimize some of that stress and help you have a little more success next time.
Dry Fly Fishing Gear
Your typical gear when fishing dry flies will depend on the size of fly you are using and the fish you are targetting. I will assume you are targetting averaged sized trout for this post. A 8.5′ or 9′ rod with a 4 to 6 weight line will be sufficient for most situations.
With dry flies you’ll be typically using smaller flies so your leader and tippet will conincide with this. Here is a tippet sizing chart from Orvis that breaks it down.
For example, with sized 14 through 18’s you’ll be using 5 x tippet. A 9 foot leader will usually be fine for most dry fly situations. In lakes and certain situations when fish are finicky you’ll need to go longer.
You can buy pre made leaders in the store and you’ll just have to tie the leader onto your fly line to get started using a nail knot or loop knot system via perfection loop.
Charlie breaks down leader basics in this video ===>> Understanding leaders and tippet
You will also need a little fly floatant along with the rest of your typical fly gear. The beauty of dry fly fishing is the simplicity. You will be able to see the bugs, see the fish and cast to those fish.
It’s you and the fish. Game time baby. This is what most people think of when they think of fly fishing. And I can tell you that you’ll be equally humbled and exilerated over the years while dry fly fishing.
So, where do we go from here?
Do Your Research
I’ll get into the bugs in a bit but first want to make sure you have the basic technique down so you can have a foundation for everything I’ll cover today.
When you first see fish rising, take your time and observe them to find out what they are feeding on so you can put together a plan.
Although you can fish dry flies anytime it’s usually best when aquatic insects (I’ll call bugs from here on out) are hatching out of the water, when adults bugs are returning to lay eggs on the water or when terrestrials (hoppers, ants, etc.) are flying into the water.
How do you know what the fish are eating? There are a few tips.
It is common for a larger splash of a fish to coincide with a larger bug on the water. But there is no substitute to taking your time to study what is going on. Can you see bugs floating down on the surface?
If you can’t verify what the fish are taking you might try to identify the size and color as best you can and find a fly that closely resembles the insect.
There’s also no replacement for doing your research on the stream before you even go out on the river. Search google for your river + hatch guide to see if you can pull up any information.
Here’s an example of a hatch guide from one of the local Deschutes River shops in Oregon:
As you can see, the local fly shop provides a bunch of great information including types of flies you can use for that month along with time of day when dry fly fishing is best.
Positioning and the Fly Cast
If you are brand new to fly fishing you will want to take a quick look at this article which breaks down fly casting in 7 steps —> How to cast a fly rod in 7 steps
After you have identified that fish are feeding you need to determine how best to make a cast without spooking those fish. Easeir said than done!
Find a location where you can cast above the spot where a fish is rising and let the current float your fly over the fish.
Troutster gives you a good visual sense of what this looks like here:
Try to get as close to the fish without spooking it. If you can decrease the cast you need to make by even a few feet you might find huge benefits to your presentation.
The worst thing you can do is cast directly on top of a fish and spook that fish with your line or leader.
How do you know how close and accurate your cast will be? Practice, Practice and Practice (I feel like I’ve said that before?). With time you will be able to have a feel for your cast and be able to put it in the bulls eye. You can use a false cast to estimate the correct distance of your cast.
So, when you see a rise, pick up and make a couple false casts so you can get a feel if you can make the cast or not. This will also allow you to hone in on your accuracy.
The false cast also allows you to also dry off your fly between casts. Even when using fly floatant your dry fly will get water logged.
A few false casts will dry it off.
Other helpful cast for dry flies include the reach cast. This is a cast that gives you a little more drag free float prior to a current line picking up your fly and moving it.
Phil shows you how to do a reach cast from both sides below:
The Fish Take
Once you see a fish take your fly you’ll need to pull up and set the hook. In steelhead fishing there is the idea of bowing to the fish. That does not apply here. You need to pull up and set the hook when you see a fish take the fly.
Not super crazy but fast enough to hook the fish.
Takes can be subtle and sometimes you may need to set your hook when you see a splash especially during low light conditions.
Here are a few tips on setting the hook:
Matching the Hatch
Before you get to the river you should have a number of common fly patterns in your box that you have read or been told will work for your particular stream.
Once you get on the river it’s all about trial and error. You need to put on your lab coat and start testing your hypotheses. If fish are feeding on the surface you need to do your best to see if you can verify what bug that is. Then find something similar in your box.
Maybe those fish are taking wet flies just under the surface and not on actual dry flies?
If you see a fish take a bug but don’t see it’s mouth come out of the water it may be taking emerging bugs and not dry flies.
Entomology is the next logical step when you are ready to improve your craft. When you want to get a little closer to nature and the entire process. I’ll get into that next.
Use foam or high visibility materials on a fly to see it better during low light conditions.
When unsure of the exact size of the bug you are matching go a little smaller than you think.
Now to a few of the time tested all around dry fly patterns that you should have in your box.
10 best dry fly patterns
The fly pattern you will do well with will depend on the river or stream you are fishing but there are a few patterns that just seem to be all around great flies.
These are kind of the must have dry flies that you should have in your box. You will find that many of these patterns work all around the country.
Here are the best 10 of all time:
2. Elk Hair Caddis
3. Sparkle Dun
4. Chernobyl Ant
5. CDC Midge
7. Griffiths Nat
8. Royal Wulff
9. Blue Winged Olive
10. Madam X Hopper
The amazing thing about dry fly fishing is that you will learn every time you get on the water. The bugs, the cast, the river will all change throughout the year.
The first step is getting a few flies together after doing some research on your stream. The next step is to get out on that stream and do more research.
While you are there go ahead and make a few casts following the steps I listed above. If you have any questions go ahead and send me an email here.