Wet fly fishing on rivers may seem a little old school to some in the fly fishing world. You know, the wet fly swing? or fishing a cast of wet flies? It’s like when you were 14 years old and your parents were talking about their youth and the crazy stuff they did.
But, today I’d like you to Just hear me out for a moment and I promise to make it worth your time.
(You can scroll down to take a quick peek at Davy Wotton’s Top 20 Wet Flies or grab direct access to the the 7 super rich wet fly swing tips below – 8 isn’t really a tip but a call to action)
You’re standing in a large river almost touching the bank in a rifflely pocket run watching your fly swing across the waters surface. Like a suspended spider trying to make his way out of a tub of water.
As it slows down on the swing by catching a hydraulic, you feel the tug of something heavy. Like the handshake of a giant man who doesn’t know his own strength and when to let go.
This is the first time you received a pull today fishing this run so your confidence has just been elevated.
Game on **@@%!! That was pretty frickin simple yo (Yo?)
Now, you just made a cast out across and down at about a 45 degree angle, made a little upstream mend and then followed the line across the water with your rod tip.
Kaboom biaatch! There was another nice fish.
This time the fat shoulders of this giant silver torpedo turn into the current and its go time. Like playing tug of war with your brother’s kids or something.
You’ve probably heard a little about dry fly fishing and nymph fishing? Fishing wet flies for trout is one of those techniques that has taken a back seat for some of the newer fly fishermen and women.
Maybe wet flies are not sexy enough anymore.
Maybe they are what your granddad used to do?
I’m going to try and change your mind just a little bit today. Just think of me as yoda and you are Luke Skywalker. I need to show you the wet fly force so you can defeat the evil trout empire.
Ok, maybe that was a little far but I do love Yoda. and he does have a point that there are times when unlearning may be the best route.
Click here to see more Yoda Memes.
I’ll walk you through the basics of the wet fly fishing and then on the wet fly swing so you have a technique you can use to catch a fish regardless of your skill level.
I’m not shitting you. Dry fly fishing takes a nice cast. Nymphing requires you to deal with getting snagged and breaking off flies.
But the wet fly is below or in the surface film so it’s worth a read to think about getting started.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a new technique you can use to catch your first fish this week.
Note: I am not talking about steelhead here. If you want to learn about swinging flies for steelhead you can click here to check that out.
I am focusing on trout fishing here so let’s get into it.
I have broken down this article into two sections as noted below.
Part 1 is focused on Wet Fly Fishing by casting upstream and using a cast of flies. I have two great podcast episodes by Dave Wotton, one of the best in this area of Wet Fly Fishing.
Dave Wotton Wet Fly Fishing Podcast:
I will add the second podcast in the Davy Wotton series next month.
Part 2 of this post focuses on the Wet Fly Swing which is more downstream and across and noted in many past podcasts for both trout and steelhead.
Ok, let’s jump into it.
Sponsors and Podcast Updates
Wet Fly Fishing Table of Contents
Part I. Wet Fly Fishing (Casting Up and Across)
- Dry Flies vs Wet Flies
- Top 20 Wet Flies for Trout
Part II. Wet Fly Swing (Casting Down and Across)
- Gear (Wet Fly Swing)
- Bugs and Flies
- Reading Water
- 7 Rich Tips for the wet fly swing
Part I – Wet Fly Fishing (Casting Up and Across)
Chapter 1. Wet Fly Fishing Gear
Fly Rod – A 10′ mid flex rod in a 4 weight that has a soft tip is the perfect stick for fishing wet flies. You need a soft tip so you can work the flies and help them look and act like the natural bug. This rod is very similar to what you might use euro nymphing.
If you move over to a sink tip then you may need to go with a little heavier rod.
Fly Line – There are two main fly line types you need for wet fly fishing. A dry line and an intermediate line, also known as a slime line or clear camo. It’s best to choose your line based on the required depth to get your flies down.
Peter Charles breaks out a great summary on intermediate fly lines:
Leader – Davy breaks down the exact leader setup he uses which includes up to 3 flies tied off of the leader using a surgeons knot. 12-16 foot leaders are pretty typical. Use a 5x leader. Building a leader should not be complicated. Click here and listen to Davy explain how to build your leader (at the 14:00 mark).
Chapter 2. Wet Fly Fishing Technique
Casting – The most common casting strokes for wet fly fishing are directly upstream with a dead drift, and upstream and across. The key with casting is to fish all of your flies in different zones of the cast.
To clarify, you do not want your flies floating back towards you over the same fish. This is the beauty of using 3 flies.
Reteiving – The figure 8 is one of the best retrieves to test out. While retrieving your line it is typical to also adjust your rod and the angle of the hang to get different movement and a different drift.
The bottom line her is that you want to be testing different retrieves to find out what works.
Angle of the Hang – This is the angle you make holding your rod up in the air and to control the movement of the flies. Typcially the angle is somwhere between 12 and 3 o’clock.
Chapter 3. Dry Flies vs Wet Flies
When on the water and fishing wet flies it is very critical to remember that what you are doing is not that far off from dry fly fishing. What I mean to say is that you are fishing with the same bugs that will be hatching and flying above the water very shortly.
Take a look at the comparison below of a wet adams vs a dry adams. You could be targeting the same fish with either of these flies but at a different time in the process.
Adams Wet Fly
Adams Dry Fly
So, essentially you are matching the hatch but just doing it under the surface.
Why use wet flies then? Aren’t dry flies a whole lot more enjoyable?
Mabye but wet flies work and in some situations likely better than dries. Whatever research you put together remember that it can help to think of dry flies and the aquatic insects that are hatching out.
Understand the take
Chapter 4. Research
There are a few things to think about when getting into wet fly fishing. Learning to read water is probably the most important thing you can do. Know what the water temperature is and whether flows are steady.
The insects you are imitating will be in different depths of water based on the season, water temperature, and habitat.
Chapter 5 – Top 20 Wet Fly Flies for Trout
I had the pleasure of interviewing Davy Wotton on a recent podcast and asked him if he could share his top 20 wet fly patterns.
- March Brown winged or soft hackle
2. Hares ear winged or soft hackle
3. Black gnat
4. Blue Dun
5. Dark Cahill
6. Lead Winged Coachman
7. Light Cahill
8. Pale Morning Dun
9. Quill Gordon
10. Wickham Fancy
11. Ginger Quill
12. Partridge and Orange
13. Green wills glory
14. Peter Ross
16. Water Hen Blower
17. Mudler Daddy
19. Watson’s Fancy
20. (bonus Dave) Tied Down Caddis
Part II. Wet Fly Swing (down and across)
Typical fly fishing gear
One of the great things about fishing the wet fly is that the gear setup is very simple. No big indicators or weight and no dry fly floatant to worry about.
You can use a 9 foot 5 or 6 weight rod with a 9 foot leader and you are good to go. You can adjust your rod weight with the size of the species you are going for.
Take a look here at other basic gear you need for fly fishing. Because the wet fly swing is so simple there will be a lot of gear you won’t need at the start. This is why is such a great beginner tactic.
How to cast a Fly Rod with the Wet Fly Swing
This screenshot is from Orvis and a video that covers the basics.
Typicallly you are casting downstream and across at about a 45 degree angle to the current. Look for riffle type habitat that has a uniform current and isn’t too deep.
Take a look at this short video that describes the swing: swinging wet flies
You can see from the video how effortless casting a wet fly is with this technique. If you use heavier streamer type flies things will get a little more challenging. But, when starting out just use soft hackeled type flies (see below).
This is a great way to cover water when you aren’t sure exactly where the fish are holding. See the Technique below for further clarification.
The Technique – Wet Fly Swing
The wet fly swing is exactly what it sounds like. Swinging your fly across the water in a very methodical fashion to cover all of the water.
If you don’t know where the fish are in a run then this is a very effective method.
The Steps to covering a run:
Figure 2 is from a great Midcurrent article.
- Start in close to cover the water right out in front of you first. (note: On large rivers, many newbies step right on and over fish heading out towards deeper water).
- For each cast, make it out and downstream and across at about a 45 degree angle. See the photo above at Step A and click here for the article from MidCurrent.
- After you make your cast downstream and across, much of the time you will want to make a mend in the line to decrease the line speed and drag. See the video below. Controlling the speed of the fly is the key to the game so make sure to utilize mending to make sure your fly is presenting naturally to the fish.
4. After making your mend, keep a tight line on the fly as it swings so you feel any touch from a fish.
5. After the current swings the fly line and fly down below you make sure to let the fly dangle for a few seconds. Fish can take the fly on this dangle or hand down so be ready.
6. After a few seconds of the dangle, take a step or two downstream, pickup the line and make a similar cast out at a 45 degree angle.
7. Repeat these steps until you finish the run.
8. See the Tips sections on some other good reminders.
Take a look at Davy Wotton’s summary in this PDF for the teqhnique and a little bit of the history.
The Bugs (aka – entomology)
What is really going on with the wet fly and how is it different than a dry fly or a nymph?
This video describes a little about the mayfly life history. There are a wide range of species and life histories but the important thing to note here is you are imitating that stage just before they get to the surface of the water.
I had to list one other resource from a mentor who is known very well in the west. Here’s Rick Hafele’s bug blog.
One of my favorite books from Rick is Western Hatches. It’s got more worn pages then bibles in Silverton.
Take a look at the flies section below to see some of the common patterns to use while fishing the swing for trout.
Photo: Rick Hafele photo on his website showing his classic style.
The Wet Fly Patterns
The soft hackle flies are pretty much the standard for the wet fly swing. That video shows you one of the all time classic soft hackled flies.
A fly I have really come to love over the years for the wet fly swing is the dark tied down. Take a look at the video:
You can use any of these wet flies when fishing the swing. You don’t have to worry about setting the hook as the fish will do it for you. Just keep your rod tip down and hold on.
Streamers can also be fished on the wet fly swing. Kent at Gink and Gasoline provides a good summary on fishing streamers on the wet fly swing here. if you are able to fish out of a boat an anchor above the deep slot this can prove to be very effective as noted in the post.
From Gink and Gasoline on Fishing Streamers on the Swing.
Reading the water
Look for areas that appear to have broken water or cover within larger runs but still allow your fly to swing naturally.
Captain John McClosky was on the podcast in episode 89 and broke down the steps to catching fish with a trout spey setup. John teaches trout spey in Georgia and in Alaska and was amazing to pick his brain.
7 Rich Tips for the Wet Fly Swing
- Keep your rod tip low and follow your fly across the swing.
- For larger fish use a shock loop.
- Use a double fly setup to improve your odds – Clint does a good job covering it here.
- Add a little flash to flies or a little UV to make them attract – Not a must but purple, pink and hotspots seem to be the thing today so why not try it on your next old school pattern.
- Mend when needed to keep a natural drift – This helps to create a more natural swing
- Let your fly dangle (aka hangle down) – See The Technique section above
- Find the Buckets and stay with them – Once you fish a run and find the pockets where you hooked up, make sure to note those and spend more time on them next time.
- I challenge you to not catch a fish – My final tip is to always challenge yourself. What are you going to try that’s new today?
The 2 fly setup from FlyFishingbasics.com
Conclusion for Wet Fly Fishing
As noted in this post and many of the links throughout, the wet fly swing is one of the most effective methods for catching trout especially when you are brand new to fly fishing.
That’s because much of the extra gear, fluff and trash talk is not included. The wet fly swing is an old traditional method which makes it all the better for me.
Have you done your research on the past fishers who put fly fishing on the map. Do you know who paved the way for you to discover it?
Take the time to understand this and you will catch more fish and have a better connection with the sport.
Try to implement just one of my tips on your next trip and let me know how it goes.
Click the link below if you would like to get the Free PDF Guide to Fly Fishing.
Fishing with the wet fly is the first thing I try to teach new fly anglers. The across and down cast and drift is the easiest to master, and most of the time the fish sets the hook itself when it strikes. It really doesn’t get any easier than this for beginners when they first get on the water.
Thanks for this David,
I really enjoy the 2 shows with Davey Wotton. What I am looking to improve is my casting technique to ensure a bend or curve, such that no matter where I cast, my cast of flies lands across the run and not all in a line. A blend of curve casts (like dry fly fishing) but I am also trying directional waggles to bend the cast across. I’ll have to listen to the podcasts again, but do you have any references for a solution?
The upstream, upstream/across technique is deadly for trout.
I am teaching a beginners fly tying course currently. I will be demonstrating soft hackles and wee wets. Using them remains one of my favorite methods for an enjoyable and relaxed fishing session on my local streams.