10 Ways To Improve Your Dry Fly Fishing
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10 Ways To Improve Your Dry Fly Fishing

Stating The Obvious

Fly fishermen tend to subject themselves to the most self-imposed mental angst over things that they have little to no control over. The weather, water flows, travel plans and the number of other anglers on the water are just a few of the insipid factors that torment many anglers. Days, and even weeks, before they might be hitting a specific piece of water the obsessing begins. As overwhelming as these integral components that comprise a day of fishing can be to those who choose to cast a fly, the one I have found that causes the most consternation is whether there is going to be a bug hatch.

As fly anglers, our most vivid trout fishing memories aren’t usually comprised of visions of strike indicators going down or the tug on a streamer. It isn’t that these two techniques don’t work, au contraire mon frère, they are the two ways that have enabled 90% of all fish pictures to exist.
A man fishing in a Utah streamBut it is the days of fish slashing at giant Salmon flies or crushing Hexagenias as the sunsets or the subtle, finicky sipping of tiny caddis on the inside edge of an eddy that are the Christmas Eve sugarplum dreams of fishermen. They also make the most lasting memories for most of us.

I can still tell you the best 10 dry fly fishing days of my life, ranked and in order. This isn’t unusual for the anglers who wait patiently to use venerated rod and reel combinations for the 20% window of time when trout feed on the water’s surface. They revere their dry fly rods like Excalibur. The adoration of these mystical fishing talismans by their owners goes so deep that many choose to keep their prized dry fly rod over their wedding rings if they had to make a choice.

The problem is with the mystique of dry fly fishing is that it is more difficult than what Norman Maclean led a generation of fly fishermen to believe. There is actual science and proper technique involved in making those special days when “It” happens successfully. Here are several hints and techniques, I am sure I have left out a few, that will make those rare special days even more of a success for you.

Hints, Techniques and Cuss Words That You Already KnowTo Catch More Fish On Dry Flies

  • Watch and Wait – Spend some time when you first get to the stream or lake observing what is going on. Often I sit for a long, long time before I even tie on a fly if I am expecting to fish on the surface. Some of the things that I look for are spent shucks in the water, dead spinners, what the birds are doing(are they low to the water, are there any at all etc), the type of rises or if there are any at all. Water temperature is something else to note. In the end, a few minutes watching the world go by will save you time in the end when the hatch happens.
  • Softer is Better – Today’s rod manufacturers are making more faster action rods than ever before. There are very few rods
    A trout eating a large orange caddis dry flythat are great dry fly rods that land the fly delicately on the water with precision. Slower rods are also much more forgiving when fishing the lighter tippet you need to hook wary trout. They also allow for a strong, quick hook sets that fast rods tend to snap tippet. Since your line is floating and you aren’t probably casting a mile there is no need for a stiff rod to initiate a cast.I would suggest slow action rods like the Winston BIIx and any of the revered Sage Light Line series among others.
  • Go Down One – The fish are feeding relentlessly. There are bugs all over the place. You have matched the hatch exactly the color, size and pattern are more realistic than the real thing. Twenty minutes later not a take or even a refusal, a trout has nosed your fly out of the way to eat a natural. You are mumbling words to yourself that will keep you out of Heaven when you die. Save yourself from this frustration by starting out using a fly that is one size smaller than you think you should use. This works 9 out of 10 times for me because the natural’s entire silhouette is seldom seen by the trout, particularly mayflies.
  • Don’t Get Twisted – Casting dries inevitably causes your leader to twist, particularly large flies. Once your leader is twisted presentation becomes an issue. If I am using a Mayfly I usually cut the wings off of the fly or if it is one I tied I don’t put wings on them at all. I have noticed no difference in my success rate since I started doing this. Hair winged flies like large Stoneflies and big Caddis I try to get or tie ones that the wing lies as close to the body of the fly as possible. This makes them spin less in the air and is a more realistic representation of the natural usually.
  • Give Your Fly A Haircut – This is particularly important on spring creeks, back eddies, and stillwater. TRIM YOUR HACKLES!! Trim the hackle flat along the bottom of the fly so it sits low and FLAT on the water’s surface. This lets the fly float like a natural, giving it a much more realistic look from below. Pardon the capital letters but this is an important one.
  • “I Can’t See My Fly” – Guides hate hearing this one. It drove me nuts for years. This is where a little casting practice goes a long way. Get to where you can cast your fly accurately enough that you know where it lands. Then focus on a five-foot circle where you presumably know where your fly is and if you see anything that looks fishy set the hook. Parachute flies will also be helpful but don’t be tempted by flies with red or yellow parachutes, these are for anglers, not fish. Fish see colors well and the glow of red or yellow isn’t something that they are accustomed to.
  • Plan Your Attack – I have seen more fish put down than Fort Knox has gold bars by poorly executed attempts on feeding fish. BEFORE YOU CAST!Think about where you want your fly to land and how to get it there. Preplanning for wind and pesky obstacles makes a huge difference in success. Watch seams and currents if you are fishing moving water, think about the mends you will need go make to keep the fly in the feeding zone.
  • Know Your Strip – Gauging distance properly toward the targeted fish is great. It isn’t so great if you have no idea how much fly line you have pulled off of your reel. Knowing how much line you pull off your reel with each strip lets you keep your eye on the fish without looking and prevents you from lining the fish. My huge pet peeve is when my friends do several casts to determine range. It never fails, they either flail the water near their target on accident or they snap the fly off because they are afraid of slapping the water next to the fish.
  • Fish Don’t Have Eyes On The Back Of Their Heads – This goes with Plan Your Attack but is so important it got its own slot. If you are fishing moving water, try to get behind the trout or at least no more than 70° from the side. A guy in waders waving his arm in the air in a fish’s vision is same as a bear charging a human-natural reaction, “Run!”(please don’t do this if you ever see a bear, it will chase you). If the trout doesn’t see you, your
    A drift boat on a Chilean stream
    Clear water demands the right fly and excellent presentation

    chances go up astronomically. Your drift is also much better and it is much easier to get a natural drift. Mending from upstream is almost impossible.

  • Go Light – Use the lightest tippet you are comfortable with. I saved this for last because it is the most obvious thing ever. I have to state the obvious at least once an article and I wanted you to read all of it. You made it this far so my ploy was a success.

Be Patient With Yourself!

As exciting and satisfying as it is to see the fish eat your fly, it is just as difficult to get the fish to eat your dry fly. Dry fly fishing is a difficult proposition when all of the stars align, which isn’t often, let alone under normal circumstances. Practice and time on the water are the two greatest factors in increasing your success. Fishing with a friend and talking about, or better yet, watching him fish will give you great ideas of what to do or what not to do.

But most of all don’t get down when you can’t get the trout to take your fly or you put one down. There are always more fish and the world isn’t going to end. The satisfaction of solving the problem, which is the successful outcome of fishing a dry fly, will come more and more often when the opportunity presents itself.

Follow Sean Johnson:

Sean was raised in Northeastern Oregon in the Wallowa Valley. It was there that he learned to hunt and fly fish. After receiving his history degree from the University of Oregon, Sean guided fly fishermen from Alaska to Chile. There were a few interludes where he sailed as a crew member on a ship and even worked in the craft brewing industry. Eventually he found his love in writing about the outdoors. His articles and fiction stories have a unique style and voice that conveys his love for the natural world. Currently he is the main writer for Always A Good Day, freelances and is working on a book of fiction.