Fishing Dry Flies: The Gear, The Basics, & Presenting the FlyPublished on 06/10/2021 · 13 min readFly fishing expert Ryan Peters takes you through the basics of fishing with dry flies, and discusses some key tips and tricks to help you catch more fish on dries!
Photo by Ryan Peters
When I first picked up a fly rod, everything I knew about fly fishing came from the 1992 film classic A River Runs Through It. I assumed all flies were so-called “dry” flies—insect look-a-likes you would cast out and let float on the surface for an eager trout to rise up and eat. As I approached the Gallatin River here in Southwest Montana for the first time, I remembered a scene from the iconic Robert Redford film: one fine Montana evening, Paul Maclean (Brad Pitt) charges up the river as his older brother Norman watches. He’s making these beautiful “false” casts where the line never touches the water—each one longer than the last. Splashing his way toward a rising trout in the middle of the river, he finally lays the line out, promptly hooks and lands a nice rainbow on a dry fly, and returns heroically to shore. “Wow,” I thought, “this is what fly fishing is all about!”
I’ll spare you the details of that first day of my fly fishing career, but suffice it to say I didn’t have any Brad Pitt moments—I didn’t catch a single fish! Seven years and lots of trial and error later, I’ve learned that really successful dry fly anglers don’t fish like Brad Pitt at all. I’ve also learned that there’s a difference between casting dry flies and really fishing with them.
Let’s take a few minutes to talk about the basics of fishing with dry flies, and discuss some key tips and tricks to help you catch more fish on dries!
What are dry flies, and why do we use them?
When we talk about “dry” flies, we mean insect imitations designed to float on the surface of the water. These are complemented by “wet” flies like nymphs (larval insect imitations) and streamers (small fish imitations). Wet flies are simply those we fish under the surface.
Since aquatic bugs develop in the water, they naturally make up most of a trout’s diet. It’s often said that trout find 90 percent of their food underwater, and only 10 percent on top; this matches up well with the life cycle of most aquatic insects—they spend most of their lives under the surface developing into adults, and are most available to fish in these nymph or larval forms. Fishing nymphs, then, is often quite effective—you’re imitating the food the trout seek out most, down near the bottom where the fish live!
Dry flies, on the other hand, are meant to imitate adult stages of aquatic insects that have come to the surface to hatch, fly or crawl out, and reproduce. Knowing that this adult phase insect makes up only 10 percent of a trout’s diet might make one think, “Why would I fish dries?” The magic of dry fly fishing is in how much you can see! Imagine watching a large brown trout notice your floating fly, rise steadily from the bottom, and gently sip it in, only to realize she’s been tricked & tear off across the river. For me, this beats watching a bobber (we call them strike indicators in fly fishing) go under any day!
Fishing the “hatch” is the other appeal of using dries. During a hatch, adult insects are emerging on the water’s surface. It is at this moment that the bug is most vulnerable to hungry trout – stuck somewhere between water and air, it’s struggling to emerge from the river & fly away. Trout notice this and key in on these besieged bugs, rising up confidently to eat them at specific times. Often, a single trout will rise several times a minute; this is an exciting time to be an angler! Then, as the hatching insects mate & die – a process that ranges from a few minutes to a few days – they fall to the surface again, offering an easy surface meal to trout again. Dry flies can be incredibly effective at the right times!
Gear for Dry Fly Fishing
So you want to fish dry flies. What gear do you need?
Rod & Reel
For freshwater trout fishing, I like a 9-foot, 5-weight rod rigged with floating fly line. This is important, as we need our dry flies to float on top of the water. Ideal rod length and weight will vary based on your situation, but I find this setup covers many things well. Grab a reel that matches your line size, add some backing, and you’re good to go!
Leader & Tippet
At the end of that heavy fly line we’ll need a clear “leader”—a length of tapered monofilament (think: traditional fishing line) that will help us to hide our fly and lay it on the water gently. If we tied our dry flies straight to a bright, bulky fly line, the fish would know something was up. These leaders come in various lengths (feet) & sizes/diameters (0x-7x). 9-foot, 4x leaders work well for most dry fly situations. Be sure to match your leader to the size of fly you’ll be using—a large salmonfly pattern won’t fish well on 5x, and a tiny midge won’t fish well on 2x. There are plenty of good charts out there to help you decide!
“Tippet” refers to spools of extra line—either monofilament or fluorocarbon—that we can use to extend our leaders when we break off flies or need a little extra reach. Carrying spools of 3x, 4x, and 5x is a great place to start! Remember: the thinner the leader or tippet, the lower the breaking strength. With dry flies, we’re trying to balance delicate presentations with strong enough tippet. Remember to choose a tippet equal to or smaller than the size of your leader (don’t add 2x tippet to a 4x leader). For trout on flat, calm water, you can add three or four feet of tippet to your nine-foot leader to keep the crash of the bulky fly line a bit further away from the fish you’re targeting.
Flotant & Dressing
Our flies need to float naturally to entice a trout to eat—fish will occasionally take a drowned dry fly, but usually like them best when they’re riding on the surface. Drying flies with a couple quick casts can work in the short term, but adding a hydrophobic gel (flotant) or powder (desiccant) to your dry flies periodically will help them float all day. There are lots of products out there; whatever you choose, remember that less is more! Too much flotant will sink a fly or leave an oily slick in the water around it that fish can see.
As fly anglers, we can become obsessed with tiny details. Is this the perfect color to match the mayflies hatching? Are the tail fibers too long? True, sometimes a trout’s decision to eat will come down to these nuances, but fishing with something roughly the right shape (profile) and size is often enough to fool a trout. How the fly is presented to the fish is often much more important—they are opportunists who will often come up to look at anything that looks “buggy.” More on presentation later!
Observe what’s happening when you first get to the river. Are there mayflies on the surface with tall wings & long tails? Fluttering caddisflies or struggling grasshoppers? Tiny black bugs you can barely see? If you can watch a trout rising to take one of these “naturals,” all the better! You may not need to know the bug’s scientific name to be successful—focus on its profile (what does it look like to a trout?) and size (in dry flies, this is measured from size 2—a very large hook—to upwards of 24, a very tiny one). Think generally: look at the bugs on the water, and pick a couple flies in your box that look similar in profile and size. Color matters too, but it’s wise to play with size and shape first before switching up the color. Add some flotant, and give it a go!
Keep a variety of dry flies on hand, and read area reports or stop by a local fly shop to get some tips on what’s working. With time, you’ll discover some go-to favorites. One of mine is a #18 Purple Haze!
Add a net (keep those fish in the water—they need it to breathe), a set of forceps (fancy fishing pliers to remove stubborn hooks), and a set of nippers (fancy fly fishing nail clippers to trim line), and you’re ready to hit the water!
12 Steps a Good Dry Fly Presentation
So you’ve observed a stretch of water, assembled your rod, and tied on and dressed a choice fly with a bit of flotant. You see a fish rising 30 feet upstream. Now what?
We talk a lot about presentation in fly fishing—how to cast a fly out to a trout in such a way that it looks natural to the fish and induces a strike. Let’s break presentation down into a few key steps as we think about approaching & casting to the fish.
1. Stay Out of the Water
If you can, cast from the bank. Sure, there might be times when you have to wade in to reach a fish, but you’ll avoid spooking a fish by disturbing the water if you simply stay on dry land.
2. Plan Your Approach
Manage your excitement! Often, an extra minute watching the fish might key you in to something important it’s doing that will increase your odds. Decide where you want to stand for the cast, check out any obstacles around & behind you, and think about where you need to put the fly so that the fish won’t be spooked by your heavy fly line hitting the water. A deep breath can be helpful!
3. Check Your Knots
The last thing you want is for the line to snap just as the fish eats your fly! Especially if you’ve been fishing the same setup for a while, take a quick second to pull on your knot(s) and check their integrity. If the line is going to snap easily, it will do so right in your hands and give you a chance to retie before casting.
4. Dry Your Fly
Make a few quick casts away from the fish to dry your fly, or add a dab of flotant to keep it riding high!
5. Aim Above the Fish
Don’t try to land the fly right on top of the trout. Trout rarely rise straight up to take a fly—they usually drift upward and down current a bit in an effort to inspect and take it. Try to land the fly a few feet above the last rise you saw, allowing the fish time to see it and rise to eat.
6. Let the Fish Come to the Fly
Sometimes, it’s best to cast a few feet above and just to one side of the fish. Trout have incredible vision, and will often come out of their feeding lane to go and get a well-presented fly. Worst case, if you cast slightly to the side, the fly will most likely drift harmlessly by and you’ll have a chance for a second, more direct cast.
7. The Thumb
Place your thumb firmly but gently on the back of the rod cork, pointing toward the tip. The thumb will tell that rod tip exactly where to go, so remember to use it! It’s the backbone of your casting stroke.
8. 3 Casts Maximum!
The more “false” casting (casting without laying the line down) you do, the greater chance you’ll have of spooking the fish with a shadow or accidental slap of the water. Brad Pitt sure looks stylish in the movie, but he’s casting, not fishing. You want to be fishing! As you get ready to cast, take enough line off the spool to reach the fish. Think about using a maximum of three total casting cycles (backward, then forward): one to get the line moving and gauge the distance, a second to generate some line speed to get there, and a third to lay the line out. Once you’ve mastered this, you’ll spend a lot more time with the fly in the water—that’s where the fish is!
9. The “Stop & Drop”
When you’re ready to make a true cast, stop your rod tip at eye level in the direction you want to cast. This way, the fly line will have time to roll out and pull the leader, tippet, and fly along past it. In a perfect world, your tippet and fly will stretch out past the line, stop, and drop softly to the water at least nine feet from your heavy fly line. This will be far less disturbing to the fish than a twisted knot of line, leader and tippet crashing down on top of it!
10. Mend the Line
Maybe the biggest buzz word in fly fishing, “mending” refers to a technique where you raise the tip of your rod to lift the fly line above or below the now-floating fly to reduce drag. It takes some practice, but the goal is to move the line in such a way that it isn’t pulling on the fly and speeding it up or slowing it down. That fly line has a lot of surface area, and interacts with the water’s surface in different ways than do the leader and fly. We want to allow a little bit of slack in our system so that we aren’t pulling the fly around—let it drift and swirl naturally in the surface film.
11. Fish with a Low Rod Tip
As the fly is drifting, keep your rod tip pointed low and at the fly. If you’ve casted upstream, you’ll be actively taking line in to manage the amount of “slack” (extra line) on the water as your fly drifts downstream. Take in just enough to keep the line fairly tight without moving the fly. By keeping your tip low, you’ll be ready to set the hook quickly when a fish takes your fly—rather than a huge rip of the line from the water, you’ll be poised to simply lift the rod sharply and tension the line, hooking the fish.
12. Watch the Fish Turn, Set the Hook
Hopefully, the fish has come up to inspect your fly. You may or may not be able to see it. Either way, try to resist the temptation to rip that fly from the water as soon as it strikes. Watch the fish eat the fly, then wait a second for it to turn down before raising the rod to set the hook. This way, you’ll ensure a solid hook set! Many more fish are lost from setting too early than too late.
Hopefully this helps in your dry fly fishing journey! Part of the magic of fly fishing is the sheer volume of information you can learn. Don’t get lost in it! Stick to the basics first, remember that presenting a fly well on the first cast matters more than picking the perfect one, and be gentle with yourself! Tangles, caught trees, and missed fish are just part of the game.
Now get out there and give it a go!
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