Fly fishing is, inherently, more technically demanding and nuanced than it appears in A River Runs Through It. Although that film popularized the sport, there’s so much more to fly fishing. What a lot of beginners don’t understand – or even conceptualize – is that there’s a whole world of just dry flies that’s completely separate from the world of wet flies.
The differences between dry flies and wet flies are pretty big, and there are some anglers who prefer to fish only dries or only wets. While that’s a bit extreme, you’ll definitely be a better angler if you know how to use both wet and dry flies effectively, when the situation calls for either technique.
With that in mind, we’ll take a more in-depth look today at these different types of fishing, what makes them effective, and when you’d want to use one versus the other.
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When folks think of fly fishing, the image that first pops into their mind is usually that of an angler throwing a long, graceful cast, landing a fly on the surface of the water. The fly floats for a moment before a trout eats the fly off the top of the water, and the angler pulls the line tight.
This is the quintessential image of fly fishing, but it’s far from the entire picture. Dry flies are tied to imitate the adult, or dun, version of different aquatic insects. They’re fished on top of the water, where the adult versions of aquatic insects end up either before, during, or just after they finish mating.
The idea behind fishing a dry fly is that your fly looks enough like the real dun that a trout will mistake it for the real thing, and come up to eat it off the top. Getting trout to eat your dry fly is one of the biggest thrills of fly fishing, and is one of the reasons that the sport is so endlessly popular.
When to use Dries
Dry fly fishing is best when there’s a hatch of insects on the water. Caddis, mayflies, and stoneflies are the most popular dry flies, and you’ll find them on most any river in the world. The giveaway that fish are eating dry flies is, of course, their telltale rise. This is when a fish rises to eat a fly off the water, creating a dimple in the water’s surface that’s not unlike throwing a small stone in the water.
You can also use dry flies when fish are eating bugs caught in the surface film of the water. Often, these are emerging insects, or insects that have just died. They’re called either emergers or spinners, respectively, and fishing them even during a big dun hatch is one of the best ways to have an outstanding day on the water. Most fly anglers don’t leave home at any time of the year without a wide variety of dry flies in their fly boxes.
Why Dries Work
We touched on this above, but dry flies work so well because they’re specifically tied to imitate a high-protein value meal that trout will readily move to eat. Trout are instinctual creatures, and have to weigh each dietary choice against the energy cost of getting that food. For instance, a trout isn’t going to move from the bottom of the river to the top just to eat a small bug. But a big, full-grown adult? That’s a high-calorie meal that trout can’t pass up. Dry flies trigger that instinctual response, and trout often feed aggressively on dry flies when given the chance.
Wet flies are, as their name suggests, meant to be fished wet. This means you don’t want these flies floating on the surface, like you do with dry flies.
Now, wet flies can be a catch-all term for any fly fished subsurface, but those subsurface flies are generally broken up into a few different categories. Nymphs, for example, are the flies tied to imitate the larval and pupal stages of different aquatic insects. Streamers, on the other hand, are tied to imitate baitfish, or to simply trigger a predatory response from bigger trout.
Wet flies, though, usually refers to a collection of flies meant to be fished just below, or a few inches under, the surface of the water. Remember earlier, when we discussed emergers and spinners? Well, some flies, as they’re emerging from their pupal shuck and rising to the surface of the water, preparing to hatch into an adult dun, are actually better imitated by flies that have the ability to sit in various spots in the water column.
For example, take the venerable blue-winged olive. This mayfly is one of the most prolific on trout rivers across the world, and when they start hatching, they’ll often spend a bit of time about an inch or so under the surface of the water. At this point in their life, they’re trying to free themselves from their larval shuck, to free their wings, and to get ready to mate. This makes them incredibly vulnerable, and a high-target meal for trout.
When to use Wet Flies
Wet flies are best utilized at the beginning of a dry fly hatch, although you’ll be able to catch plenty of fish on them at all times of the day. Wet flies, when fished a few inches below the water’s surface, perfectly imitate insects that are readying themselves to hatch. Trout key in on this behavior from the bugs, and will start gulping them up with reckless abandon. This creates the slightly different rise forms you see when trout are feeding just below the surface. Instead of making a splashy, big rise like they do when eating dry flies, trout don’t usually come all the way out of the water for wet flies. A wet fly eat is softer, with only the trout’s nose, back, and tail coming slightly out of the water, and in that order.
If you see a lot of rises, but aren’t getting fish to pay attention to your dry fly, then you should consider tying on a wet fly. It’s highly likely that the trout aren’t eating dries, but are, in fact, keyed in on wet flies.
The Wet and Dry Debate
Some anglers swear by fishing the wet fly. Others say that the dry fly is king, and fish caught on dries are inherently better. While that’s simply not true, there’s certainly quite a debate in the fly fishing world on when to use these different flies. It doesn’t help that both dry and wet flies have several different types, or categories, and that they all demand specific casting and fishing techniques.
The truth is that the best fly to use is the one that the fish are mostly likely to eat. Fly fishing is, after all, about catching fish, so it makes sense to use the types of flies that are going to put fish in the net. If you’re in the middle of an epic caddis or mayfly hatch, then of course you’d want to tie on a dry fly. If you’re fishing later in the evening, and fish are making subtle, softer rises, then you’ll want to look at using wet flies. There’s nothing that makes one of these types of flies better than the other, except the circumstances.
If you can successfully learn to recognize when fish are eating dry flies or wet flies, and how to fish both types of flies, you’ll be in business no matter where or when you’re fishing. Learning to effectively fish both flies is key to becoming a well-rounded angler, and leaving the river in a better mood than you likely were when you arrived.