Fishing the dry fly is the pinnacle of fly fishing for trout. Many anglers regard dry fly fishing as the most exciting form of fly fishing as there is nothing quite as exhilarating as when you see a trout sip your dry fly off the surface of the water. The take is so visual and it really gets your heart going.
Catching a trout when dry fly fishing is not easy though and it’s often the main goal of learning fly fishers as it takes a touch more skill than drifting nymphs or stripping a streamer. Luckily, I’m here to make it a little easier so join me as I give away all my tips and tricks of how to fish dry flies for trout.
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What Is Dry Fly Fishing?
Before you can go out and catch a trout on a dry fly, let’s just make sure we all understand what it is.
Dry fly fishing is when you imitate winged insects that hatch and fly around the river that the trout are feeding on. The insects usually hatch in summer and provide some consistent food for the trout on the surface and you’ll see trout rising to sip them off the water.
This means that your flies will sit on the surface and not under the water like when you’re nymphing. The key is matching the hatches with your flies, presenting delicately to a rise, and making your fly look as natural as possible.
Rod, Reel & Line
The first thing you’ll need to get right when dry fly fishing is using the right gear. You should be using a 4 to 6 weight 9ft fly rod with a fly reel and a floating fly line. Make sure your floating fly line isn’t old and stays afloat so as not to drag your dry flies underwater.
Most serious dry fly anglers fishing rivers or streams will use a 4 weight fly rod that is around 8ft 6in long as this lighter setup provides more delicacy when presenting a dry fly. But if you’re fishing on a lake then you might want to use a heavier 5-6 weight fly rod so you can have a longer casting distance.
Leader & Tippet
Next up is your leader and tippet which together should be a minimum of 9 feet in length. This is so that the trout you’re fishing to, upstream or downstream, does not see your fly line and gets spooked. You should also lengthen your leader if fishing in clear rivers or streams or when the trout are wise.
You can use either mono line or fluoro line when making your leader. Mono line floats which is an advantage when dry fly fishing but fluoro is invisible to fish which is also an advantage.
The size line you should use for your tippet depends on the size of the dry fly you’re using. I recommend a minimum of 5x line and for any flies smaller than size 18 go up to 6-8x. You can also adjust the diameter based on the water clarity and how clever the trout are – go up the x scale the cleaner the river or stream, or the smarter the fish.
For you to be successful when dry fly fishing you’re going to need your fly to float, and therefore you’ll need some floatant.
You should apply this to your flies before they get wet, just a small amount delicately rubbed on the fly should suffice. You can also add some to your leader so it will float too and keep your fly on the surface.
Another way to dry your fly if it does get wet is through false casts. This airs out your flies and will help them stay afloat better.
Picking The Right Fly
The final piece of the gear puzzle is picking the right dry fly or dry flies to tie on the end of your line. It’s a little harder than choosing nymphs as the patterns are far more specific. What you’re after is the best imitation of the hatches you’re seeing on the river or stream.
An angler must look hard at what’s happening on the water and then find a pattern that will match the hatch as well as possible to what the trout are feeding on. The key things for an angler to imitate when selecting a dry fly pattern are size, silhouette, and color, and in that order.
Fish can be very selective when eating on the surface and if your pattern is smaller or larger than what they’re going for, they will notice and probably refuse it, especially if you’re fishing for larger trout.
Silhouette is all about what the pattern looks like on the water. A mayfly can be imitated by using parachute Adams patterns, caddis with elk hair caddis patterns, grasshopper fly with a foam hopper pattern, small winged flies with patterns such as a blue-winged olive, and larger insects with a stimulator.
You can also fish two dry lies at one if you like, I often do so and it does help my catch rate. Using a large fly like a foam hopper or stimulator as your first fly with a trailing smaller fly like a parachute Adams or small caddis can be deadly. My personal favorite combo for the summer is a size 14 caddis with a size 18 parachute Adams behind.
The next part of the puzzle is presenting your flies so as not to scare off any trout and convince them that what you’re offering is worth eating and this all comes down to your cast.
Delicacy and accuracy are key to catching a fishing on dries and your casts need to be on the money as often as possible.
The key of getting a fish to take, whether you’re casting upstream or downstream is making sure the fly lands;
- Without making a disturbance on the water
- Above the fish in the current so it can drift down to them
- In line with the fish so it can see it in the current
- Without the fish seeing your fly line
If you can cast to fish and tick all the boxes of the tips above, your chances of being successful will go through the roof.
One of the best casting tips I’ve learned is that your first cast matters more than any other cast as usually, you end up hooking a fish or spooking one, so take your time and get your first cast right, and throw in a few false cases to ensure you have your distance and accuracy right. This applies to nymphing too.
Before you make a cast you can make life a lot easier by positioning yourself on the bank well. Pick a spot on the bank that makes the angle of your cast simple easy so you can cast your fly on the water without scaring off any fish. You should also take into the current when you can so that your flies get a natural drift on the stream.
The Drift & Mending
Once you’ve made the right cast it’s all about ensuring your flies drift free in the current without drag. This makes your fly look as natural as possible and will hopefully fool a fish into eating it.
When you fly lands on the water, you can correct the drag caused by the current and you line by mending. An upstream or downstream mend with your rod can have your fly drifting drag-free for a while and the longer the better. You may have to mend more than once, in either direction or both on the stream depending on the current.
Anglers who are new to fly fishing might struggle with mending at first but the only way to learn it is on the water. The key is to be gentle so that you don’t move the fly so it has a free drift and to ensure you don’t make any noise and scare the fish.
Setting The Hook
Setting the hook when dry fly fishing is not like setting the hook with a nymph as your nymph is under the water. When anglers see their fly get taken off the top of the water, their instinct is to set immediately which often results in pulling the fly out of the fish’s mouth and losing it.
When you set the hook with a dry fly you need to keep your cool. Watch the fish eat the fly and wait until it has turned and gone down with the fly. These will be some of the longest seconds you have ever experienced. Once the fish has turned with the fly, you can then set and start fighting the fish.
Anglers in New Zealand use a 3-second rule, counting to 2 from when the fish takes the fly before they set the hook on 3. This is a great method for an angler to follow, I use it myself.
Take Your Time
The most successful anglers take their time when walking up the river. They are moving slowly so as not to make any noise and warn the fish of their presence and constantly looking for fish and at what they are eating.
As we discussed earlier, picking the right fly is key and this comes down to understand the different hatches that occur during the year. They can be very predictable but their timing depends on the temperature. Always head to the local fly shop to get an update of what’s happening on the river before you head out fishing.
Also, you can have days when multiple hatches come on the water. Now, the fish will most likely only be eating one of them, so make sure to be vigilant so you can see which fly they are eating.
How do you retrieve or strip dry flies?
You never retrieve or strip a dry fly as the idea is to let the current deliver the fly to the fish and keep the drift as drag-free and natural as possible. You should pick up any slack in your fly line though as the fly drifts back towards you though.
If you’re fishing on a still water like a lake, then you should do a very very slow retrieve in order to keep tension to the fly so you’re ready to hook a fish when it takes.
Can you fish dry flies year around?
This totally depends on where you’re fishing but the most likely answer is a no. Hatches only occur between early spring and late fall as it’s too cold for them during the winter. But, if you’re fishing on a river that stays warm all year, like the trout streams in Kenya where I grew up, you can fish a dry fly year around.