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Dry Fly Tactics

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Dry Fly Tactics Dry Fly Tactics

A Fish & Fly exclusive extract from John Bailey's Fishing Encyclopedia


A placid stream, late evening and a big trout is rising steadily on the fringes of a willow tree. A dry fly is tied on the tippet. Down it floats with the current towards the surface-skimming branches. A wagtail hovers dangerously close and then the big, black neb of the trout breaks the water. The line is tight, the rod hoops and the reel screams. No wonder the dry fly is the world's favourite tactic.

Dry fly fishing is the most visual of all river fishing and is a mixture of both efficiency and excitement. There are several variations on the dry fly theme and most are based on a single fly cast upstream or, on occasion, downstream if rules allow it.

Choosing a Pattern

Whereas fish can be fairly relaxed over patterns of nymph, they are frequently much more picky when it comes to the taking of a dry fly. 'Match the hatch,' is an adage as old as fly fishing itself but that doesn't make it any less relevant. When choosing a pattern you've just got to look at the naturals that the fish are feeding on. It's important to match your artificial to the natural in three important areas: shape, size and then shade.

Photo by PaulSharmanOutdoors
Many patterns of fly are broadly generic and can suggest many things to a feeding trout. Quite what the fish sees and quite why they reject one fly but accept another will always be something of a mystery. And remember, it's not just the choice of your fly that is so vital - presentation is at least as important. However, as a guide, always carry a selection of Adams in both standard and parachute dressings in a range of sizes, along with CDCs, olives, sedge patterns and, in May and June, mayflies.

You will need floatant to keep the fly perky on the surface. Put the floatant on your fingers first and then apply to the part of the fly that you wish to float. Do this rather than smear floatant on the whole fly: this improves presentation immensely. It also helps to degrease the leader. A floating tippet can drastically reduce the number of takes you get when fishing the dry fly. Degreasing ensures that the leader tip sinks and is much less obvious. And talking of leaders, go the extra expense and buy one that is tapered. This ensures the accurate casting and good turnover of the fly that are both so important when fishing dries. Get everything right and you'll substantially improve your catch rate.

The Upstream Dry Fly

Upstream dry fly fishing is considered the standard approach to rising fish and, on many rivers, is the absolute rule. Always approach from behind the fish for by doing this you are concealed in the fish's blind spot. Its cone of vision does not extend directly behind the head and providing you move your feet quietly, you can approach undetected. On crystal streams, this is important because you must get into casting range before the fish is aware of your presence.

Photo by PaulSharmanOutdoors
When fishing the upstream dry, you can achieve a realistic, drag-free drift quite easily as the fly line will drift towards you with the current. What's vital, however, is to retrieve the slack line at the same speed as the drift of the fly.

The first rule is to make your cast so that the line lands approximately three to four feet above the target. When rising, a fish will often drift back on the current to intercept the fly and then return upstream to its habitual lie. Casting too short will meant the fly lands behind the fish's chosen position.

As the fly drifts downriver, track its drift with the rod tip while retrieving slack line and slightly lifting the rod tip. You can mend the line again if you need, to extend the drift further. All this makes the fly look as if it is unattached to the line - one of the essentials of the method.
When the fly is past the fish's position, make a roll pick-up and quietly lift the fly off the water. Don't bother letting the fly drift for more than a few feet past the fish as it's a waste of fishing time. Recast gently and try the fish at least a few times more.

The Downstream Dry Fly

This is an often underused tactic but do check on the rules of the fishery. If allowed, the downstream dry can be one of the few ways of approaching hard to reach fish. The great key to the method is that the fish sees the fly first and cannot see the tippet until it is too late. The method also allows you to drift the fly in the dead centre of any fish's feeding lane, again without lining and scaring the fish. On very heavily pressured water, this can be the only method that will produce results - even though you rarely get more than a single chance.

Photo by PaulSharmanOutdoors
Do your preparation. Stand well back from the water. Remember that the vision of the fish is much better in front than behind and you'll be spotted much sooner fishing downstream.

Check the length of the cast needed carefully. Before entering the water and casting to the fish, mark its position in relation to a prominent object like a rock, a weed bed, a bush or even a tree. Remember that the control of slack line is the key to downstream dry fly fishing. If you give too little line, the fly never reaches the target whereas giving too much leads to disturbance on the water and so much slack that setting the hook is difficult.

You're in the water and know well where the fish is lying. Make your first false cast off to one side of the fish whilst you judge the cast length and the angle. False casting over the fish itself will cause it to spook. What you're doing is preparing that perfect first cast which is the most likely by far to be taken.

Next, make your presentation cast high over the target and then stall it to create lots of slack in the line. This gives you the drag-free drift that you're looking for. To perfect this, practise as often as possible because you simply have to make this first cast count.

The fly and line are now in the water and you have to ensure that the fly reaches the fish first. If you've judged the cast accurately, the line should just be starting to straighten as the fly arrives at the target. You will get this one window of opportunity so make the absolute best use of it.


• When you are upstreaming, try to land your cast three to four feet from the target. Allow the fly to travel slightly to either side of the head of the fish. Aim for no more distance than six inches from the fish's head. If your line goes over the fish you will simply scare it.

Photo by PaulSharmanOutdoors

• With all dry fly tactics, keen observation of the fish and insect life is essential. Don't rush to tie on any fly but consider each and every rising fish carefully. What's it feeding on? Where is its preferred lie? Where is it taking food? Where are you going to position yourself for the cast? Where should the line and the fly land? What bankside cover can you use? How close do you need to get to the fish? Once hooked, are there any dangerous snags that could spell ruin?

• As with every fishing method, there are variations on the technique. Sometimes it is useful to use a pair of dries. One is tied directly by a short length of nylon - say, twelve inches or so - from the bend of another fly that will be generally larger. This technique helps you spot rises to s tiny dry that may otherwise be almost impossible to see, especially in low light. You can even hang a small nymph off a big dry using the dry as a perfect sight indicator which may, itself, often attract a fish.

• Remember that absolute accuracy over and over again is one of the major keys to successful dry fly fishing. A few hours spent casting at targets on the lawn at home will lead to many more hooked fish on the river. You are never so expert that practice won't make a difference.

John Bailey's Fishing Encyclopedia is available in our Fish & Fly Amazon store.

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