Being Better

Peter advises how to take good care of your flies – and thereby catch more fish.

When I first started working for a living, I was employed by the engineering tool company Sidchrome. Sidchrome made hand tools in a huge factory which employed many hundreds of people working on hundreds of different machines. Most of the production processes were linked and dependent upon each other. A simple breakdown at one machine could shut down many of the following production processes.

Sidchrome had a large maintenance department and everyone who worked in the factory knew how important the maintenance staff were to the business. Machines were constantly and meticulously maintained, to ensure there were very few interruptions to production.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a long bow to draw, but in a way, there’s a link with my guiding and the Sidchrome philosophy. The success of my guiding business depends on the number of fish that eat my client’s flies each day. Yet because they make upwards of 2000 casts on an average fishing day, there is much that can go wrong with the fly. So I find it pays to take a leaf out of the Sidchrome maintenance team book, and be constantly monitoring the fly and doing regular preventative maintenance on it. The fly is the final – and perhaps most important – link in my production cycle.

Sandy Gray with the reward for a well-maintained final link!

Ride with the fly  

Years ago, I visited South Africa and taught casting. One of the many wonderful characters I met there was a fellow called Wolf Avni. He was an interesting guy, to say the least! Clearly a good and experienced angler, he was well-respected in flyfishing circles. When I asked Wolf what he thought to be one of the most important aspects of flyfishing to focus on, he pondered the question for a moment and then said, “Ride with the fly, Peter.”

I don’t think I could argue with this concept. Imagine you are a tiny little midget riding on top of your fly. All the time, and I really mean, ALL THE TIME.

From the minute your angler opens the fly box to select you. How have you been stored in there? Are your fly’s hackles squashed? Is the tail of the Woolly Bugger you are on bent against the side of the box so it’s developed a set? Is your hook rusty from being jammed into a foam slot wet? I could go on.

Does your angler squash you and the dry fly hackles as he pulls a rigid knot tight? You could never be expected to float in the right way, or for long, under those circumstances. Do you spin constantly as he false casts you too many times? Does the tippet twist like crazy?

Is there such low line speed during the casting stroke that the fly you’re riding remains constantly waterlogged? How hard do his casts drive you down into the water and is the leader all crumpled around you in a real mess?

Are you constantly dragged across the current or pulled through scum and weeds? Does he check to see how you’re travelling every now and then?

It’s funny how you might finally develop the sense that he just doesn’t care a lot about you. Your angler snapped the fly off a full ten minutes ago on a low back cast that hit a river rock for the hundredth time. You hear him shouting and he is somehow pissed off at you because he’s been fishing in the best of the twilight hatch, without you and the fly! I’m sure you get the idea.

Wet fly issues  

In my Tasmanian summer guiding business, we rarely use wet flies. People prefer to sight fish to wild brown trout with dry flies. The ‘ride with the fly’ issues are in some ways less of an issue with wets, but the following will give you something to think about.

How does your fly swim? Watch it in the water at the end of every retrieve. This is super important for a couple of reasons. One is that occasionally, you’ll see a ‘window shopper’ following along a metre or so behind it. If you’re aware of this early enough, there’s a good chance you can do something different to the retrieve in this final stage to convert the ‘looker’ into a taker.

Secondly, is the fly swimming the way you want it to? Hopefully, you haven’t been fishing with a tail-wrapped fly for more than just the last cast?

Is your rigid knot pulling on the eye at an angle, and making your fly ‘crab’ slightly as it moves forward? In my experience, fish don’t like this much. Has your beautiful loop knot tightened on the eye and this problem is now restricting the movement your fly initially had?

Have you cast a half-hitch halfway up the body? Or around the bend? The likelihood of a fish taking your side-swimming offer is remote to say the least, but even if a dumb, hungry trout were to take, the angler on the other end would find it almost impossible to set the hook.

Is there weed on your fly? Let’s hope you haven’t had it on for the past 20 casts; in effect wasting 15 minutes of your day. If you’ve been watching your fly at the end of every retrieve, you will have picked this up, or at least heard the weed whistling and rattling through the air as you false cast.

Rather than pulling your fly in to remove weed, can I suggest that you learn what I call the toilet bend pick up. With a relatively short pick-up length, raise your rod tip to above your head (maybe 9 feet above the ground) then lower your rod tip to, say, 6 feet above the ground. This movement should be in a constant, slow and smooth manner. Then immediately rip into a treble speed back-cast. The up, down, up motion of the rod tip will set the line on an S-shaped path and the high line speed finish will have 90% of weed ripped off the shank of the hook. If this doesn’t work, then your next move will be to remove the weed by hand.

Dry fly issues

Personally, I’m obsessive about how I look after my dry flies. This starts with my fussiness regarding their design, construction and materials. I’m also fussy about the storage of them. The English dry flies like the Carrots, Hoppers, Bobs Bits and Bibios, are in foam slit boxes and I am not concerned if the hackles are crushed – it’s not the hackle quality that floats them. I don’t mind some of my parachute hackle patterns being in this style of box either. But full-hackled flies should be stored in compartment boxes.

Crushed hackles

When you tie your fly on, be careful not to crush the hackles. Hold the bend of the hook as you tighten your knots down slowly and smoothly after spitting on them. Anglers seem especially prone to crushing the hackles when tying a dropper off the bend of the hook of a dry fly. I can’t believe how many people don’t seem to care about the hackles of their dry!

Splat, splat, splat – why doesn’t my fly float?

Avoid continually splatting your fly down on the surface of the water. Learn to cast with higher line speed, a straighter top leg on your unrolling loop, and a slightly higher trajectory. It depends, but in most cases your dry fly should land like thistledown – at least if you want it to float well and properly for a long time.

Slime, scum, foam and wind-lanes

Slime and the scum that accumulates on the backwaters of rivers, plus wind-lanes and the algal ridden-bays of lakes, can all be a real bugger if you want your fly to float well. You will need to be constantly maintaining your dry in these situations. Wash, dry and re-powder is the only real solution. In situations like this, I like to just sight fish to feeding trout, rather than prospect.

Fish Slime

After catching a fish on a dry fly, it’s worth investing some real time in rejuvenating your fly properly. To me, this means washing it thoroughly (I use the pliers or forceps to vigorously shake the fly backwards and forwards in the water a dozen times – this is 24 fast hairpin turns). Then I dry the fly with paper towel. (Some people just love the Japanese drying handkerchiefs, but I’ve never owned one). Finally, I powder the fly using a brush applicator and try my best not to have it back in the water until a full 5 minutes has elapsed.

Bend the hook, bend the hook… break the hook

There are some very fine-gauge dry fly hooks around these days – often designed for smaller trout than ours. The problem I have with our Tasmanian lake fish is that during the fight, these hooks often straighten out to some degree. Be aware that if you constantly squeeze the bend back into place (as I most often do) then eventually the hook bend will break. If you catch a lot of fish, as we do sometimes, then I suppose who cares? However, if you don’t like losing fish, then never, ever reuse a hook that has been opened up. It will end in tears.

Don’t shake it

If you can’t cast on your offside (or don’t recognise when you should as the wind blows on to your casting shoulder) it is very likely, in fact certain, that the fly and leader will eventually collide with your rod tip. As soon as this happens, people usually (but not always!) stop casting because of the tangle. Next, the reaction of some is to jiggle or shake the rod tip to try and free the tangle.

Never, ever do this. In 26 years of guided fishing, I have seen thousands and thousands of tip / leader/fly tangles shaken. I swear that not once have I seen anyone shake a tangle free. Instead, they make the problem worse. I often need to cut the fly off to unravel the mess. Apart from the loss of fishing time, and the frustration that builds when this happens regularly, the other real issue is your tippet often ends up ‘squiggly’ and now your dry fly does not sit or present well.

Learn how to cast on your offside, or at the very least, never try to shake out a tangle.

Tippet after an attempted tangle ‘shake out’.


I’m a little pedantic about the type of knot used to tie the fly on. I like a loop knot, so there’s real independence between your tippet and fly: especially if you are needing to use a heavy tippet – say 2X – on a smaller dry fly, like size 14 or so. Small flies simply don’t present well on heavy tippet. Period. Go and learn to tie a loop knot of some kind and use it. It’s a funny thing that any saltwater flyfisher on the planet wouldn’t think of tying a fly on without a loop knot. Yet nearly all trout fishers on the planet only know how to tie a rigid knot.

If you do use a rigid knot, then be sure to regularly check that it hasn’t pulled sideways on the eye of the hook. Trout don’t like this.

What floats your boat?  

How do you apply floatant and how often are you maintaining the floatation of your fly?

After some 45 years of dry fly fishing, I believe the following tips offer the best way to maintain the floatation of your dry fly:

  • First, put half a drop of some type of silicone gel/liquid floatant on your index fingertip.
  • Warm it and rub it in using your thumb and index finger. Brush the hackles, body and tail of your fly with your lightly-coated fingertips.
  • Now get your bottle of dry fly powder and use the applicator brush to jag in a copious amount of the powder. The powder seems to stick to the lightly coated feathers and gives a much greater buoyancy and longevity to the floatation.
  • Good line speed and quality loop shape are essential and if cast like this, then multiple false casts will not dry your fly any better than a single pick-up-lay-down cast.
  • Cast with a trajectory which never allows the fly to impact the water. Instead, the loop should straighten above the water and the fly should ‘gravity drop’ to the surface.
  • Check and re-powder the fly every time you move pools or move the boat. Do it often.
  • When you catch a fish, vigorously wash the fly as described earlier.
  • Now use paper towel, toilet paper, amadou or similar to squeeze any water from your fly. Then jag in the powder desiccant again.
  • Straighten the hackles and make sure you hold them out to dry for as long as you can before re-casting.

Flies in a VFFA glass. Both are identical ties of Max Christianson’s Macquarie red. The one on the left has been treated as described. The one on the right has had only liquid floatant applied. I used a magnet to pull both flies underwater. See how the powdered fly shrouds itself in a silver air bubble. The feathers cannot possibly absorb water – even though it is underwater. After 5 minutes I released the magnet. The powdered fly floated to the surface and jumped out through the surface film:  it looked like it had just been cast! The other fly remained on the bottom and it is still there 3 days later.


Inspect your fly after every fish touches it. You will be amazed how often you end up with a fish scale pinned to the point of the hook after a lost fish. With a scale on the hook point, it is impossible to penetrate a trout’s mouth on subsequent attempted hook sets.

And as touched on above, the number of times fish are lost because hooks open up, is remarkable. Check for it. Or, on occasions, the fly has been reverse-hitched by the tippet and it’s also impossible to set a hook.

My last piece of advice is, sometimes, hook points are broken off completely or badly blunted from back-casts hitting river stones and boat consoles, or even on the fish themselves – all with predictable results. So check hooks as often as you can.

Check for scales after missed fish – they’re perfect for reducing hookups!