Dry Fly Tune-up

With dry fly season in full swing, Philip describes how to get the best from the floater.

I’ve guided or fished with plenty of people who would rather fish a dry fly if possible, but only one who insisted it was dry fly or nothing. This was several years ago, in winter, at Millbrook Lakes in Victoria’s Central Highlands. He was on overseas visitor attending a conference and the Millbrook day had been organised by a colleague. They were joined by a third keen local angler from the same conference.

I soon established that all three were competent flyfishers, but that fortunately, only the overseas visitor – let’s call him Hans – was committed to dry fly only. I say ‘fortunately’ because besides the evening midge hatch, midwinter at Millbrook is mostly lacking in dry fly opportunities. Hans’ Melbourne-based companions knew this and were aghast to learn, on the drive up, of their companion’s aversion to wet flies. They apparently tried to persuade Hans to break his tradition if only for his Millbrook day, but he politely declined.

It’s possible to catch winter lake trout on dries – like this midging rainbow on a Bobs Bits – but wets are often a better choice.

Now, I should say Hans was a pleasant, friendly guest and I soon realised he wasn’t trying to be difficult. He told me he knew that winter was a tough time for dry fly fishing generally, and he wasn’t at all put out to learn that Millbrook was no different. It was simply the case that he only enjoyed dry fly fishing, so there was no point fishing any other way. “It will be a challenge, no?” he offered with a twinkle in his eye.
Well, it was a challenge. It still fascinates me that the same trout that will rush 3 metres for a mayfly in October, can be totally oblivious to the surface in July. We tried tiny little midgy flies, great big foam monstrosities, Klinkhammer-like flies that had a section beneath the surface, dries that were blindingly bright and flies that were black for contrast. But on this day at least, with a flat grey sky and the suggestion of snow in the forecast, the trout swam under the floating flies without so much as acknowledgement, let alone interest.

Meanwhile, Hans’s colleagues caught several fish on buzzers, stick caddis and, when it was really quiet, Woolly Buggers fished deep and slow. However, Hans himself showed no more interest in fishing subsurface than the trout showed in his dry flies, and he persisted on top until finally, twilight brought a reasonable rise to balling midge and he caught a pair of 3 pound browns on a Griffiths Gnat. On the walk back to the car in the dark, my three guests chatted away cheerfully in the way that only anglers who’ve had a good day (whatever that means) can. I was pleased of course, but I probably fitted the guide stereotype when I told Hans that I hoped he’d come back one day in spring or autumn, when a well-fished dry could really do the job. Should ‘a been ‘ere in a few months!

A Sound Choice
Now that it’s summer, dry fly fishing is in full swing. While there are still situations where a dry is not the best option purely from a fish-catching viewpoint, there are few occasions when it’s impossible to persuade a trout to eat off the top. Unlike when Hans visited, in most parts of south-eastern Australia and New Zealand, the surface is now a source of significant nutrition for trout and they watch it keenly and often. The frequently-quoted statistic that trout get 90% of their food subsurface is, like many generalisations, misleading. Depending on the lake or stream in question, there can be hours, days or even months during the warmer part of the season when surface food is critical to trout survival. It’s almost a relief to know that at these times, dry fly fishing isn’t just some eccentric, prove-a-point technique, but the single best way to catch a fish. And okay, maybe there are plenty of other occasions when the dry is not technically the clear choice, yet it’s still sufficiently productive to be worth pursuing.

It’s dry or nothing to fish among these snags.

I suppose we then get into the murky area of enjoyment compared to result and how one, of course, can influence the other. For the sake of argument, deep nymphing may be the best method on a given day, but you may be more captivated by the idea of fishing a dry fly after a long winter/ early spring without the opportunity. The dedication and concentration with which you then fish the dry, might well compensate for the theoretical superiority of the nymph. In flyfishing, I never underestimate the power of belief and enjoyment.

The Best Choice
There can be other very practical reasons to fish a dry even on those occasions when the trout may be taking the majority – even most – of their food subsurface. A classic case occurred several weeks ago while fishing a western Victorian stream with my son Sean. Unlike its eastern counterparts, by mid-spring this stream was already becoming quite infested with ‘frog’s blanket’ algae. We fished the deeper pools with some success using nymphs. However there were some good trout holding in the shallower runs and glides, and it was impossible to fish these places with a nymph – it would slime up every cast. So, despite seeing only a handful of rises all day (and none in the faster water) I rigged one rod with a small Stimulator on its own for the shallow, weedy water.

I nymphed a nice pool without success, then handed over to Sean with the dry fly rod for the broad run at the top. Sean covered the run methodically with the Stimi, fishing closer and closer towards the too-shallow head, when the fly quietly disappeared as if it had simply sunk. It took me a few moments to realise what had happened, but fortunately Sean had no doubt, and after a little pause, he lifted into a three pound brown. The fish went berserk and buried itself several times in the weed in the downstream pool, before finally coming to the surface. I can’t remember the last time I was so relieved to net a fish – mine or anyone else’s! Anyway, with algae-covered rocks mere centimetres beneath the surface of the run where the fish was holding, there’s no way it could have been caught with anything but a dry.

It’s the dry or nothing in other situations where it’s all but impossible to use a wet fly: in and around a log-jam, beneath an undercut, over a weed-bed or in a gap in the strapweed. Then there are places where a dry may not be the only possibility, but it’s certainly easier to use, such as anywhere branches or other obstacles hang close to the water. And then there are (obviously!) those delightful times during hatches or falls of insects when trout want to eat a dry more than anything.

Dry Fly Tune-Up
Whether I want to fish the dry or I have to, there are a few points that really help each time I head out.

Visible fly
This one is so simple, but so important. You need to able to see a dry fly to fish it effectively, not only to be sure that rise was indeed to your fly, but also to determine it’s presented correctly in the first place (more on this shortly). The colour of the wing or post has a major bearing on fly visibility. Surprisingly, black can stand out beautifully in glary or silvery water, while white can be good against dark reflections (e.g. reflected forest) or low light. A ‘bi-coloured’ wing or post of black and white can work really well as an allrounder.

The white overwing on this Royal Stimulator makes it more visible to the angler.

Other solutions for dry fly visibility include wings or posts in hot colours like orange. Do the fish mind? Sometimes – although it’s surprising how often the part of the fly above the water doesn’t seem to matter. Lastly, it can work at times to use a highly visible fly or an indicator about 50cm from the hard-to-see dry you expect the fish to take. This method not only gives a reference point for nearby rises and works as an actual strike indicator, it often guides you to visually locate the otherwise invisible fly nearby.

It must grate a little the way we guides and writers bang on about drag, especially when a trout chases down and eats a fly that’s virtually skating out of the tail of a pool, for example. “See?” I hear you say, “I don’t know what all this fuss is about drag.”

As with virtually any element of flyfishing, there will be outliers – fish or circumstances which break the rules. I’ve caught trout that were feeding hard in 25C water, and caught trout that I had hooked and lost moments before. But I wouldn’t want to rely on either example each time I go fishing! Day to day, for every trout that takes a dry fly that’s dragging – even a little – plenty will ignore or refuse it.

Hard against the right bank is a hotspot in this pic, although the slower currents risk creating drag unless Paul mends and/or changes position.

On streams, it’s really worth making an effort to keep your dry fly drifts drag-free – I mean honestly drag free. If you can be bothered learning various mends and casts like reach casts, these will help a lot. But even simple things will make a difference, like physically positioning yourself so you can place your rod tip immediately over the same current your fly is in. It also helps to keep casts relatively short (less chance of crossing conflicting currents), and to use over-long tippets which refuse to lay out straight.

On lakes, dry fly drag can be less of an issue. Even so, if you’re fishing in, say, a dun hatch, it often helps if your fly travels at approximately the same speed as the real insects. To achieve this, either cast into or across the wind. Downwind casts quickly result in the fly noticeably sticking in one spot while everything else sails past.

I’ve heard all sorts theories about the right time to strike after a trout takes a dry fly: pronounce ‘God save the Queen’; wait for the trout to close its mouth; wait for the line to move… Of course, the technically-correct answer will depend on numerous variables in any given situation: confidence of the take, size of the fish, current… It’s all usually too much for my overstimulated brain to process, so I apply a simple rule: fast take, fast strike; slow take, slow strike. For example, if a rainbow in a rapid snatches the fly, I instantly snatch back; but if a big brown sipping quietly along a lake shore sucks in my fly, I make a conscious pause before lifting the rod smoothly.

Big browns eating dries, like this ant feeder near New Zealand’s Owen River Lodge, usually fall into the ‘slow take, slow strike’ category.

This approach isn’t perfect – a cicada-feeder may drown the fly first and then eat it, requiring a pause of several seconds. (And nerves of steel!) Still, my approach mostly works and importantly, I can actually apply it properly. Good enough.

Other Tips
A few other little things can make a big difference to dry fly success. For fussy or spooky fish, try to present the dry so it’s the first thing the trout sees, rather than the leader or flyline. On a stream, this may mean a cast from side-on or even upstream. Another similar trick, particularly early or late in the day, is to think about position of the sun. Difficult trout can sometimes be persuaded to eat a fly if they’re approaching it into the sun: I’m assuming it’s harder for the trout to pick faults in the glare.

Dry flies presented close to structure (for instance, drifting hard against a log or rockface parallel to current) often fool picky trout; again, I assume the fish can’t get as good a look at the fraud. Likewise, dries presented in very shallow water seem to be harder for the trout to fault.

Dry Fly Time
With dry fly opportunities multiplying under the warm summer sun, I’m getting my dry fly boxes in order, including filling the empty rows (see Mike van de Graaf’s recent article). I’m also stocking up on floatant and dry fly shake, and I’m keeping at least a couple of my wet fly boxes in my car or pack, rather than in my vest. I’m sure to still fish subsurface from time to time, but I’ll admit it, when I roll up to a stream or lake, my first question will be, ‘Can I use a dry?’