FISHING THE DRY FLY
Dry fly fishing is defined as fishing the imitation on the surface film.
Since the fly remains on the surface throughout it's presentation, it is
the most visual form of flyfishing. The rise and the take occur in full
view of the fisher. The fisher must entice his quarry to pick his fly from
the many naturals that are floating by. He must do this by using his skill
of fly selection and presentation alone. It is both the challenge and the
visual nature of dry fly fishing that makes it the most popular form of fly
It is also usually the first form of flyfishing that the beginner attempts
because he can monitor his presentation throughout the float. During hatch
situations, with the right fly, it can be one of the most productive and
easy forms of fishing. Yet on a spring creek or tailwater fishery, with
selective rainbows or browns, it can test the skills of the best fishers.
It is this range of possibilities that continues to attract fishers year
In this FAQ, I will attempt to answer some of your questions about dry fly
fishing. The FAQ may contain references to specific pieces of fly fishing
equipment or paraphrenalia which may be unfamiliar. Please refer to the
Beginning Flyfishing FAQ or do a search of the FLYFISH@ Archives for that
information. (PUT APPROPRIATE LINKS HERE )
Some of the other FAQs I have written were a collaboration with the members
of the FLYFISH@ list. This is more of a personal statement about my
approach not only to dry flyfishing but to all forms flyfishing. It is an
approach based on observation and analysis which I call a systematic
approach to flyfishing. I am convinced that all good flyfishers use their
observational and analytical skills whether consiously or unconsciously.
I have divided this FAQ into three major segments. The first introduces my
concept of a systematic approach to flyfishing. I discuss it in the context
of a situation where you are faced with an aquatic insect hatch and rising
trout. I describe how you should go about choosing the correct imitation.
The second section introduces the concept of presentation. In this section
there will be a discussion of rise forms and how you can use them to fine
tune your fly selection. The final section presents my approach to dry fly
fishing during non-hatch periods.
FISHING THE HATCH
Dry fly fishing is so much simpler when there are trout rising. We can
locate the trout and eliminate unproductive casting and prospecting. We can
analyse the rises for clues as to what the trout may be taking. We get
immediate feedback from the trout as to the success of our presentation.
Fishing is more fun when you are casting to rising trout.
There are two major skills you need to master in fishing to rising trout.
They are fly selection and presentation. Although the concepts are
relatively straight foward, it is often very confusing in real life. Rarely
is the fishing situation so classic as those presented in a textbook.
When you see rising trout, there is a tremendous urge to put something on
the end of your line so you can plunge into the water and start fishing.
Fight the urge for it will lead you into frustration. I want you to develop
a systematic method of analysis. You need not do it just like I do it, but
you must develop some method of gathering and analysing the data. It will
make you a better fisher.
My approach begins even before I reach the water. As I walk to the river, I
observe the foliage and the bugs that I scatter as I walk. They will give
you clues as to what hatched the day or evening before, and therefore, what
may hatch today. What kind of insects are they? What size? What color? Can
you catch one in your hands or in a sampling net? You have to get to the
water anyway so use the time productively.
When you reach the stream, shake a few bushes to see what insects are
around. Before you enter the stream, spend about 5 minutes looking at the
water. Stay back in the bushes and low, away from the bank. Look carefully
at the prime lies near the edge of the river and under the overhanging
branches. Are there fish rising that you could spook as you enter the
water? Look at the likely fish holding areas further out from the edges.
Look *through* the surface of the water for fish lying in the depressions
or holding lies. We want to locate the fish before we give them a chance to
know that we are there. Once you step into the water, you at least triple
the chances of them detecting you.
Then look for insects on the surface of the water and in the air. Is there
a hatch going on? Can you identify the insect? Are there rises? If there
are rises, what is the best fishing approach, and can you analyse the rise
and match it to one of the insects that you have seen? These are all
questions that need to be asked and answered before you put one foot into
OBSERVE AND ANALYSE THE RISE:
After you have scanned the water for fish and rises, you need to analyse
the rise form. A fish soon learns how much time it has to capture an
insect. When the hatch is composed of insects that emerge rapidly, the
rises will be splashy as the fish hurry to pick off the insects before they
can fly off. If the insects are trapped in the surface film and cannot
escape, the fish will feed leisurely and the rises will be little dimples
called sipping rises. If the hatch is heavy or if the insects are clumped
on the water, the snout of the fish may come out of the water. These are
called gulping rises, and the fish are referred to as gulpers.
Obviously, there is a continuum of rise forms from the spash to the sipping
that you will have to learn to recognize. The prototypical spashy rise will
be to caddis flies since they generally spend little time on the water. The
prototypical sipping rise will be to mayfly spinners (imago) since they are
trapped on the surface film and cannot escape. Other causes of sipping
rises are midges and insects which are drowned or cannot fly off such as
ants. Hatching mayfly duns (subimago) usually cause intermediate rise
forms, but the rises can sometimes be sipping.
THE SURFACE RISE:
Since we are going to fish dry flies, we need to be able to tell if the
rising fish are eating flies off the surface. A trout can create a "rise"
when he feeds on an insect on the film, in the film, or just below the
film. We need to be able to recognize those that are true surface rises.
The surest way to tell is to actually see the fish take an insect off the
surface. When this occurs, you have not only determined that it was a
surface rise but what fly to use. Usually you will not be that fortunate.
You will have to infer that the rise was to the surface. What do we look
To feed off the surface, the mouth of the fish must break the meniscus.
When the fish does that, he often takes in some air as well as the insect
he has eaten. The air will escape and leave telltale air bubbles at the
point of the rise. Look for these air bubbles. Sometimes you will see the
snout of the fish poke out of the water as it feeds. This too is a sign
that the food was on the surface film.
Don't be fooled by a "head and shoulders" rise. This is when you see the
head and shoulders of the trout break the water surface but not the snout.
This rise pattern is usually seen when the fish are taking emergers in or
just below the film. As the fish move to take the emerger under the
surface, their head and shoulders break the surface. Similarly, the
"humping" rise is caused by the fish rushing up to the surface to take a
rising nymph or emerging pupa. His momentum causes a hump in the water
surface as it bulges up from the hydraulic cushion he created. Or you may
even see his tail break the surface as he dives back down. As the tail
breaks the surface, it will cause a ring to form in the water, but do not
be fooled into thinking that this is a surface rise. These false rises
serve to locate the trout and identify where they are taking their food,
but the fish may not be receptive to a dry fly.
OPPORTUNISTIC OR SELECTIVE:
Once you have identified the type of rises that are ocurring, you need to
identify the pattern and timing of the rises. Are the rises sporatic and
scattered or are they regular and frequent? If the pattern of rises is
haphazard, that is, different kinds of rises (the fish are feeding both on,
in and under the film), then the fish are feeding opportunistically and
your dry fly will have a chance of working.
If the fish are feeding rythmically and uniformally, they are likely
selective to a specific insect in a specific water layer. It will be very
difficult to catch these fish unless you present a realistic pattern in the
correct manner. If they are not taking them off the surface, you will have
a difficult time taking them with drys.
IDENTIFY THE INSECT:
After you have identified the rises, you need to identify the insect. I use
a collapsible sampling net, and I suggest that you use one as well. I use
mine to catch insects out of the air or seine the water. While you are in
the learning phase, I suggest that you seine the water by placing the net
so that it catches everything floating on the surface and several inches
below it. You will be amazed to find small emergers, nymphal shucks,
midges, small ants and other small food items that you would have missed
Correlate what you find in your net with the type of rises and the location
of the rises. Everything that we have observed is a piece of a puzzle that
we need to solve. If the rises were quiet surface rises, look for midges,
spinners, ants, etc. in your net. If they were head and shoulders rises,
look at the adult mayflies and nymphal shucks to get some idea of what type
of emergers the fish might be feeding on.
Now factor in the location of the rises. If the rises are next to shore
then small ants are a possibility. Under a tree, then perhaps beetles or
small caterpillars. Out in the middle of the stream usually means a
hatching aquatic insect or a laying aquatic insect. In the foam lines
where detris gathers, think spinners.
Frequently there is more than one insect hatching and available to the
fish. This creates a difficult problem for the flyfisher. Each individual
hatch may have 3 to 4 different food forms. For a mayfly hatch there will
be nymphs, emergers, stillborns and duns available. For a caddis hatch it
may be pupa, emerger and adult. Each insect stage will differ in size,
shape and coloration. You will be faced with deciding which stage of which
insect the fish are taking. This phenomena is referred to as the masking
If you followed the procedure I outlined earlier, by seineing the water and
carefully observing the available food forms, you will be prepared for a
masking hatch. By observing the rise forms you will have a good idea
whether the fish are feeding on or under the surface.
Most fishers will put on the obvious fly, which is usually the largest
insect that is hatching. This is often the wrong thing to do. When there
are multiple insects hatching of various sizes, it is often the smallest
that hatches in greatest numbers. It terms of caloric mass, they will
represent the most available food source for the fish. The fish will
usually be feeding on the insects that are most available, in this case the
smaller insects. The larger hatch "masks" the smaller hatch. A good rule of
thumb, when faced with a hatch of small bugs and a hatch of larger bugs, is
to fish the smaller of the two hatches as your first choice.
Another common source of error in fly selection is with caddis flies. Since
they remain on the water surface only a short time, it is difficult to
catch one without a sampling net. Many flyfishers will estimate their size
and coloration from watching them fly. This usually results in the fisher
using too large a fly and of the wrong coloration. Catch the insect in your
sampling net and observe its true size. It will usually be a size smaller
than you thought. Then *turn* the fly over and look at the coloration of
its body and wings from *below*. This is the side that the fish will see,
and this is the coloration of body and wing you need to use. This applies
to mayflies as well, which have a different color to the underside of their
Now that you have selected your fly, it's time to make your presentation.
Presentation is more than just the cast. My friend, Gary Borger, convinced
me to take a broad view of presentation. In his definition, it includes
everything you do that affects the the capture of the fish. If you take
this broad view of presentation, you will realize that every decision you
have made up to this point affects your chances of success. This includes
not only the choice of the fly, which we have already discussed, but also
your choice of equipment. Each is a piece of a unified whole. If you
approach dry fly presentation with this philosophy, you will not be as
likely to fall into the trap of blaming your equipment when your skills are
at fault, or blaming your skills when you have really chosen the wrong
I wanted to mention this approach to presentation because I simply do not
have the time in a FAQ to discuss everything that goes into a successful
presentation. I will not be able to completely discuss equipment or some of
the necessary skills of fishing such as casting or mending the line. I am
going to assume that you have the skills and equipment necessary to
complete the presentation. I realize that this is a big assumption, but one
that I must make.
At this time I do want to mention one piece of equipment that is often
ignored but is critical to dry fly fishing. I want you to use a special
kind of fly fishing leader. For dry fly fishing you will want to use a
"George Harvey" type of leader which has a soft tippet section that falls
in curves. It is designed specifically for dry fly fishing and will prolong
a drag free float. Such leader formulas are available from the archives.
WHERE TO CAST:
Since we are casting to rising trout, most beginners would cast their fly
using the ring of the rise as their target. This is wrong. The ring is
where the trout took the fly, but it is not where he is holding when he
first sees the fly. You must cast your fly ahead of the trout so that the
fly floats into his "window", his visual portal into the surface world.
Normally the fish will be holding anywhere from 1 to 3 feet above the rise.
I try to place my fly 3 to 5 feet above the rise form. The deeper the trout
is holding, the further up from the rise you should cast.
Because of the physics of the refraction of light by water, the closer a
trout is to the surface, the smaller is its window. When the hatch is
heavy, the trout will hold very close to the surface. He will have only a
small window in which to see his food source, but by being close to the
surface he can feed efficiently without using much energy. When you are
faced with this type of feeding activity, you will be able to see the
trout, and you must place your cast very accurately or else it will not
enter his feeding lane. With the fish so close to the surface, he can be
easily spooked. However, because of his small window, you can still get
quite close to him if you approach carefully.
Under normal conditions, when the fish is holding deeper, you will not be
able to get closer than 25 - 30 feet. The lower you stay, the closer you
can approach. That is why you will see so many flyfishers crouching or on
their knees. They may be praying to the fishing gods but more likely, they
are keeping out of the trout's window. Remember to keep the rod low as
The deeper the trout is, the greater the effect of refraction in distorting
his position. The fish will be deeper and closer to you than he appears.
You must correct for refraction when you cast so that you do not line the
fish with your cast.
THE APPROACH, DOWNSTREAM OR UP:
There are two ways to approach a rising trout, from upstream or down. The
traditional method is to approach from downstream. This has the advantage
that you are behind the trout and so he has less chance of detecting your
approach. The debris that you kick up as you wade will be carried away from
the fish. When he takes the fly, your strike will carry the point of the
hook into his mouth rather than pull it away. If there are a number of fish
feeding, you can pick them off one by one as you work your way upstream.
All these are good reasons to approach the fish from below.
The most popular cast to make from the downstream approach is the up and
across cast. You want to position youself below and to the side of the
rising fish, Your cast will be up and across the stream so that the flyline
does not fall across the fish and spook him. Since you are throwing the
line across the flow of the stream, there may be slower and faster currents
that will cause the line or leader to drag. You will need to make the
appropriate up or downstream mends to correct for the drag. Most often you
can also incorporate a mend into your cast by performing a reach-mend cast.
Sometimes you will be forced to cast from directly below the rising fish.
There may be a stream obstruction or deep water that prevents you from
casting up and across. How do you then keep the line from falling over the
lie of the fish? You will need to do a reach mend cast by directing the fly
upstream, but mending the line to the side so that the net result is an up
and across cast. The fly will reach its target but the leader and line will
fall away from the fish.
In some cases, particularly in difficult spring creek situations, the
traditional up and across technique will not work. There will be too many
differential currents that cause microdrag, or you may not be able to place
the fly accurately enough because of the limp tippet. This is the time to
approach from upstream. This is the preferred approach for very picky fish.
The approach is more difficult because it is easier to spook the fish, but
the cast is much easier.
When you get into position you want to make a *parachute* cast by stopping
the rod high. You can then skate the fly into the feeding lane of the trout
by moving the rod tip across the stream. Once the fly is in the correct
position, lower the rod so that the fly floats down to the fish drag free.
This places the fly into the trout's window before the leader, and with
this method you can be very accurate since you can adjust the fly postion
after the cast.
Should the trout take the fly, you must wait until he goes down before you
set the hook. Otherwise, you will pull the fly out of his mouth. Also, a
refusal is more difficult to deal with because now your line is over the
fish. Gently swing the line and leader to the side away from the fish and
use a gentle pick up.
For both the upstream and downstream approaches, be careful with your false
casts. Be sure to keep the line away from the area of the fish and the rod
motion out of his window. The water spray from your leader and the shadow
of your fly line can spook the fish.
THE FISH REFUSES:
By now I would hope that you have caught those rising fish. If you haven't,
you need to rethink your presentation. You need to decide whether it is
your fly, how you presented it, or both. This is a difficult decision for a
beginner since you have no experience to judge whether you presented the
fly well or not. This is something I cannot teach you, and something you
have to learn from experience. But before we can go further, I have to
assume that you can at least judge whether your cast and float was
If the trout does not show any interest in your fly, then it is likely that
you have chosen the wrong imitation. You need to reexamine the water
surface because the trout are feeding on something else. If you are unable
to find anything else on or in the water, there are several possibilities.
The fish could be taking an emerger or a subsurface nymph/pupa of the fly
hatch you observed. You may have misread the rises. If you are confident
that the rises are to dry flies, but you don't see them, I suspect they
will turn out to be either spinners, midges, or terrestrials. Look
specifically for these insects.
If your cast results in a late refusal, then your presentation or your fly
was a little off. Instead of immediately changing flies, assume that your
presentation was at fault. The two most likely culprits are micro drag or
too large a tippet. Try approaching the fish from above and decrease your
tippet size if necessary. If the trout still continues to feed but refuses
your fly, then you will need to change flies.
LET THE FISH SELECT THE FLY:
When fishing dry flies, you can use the reaction of the trout to your fly
to help you choose the right pattern. If a trout takes your fly
confidently, then you have obviously matched the hatch. What is not so
apparent is that the rise and refusal of a fish to your fly can also help
you to choose the correct pattern.
At this time I need to define some rise patterns so that you will gain some
understanding of trout feeding behavior. I will split rise patterns into
the following catergories.
Partial rise: You see the trout come part way up to look at the fly but
then he goes back down. The trout never gets close enough to strike at the
fly. Essentially he comes to get a better look then quickly refuses. Almost
always this type of refusal means that the fly was wrong.
Simple rise : The normal rise where you see the trout come up take the fly,
or if he misses, it was probably a late refusal. The trout is facing
upstream when he takes the fly.
Compound rise: The trout comes up to the fly but does not take it. He
floats with the fly downstream before either taking the fly or refusing it.
When he takes the fly or refuses it he is about vertical in the water.
After taking the fly he can still simply swim forward back to his lie. A
refusal at this point may be due to the pattern or the presentation
(usually micro drag).
Complex rise: The trout comes up to the fly and floats downstream with it
as in a compound rise and his body is turned vertical underneath the fly as
he inspects it. But he continues to inspect the fly so that he is turned
downstream before he decides whether to take the fly or not. If he takes
the fly, he takes it facing downstream and after the take or refusal, the
trout must turn back around before he can swim back to his lie.
These different rise types are an attempt to describe what is essentially a
continuum of trout feeding activity, but they help in describing how
selective and careful the trout are in waters that are heavily fished and
clear. You can use these rise behaviors to determine how realistic your
presentation was. The longer that the fly holds a trout's attention, the
more realistic the fly. And I think that ultimately, the refusal after a
complex rise is probably due to the fisher's presentation rather than the
fly. The trout is using the time he drifts under the fly to inspect it for
some unnatural action or drag. If he sees it he will refuse, if not he will
FIND THE TRIGGER:
When a trout rises to inspect your fly he is looking for certain
characteristics that he uses to determine whether the fly is real or not.
The obvious are size, shape, and color. Selective trout go beyond to look
for certain other "triggers". We call them triggers because they seem to
trigger a take. When the fish refuses your fly it is likely because one of
the triggers was missing.
A trigger may be a lower profile mayfly pattern, a zelon shuck on an
emerger, or the little twitch you impart to a capering caddis pattern.
Whatever it is, you must use the trout's response to find out what it is.
When you do find the pattern that works, study the differences between the
succesful and unsuccesful patterns. You can sometimes tell what that
trigger is and use it the next time when faced with a similar situation.
Whatever the reason, it pays to ask why does this one pattern work when the
other didn't? Otherwise, you will simply start over the next time
systematically going through the patterns in your fly boxes without having
an idea of what in those patterns triggers the trout's interest.
This is one of the most difficult times to dry fly fish. There are no rises
to to tell you where the fish are located, and there are no insects to
guide you in fly selection. Therefore, you must rely on your skills in
reading the water to fish those areas that are likely to hold fish. Quite
frankly, you will likely have more success by fishing subsurface during
these non-rise periods. However, if you want to try dry fly fishing in this
situation, I will show you how to proceed. Let's review for a moment where
the fish will be.
Let's discuss lies for a moment. Not then kind of fishing lies that fishers
tell each other, but the other "lies" that describe where the fish live..
There are three main types of "lies", or places that may hold fish. They
are the sheltering lie, the feeding lie, and the prime lie.
The sheltering lie is most often in deep water, and it is a fish sanctuary.
This type of water is usually not productive during non hatch periods even
if there are fish present. There are two reasons. First, a fish holding
that deep is not looking up for his food but rather forward or down. So it
is unlikely that he will see your offering. Even if he does see your fly, a
fish will normally not rise through deep water for a dry fly. If the fish
were to rise to inspect every possible food item, he would waste more
energy than he would gain. He would also have to leave the sheltering lie,
exposing himself to predators.
A good rule of thumb is that a fish will not rise through greater than 3
feet of water for a dry fly. An exception is if the fly was an obvious food
item which was large enough to temp the fish. An example might be a mouse,
grasshopper, etc. The fly would also have to attract the attention of the
fish with a noisy presentation or motion. These sheltering lies are best
fished with a nymph or streamer.
The feeding lie is where the fish come to feed, but by definition it offers
no shelter to the trout. Therefore, these areas will be sterile in nonhatch
situations. Ignore these areas during nonhatch periods.
This leaves the prime lies. These areas offer ready access to food and
cover simultaneously. Examples are undercut backs, low overhanging willow
branches, or beneath a log in the water. There must be overhead cover which
allows the fish to wait near the surface to feed on your dry fly. Pocket
water in rapids or riffle water that is about knee deep are good examples
also. Here the cover is not provided by depth but by the turbulence which
serves to hide the fish. These are the areas you want to concentrate on
FISHING THE LIES:
In these prime lies there may be a current seam that will carry the food to
the fish. Especially look for seams that concentrate the the food. If there
is floating debris on the water, these currents are easy to see and it is
easy to tell where to cast by watching the debris. Place your cast into
Although you are prospecting, you must be accurate in your casting. You may
not see a rising trout, but rest assured that the feeding lane of the trout
can be quite narrow. This is particularly true next to an undercut bank
where the fish must expose himself to overhead predators to come out and
take your fly. A cast 12 inches from the bank may not be close enough. Your
cast must be as accurate as if you were casting to a rising trout. This is
one of the major reasons why beginners fail. They mistakingly believe that
they have thoroughly fished a lie, when they have actually not fished it
correctly at all. Read the water and determine where the trout will be for
that lie. Do not give up until you have placed the fly correctly over the
The second reason beginners are unsuccessful is that they have no
confidence in their ability to read the water and therefore, they fish the
lie lackadaisically. You must fish the lie exactly as you would, if you saw
a trout rising. Use the same stealthy approach. Make your first cast count.
Remember that you are stalking the trout. Believe that he is there. Even if
you do not see him feeding, you can spook him just as easily in a prime
lie, because he is near the surface looking for food. The problem is that
you will never know whether you have spooked him or not, since there are no
rises to monitor his activity.
Riffle water is a special situation since the trout can be anywhere. The
entire riffle can be a prime lie if it is deep enough to hide trout. Here
you must fish the water in a systematic fashion to cover the entire riffle.
I would suggest that you break the riffles into an imaginary grid and
systematically fish each section as you move up and across the water.
Because the noise and broken water surface of the riffles help to hide your
approach, you can make shorter and more accurate casts. Cover the water
The strike can come at any moment. I have even had trout take the fly right
at my feet. So let the float continue behind you if the float looks good.
If a trout comes up, but does not take the fly, mark his location. You can
recast the same fly and try to get the fish to take. If that does not work,
then try changing the presentation with maybe a little motion or by
changing the fly.
FLY SELECTION AND STRATEGY:
Fly selection is another problem when there are no rises to guide you.
There are several strategies I can offer you. One approach is to use
attractor patterns. The attractor may be more effective if it simulates a
predominant hatch for the stream. For example, you might try using a royal
wulff for mayflies or a stimulator or humpy for caddises. The attractor
approach works well in the riffles or pocket waters where the trout will
not get a good look at the fly and must make an instantaneous decision to
take the fly.
Another approach is to use a selective pattern for the hatch that is about
to occur or has recently finished. This often works because the trout are
used to seeing and feeding on that particular insect. They are inclined to
take the fly as a reflex response.
The third approach is to use a generic pattern such as an adams or elk hair
caddis. These are patterns that take trout even when there is no hatch
because they just look buggy.
The final method is to fish a terrestrial such as an ant or grasshopper
during those months when these insects could fall into the stream. Again,
the trout are used to feeding sporadically on these insects and they will
take them opportunistically. These last two approaches are suggested for
the smoother water areas of the stream. The terrestrials will tend to work
near the grassy or undercut backs and the selective/generic patterns in the
midstream lies or under the branches.
I have tried to present a systematic and deductive approach to dry fly
fishing. Whether you choose the approach I have suggested or your own, I
sincerely hope that you meet with success. I know that the method I have
suggested works. I have used this approach for many years, and I think it
can help you as you flyfish new waters for the first time.
Copyright 1995 by Henry Kanemoto.
No reproduction, electronic or otherwise, is allowed without permission of