Basic Surface Techniques in Fly Fishing



Dry-fly fishing is by far the most popular method of fly fishing because it is nearly 100 percent visual. The fly fisherman watches the fly on the water's surface and sees the fish eat it. It's an exhilarating - and entertaining - way to catch trout, bass, panfish and saltwater species.

The surface-floating dry fly represents an insect (or in the case of popping bugs for bass, a frog or other surface-swimming creature).

Although dry-fly fishing is challenging, it is simpler than wet-fly (subsurface) fishing. Once the fly is on the water, dry-fly fishing is a two-dimensional game compared to wet-fly fishing, which is three-dimensional. But wet-fly fishing does not require the degree of casting skill that dry-fly fishing requires, so many people take up the wet fly first.

Dry-fly fishermen use the same basic technique to fish a dry fly whether or not fish are rising. In both cases, the fisherman casts to a specific target - the rising fish or a spot in the water where a fish might lie. If no fish are rising, the fisherman must read the water to determine from its speed, depth and general character where the fish are located. In other words, he fishes not to rising fish but to spots where the fish should be.

How to Dry-Fly Fish

The basic dry-fly procedure goes something like this:

  1. Select an appropriate fly.
  2. Pick a target (a surface-feeding fish).
  3. Deliver the fly to the target, or if you are on a stream to a spot a few feet upstream (or upcurrent) of the target.
  4. Allow the fly to float over the target, with the fly behaving like a natural insect (dead-drift or slightly twitching).

We've covered step 2, so let's back up to step 1.

Selecting a fly

If fish are rising, you must determine what they are eating. Put your nose down near the water, take a good look, and try to catch a sample of the insect or insects floating on the surface. A small aquarium net makes it easy. Choose a fly from your box that is similar in size, shape, and color (in that order) and tie it on your fly leader or fly tippet.

If fish are not rising, but you still want to fish a dry fly, you have two choices. You can fish a general attractor fly (a fly that imitates no specific insect but that still draws strikes from fish (a Humpy, Royal Wulff or Adams); or you can fish a fly that imitates a surface food that the fish have fed on recently. The latter requires some past fly fishing experience on the lake or stream or the advice of another fly fisherman. During August or September, a grasshopper pattern is a good bet anywhere, and poppers nearly always can work for bass and panfish. Ant and beetle imitations are always a good bet.

Getting Fly to Target

Remember that obstructions in the stream can cause the currents to swirl and change direction. The fish face into these swirling currents, which are not necessarily from upstream. In this situation, cast so the fly lands where it can float toward the fish's head first. Wind can also blow a fly into the fish's view.

Fly "Behavior"

The fly should act like a natural insect once it is on the water. This usually means that it should free-drift downstream with the current as if unattached to a fly leader. Because your fly is attached to a leader, the current acting on the line makes the fly skate unnaturally across the water creating "drag." Dry-fly fishermen spend most of their time trying to eliminate drag.

This is much less of a problem on still waters. Many times on still waters, when fishing for bass, trout or panfish, it is best to let your dry fly rest motionless for a short while (as much as a minute or more) and then twitch the fly slightly. Poppers for bass or saltwater species can be retrieved more quickly with a popping or slow popping and swimming action.

The Reach Cast

 

One of the special casts you need to eliminate drag is the reach fly cast, which you make like a normal forward cast, but after the fly rod has stopped, while the line is still traveling, you extend your rod-arm to the side of your body. When the fly cast is complete, the fly should land at the target and the line should lie on the water, angling across current from your fly rod tip to the fly. By moving the rod to either side of your body, you can angle the fly line across the current whether the current runs from left to right or right to left. This cast demonstrates a basic principle of fly casting: After the power has been applied to the forward cast, you can't change where the fly will go, but you can change the position of the line between you and the fly. Think of it as making a normal cast and then using the rod to lay the line on the water out to the side of your body.

When you are upstream and across from a fish, make a reach cast that finishes with the arm and fly rod extended to the upstream side of your body. Then, as the fly drifts downstream, move your arm and fly rod downstream at the same speed that the fly floats downstream. Your reach allows the fly to drift drag-free, because everything - fly, line and rod - move downstream together.

You can obtain a drag-free drift of 20 feet or more with this method. The drift starts with the fly rod tip 11 to 12 feet upstream of your body (rod length plus arm length), and ends when the fly rod tip is the same distance downstream of your body. Of course it's imperative that the fly floats over the fish during the drift.

 

Parachute Cast

A variation of the reach cast, called a parachute cast or parachute mend, can help induce slack in the leader and prevent drag. To execute the parachute cast, make a forward cast aimed slightly higher than normal, and wait for the fly line to straighten over the water. When the fly line straightens, smoothly move the fly rod tip up and back toward you before the fly line settles to the water. The parachute mend is essentially a reach cast made back toward your body, rather than to one side. I use the mend when I'm directly upstream of the fish and fly casting downstream.

The downstream dry-fly method is especially useful for fishing adult caddisfly imitations. Caddis often skitter and twitch on the water's surface and this method allows you to manipulate the fly by tightening the line briefly to imitate the movement of the natural.

Unfortunately, when you use the downstream method, it's sometimes difficult to set the hook when the fish takes. The striking motion can pull the fly out of the fish's mouth. Wait until the fish takes the fly and turns down before you set the hook. The technique requires restraint.

Compound Drag

Compound drag is created when the currents between you and the fish run at different speeds, simultaneously imparting conflicting drags on your line, leader and fly. The potential for compound drag varies with the situation. If you cast your floating fly line straight across stream and watch it, you'll see that it does not stay straight for long because of variations in current speed. These variations can also cause your fly to drag, despite using the basic drag-prevention methods I've described.

The drag-prevention methods should eliminate simple drag, but they must be supplemented frequently with other techniques to help avoid compound drag. When done properly, these techniques can make dry-fly fishing the most demanding and satisfying form of fly fishing.

Study the currents to see what will happen to your fly and line - and how to make adjustments in your cast to avoid compound drag - before you cast. Stream-dwelling fish rarely take a dragging fly, and sometimes they quit feeding altogether if a fly drags over them.

Use the simplest method you can to avoid drag - often nothing more than a change in your fly casting position. Just moving three or four feet one way or the other can sometimes let you keep your fly line off of a particularly tricky piece of current and the problem is solved.

Lakes & Ponds

Where the water doesn't move much - in lakes and ponds - drag on the fly is seldom a problem. When you spot a fish or a likely spot for a bass, trout or panfish, simply cast your fly to the spot and let it sit. In still waters fish cruise in search of their food. In moving waters fish usually lie waiting for the currents to bring food to them.

Panfish and bass like to pounce on their food, and they like to see movement, which indicates life. Let your dry fly sit for several seconds and then twitch or chug it. The noise and the motion attract the fish and trigger them to take the fly. A deadly technique for panfish and bass is to tie on a small popper and attach a "dropper" to the bend of the hook with an improved clinch knot. Tie a small nymph or streamer to the dropper. Chug the popper and it attracts panfish and bass, which take the small dropper fly.

Use the Right Tackle

Dry-fly fishing is usually done best with fly lines of 6-weight and lighter. These lines land gently and reduce the chance of frightening fish, and rods designed to cast them have softer tips than rods designed for heavier lines. The softer tips cushion the lift on the fine fly tippets you use when fishing small dry flies. (Casting large hair bugs for bass requires an 8-weight outfit.)

Casting

You can also improve your fly fishing success by becoming a good fly caster. Rising fish are easily frightened because they feel vulnerable to airborne predators near the surface of the stream. A fly line that lands too hard or too near the fish can send them scurrying for cover.

You can be successful with less-than-perfect fly casting if you observe one rule. The water in an area ten feet in any direction of the fish is "holy water." Don't let the fly or fly line land in, or be picked up from, the area. Let your flies drift into the area, and let them drift out. If you make a cast that doesn't go where you want it to, let the fly and fly line drift into "safe" water before picking up and re-casting.

Striking

Before you begin dry-fly fishing, consider what you should do when a fish eats your fly. Some fly fishermen who are used to feeling a fish take a downstream wet fly do nothing when a fish sips their dry fly. That technique doesn't work. The dry-fly hook must penetrate the fish's mouth, and if you don't initiate the penetration, the fish will simply eject the fly. The fly fisherman's reaction is called a "strike," but it's not as violent an action as the term implies. The correct movement is a controlled tightening of the line, accomplished with an upward or sideways movement of the fly rod tip. Many fly fishermen strike viciously, often breaking the tippet.

How quickly should you strike after the fish takes the fly? In my experience small fish should be struck quickly and big fish slowly. Big fish often take a fly leisurely. You must wait until the fish has the fly in its mouth before you tighten. If you rear back on the fly rod the instant the fish's nose breaks the surface, if the fish is large, it won't have the fly in its mouth and you'll miss it. When it's hard to judge the size of a fish, strike slowly.

Logic is Good

Some fly fishermen ascribe their failure to what's at the terminal end of their tackle rather than to their fly fishing inabilities. The fly you use is important, but what you do with it is more important. You can catch more fish with the "wrong" fly and the right method than vice versa. Pick the fly as intelligently as you can, and don't change it until you are satisfied that you have fished it properly.

Dry-fly fishing is the best part of a great sport. If you use logic and common sense along with these suggestions, you will be more successful and have more fun than you can imagine!

Original article written by Jim Mclennan (adapted for this use).
Courtesy of Fly Fisherman Magazine