Fishing Wet Flies
This article begins my third year of writing articles regarding fly fishing for trout. To my surprise, I continue to find topics of interest. I think that this month’s article about fishing wet flies is an especially fitting topic at this juncture. The wet fly is the artificial fly that started our sport of fly fishing over six centuries ago. Thus, in “Fishing Wet Flies”, I will review some of their history, various methods of tying them, and how to fish them.
In 1496, “The Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle“, thought to be written by nun Dame Juliana Berners, was first published. It was part of a gentleman’s sporting journal, “The Booke of St. Albans”. Although earlier manuscripts have been discovered, this is the oldest existing English publication about the sport of fly fishing. In it, she described how to make all the equipment needed to fly fish, including twelve flies for trout fishing. They covered all four seasons. The flies were tied with wings swept to the back, and designed to be fished subsurface. It wasn’t until nearly four hundred years later that improvements in hooks and lines made dry fly fishing feasible.
Once dry fly fishing was introduced in the late 1800’s, it became quite the rage. In fact, under the influence of Frederick Halford, the use of subsurface flies of any kind was not permissible on English chalk streams for several decades. Anyone caught doing so was banned from the fishing clubs that owned and controlled the streams. This was a fate worse than death for a true English gentleman!
The sport of fly fishing spread to America in the 1800’s. With the exception of the gaudy, feathered streamers used for Atlantic salmon and lake-bound brook trout, early American fly fishers emulated their English brethren and primarily fished the dry fly. However, our freestone streams offered challenges not present on the English chalk streams (see “The Dry Fly & Fast Water”, by George LaBranche, published 1914). This led to the development of flies that could better stay afloat in our faster waters.
In 1933, Edward R. Hewitt, an accomplished American fly fisherman, wrote “The Handbook of Fly Fishing”. Included in it is the following paragraph about fishing the wet fly-
“I have come to realize of late years that the skilled manipulation of the wet fly is a very much greater art than dry fly fishing, and one that is really known by very few people. A skilled wet fly fisherman can catch more trout than any dry fly man, unless trout are freely rising to surface insects. For that reason, wet fly fishing is a better method of catching trout than dry fly fishing over more days of the year and in more kinds of water.”
Return of the Wet Fly
Despite the recognition of the advantages of fishing with a wet fly, it wasn’t until 1975, when Sylvester Nemes wrote “The Soft-Hackled Fly”, that wet-fly fishing began to enjoy a gradual return to general usage. Below are some of his insightful observations that started the rediscovery of the wet fly-
“Fishing under the surface, the angler wants the barest resemblance to the dozens of different kinds of nymphs or pupae, because he can never see or know what is really happening down there. Any sunk fly, to be good, must transform itself in the water into something alive, something suggestive and moving, something that looks good to eat.”
“As the fly floats downstream, the barbs close in and out, squirm against the body of the fly, and react in a life-like way to every little kind of pressure.”
“Without wings, the fly has no top or bottom, and will look the same to the fish no matter what side is up.”
I think the last statement is an important point regarding wingless wet flies. My own observation is that wet flies and nymphs, attached to a tippet, rotate in an unnatural manner when drifting in a current. Tying them in the round, that is, with no dorsal or ventral surfaces, eliminates this issue. Thus they appear more natural and lively throughout the drift.
Below is a picture of a traditional winged wet fly encircled by several wet flies as I usually tie them. My flies are tied in the round, with slim bodies of shiny floss, often ribbed with wire. I generally use a bead for the thorax. However, they can be tied without a bead, or a bead can be used for the head. I feel that placing the bead in the thorax position keeps the hackle, which is tied in front of the bead, from collapsing. This gives greater motion and action to the hackle barbules. If I want to keep the fly in the upper few inches of water, I use a glass bead. And if I want the fly to sink deeper in the water column, I use a tungsten bead.
There is no consensus as to what insect or insect stage that wet flies imitate. They most likely imitate a variety of aquatic insects in various life-stages. I think it easiest to picture a wet fly as an imitation of a caddis pupa, rising to or trapped within the film. But to a trout, they may also simulate mayfly nymphs, egg-laying caddis, or even drowned duns. Perhaps this explains the wet fly’s widespread acceptance by trout.
Fishing the Wet Fly
In addition to the attributes of the wet fly itself, good presentation is necessary to entice trout to take them. This requires skillful line management, which is an essential requirement to fish wet flies effectively. When fishing a dry fly, the line must often be mended to prevent “drag”, the unnatural movement of the fly across the water’s surface. Eliminating drag produces a natural drift of the fly.
When fishing a wet fly, mending is used not only to prevent drag, but also to adjust the fly’s depth in the water column. Mending is also used to direct the downstream trajectory of the fly in order to deliver it to a targeted fish or lie. The line may also be manipulated in order to impart a variety of life-like movements to the fly. It is the acquisition of these skills that makes wet fly fishing more challenging than dry fly fishing, and makes for an accomplished wet fly fisherman.
Let’s now look at fishing wet flies with floating lines, often referred to as “tight-line nymphing” in the American fly fishing literature. In the European fly fishing literature, it is referred to as “Czech nymphing” (see “Dynamic Nymphing” by George Daniel, 2012, for an in-depth discussion). This method is best applied when fishing “skinny” water, that is, water less than two feet deep. Such conditions require stealthy fishing with long leaders, nine to twelve feet for small streams and twelve to sixteen feet for larger streams.
I invariably fish with two flies (more if allowed), one with a tungsten bead and one with little or no weight. Some fly fishers use only weighted flies with this technique. I prefer to attach the heavier fly first, then trail the lighter fly with twelve to eighteen inches of tippet tied to the eye of the first fly. The size and weight of the first fly will determine the depth to which the flies will descend. The second (or third) fly will be able to move about freely during the drift. I often use a small-sized wooly bugger, #8-12, for the first fly, and a soft-hackle fly for the second or point fly. Many other combination of nymphs and wet flies can be used successfully.
If streamside structure permits, I position myself across from my target, and cast upstream at a slight angle, no more than 45 degrees. I allow the flies to drift with the current, and keep a tight line by raising or lowering my rod to control slack, similar to dry fly fishing. However, if during the drift the flies enter a deeper pocket of water, I will mend the line upstream and allow the flies to sink further in the water column. When the flies emerge from the deeper water, I can stop the downstream drift of the line, and the flies will gradually rise to the desired level. If I continue to hold the line, the flies will rise all the way to the surface, imitating an emerging nymph or pupa. If that doesn’t draw a strike, I can drop the line, and the flies will continue their downstream drift.
I can move the flies around submerged structure by throwing a mend to realign the fly line. The flies will then swing to the desired position and drift downstream along the edge of the structure. During the drift, the line can also be twitched at any time to add further movement and life to the flies. At the end of the drift, I usually let the flies dangle a moment, give them a few twitches, then let them rise to the surface before beginning my next cast. Many strikes may occur at this time.
In small, skinny streams, the trout can often be seen as they take the fly. But in larger streams the flies may be too far away to make this possible. While many strikes can be felt, another skill that requires much practice, it is helpful to use a leader with orange mono in the butt. Any abnormal movement of the butt should be respected as a possible strike, and the hook set.
An upstream cast is not always possible, due to stream size and/or structure. In such cases, the cast can be made across, or down and across stream. Neither of these casts allows as long a drift as casting upstream. This limits presentation of the flies to fewer lurking trout during the downstream drift. More casts will then be needed to cover the water.
Sinking-tip lines provide even greater versatility, and I prefer to use them when I’m fishing subsurface. While they can be used to fish shallow water, they also allow one to easily fish much deeper water. Most line manufacturers offer sink-tips of varying densities which sink at different rates, measured in inches per second. For example, Scientific Anglers (SA) makes Sonar Sinking Tip lines of three densities, providing sink rates from 2.5 inches per second to 6.5 inches per second. The lighter lines are for shallower water, and the heavier lines for deeper water. Their tapers and tip lengths are matched to rod weights, and cast very smoothly. They feel similar to overloading a rod by one line weight.
Sinking tip lines eliminate the need to use split shot or heavily weighted flies, as the weighted tip of the line pulls the flies with it. These lines are cast and manipulated much like floating lines. But when fishing larger steams, more mending is required to thoroughly fish the more variable depths present.
Sinking-tip lines have dark or clear tips that seem to blend with the water. Therefore, it is not necessary to use a long leader. I attach only three or four feet of tippet to the tip of the line with a nail knot, then attach my first fly. This is especially important if one is using only lightly weighted or unweighted flies. Unweighted flies will remain in the upper portion of the water column when attached to a longer leader. Also, with the use of a short tippet, it is much easier to keep a tight connection to the flies and feel any soft takes.
Learning how to effectively fish the wet fly will provide fly fishers with a technique that has wide applicability. Wet flies can be fished during both hatch and non-hatch periods, in still and moving waters, and in shallow and deep waters. They will catch more and larger fish than dry flies under almost any circumstance. While I love to dry fly fish, I love catching fish even more. Thus I spend a lot of my time fishing the wet fly. Shouldn’t you?
For further reading on presentation, see “Presentation – Fly Fishing a Hatch”.
Written by Al Simpson, January, 2016. Edited November, 2016.