S3:E16 Dry Fly Fishing Lessons from the Summer

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Dry fly fishing lessons are best learned by doing – not by reading or in a classroom. This summer, we had some great days on the river catching brookies and browns on dry flies. We also learned a few things. Click now to hear some of the lessons we had to relearn as we fished on the surface.

Listen now to “Dry Fly Fishing Lessons from the Summer”

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Make Your Dry Fly Irresistible

dry fly irresistible

It happened again last week. I felt that familiar rush of adrenalin. The mild shock happened again and again as trout after trout attacked the Parachute Adams I drifted down a little stream. I had made my dry fly irresistible.

Dry fly fishing can be unpredictable. When it’s hot, it’s not. When it’s not, well, it’s not. But there are some tactics you can use to make your dry fly irresistible to the trout lurking beneath it:

Dry it

Dry flies, uh, get wet.

Even the heartiest among them (think: Elk Hair Caddis) can get water-logged. Never mind that I always put some kind of fly dressing on my dry flies before I cast them into the current.

Sure, I’ve had trout strike my submerged fly. But dry flies perform best when riding the surface.

A few false casts will help dry out your dry fly. Yet it’s not enough.

Over the years, I’ve grown fond of water-removing powder or crystals. I always keep a small bottle in my fly vest. I like both Orvis Hy-Flote (Shake-N-Flote Renew) or Umpqua Bug Dust. Simply open the bottle lid, put your soggy fly inside (still attached to your leader), and shake the bottle a couple of times.

Presto! Your fly is dry.

The white powder makes it look like a ghost. But a couple of false casts will remove the dust. There are some liquid products available too. These are quite effective, but I generally find them messy and sticky. So go with the powder!

Twitch it

Another effective tactic is to give your dry fly a twitch. This works especially well with Caddis.

I talked to a guide in a fly shop last week who was having luck in the evenings when he skated his Caddis fly across the surface. I used this technique many times when float-tubing Hyalite Reservoir in the mountains south of Bozeman, Montana. I skated a Madam X pattern on the lake’s surface and got a positive response from several large cutthroat trout.

Of course, twitching or skating a hopper pattern is always a good bet.

The art of twitching or skating is rather simple. For a twitch, pretend the fly rod in your hand is a hammer and that you’re tapping in a small nail into soft wood. For the skating effect, I simply strip line like I would with a streamer—only more gently.

Don’t overdo your twitch or skate. If the current is fairly fast, don’t bother. But if it’s slow, a little twitch or skating motion might make your fly irresistible.

Re-size it

My brother, Dave, was fly fishing a stream in the high country of Colorado last week. He tried the standard patterns and even an emerger or two. The fishing was slow until he tied on a large stimulator. I’m pretty sure that it was the larger size rather than the color (orange) that mattered.

As Bob Granger, one of my fly fishing mentors often said, “When the trout aren’t rising for your fly, try a different size before you try a different pattern.”

In general, if I’m fishing a Blue-Winged Olive (BWO) hatch and not having success, I’ll go smaller. I can’t remember how many times the switch from a size #18 to a size #20 Parachute Adams made all the difference. If I’m struggling to get strikes with attractor patterns when there is no hatch, I’ll typically go larger.

I’ll switch from a size #18 to a size #14. Often it works.

Reverse it

Another tactic is to reverse the direction of your cast.

Obviously, you can’t reverse the direction of your fly. It’s never going to float upstream—always downstream! Typically, fly fishers work their way upstream. This keeps us behind the trout. The idea is that we will be less visible to the trout when we cast. However, there are times when it’s advisable to approach the trout from upstream. This might be due to the current or to an overhanging branch.

More stealth is required when we are in front of the trout and casting downstream. But if that gets a better drift, or if it’s the only possible way to drift a fly through a promising run, then do it.

Crowd it

There’s a good reason not to crowd your fly against an undercut bank. You’re likely to snag it on the brush on the side of the bank. It’s safer to aim for a foot or two short of the bank. It’s also less effective.

If you want to catch trout, however, you have to get close to an undercut bank. That’s where the trout hide. So take the risk.

Last weekend, I fished a run and drifted my fly about eight inches from an undercut bank. It was a decent cast. But nothing happened. On the next cast, I crowded the bank. You guessed it, my cast was about six inches too long, and it ended up in the grass on the bank. I gently tugged at it, and my fly landed in the current, about one inch from the bank.

A few seconds later, a plump brown trout darted out from under the bank and attacked my fly.

To make your dry fly irresistible, cast it as tight

Free it

Finally, keep your dry fly free of drag.

Drag happens when the center of your fly line moves through the current more quickly than your fly does. This results in your fly line pulling or dragging your fly through the current. As a result, your fly will resemble a water skier. It will leave a cool-looking wake.

But is not cool if you’re trying to catch trout!

The trick is to create a bend in your line do that the center of the line on the water is upstream from your fly. In other words, you want the fly to lead the rest of the line. You can do this either by mending your line (flipping the center section upstream after it lands) or by quickly “writing” the letter “C” with your rod tip shortly before your fly lands on the surface.

If the current is moving from right to left, you’ll “write” a backwards “C.” If it’s moving from left, you’ll write a normal “C.” This gets the center of the line upstream from your fly.

Drag will not make your dry fly irresistible!

Dry Fly Irresistible

I came across a beautiful undercut bank and made a perfect cast. My dry fly was riding high a couple inches from the bank, and there was no drag. It was the perfect presentation, and then … nothing happened.

The lesson is that you can do everything perfectly and still fail to get a trout to rise. There are no guarantees when it comes to dry fly fishing. But using one or more of these tactics just might make your dry fly irresistible to that big rainbow around the next bend.

Know Your Pattern – The Royal Coachman

Not everyone likes the Royal Coachman. According to Paul Schullery, one angler called it “an act of aesthetic vandalism, a grotesque violence perpetrated on a fly box.”

But I am rather fond of this fly. Actually, I am rather fond of couple of its modifications — the Royal Wulff and the Royal Trude. The following profile will help you appreciate this dry fly pattern and use it more effectively:

1. How it originated

Paul Schullery’s essay, “Royal Coachman and Friends” (found in his book, Royal Coachman: The Lore and Legends of Fly-Fishing), tells the story of this magnificent pattern. John Haily, a professional fly tyer in New York, first tied this pattern in 1878. He simply created a more flashy version of an older British pattern, the Coachman. He added some red silk in the middle and a little sprig of wood duck feathers for a tail. Then, he mailed his sample fly to L.C. Orvis, the brother of Charles Orvis, who founded The Orvis Company.

Yes, the Orvis rod or waders or vest you may use comes from that company.

The rest is history.

2. How it has been modified

Legendary fly fisher Lee Wulff famously modified the Royal Coachman in the 1930s by replacing its wings and tail with white calf hair. Dan Bailey promoted this fly to western anglers in his fly shop in Livingston, Montana, and through his mail-order business. He gets the credit for suggesting the name “Royal Wulff.” The calf hair makes this fly float well in rough water of western rivers.

According to The Orvis Company, the Royal Trude originated even earlier in Island Park, Idaho (near Henry’s Fork of the Snake River). Apparently an angler in the early 1900s tied it as a joke. But it turned into a serious pattern.

The Royal Trude has a long wing of white calf hair which runs the length of the fly. A friend swears by this pattern on the Yellowstone River. He is a one-fly kind of guy, and he has used it successfully during the salmon fly hatch and during hopper season.

3. Why it works

Who knows?

It is definitely an attractor pattern. Paul Schullery notes that fly fishers “want to believe it looks like something — a dragonfly, a moth, a crippled hummingbird, a lightening bug; there is a desperation in these efforts to label the fly. And it’s unnecessary. Trout take flies for lots of reason we know and for some we’ll never understand.”

4. When to use it

The Royal Wulff or Royal Trude is a great pattern to use when you are trying to coax a trout to the surface when there is no obvious hatch in play.

For awhile I stopped using The Royal Coachman and its derivatives because they were so popular. I feared the trout would get tired of seeing them. So I gravitated more towards Humpy patterns and even an Elk Hair Caddis for those times when I wanted an attractor pattern that would stay afloat in choppy water.

But I have a hunch that the “Royals” have a lot of life left in them. Trout may see fewer Royals these days due to the myriad of other patterns available. So I’m predicting they will make a comeback as they give new generations of trout a fresh look.

I do hope the comeback happens. After all, as Schullery points out, “the Royal Coachman is the first great American fly pattern.”

The Fly Fisher’s Inconsolable Longing

The fly fishing community is a rather diverse group. Some fly fishers are plumbers, others are professors. Some are Supreme Court Justices (think Sandra Day O’Connor), others are leftover hippies. Some are college basketball coaches, others are musicians.

What you get from such a varied group of fly fishing enthusiasts is a lot of great stories.

Thankfully, a few fly fishers have written them down for the rest of us to enjoy.

Shortly after I moved to Helena, Montana in 1987, I was browsing in a bookstore in Last Chance Gulch (downtown Helena), and I purchased a little book written by a retired English professor at the University of Chicago. He had reached his seventies before his two children finally convinced him to write down some of the stories he had told them when they were young. The opening paragraph of his little book captivated me, and the story he told touched me deeply. The book begins:

    In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout waters in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

By now you probably recognize the book and its author: A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.

The Angler’s Soul

In this book, fly fishing is simply a window into life. Two themes stand out to me:

The first comes from the final sentence of the book: “I am haunted by waters.”

These words emerge from a deep place in an angler’s soul while fly fishing a river in the cool of the day at twilight. It’s what the Oxford scholar, C. S. Lewis, calls “the inconsolable longing.” In his essay, “The Weight of Glory,” he talks about how certain experiences provide the “scent of a flower I have not found, the echo of a tune I have not heard, the news from a country I have never yet visited.”

I remember a poignant moment like that one April evening on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I was fly fishing alone, fighting 16-inch rainbows in the setting sun. As I looked at the red
glow on the snow-covered Absaroka-Beartooths to the east, I thought of bow-hunting elk with my dad in those mountains before cancer took his life. I thought of my grandparents who were buried in a little settlers cemetery on a ridge beneath those peaks.

The rhythm of standing in the river at twilight with fly rod in hand stirred up in me that inconsolable longing. For a few moments, I, too, was haunted by waters.

Fly Fisher’s Inconsolable Longing

A second theme is the book’s big idea, which surfaces a few times right near the end of the story.

After Norman finds out about the death of his brother, Paul, he drives to his parents’ home to tell them the tragic news. Norman says about his mother: “She was never to ask me a question about the man she loved most and understood least. Perhaps she knew enough to know that for her it was enough to have loved him.”

Later, his father wants to know if Norman has told him everything about Paul’s death. Norman says, “Everything.” His father replies, “It’s not much, is it?”

To which Norman replies, “No, but you can love completely without complete understanding.”

His father says, “That I have known and preached.”

I think about that conversation when I reflect on the life of a buddy in Helena, Montana, with whom I often fly fished. He was one of the happiest guys I’ve ever met. Or so I thought.

A couple years ago, his wife notified me that my friend had taken his life. It turns out that he battled depression for years. I was his pastor and his friend, yet I did not realize the emotional anguish that cut deeply into his soul.

I thought I understood him, but I didn’t. As the elder Maclean said, “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

News of a Distant Country

Fly fishing has a unique way of forcing me to think deeply about life. I fly fish for joy of catching trout. But some evenings on the river stir something deep within me. I think about those whom I love yet fail to understand. And the poignant ache, or inconsolable longing, gives me the news of a country I have never visited.

In those moments I, too, am haunted by waters.

(photo credit: Jim Keena, Bozeman, Montana)