Every fly fishing angler loves to fish topwater, whether it be poppers or dry flies. Some anglers will fish topwater at any cost, even if that means they’ll get few fish on a given day. Others know that you can be really successful almost always fishing below the surface, so switching to dries only when it’s obvious is their policy. There are times, however, when dry fly fishing is actually the most successful way to fish at a given time, even when it’s not obvious, since the surface provides an important edge for fish to use to narrow in on prey. The first obstacle to overcome in order to become really adept at dry fly fishing for trout is to develop confidence in fishing dry flies. If you like to fish dries no matter what, then you probably already have confidence in dries. If, however, you want to use the right technique at the right time but lack real confidence in dries, particularly when there isn’t a hatch, then hopefully this article will help get you there.
1) TAKE “FISHING” OUT OF THE EQUATION: SMALL TROUT AND BLUEGILL
The fastest way to cut the learning curve with most things is to do it a lot. Two particular situations help you catch a ton of fish on dries. 1) If you have access, fish high mountain streams with lots of trout from 4-15 inches with the occasional larger fish. These streams have lots of little fish usually cutthroat or brook trout that have a very short season of growth. Anything that hits the water is on the menu, and 100-fish days are nothing to write home about. The scenery is superb, and the dry flies, usually size 10-14, are the norm. Royal Wulffs, Stimulators, Humpies, and puffy terrestrials are your best choices here. 2) The other place to catch as many fish as you need is with bluegill, hopefully big bluegill if you have a pond or lake with these fun bruisers. Catching a ton of huge bluegills still appeals to me after 25 years of fly fishing for them, but use whatever size of bluegills you have nearby. These fish will eat anything they can get their mouths on when a) their metabolism is up and b) the fly is in their strike zone. So this means fishing where the fish aren’t too deep. You can use poppers, but you can also use terrestrials like Chernobyl ants and other foam bugs. These can be from #8-16 depending on the size of the bluegills.
2) TARGET THE RIGHT FISHERIES AND HATCHES
The next step up from these two scenarios is to fish where there are tons of rising fish of the medium to large variety. First, fish on rivers with very high fish populations like the Green (UT), Missouri (MT), Bighorn (MT), and perhaps the South Holston River (TN) in the East. These rivers will often have slower eddies or edges that are filled with insects and rising fish almost year round. Do a little research to find the best rivers or private lakes in your area with large amounts of fish and insect hatches. Then target these waters. A guide trip or two will cut the learning curve substantially if you can afford it, but make sure it’s for dry fly fishing if you’re serious about improving your skills. Secondly, and related to this approach is to target “epic” hatches. Even better is to couple these two together. Examples of “epic” hatches are blanketing tricos and blue-winged olives, green drakes, the Mother’s Day caddis hatch, and heavy hatches of golden stones, among others. You’ll catch a lot more big fish and you won’t be casting to vast amounts of open water. It’s not a sure thing, but at least you’ll have lots of shots at fish. In fact, not catching fish might actually make you want to go dry fly fishing more, since you’ll be thinking about figuring out the puzzle. Either way, put yourself in these situations as much as you can. This is good advice for life in general but particularly when you’re developing confidence in dries.
3) SIGHT FISHING, TERRESTRIALS, AND CADDIS
Sight fishing is hugely important for developing confidence in dries in general, particularly when a trout’s metabolism is at its peak in the summer months and early fall. During these times, when hatches aren’t going on, terrestrials are incredible producers. If you’re sight fishing, you can fish smaller (#14-16) ants and beetles. Make sure to have some sort of a little indicator on the fly like a bit of white paint or a small orange piece of foam. This makes your life much easier when searching for your fly on the water. Smaller (#10-14) crickets and hoppers, like the Mr. Peanut Hopper, are also options. When the caddis have been out for a bit, then you can fish them anytime. A standard Elk Hair Caddis is a classic but still an absolute fish-catcher, and the standard sizes are normally (#14-16). You can also add on a dropper if you like as well, but remember adding a dropper is not a cure-all. A dropper might pull down your dry and make it so you can’t cast into tight spots as well. Either way, you’re still using the surface as an edge.
4) DRY FLY FISHING FOR TROUT: CONFIDENCE AND BLIND CASTING
Once you’ve had some dry fly fishing experience with these three situations, you can move on to blind casting with dries. Most of the situations you’ll encounter are just versions of what you’ve already done. You might fish larger freestone streams with larger dries like stimulators, particularly when there have been stonefly hatches. You can prospect the shallows with ants and Elk Hair Caddis fly patterns. Cicada hatches and hopper time, usually from July through September in the U.S., can also give you the opportunity to bring fish up. Think about the situations you’ve already been in with your other dry fly experiences. Where were the fish on these small streams and how can you replicate this on a larger scale with bigger terrestrials and bigger water? Concentrate on the edges and adjust your fly size to the depth. The deeper the water, the bigger the fly. Don’t hesitate to use a dropper, since it might give you more confidence, but a “hopper-dropper rig” can be good for at least two reasons. 1) The larger dry may attract the fish just enough, but not close the deal. The dropper is the safety. 2) You still might pick up all those fish that are feeding below the surface, while still getting the bonus of the dry-fly bite. The confidence and knowledge you need to be successful with dries can happen very fast, but there’s a better way to do it. Follow these steps and you’ll be more successful and confident with dry flies.