Fishing Floating Flies

by Gary Borger, Fly Fishing Editor

There's something deeply satisfying about fishing floating flies. I'm not sure if it's the participation in an ancient and well-loved sport, the pleasure derived from achieving a perfect, drag-free float, the gratifying feeling of having selected the right fly, or the deliberate and confident take of a well-fooled fish that I like most. Perhaps it is all of them.

And besides that, it's just a great way to take fish. The floating fly is always visible, and thus the fish's take is always visible. Often dry flies are fished specifically to rising fish, which heightens the angler's anticipation of the take. At one end of the spectrum the fish may inhale the fly so gently that the take is almost imperceptible to the angler, while at the other end the fish slashes the fly, throwing water high into the air and leaving the fisher with rubbery knees and nerves burned raw from a huge adrenaline surge. Dries are useful all season long and under a huge variety of conditions; even salt water anglers are finding the dry an exciting way to take tarpon and other game species. And while most fishers associate dry fly fishing with a dead drift tactic, there can be some astounding fishing with an actively retrieved dry fly.

The beauty of fly fishing starts with the real thing


Fly fishing began with the floating fly, and has its roots firmly established in imitating the fish's food organisms. Early anglers saw "spotted" fish (certainly brown trout) jumping for insects that darted back and forth over the surface (certainly adult caddis flies), and dressed patterns of red wool that even today, nearly 2,000 years later, would fool fish. Thus, the pursuit of dry fly fishing leads the angler into the ecology of aquatic systems, the fishes being pursued, and the food items on which those fishes feed.

Such endeavors need not be complicated (although humans always seem to find a way of making the simple into the complex). In fact, with just seven fundamental tactics the fly caster can take fish the world over on the dry fly. The secret, however, is not in the tactic; the secret is in understanding what the natural is doing and then getting your fly to do the same. In other words, matching tactics to conditions.

To the uninitiate or the inexperienced angler, dead drifting a dry fly might look rather simple. Just cast the imitation, let it float a few feet, and cast again. But it's not that easy. Often the angler wants to fish the dry fly on a dead-drift, drag-free float. That is, the fly drifts along with the currents, going where the currents go and at the same speeds as the currents, thus imitating a natural insect riding free and uninhibited on the surface film.

But the imitation is not free and uninhibited. It is attached to the line and leader, and therein lies the problem. The line and leader are lying across 30 feet or so of currents that are often going at different speeds than the floating fly. Thus, the line system tends to drag the fly around, causing the imitation to slip and slide over the surface in a most unnatural way. And even when the fly seems to be floating drag free, it might not be. There could be hidden drag, small amounts not seen by the angler who is 30 feet from the fly but which is certainly seen by the fish which is only a few inches away. The angler should assume that the fly will always drag, and so, should do everything possible to minimize it.

Drag reduction is achieved through equipment selection, casting and line handling tactics, and the angle of approach to the fish. The most significant piece of equipment in dry fly fishing is the leader. Since it is attached to the fly, it has the greatest immediate effect on the movement of the fly. A George Harvey-style leader is an absolute must for the dry fly fisher who wants to get drag-free floats. The theory is simple: a thin diameter butt section and long tippet cause the leader to fall to the surface in "S" curves. The currents must pull all the slack out of the curves before drag sets in.

Casting and line handling are tied directly to the direction of approach. For instance, a fish is seen feeding on the far side of a heavy current. All things being equal, I'd first try to get on the other side so that I wouldn't have to cast across that current. If I could get across, then I'd have to choose either an upstream or downstream approach, depending upon the placement of the fish in its lie and the currents with which the fly would drift (if the fish were just in front of a log, for example, I'd fish down to it).

The Parachute Mend is the preferred downstream tactic. Cast, and as the line straightens in the air (and before it begins to fall) draw the rod back until it's pointing straight up. As the fly floats down, lower the tip to feed the slack into the drift. This is a superb way to beat drag. Casting up in uniformly flowing currents requires a Puddle Cast: aim above the horizontal and drop the rod tip to the water before the line straightens. If the fly is cast upstream over fast water and into slow water (as when fishing behind a boulder) then use the Pile Cast: it's an overpowered curve cast formed vertically rather than horizontally.

If the fly fisher must cast across a strong central current, then a Reach Mend, Curve Mend, Curve Cast, Hump Mend, Dancing Line Mend, various on-the-water mends, or other tactic will be necessary to gain the required drag-free drift.

But drag-free dry fly fishing might not be on the agenda. The dry fly might best be fished with action; a tiny bit or a lot. When fishing mice patterns, for instance, for big Alaskan rainbows or savage, tundra-stream brookies, the fly is cast straight across and allowed to drag back to the anglers side. The dragging fly sets up a strong wake which is positively attractive to the fish. Imitations of caddis adults, crane fly adults, some stonefly adults, some midge adults, frogs, snakes, and grasshoppers can all be fished effectively with either a little, or with a great deal, of action.

And then there's the sunken dry fly to suggest bottom feeding water shrews, egg laying caddis adults, some ovipositing mayfly adults, emerging black fly adults, and drowned insects such as mayfly spinners, stonefly adults, and terrestrials. But maybe that's a bit too much like nymph fishing. Certainly it's an area that both sides could effectively claim.

And of course, there's the whole problem of fly selection. Especially during selective feeding periods when the fish are keyed in on one stage of one species of food organism. But it is in the unraveling of this very problem where the real power in dry fly fishing lies. Because once the hatch has been matched, the fish fall like nine pins. Dry fly fishing during a hatch offers the angler the best chance to take the most numbers of fish in the shortest period of time. I like dry fly fishing!