Psychology of Dry Fly Fishing

Improving Your Dry Fly Fishing Success

It is a common belief that wet flies and nymphs are the most successful choice to catch a lot of fish. This does make sense as fish feed subsurface the majority of the time, and anglers will only open the dry fly box after seeing a fish rise. This is unfortunate, as there is nothing more exhilarating than watching a fish hit a dry fly, and many anglers will agree that the satisfaction of catching one fish on a dry fly can equal catching five fish on a nymph.


In general, anglers are hesitant to stray too far away from what usually works for them. Consequently, they convince themselves to opt immediately for nymphs and wet flies, and over time they develop a mental block, sticking only with their tried and true methods of drowning flies instead of floating them. This mental block will get in the way of some excellent dry fly fishing. All too often anglers have little confidence and give up on the dry fly as they have convinced themselves that the fish are not willing to rise. To illustrate this, here a few anecdotes:

A friend of mine was fishing a lake teeming with wild rainbows and was not having any luck using a variety of flies such as leeches, micro leeches, and dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. As a last resort, just before trying the kitchen sink, he tied on a dry fly (a Mikulak Sedge) and started hooking fish left, right and centre. These fish were big too, averaging around 18-inches. This story is even more special as no fish had been rising yet that day.


Via Danie Erasmus
Via Danie Erasmus

A couple years ago I was at well-known dry fly river a few hours east of Vancouver. The main purpose of the trip was a family picnic and fishing was less important, but I decided to sneak in a few casts into the pool beside our picnic site anyway. I started with nymphs; after all they are supposed to be more effective than dry flies. After about 20 minutes with no takes I then tied on a large Western Green Drake dry fly. On the first cast, a beautiful rainbow of about 13-inches fell for the fly and during the next 30 minutes I shook hands with another four trout, all between 11 and 14-inches in size. This was a wonderful surprise, as there was no sign of insects hatching and no fish rising, and it was at a pool that is heavily fished on a regular basis.

These stories illustrate the basic psychology behind our choices when fishing. Some would immediately point out that these were a couple of rare, lucky occurrences that are exceptions to the rule. Granted, they might be exceptions, but if the expected happened, and even if you catch twice as many fish, will that day be as memorable? Instead, such stories are being re-told because the unexpected happened, and these get etched into memory. Sometimes, testing the rule and challenging conventional wisdom results in truly exceptional days. This article hopefully plants a seed to experiment a little more with dry flies using a variety of presentation methods.


Selection of flies
Via Danie Erasmus

Here in British Columbia, dry fly fishing is most effective when targeting five species: rainbow trout, that inhabit rivers and lakes all over the province; coastal cutthroat trout, found on Vancouver Island and along the coast from Vancouver to Alaska; Westslope cutthroat trout in the Kootenays; the spectacular looking Arctic grayling that inhabit many streams in Northern BC; and lastly, to a lesser extent, mountain whitefish, which is also available in the province except on Vancouver Island and some coastal regions.

All these species can be caught using traditional dry fly fishing, but a few contemporary methods can add an extra dimension and may even save the day when the fishing is slow.

Traditional Dry Fly Fishing

Dry fly anglers around the world practice their craft by presenting the fly as naturally as possible to rising fish sipping hatching insects. This means a delicate presentation and a drag-free drift to match the hatch with a fly that resembles the actual insect. Traditional dry fly fishing is about stalking the prey, letting the fly land softly on the water, and not alerting the fish to your presence.

To have success, target rising fish by casting ahead of the fish’s rise and let the fly drift into its feeding zone. Most anglers do this with fairly good success, but to be great at dry fly fishing you must pay attention to a few key factors: your position relative to the fish; avoid spooking fish by blending in with the background; ensure that the fly and line lands softly on the water; your line should not float over the fish; and use long leaders with small diameter tippet.

The best way to approach the fish is from behind and cast the fly upstream at a slight angle. As the fly floats downstream, pick up slack line with your line hand to prevent the fly-line from causing drag on the fly. The key is to judge the rate of stream flow and then to pick up line at the same pace.

Another popular approach to traditional dry fly fishing is the quarter cast upstream. Casting from a distance to ensure the fish does not see you, this is popular as it is more forgiving in maintaining a drag-free drift. Also, it is much easier approach to controlling the line and judging the drift of the fly than the upstream presentation.

A third approach used by some anglers is the cast directly downstream to a rising fish. Although successful with steelhead, this approach seldom results in solid hook-ups when fishing for trout, whitefish and Arctic grayling. Hook-ups are poor because you can pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth when setting the hook. If you do manage to hook the fish, you can end up fighting the fish against the current with light tackle, small diameter tippet and small hooks, and more often than not, the fly pulls out.

With traditional dry fly fishing comes an unofficial rule of fishing dry flies only when the fish are rising. To break out of this rigid approach, try to experiment. Sometimes twitching the fly, causing deliberate drag or even getting the fly to land with a big splash can yield some surprising results – give something a try that you technically not supposed to do.

Twitching the Dry Fly

One of my most memorable experiences fishing a mayfly imitation was when a rainbow trout came to inspect my fly that was drifting drag-free. This fish came up, looked at the fly, but instead of striking it, the fish just followed the fly by drifting with it downstream. For some reason, I decided to give the fly a gentle tug. The moment the fly moved, the fish grabbed it, and the fight was on. After a couple somersaults in the air and a few minutes later, a 16-inch rainbow trout was released back to where it had come from.

Mayflies will often struggle as they crawl out of the water to become duns, and while on the surface, the duns flap their wings and ‘stretch’ their legs before taking off. In the late summer months, terrestrial insects, such as grasshoppers and ants blown onto the water, will struggle, trying to free themselves. Fish key in on this movement and especially later in the season, heavily pressured fish have learned to avoid motionless, drag-free flies and will only go for food items that have some life to them. Sometimes a gentle tug on the fly line to twitch the fly is all that is needed.

The Big Steak Ambush

This method uses the element of surprise and presents a big, bushy fly to unsuspecting fish. It takes advantage of some fish’s tendency to instinctively strike immediately at anything that lands within close proximity.

Target the most likely holding spots, and with the minimal amount of false casts, to not alert the fish, cast a big, bushy dry fly to the target and try to get the fly to land with a splash. Flies, such as a big size six stimulator, are an effective option for this method. Target areas next to obstructions such as big rocks and logs, or pocket water along fast moving water. Fish cannot resist seeing this ‘big steak freebie’ that just happens to land close to them.

This method requires precision, which sounds like an oxymoron since you are using a big fly that lands with a splash. Precision is required as you just have one cast. This cast has to land exactly where you intend it to go, as you will often only have one chance at eliciting an instinctive grab. Most often, a second cast will be ignored as the fish had time to inspect the fly on the first cast, and you have lost the element of surprise.

Prospecting with a Dry Fly

The idea of prospecting for trout, if not invented, was made mainstream by Tom Rosenbauer in his book Prospecting for Trout. Like a prospector searching for gold in the most likely places, anglers focus on areas in the stream most likely to hold fish when there are no fish rising and no hatches taking place. Usually prospecting involves a variety of presentation methods including streamer fishing, nymphing, swinging wet flies and casting dry flies to find fish. When prospecting with dry flies, the biggest challenge is to have the mental fortitude to persevere and stay with this method.

Although there will be no signs of insects hatching, your choice of fly should be based on what is most likely around. Use generic flies that represent a wide variety of insects. Flies such as elk hair caddis or Adams in sizes 10 to 14 are good options to prospect with. Avoid wasting a lot of time, and make no more than ten casts to one specific holding spot. The idea is to cover a lot of water, especially in the streams closer to the coast. These streams tend to be nutrient poor, which results in fewer insects and lower densities of resident trout. Streams in the interior of British Columbia generally support a much higher number of resident trout and whitefish. In these streams you can take a little longer to dissect a section.


Fly anglers are indoctrinated early on with the message to have a drag-free drift when presenting a dry fly, and for the most part this is true. However, a little deliberate drag can be good, and is used for two reasons: to imitate insect behaviour or to attract the fish’s interest.

Insects like caddis adults will scatter across the surface of the water when they first emerge and when they return to lay their eggs. At certain times of the year fish will key in on this. For example, rainbow trout in the Blackwater River are notorious for charging skated caddis imitations. To mimic this, simply cast across the current and let the adult caddis imitation skate across the surface. You can also present your fly by casting across and then also lifting the rod tip to pull the fly across the surface. As you do this, wiggle the rod tip to create movement upstream and sideways. These skating motions can be very effective to fool trout into believing your elk hair caddis or stimulator fly is an actual caddis attempting to fly away.

The conundrum with this method is that it elicits many bites, but will land very few as the fly is fished downstream from the angler. Perhaps the biggest benefit of skating is its use on streams with low angling pressure. This method can be a fun way to tease fish into striking and revealing themselves. Just before they are about to take the fly, pull the fly away. Now you know where the fish are, and you can reposition yourself and use either the traditional or twitching methods.

Be smart with dry fly fishing and realize that fish are more likely to rise at certain times of the day and the season. Take into account the weather, air temperature, water temperature and the season. It also is important to recognize that what worked yesterday, may not work today, and other times things might be very predictable. Sometimes this means doing the complete opposite – yesterday the fish liked a bit of movement on the fly, and today the fish want the fly to be perfectly drag-free. Learning and developing the ability to present a dry fly in as many ways as possible, and at the same time figuring out how the fish like their dinner served, is all part of the fun.

This article was featured in the BC Outdoors July/August issue. Order it from our Shopify store now (while supplies last) or subscribe to our magazine to keep up-to-date with all of the latest issues!

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