Rise To The Occasion

How to be a dry-fly ninja

Dry-fly fishing is arguably the easiest way to fly fish rivers, but it can be frustrating if fish come up and refuse a fly at the last second. Even worse, fish are rising everywhere, but you are having little success. To increase your success and improve your dry-fly angling skills, focus on identifying the riseform, constructing effective leaders, managing the drift and learning to cast well.

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Fly fishing. Photo by Chase White.
Photo by Chase White.

Identify The Riseform

Learn to recognize the nature of the rise. Successful anglers can tell a lot by nature of a trout’s rise, or the riseform. Paying attention to how fish rise is a key tactic when fishing is tough.

Many anglers assume that when trout rise, all the fish are rising for the same insect. This is not always the case, and sometimes different fish target different insects. I was reminded of this on a recent fishing trip when trout were rising all over the place. They were spurred on by the activity of three different insects, as there were mayflies and midges hatching, and tan caddis flying around. Consequently, there were two distinct trout riseforms: some trout came up without their head breaching the surface, but their dorsal fins and tail fins did, and other trout had more splashy rises. The first rise was by trout feeding on the midges and the second, splashy rise were by trout feeding on the mayflies. If I had the wrong fly, I had no success and I had to recognize the specific rise and switch back and forth between two flies. It was a satisfying day of dry-fly fishing.

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In addition to trout rising differently to different insects, other fish species also rise, and they rise differently. Before figuring out what the fish is feeding on, it’s important to first establish its identity. Most mountain whitefish and small rainbows usually have very splashy rises when taking insects on the surface. Arctic grayling and larger mountain whitefish tend to roll on their prey, taking the insect on their way down. Larger rainbow trout tend to stick their noses and heads above the water to grab an insect, often leaving a bubble. If you spot a riseform leaving a bubble on the surface, it is usually a sign that the trout is feeding on the surface and on decent-sized insects.

Gentle sips indicate that the trout are feeding on something small. These rises disturb very little of the water surface and are often missed by anglers. This usually means that the fish are intercepting midges or small mayfly spinners. Trout feeding at the surface in slower-moving water tend to breach the surface with the dorsal and tail fins. Trout feeding on midges, blue winged olives, pale morning duns and mahogany duns often feed in this manner.

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A riseform that can be described as a ring, swirl or a boil, with no part of the trout breaching the surface, indicates that the fish are feeding just below the surface, usually on emerging insects or drifting nymphs. Drifting nymphs perform behavioural drifts to find new habitat by letting go of the bottom on mass, often creating a peak in feeding by trout. If this happens in shallow water, trout become so active that they disturb the surface while feeding on the nymphs.

Matching the hatch is important if you want to be successful.
Matching the hatch is important if you want to be successful.

When decent-sized trout rise for big insects, it sounds different than a splashy rise from a small trout or whitefish. The sound of a big fish rising to a big insect is unforgettable. These distinctive rises happen when trout are feeding on salmonflies, golden stoneflies, western green drakes, grasshoppers and bigger caddis, like late summer sedges and October caddis.

If a trout moves sideways and backwards from a lie to take a fly, it is looking to the surface for food, but not a lot of food is drifting downstream. This fish expanded its feeding lane and is not targeting anything specific and will react to anything it considers food.

Leader Design & Drift Management

The rule of thumb when dry-fly fishing is to use a leader as long as you are comfortable casting, and the longer the better. This means leaders ranging from 15 to 18 feet in length. Leaders this long are best built with a manufactured tapered leader at least 12 feet in length, and tapering down to 4X or even 5X, which is then extended to an overall length of 15 to 18 feet using tippet sizes in 4X to 6X, and even 7X.

The rule of thumb when dry-fly fishing is to use a leader as long as you are comfortable casting, and the longer the better.
The rule of thumb when dry-fly fishing is to use a leader as long as you are comfortable casting, and the longer the better.

Manufactured tapered leaders have fewer knots than do-it-yourself leaders. There are many formulas in books and on the Internet to construct your own tapered leaders, but building these involve a lot of knots. Knots in leaders create drag and always have a way of snagging all kinds of debris.

The decision on how thin to go with the tippet is a balancing act between having a leader that is less visible to fish and making it an appropriate size for the fly. A fly that is too big for the diameter tippet causes the tippet to twist on itself, which can weaken the tippet, put more drag on the fly, and makes it more visible. To match the fly to the tippet, simply divide the hook size by three to get the approximate X rating of tippet, and adjust one tippet size up or down if needed.

There are times when presenting dry flies with drag is appropriate, but unintended drag can be avoided with careful leader management and casting technique. Keep the leader floating as long as possible, as a sinking leader causes drag on the fly. There is a balancing act in keeping the leader afloat and hiding it, as a floating leader casts a shadow. Nylon (also known as monofilament) dry-fly leaders start to sink as the day goes on. When this happens, most anglers apply a gel floatant, but there are other options available, such as Payette Paste (Loon Outdoors.) This paste is excellent in keeping the leader floating high, reducing drag. Apply the paste sparingly to the leader, starting at the fly line up to two feet from the fly. Do not apply the paste to the last two feet to allow this section of tippet to ride in the surface film, as it hides the tippet from the fish.

To make the tippet close to the fly less visible, some anglers actually use fluorocarbon tippet for the last foot to the fly. Alternatively, treat the last foot of nylon tippet with Snake River Mud (Loon Outdoors), which reduces the shine of the tippet and also allows the tippet to sink slightly into the surface film. Tippet in the surface film is less visible than tippet riding on top of it.

Success! A trout caught on a dry fly.
Success! A trout caught on a dry fly.

Learn To Cast Well

A large part of presenting a dry fly properly is casting well. This does not mean casting for distance, as nearly all trout are caught from less than 40 feet away. Casting well means to be accurate and perform a number of different casts for different situations. The ability to perform the reach cast, S-cast and aerial mends is essential. These casts, when performed correctly, give longer drifts and helps hide the leader from the fish.

In presenting the fly, try to get the trout to see the fly before the leader floats over it. This is a common mistake, and it is called lining the fish. Ideally, approach trout from a downstream angle, cast at approximately a 45-degree angle upstream and add a S-cast or aerial mend as the fly is laid down on the water. This approach allows for the best combination of being out of sight from the fish, presenting the fly drag free and hiding the fly line and leader from the fish. The biggest challenge for most anglers is to pick up the fly line at the same pace as it drifts downstream.

Another effective cast is a horizontal tuck cast. Most anglers are probably familiar with a downward (vertical) tuck cast when presenting nymphs. A horizontal tuck cast can be performed by a gentle snap of the wrist, either left or right, at the end of the lay down cast. This causes the end of the leader to bend sideways. This cast can be used very effectively to help present the fly in a way that the trout sees fly before the tippet.

At the end of the drift, the job is not done. Pick up the fly before it starts dragging on the surface. Pressured fish notice this and the drag at the end of the drift can put them off. Also avoid that popping sound a fly makes when picked up from the water too quickly. To prevent this, simply wiggle the rod tip to break the surface tension to release the fly.

Next time you’re on the water, remember to focus on recognizing the riseform. Pay attention to your presentation by keeping the leader afloat, reducing drag and making the leader less visible to the fish.