DRY fly fishing should be easier. Fish meeting you half way, everything happening in front of you, clear-cut takes: what a doddle compared to all that invisible action with reluctant bottom-feeders and snaggy roots doing brief, maddening impersonations of 10lb trout.
Well, not quite…
Between the first, tentative steps of the dry fly novice and that triumphant splash on top of the water, lies a gameplan markedly different from that of his wet fly counterpart.
And it is Peter Cockwill’s job to talk you through it.
Over the last two years, the Trout Fisherman columnist has guided us through each phase of the new flyfisher’s basic education.
With ‘gear’, ‘casting’ and ‘watercraft’ boxes all ticked, it’s time to help you raise your sights and turn from lures to those patterns that work their magic on the water’s surface.
We could have had better days for it. To anyone without a rod in his hand, it’s an idyllic spring morning at Moorhen Trout Fishery, with bright sunshine beaming down on the rolling Hampshire countryside.
To anyone hoping to persuade trout to gaze in the direction of a blue sky, on the other hand, it’s challenging, to say the least.
This is merely my first lesson, however, for even as we’re tackling up, regular pockmarks appear in the surface of the lake, sun or no sun.
When you’re hungry for knowledge in any subject, it’s easy sometimes to pounce upon a general principle and think it infallible. Whatever you’ve been told about trout and their lack of eyelids, however, sunshine doesn’t always sound the death knell for those fishing floating flies.
Interestingly, when FMHalford – Grand Master of the dry fly movement – described bright sun in calm weather as being fatal to success, it was only because he felt that the early 20th-century gut leaders then in vogue would be all too visible in such strong light.
That apart, he declared fishing dries in bright sunshine over rising fish to be “the highest form of fly fishing imaginable”.
Peter Cockwill is a little more prosaic. “There’s a breeze to ruffle the water and stop the sunlight from penetrating so far and the fish have a bit of weed cover just under the surface,” he points out. “We should be okay.”
He has set me up with a nine-foot leader, tapered to 5lb, fished from a floating line and culminating in a 5lb tippet.
“I use 5lb for big flies like Mayflies and 3lb if I’m fishing smaller flies, say size 16s,” he explains, “but the tapered leader always ends with the same diameter as the tippet, so I’m tying like to like.
“The tippet is crucial to the presentation, because if anything in the fly or line causes the slightest drag on the surface as the fly moves in the breeze, a tippet as fine as possible will minimise the effect and the likelihood of putting off the fish.”
If casting far, he adds, he might use just two or three feet of tippet, whereas at closer range, it might be more like 15 or 16 feet.
Astillwater leader, unlike the line and fly to which it’s attached, has to sink, just far enough into the water to avoid creating a wake on the surface.
Ariffle may compensate for a buoyant leader but otherwise you’ll need to apply sinkant.
If so, make sure it spreads no further than its intended destination. You no more want sinkant on your dry fly than you want floatant coming into contact with your leader, so remember to wipe your fingers once the substance in question has been applied. Take care also that none of it touches the hook point, particularly if you’re fishing barbless, as slippery hooks can slide out of a fish as easily as they slid in.
Keeping your fly afloat should be easier on a stillwater than on a lively river but if you find yourself without floatant, brisk false casting (away from the water, so as not to spook fish) will dry your fly and the oil secreted by your skin (on the side of your nose, for example) can be gently rubbed into the fly to improve its buoyancy.
While Peter favours a double taper floating line for dry fly fishing on rivers (“it allows you to aerialise more line and roll cast further”) he opts for a weight-forward floating line on stillwaters, where longer casts are often needed.
On the subject of casting, there’s no retrieve involved with most dry flies, so how they land on the water is how they’ll look to the fish below, which puts the onus on delicate presentation (hence the tapered leader, which improves turnover as line and fly land on the water) and this in turn favours a wide loop in your line during casting. Tight loops may be less wind-resistant but they can cause over-casting, with the fly being driven into the water at speed.
Awider loop has less momentum and your cast ‘dies’ just before reaching its target, allowing the leader to turn over and gently deposit your fly.
Loop size is determined by the section of your back cast or forward cast in which you apply the power surge that shoots line.
The shorter that section is, the tighter your loop will be, so lengthen the surge slightly to broaden the loop but not so much that it throws your whole cast out of kilter (see diagram).
Casting should be no further than necessary: big dries are aerodynamically unsuited to long casts and close-range work makes presentation easier.
Once your fly sits satisfactorily upon the water, it’s easy to feel the hard work is done; yet it may only just be starting.
If the occasion calls for small, dark flies and the breeze is putting a ripple on the water, you can feel a bit cheated, as you squint towards where your fly is meant to be. Suddenly, the most visible form of flyfishing seems anything but. As long as you’re satisfied the fly hasn’t become waterlogged and sunk, however, it is simply a matter of adapting your game: focusing on the area in which your fly should be and responding to any surface disturbance in the neighbourhood. All the while, keep your rod tip close to the water, to reduce slack line and therefore the time lapse between lifting your wrist in response to a take and actually setting the hook.
Garish fly lines aren’t universally popular but a high-visibility version comes into its own in these circumstances. If you can clearly make out the end of your line, and you know the length of your leader, you can establish the arc of water in which your fly is likely to be. Also, as with nymphing, a sudden twitch in the tip of your line can be your only clue as to a subtle take. Keep the leading section of your line clean and de-greased, therefore, to maintain its buoyancy.
As for spotting the more subtle takes, some skills can be acquired only through bitter experience. If Ihad a fiver for every time Peter spotted a rise that Ihadn’t, Icould have restocked my entire tackle shed at Farlows of Pall Mall on the way home and still had change.
Even those takes Idid see were mostly ancient history by the time my hand-eye co-ordination had run its course. When people talk about the ‘window of opportunity’ in dry fly fishing, they mean one of those slits you see in castle walls…
If I can pass on one pointer from my limited experience at this type of fishing, it’s better to strike at shadows all morning than to have fish nibbling at your fly with impunity because you were waiting for the Unmistakeable Take.
It’s another of those ‘infallible principles’ we fall for, Ithink, the idea that to strike is to spook every fish in the vicinity, so we’re reluctant to do it. This isn’t sea fishing, though: you don’t have to strike with the force of a javelin thrower. Just a flick of the wrist does the job and if the ‘take’ turns out to be an illusion, all that happens is that your fly lands a few feet from its original position.
Far from spooking fish, this can be something of a turn-on. They’re used to certain newly-hatched insects skittering across the surface to dry their wings before take-off, so if a static fly is attracting little interest, try raising your rod tip and shaking it gently from side to side while stripping in line.
Peter had some success with that theme today, twitching a Muddler Daddy through the surface film, while his protégé eventually found a fish willing to make such a ruckus around an Olive High Rider CdC Sedge that not even Icould miss it.
Which, Inow know, is all it takes. My first try at this ‘easier’ fishing had left me feeling as frustrated and inadequate as a man can be when discovering that he has the reflexes of a carthorse, yet one splash, one taut line, one rainbow and I’d signed up for life.
Idon’t agree with those who insist that dry fly fishing is the only type there is. Ican, however, see where they’re coming from.