How to Catch Trout on Flies, Part 1: Dry Flies

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Fly fishing a stream

Presenting the fly isn’t just about casting; it’s the entire strategy of not only putting the fly where the trout will eat it, but also allowing the fly to move in a natural manner.

In most dry-fly fishing, a “natural” presentation is dead-drift, which means your floating fly is moving at the same speed and direction as the surface current. Some insects such as stoneflies and caddis skitter or crawl across the surface of the water and require a “skated” dry fly. Other surface flies such as bass popping bugs require an active retrieve but aren’t normally referred to as dry flies.

Dry-fly fishing is considered by many anglers to be the most enjoyable kind of fly fishing. In subsurface fishing, you usually guess or try to predict where the fish is, you can’t see your fly or track its progress visually, and the strike is not visual—you must feel it or get visual clues from a strike indicator.

Conversely, fly fishers love dry-fly fishing because they usually know where their quarry is, they often observe the fish feeding—which gives them accurate insight into what they’re eating—and, most importantly, they can see the fish take the fly.

A trout eating a dry fly is the singular moment in fly fishing that sets it apart from all other types of fishing. So how do you get to that point? A good dry-fly presentation has three critical elements position (of the angler), casting, and then mending and line control.

First, you must walk, wade, or maneuver your boat in the most favorable position relative to the fish. You may be the world’s best caster but unless you move to the best position, you are not planning your presentation.

Fly Fishing - the reach cast
Use a reach cast after the end of your forward stroke, just as the line unrolls in the air. Reach your arm upstream while keeping the rod tip height and place the belly of the line farther upstream than the fly.

The best position is one that gets you as close as possible to the fish without the fish seeing you, and one that inherently helps you defeat drag. Of course, the depth and speed of the water, trees and shrubs along the bank, the riverbank itself, and many other obstructions limit your options.

If you are fishing a river that is easy to wade, a uniform 2˝ feet deep, with a golf-course manicured riverbank, you can stand wherever you want but in most waters, things are complicated and you’ll have to do more strategizing.

There are five main presentation positions, each is described relative to the position of the fish downstream, down and across, across, up and across, and upstream.

Fly Fishing Presentation
There are five main presentation positions. Use an upstream or up-and-across presentation as much as possible. Use a downstream or down-and-across presentation for especially spooky trout in shallow, clear water. Use an across-stream presentation from a drifting boat or as a last resort while wading.

The upstream presentation is often the easiest and most effective for dead-drifting dry flies because you are downstream or directly behind the fish. While you are in the trout’s “blind spot” (directly behind it) you can often get close to the fish—regularly within 30 feet or less.

Because the current is coming directly toward you, all you have to do is make a straight upstream cast directly over the fish. There is very little mending or fancy casting involved.

The fly line should land behind the fish, the leader should land just behind the fish, the tippet just over the fish, and the fly should land in front of the fish in its feeding lane. If you cast too far and allow the fly line to splash down on top of or in front of the fish where it is watching for food items (or predators) you will likely spook the fish and lose your opportunity. This is called “lining” the fish.

When you make the right cast, the fly lands just upstream of the fish. As the fly and line drift downstream toward you, put the line under the index finger of your rod hand, and with your opposite hand, strip in line to remove slack from your system.

In most other dry-fly presentations, you often need to introduce slack to create a dead drift. However, in an upstream presentation, the distance between the fly and your rod tip begins to shrink as soon as the fly touches down, and you are usually standing in the same current speed as your target.

You must remove slack efficiently so you can effectively strike when the fish takes the fly and so that if/when the fly passes the fish, you can effectively pick up the line and quickly cast again. If you have coils of loose slack you won’t be able to strike or cast—you’ll just end up with a tangle of line around your legs.

The upstream presentation is most effectively and commonly used on big rivers when fish are rising in shallow water close to the bank, and also in shallow tailouts and other areas where you can sneak up behind the fish. In small creeks and streams it is often the only presentation possible—close shrubs and bushes and spooky fish often prevent you from coming at the fish from any other angle.

The up-and-across presentation presents a more complicated scenario. If the fish is upstream from you at a 45-degree angle you are potentially in its field of vision, therefore the distance to your target is often greater than in an upstream presentation.

More importantly, when the fish is up and across, you generally have the current working against you, pulling at the line between you and the fish, and making the fly act unnaturally.

Imagine that you are standing in the center of a medium-size stream, and a trout is holding near the bank, upstream from you, eating drifting mayfly duns. Because of the current and streamside foliage, the middle of the stream is the only place you can stand. You make your first cast perfectly (you think) and the line unrolls at a 45-degree angle across the stream, and the fly drops just 4 feet ahead of the trout.

“Perfect!” you think, but then the current between you and the trout quickly pulls the line into a U shape with the bottom of the U hurtling downstream much faster than the current along the bank. Before the fly even gets to the trout, the U-shaped line draws the fly away from the fish. This is called “drag”—it’s the opposite of a dead-drift, and it’s exactly what you don’t want.

To prevent drag in this situation, the easiest solution is usually to anticipate the affect of the current, and place slack in the line to counteract the downstream drag. To do this, you must make an upstream reach cast or an upstream mend (or both).

Make your reach cast at the end of a normal cast, just as the line unrolls in the air. Reach your arm far to the side (upstream), while keeping the rod tip high, and lean your body to the side to place the belly of the line farther upstream than the fly. The extra length of line on the water, positioned upstream of the fly, may give your fly enough time to drift naturally down to the trout.

Mending the line
The upstream mend is similar to a reach cast, but occurs after the line is already on the water. To make an upstream mend, lift your rod tips high and with a flick of the wrist, place a bow of line upstream.

Mending is a line control/manipulation method that happens after the line is already on the water, and your fly is drifting toward the target. If you are making an up-and-across presentation, and can see that the current is dragging the belly of the fly line and will soon drag the fly, you can make an upstream mend to counteract it. To make an upstream mend, lift your rod tip high—try to lift only the line that is dragging—and then with an upstream flick of the wrist, “mend” the line upstream.

Mending your line in this way is an extremely valuable skill. Your goal is to try and control the line on the water to defeat drag without moving the fly. If your mending moves the fly unnaturally, you may be doing more harm than good, so keep your eye on the fly while you are mending and don’t over-do it.

When presenting a fly to a fish directly across-stream, you have many of the same problems as in the up-and-across presentation, namely the current between you and the fish is pulling the line downstream and dragging the fly. A reach cast or an upstream mend (as above) can counteract drag but you have other options as well.

468 x 60 Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing - the S Cast
To make an S-cast, stop the rod on your forward cast as usual, and as the line falls to the water, make a series of side-to-side rod movements to throw slack into your line.

Instead of introducing one large upstream-oriented section of slack, you could use a tug cast or S-cast to create slack along the length of the line. As the current draws the line downstream, it will remove this extra slack, and your fly will (hopefully) drift naturally until the curves disappear and the line begins to draw tight.

To make a tug cast, put more line in the air than you need, as if you are about to overshoot your target. As the line unrolls in the air, jerk or tug the line backward slightly so your fly hits the target and the extra line in your system falls into a series of S curves on the water.

Down-and-across presentations also provide good opportunities to use tug casts. When you tug the line backward, you should be able to create enough slack in the line to drift the fly down to the fish. Be sure to allow the fly to drift past the fish and then out of the fish’s feeding lane before you pick up and cast again.

Fly Fishing - the Tug Cast
To make a tug cast, overshoot your target and as the line unrolls in the air, and the fly passes your target, tug or jerk the line backward slightly so your fly hits the target and the extra line in your system falls to the water in a series of slack curves.

You can also use an S-cast to create slack for down-and-across presentations. To make an S-cast, stop the rod on your forward cast as usual, then as the line falls to the water, make a series of wig-wag horizontal rod movements to create back-and-forth S curves in the line. As your fly floats toward the trout, the line will gradually straighten, but your fly will float dead-drift long enough to (hopefully) fool the fish.

On most waters, the down-and-across presentation is one of the least-used, because if the trout is feeding near the bank, you must be out in the main current, and on many large rivers it’s not possible to do this unless you are on an anchored boat. Also, on small streams, you spook too many fish moving downstream, so fly fishers usually move and fish upstream.

However, the down-and-across presentation may be the best presentation you can make on waters where the trout are highly pressured and wary of overhead lines and leaders.

On the Henry’s Fork of the Snake, near Last Chance, Idaho, the river in many places is wide and shallow enough to wade far into the current, and cast back toward the bank, and many expert anglers prefer this presentation to all others. Others prefer a direct downstream presentation when fishing from the bank to “bank feeders.”

The advantage to this presentation is that you never cast over the fish. The fly reaches the fish first and if the fish refuses, the fly floats past, and the leader and the line float to the side of the trout.

A straight downstream presentation is sometimes the most advantageous presentation—such as when a trout is rising in front of a large boulder or when fishing downstream to bank feeders.

The best downstream presentation is usually a combination of a tug cast, S-cast, or a reach cast.

To introduce even more slack as the line is floating directly away from you, use stack mends—flip the rod tip up and down and use water tension to draw extra line out of your line hand and onto the water in loose coils.

As you progress as a fly fisher, you’ll learn many more casts—like the slack leader cast and the stack or parachute cast—to help you defeat drag. The casts discussed here are just starting points on your journey toward becoming an expert fly fisher.

The next installment in this series of articles will look at techniques for using nymphs to catch trout.

This article is reproduced here courtesy of

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