In the sport of fly-fishing, the use of the dry fly is possibly the least understood technique.
Most kiwis, when picking up the fly rod, are quick to go straight to their old favourite and tie on their standard pheasant tail or hare and copper nymph. They then head out to the water to start searching the depths of the streams for every possible fish.
Not taking anything away from nymph fishing because when the nymph is fished well, it is the most effective way of hooking and catching fish. A staggering ninety per cent of the food taken by trout is eaten sub surface over the course of the year. Fishing nymphs is at its best over the cooler months so from March through winter to December it should be your “go to” technique.
The big difference between nymph versus dry fly is when fishing over the summer months on rivers. During summer there is a two to three month window where both the rainbow and brown trout are predominantly looking up to feed. During this time it is often possible to out fish the sub surface nymph anglers by using dry flies.
Depending on the size and depth of the river being fished, you can change your approach to use a range of patterns from small size 12 and 14 mayfly and caddis patterns to the massive size 6 or 8 terrestrial patterns when the cicadas and the like are on the wing. The big difference between the two techniques is the visual experience.
Jim from Scott Fly Rods releases a prime back country rainbow caught on the dry fly.
When nymph fishing, most anglers search the water blind, concentrating on their indicator. When it dips under the water they strike to a fish, hopefully, on the end.
Fishing the dry fly is all visual, even if you haven’t spotted a fish and are covering a likely looking fish holding area, you see your fly get eaten.
Watching a large trout move up through the water column to take your fly off the surface is second to none, your heart jumps out of your chest and it will make your knees knock because you see it all unfold before you. For me it is the pinnacle and the ultimate trout fishing experience.
The rise When a trout intercepts a floating insect, the surface disturbance and resulting tell tale rings left by the fish is called a “rise.” By closely observing the rise, an angler can pick up the fish’s location and sometimes what the fish is feeding on.
The most common mistake that inexperienced anglers make is when they see a rise, they cast directly at the rise form. The problem the angler has is the rings flow downstream with the current. This means that often by the time the angler has registered the rise, the rings have moved, up to one or two meters downstream depending on the speed of the current.
Mike Davis nets a fish in summer pocket water, great terrestrial dry fly habitat.
When trout are on station and feeding in the river, the fish faces into the current watching food drift down to them. Once the food is located, the trout begins to drift downstream and lifts in the current as it is inspecting the food and decides on whether or not the food source or imitation will be eaten. The trout then disturbs or breaks the surface, taking the insect and leaves rings where the insect was floating.
After taking in the food item, the fish then expels air through the gills leaving a small bubble trail and then returns upstream to its feeding station. The golden rule is to “always cast in front of the rise form.” Be sure to give it at least 1-2m upstream of the disturbance.
There are times when this may not happen such as in very slow pools or in still water. Sometimes in these cases, the fish will often move forward to take something off the surface and then continue to move forward working a beat, instead of returning to its former feeding lie as it would in moving water. When this is happening, if you cannot see the fish, pick the direction that the fish is traveling and try to intercept the fish’s line by casting well ahead of it.
As a general rule, try not to cast too close to the last rise as you risk spooking the fish by landing the fly too close to it. If you end up casting too far ahead of the fish and it does not see your offering, you will normally get the opportunity to then cast again to the fish.
Hatches Dry flies come in a huge range of shapes and sizes to cover a wide variety of situations. Most people view dry fly fishing as “matching the hatch” or fishing with imitative patterns of a particular insect that is hatching at any given time. This usually covers specific insect hatches such as caddis, mayfly, stonefly and sometimes midge hatches which can at times break out in their thousands.
Simon Ward chases a hard fighting rainbow down the rapids in the Central North Island.
To be a good consistent angler one has to understand the fish’s preference and behavior in catching food. Therefore having an understanding of the streamside insects is really important.
The large caddis hatches usually happen in the evenings on many of our larger rivers such as the Waikato, Tongariro and the Whanganui.
You will be able to fish from an hour before dark and sometimes the hatches will produce fantastic dry fly fishing, which can continue all the way into the middle of night in complete darkness.
In New Zealand we only have a few waterways that have huge specific mayfly hatches; the Mataura in Southland and the Tukituki in the Hawkes Bay.
On many of New Zealand’s rivers we don’t actually get heavily concentrated hatches and most of the time if you’re observant you will see mayflies, caddis and stoneflies all hatching at once.
Included with these insects over the heat of the summer are terrestrials like beetles, cicadas, crickets and grasshoppers. These will all be active, increasing the food supply to the fish.
Opportunity knocks When there is no specific hatch happening, we need to understand that trout are opportunistic feeders that will eat nearly anything, as long as it doesn’t require too much expended energy in catching its prey. This means that the presentation of the fly is far more important than the pattern used.
In shallower water smaller fly patterns can be very effective, as they tend to create less disturbance on the surface when they land, so there is less chance of spooking the fish. They can also be used very successfully on fish that have had lots of fishing pressure.
Conversely on backcountry streams, medium to large rivers, deep guts, water deeper than a metre or in faster sections of pocket water, a large fly can be deadly. In faster water the fish only has a split second to decide if it is going to rise to the surface and engulf the fly. A large fly becomes a big meal and therefore the fish will rarely refuse a well presented terrestrial pattern when used in the right water.
Over the hot summer period, trout will often move into parts of the river that the angler is not used to seeing them in. This is because they’re not holding through these sections over the colder months.
Many anglers tend to fish from pool to pool and will miss out on some great fishing in between.
Often areas of highly oxygenated pocket water will hold surprisingly high numbers of fish and some really large fish.
Phil Davis about to release a South Island high country rainbow.
When the fish are stacked up in the pocket water you can experience some of the greatest fishing ever. The fish hit the flies hard and when they run downstream the angler can often be dragged along way downstream. If this happens be sure to follow the fish downstream and put plenty of side strain on the fish or your experience will end in disaster.
Gear Dry fly fishing is all about presentation of the fly so leave your heavy 8# set that you take to Rotorua and Taupo at home. Fish with 5# and 6# fly rods that have the ability to load up in close quarters. The rods are designed to cast with accuracy at close range but have enough stopping power in the butt to hold large fish in close.
Use floating fly lines that aren’t too aggressive in the delivery. They should have a long front taper so they don’t hit the water too hard and turn over flies gently.
The leader construction is really important. Many nymph fisher’s just use a straight length of nylon or fluorocarbon for their leader. To turn over dries properly you need to use a tapered leader.
Most tapered leaders are 2.7m (9ft) in length but you can get them up to 3.6m (12ft). The thick end, which attaches to the fly line, is approximately 24kg (50lb) and tapers down from that. I normally use leaders that have a tip down to 4-5kg (9 or 10lb) and then attach my tippet to the end of that which is slightly lighter again.
When using large dries, fish with heavier tippets and they will carry more energy through the air, which will aid in turning over a larger fly.
With smaller patterns where more delicacy is needed, use lighter tapered leaders and lighter tippets. This will help the fly to land with more finesse, making them perfect for shallow water and small streams.
Mike Davis targeting pocket water mid summer.
Often on lowland streams where the insects are smaller, an approach like this is needed.
Make your leaders longer when dry fly fishing than you would when you are nymph fishing, this may be 4.5-5.4m (15-18ft). The longer your leader is, the further your drift should be before drag effects the drift of your dry fly as it comes downstream. It is very rare for a fish to ever take a dry fly that has been affected by drag.
The only exception maybe in some caddis hatches when they take a skating insect across the water’s surface.
By working hard on your drag free drift, you will hook more fish than ever before and the overall length of your leader has a really important part to play in this.
Lastly, when hooking fish with dry flies, wait for the fish to turn back down before setting the hooks.
The timing of this can sometimes be difficult and the first time out with dries can be hard to consistently hook fish. Some people use terms like “God save the Queen” before striking but this can change depending on the speed that the fish takes the fly. If you wait until the fish turns down, you will hook many fish.
The serious backcountry angler loves the summer months. Large fish hooked on large dries that have been spotted and cast to is absolutely addictive. Gorges can be explored that were inaccessible only a couple of months ago.
The warm mountain water in a beautiful environment is pretty hard to beat, so this summer get out and explore different water, with a variety of dries. Fish some pocket water and hold on tight, it’s addictive.