Wet Fly Presentations--Part 2

By Scott Richmond

This is the second part of a two-part article on basic wet fly tactics. The first part described ways to get your fly down deep. In this part, five wet fly presentations are described.

Deep nymph with an Indicator

Put a strike indicator on your leader 6 to 8 feet from the fly. Cast upstream. Ideally, the fly and indicator should be in a straight line, parallel with the current; mend line if necessary. Treat the indicator like a dry fly, and attempt to give it a drag-free drift.

As soon as the indicator sinks, jerks, moves sideways, or does anything that looks unnatural, swing your rod downstream. Swing it hard, maybe even hauling in line with your free hand. With this presentation there is always more slack than you realize, so you need to move a lot of line to set the hook.

Cast several times to cover the breadth of reachable water in front of you. Then take two or three steps upstream and start again. It can take many casts to cover the water effectively.

Thirty feet is about as far as you should cast with this set-up. Beyond that distance it's difficult to detect the subtle motions of the indicator that show a strike, and it's even harder to pull in enough slack line to set the hook.

A very heavy fly such as a stonefly nymph can easily sink your indicator if the water is deep or slow. If this happens move the indicator up the leader, lengthening the leader if necessary. If the indicator continues to sink, you need a bigger indicator. It's possible to have too big an indicator, however. If it's too big, you won't be able to tell when a fish takes the fly.

Strike indicators take many forms. You can tie an inch or two of polypropylene yarn into the leader and dress the yarn with floatant. Alternatively, fly shops sell ready-made indicators. Some types twist onto the leader, some are little patches of sticky foam that are wrapped around the leader, and some are bright-colored styrofoam balls with a hole through which the leader passes (the indicator is held in place with a toothpick). A variation on this latter indicator is to use a Corkie, a common accessory for steelhead drift anglers.

Anglers develop personal preferences for each type of indicator, so it's best to experiment and see what best fits your fishing style.

There is a specialized--and very effective--style of indicator fishing called the "California Rig." A steelhead version of this is desribed in the article Dead Drift Steelhead Fly Fishing. A similar rig can be used for trout fishing.

Deep Nymph on a Tight Line

Cast upstream with a short line--around 15 feet, including leader, past the rod tip. As soon as the fly hits the water, mend line so all the line and leader is upstream from the fly. As the fly comes back to you, keep a tight line by lifting the rod. Lower the rod as the fly passes you. Watch the line where it moves through the water. If it hesitates or stops, lift the rod enough to set the hook-you won't need to move it much because you have a tight line.

Cast several times to cover the breadth of reachable water in front of you. Then take two or three steps upstream and start again.

Note: With this tactic, knowing when to strike is an intuition that is developed only with practice. For this reason, tight-line nymphing is more difficult than fishing with an indicator. That's why some anglers reagard it as "more cool." They might catch fewer trout, but they feel smugger about it.

Rising Nymph

Cast upstream and allow the fly to sink, which will take longer than you think. Control slack line by gathering it back to you as the fly drifts towards downstream. When you think you're on the bottom and near a fish, lift the rod slowly to bring the fly to the surface. This tactic is most useful when you know, or strongly suspect, where a trout is laying. It is not a good searching tactic.

Another method of presenting a rising nymph requires a small indicator and a floating line. The distance between the fly and the indicator should be approximately the depth of the water. Cast downstream at an angle to the current. Mend line downstream so there is a slight bow in the fly line. This creates drag (normally a no-no) and the indicator will start to move accross the current. The result is that the fly rises. This tactic works best in slow flows. It can be very effective in spring creeks.

Wet Fly Swing Near the Surface

Cast straight across stream in slow water, or at more of an angle (up to 60 degrees) in faster water. Mend upstream or downstream so that the fly moves across the river at about the same speed it moves down the river. Let the fly swing until it is directly below you, then let it hang there for a few seconds before casting again.

Throughout your fly's drift, watch the water in the vicinity of the fly. You are looking for a bulge in the water, or a dorsal fin that breaks the surface. Don't strike! Fish will usually hook themselves. When this happens, swing the rod towards the bank. This helps to pull the hook into the corner of the trout's jaw, which is a more secure place to hook a fish.

To cover the water, cast a short line first, and lengthen each cast by two or three feet. When you reach the limit of your casting, take a step or two downstream and cast again with the same length of line.

This presentation works well with Soft Hackle flies, sculpin and baitfish patterns, and several types of swimming or egg-laying mayflies.

Deep Wet Fly Swing

This presentation is useful when you're fishing to large, predatory trout that are lying under an undercut bank, as big brown trout are fond of doing.

If the normal wet fly swing isn't getting deep enough, switch to a sink-tip line and a heavily-weighted fly. Cast upstream of the suspected lie and let the fly swing across. Slack line needs to be carefully managed: you need to keep contact with the fly, but you also need to feed just enough line so the fly will sink and drift into the hole.

Shallow Nymph

During a hatch, emerging nymphs and pupae often drift only an inch or two underwater. Sometimes they may be only a fraction of an inch below the surface. In these situations the tactics are virtually identical to those for presenting a dry fly. Unlike dry fly fishing, however, your offering is usually not visible to you. Therefore it can be dragging unnaturally without you knowing it. Also, subtle takes can be difficult to detect.

For these reasons many anglers use a small indicator. They treat the indicator like a dry fly, mending line when it looks like it might drag and striking when it disappears. A disadvantage of this approach is that the indicator creates some splash and fuss when it lands, so it can spook wary trout. It's also close to the fly, and that can make trout suspicious, too.

Other anglers simply replace the indicator with a dry fly. They tie the dry to the tippet, then clinch-knot 18-24 inches of leader to the dry's hook bend. The nymph goes at the end of this short leader. The dry fly acts as an indictor, and there might be a trout that prefers the dry. A common late-summer tactic is the "hopper-dropper" combination: a grasshopper pattern with a small nymph as a trailer. The disadvantages of any two-fly combination, however, are that the two flies may be in different currents, which will make neither fly drift naturally. One dragging fly is bad enough, but two draggers is the pits.

So if you really want to feel cool you can just cast your shallow wet fly without any surface accoutrements. Watch the area near the fly, especially the line/leader junction. Tighten up on anything that looks like a take--a swirl or bulge near the fly, a slight movement of the line, a dorsal fin that breaks the surface. It will be very difficult to detect drag.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).