Wet Fly Presentations--Part 1

By Scott Richmond

Anglers casting a wet fly face many of the same challenges that they encounter when fishing with a dry fly. As with dries, a drag-free drift is essential most of the time (there are exceptions, of course), and it's important not to spook the trout. However, wet-fly anglers face the additional challenge of achieving the right depth.

What is the right depth? That depends on whether the fish are "looking up," which means they expect to find food on the surface or in the upper part of the water column, or "looking down," which is when they expect their next meal to drift along near the bottom.

When they're looking up, a dry fly, emerger, or pupa pattern is usually the right choice; that situation is covered in the article on dry fly presentations.

When they're looking down, a nymph dead-drifted near the bottom is generally the right tactic. This two-part article describes two ways to do that: a deep nymph with an indicator; and a deep nymph on a tight line.

Sometimes trout expect their food to be in the middle of the water column, as when a nymph or pupa is rising from the bottom to the surface. This situation calls for the "rising nymph" presentation.

And there are times when you need to imitate a swimming insect or baitfish. A wet fly swing, either near the surface or deep, is the right response.

These six presentations are described in the second part of this article. But before delving into the details of deep nymphing, we need to look at some of the ways to get our nymph down near the river bottom.

How to Get It Down

During non-hatch times (and sometimes even during a hatch), nymphs should be presented near the bottom--usually within 10 inches. Just a few inches in depth can make all the difference to your fishing. Here are some ways to get your fly down where it belongs.

  1. Weight on the leader. This can be a split shot, a "Twist On," or moldable weight. Add the weight 12-18 inches from the fly. (Adding weight to the leader is against the regulations on some waters, such as Oregon's fly-only fisheries; check your regs carefully). Unfortunately, weight on the leader will make your rig difficult to cast. It's very easy to get the leader hopelessly tangled around the weight. Also, accuracy and distance are sacrificed. For easier casting, open up your casting loop when tossing a weighted rig. Also, slow down the casting stroke and make sure the backcast has time to straighten out behind you. And do as little false casting as possible. The longer and thinner your weight, the easier it is to cast, which is one of the advantages of moldable weight; you can squeeze it around the leader in a ball, then roll it out so it's long and thin. Many fly shops sell handy dispensers with several sizes of shot. For all products, there are good, environmentally friendly alternatives to using lead.
  2. Use a weighted fly. Buy or tie flies with weight under the dubbing, or with a beadhead. (Basically, a beadhead is a split shot on the fly instead of on the leader). A beadhead makes it easier for a small fly to not get "fat" and out of proportion due to weight under the dubbing. Beadheads avoid many of the casting problems that are created by putting a weight on the leader.
  3. Use a two fly rig. With very small nymphs, such as the size 18 or 20 nymphs that imitate blue-winged olives, you can't put enough weight on the fly to make it sink quickly in moderate to fast current. A solution is to use a very heavy fly, such as a heavily-weighted stonefly nymph, in combination with the small fly. One way to do this is to tie a blood knot in the tippet, but leave one of the tag ends extra long. Then tie the small nymph to this tag end and the heavy fly to the tippet end. The tag end should be 2-3 inches long after the small fly is tied on. Another way to put together a two-fly rig is to tie the heavy fly to the end of the tippet. Then clinch knot a 12-18 inch length of tippet material to the bend of the hook. Tie the small fly to the other end. One advantage of a two-fly rig is that you present two different patterns to the trout. A disadvantage is that when the rig is irretrievably hung up on a submerged rock, you will loose twice as many flies.
  4. Use thinner leader. Drag is proportionate to the thickness of the leader. So using thinner leader creates less drag, which lets the fly sink faster.
  5. Pile line. After your fly hits the water, throw in a quick mini-cast or two so slack line piles on top of the water at the point where the fly went in. This reduces drag and lets the fly sink faster.

This is the first of a two-part article on basic wet fly tactics for rivers. The second part describes six presentations.

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).