Dry Fly Presentations--Part 1

By Scott Richmond

The First Big Challenge: Drag

You could select a dry fly from your fly box, dress it with floatant, and drop it on the river, unattached to line or leader. It would float downstream naturally, like a real insect. If you chose the pattern well and launched it so the current would take it to a hungry trout, the trout would probably rise to it.

You might derive some pleasure from fooling a fish in this way, but most people think fishing is more fun when they're connected to the fly by line and leader.

To quote Hamlet, "Aye, there's the rub." That line-leader-fly connection causes two problems: it creates drag, and it can spook the trout. Avoiding those two problems is the essence of good dry fly presentation. So before we immerse ourselves into the details of what we want to achieve, we have to consider the details of what we want to avoid.

River currents are rarely constant in direction or speed, so one part of your line and leader may be tugged quickly downstream, while a different part is being pulled slowly to the side. The result is that the line yanks the fly this way and that, making it drift in an unnatural manner that we call drag.

Drag can be quite obvious, even for beginning fly anglers: your fly moves across the water, leaving a V-wake, or it doesn't move at all, or it just "doesn't look right." Another way to spot drag is to watch the bubbles or flotsam near your fly: if they are moving at a different rate than your fly, you've got a problem.

Sometimes, however, drag is quite subtle and hard for humans to detect. Trout, howver, spend their lives looking at stuff drifting down the river and can spot drag in an instant. They make quick "it's food/it's not food" decisions, and when they see a dragging fly they usually decide "not food" and look for something more natural to put in their mouth.


The Second Big Challenge: Spooking Fish

Your floating fly line is opaque, so a trout can see it quite easily and become cautious or even frightened by it. And a cautious or frightened fish is unlikely to grab your fly. That's why your leader is clear and puts distance between the fly and the line so that the trout's natural suspicions are diminished. The clearer the water, the farther the trout can see and the longer your leader needs to be.

Unfortunately, no leader is invisible, nor are leaders perfectly flexible. Thinner tippets are needed in spring creeks because they are harder for the trout to spot. A thin tippet also reduces drag because it is more flexible and lets the fly move more naturally.


Tackle Choices

Some anglers advocate "rules" for choosing a tippet based on how it affects casting the fly: thin tippets for small flies, large tippets for large flies. There is logic to this because it's difficult for a small, limp tippet to turn over a large bushy fly, and if your fly and leader land in a pile you may spook the trout.

However, there are times to break the rules. When fishing a size 8 October caddis pattern on a spring creek, you may need a 6X or 7X tippet to even get a strike. Conversely, when you're presenting a size 20 Griffiths Gnat to a five-pound rainbow, you might want something more substantial than 6X.

Rod choice can also reduce the spook factor. A three- or four-weight rod will present the fly more delicately than a six-weight. On the other hand, line and leader may "die" when casting a three-weight into a headwind. Further, you might have real trouble tossing a bushy fly such as a big Stimulator.

Rod and leader choices-like so many fly fishing options-are compromises. There are guidelines, but no invariable rules.


Up-And-Across Presentation

The bread-and-butter dry fly presentation is an upstream cast that is at an angle across the current. Casting up-and-across puts the line and leader off to the side where the trout is less likely to spot them. "Spook" has been minimized, but the opportunity for drag is increased because the line and leader may pass several bands of current that are moving in different directions and at different speeds.

Fortunately there are ways of dealing with this drag. Book chapters could be (and have been) written about each of them. They are briefly described below.

  1. Location, location, location. Before casting, take a good look at the currents and see where the problems may arise. By carefully positioning yourself, you can reduce the drag problems.
  2. Mending. Mending means changing how the line lies on the water. For example, if you mend so the part of the line that is in fast water is upstream from the part of the line that is in slow water, the two parts of the line have a chance to catch-up with each other, thus delaying the onset of drag.
  3. Shorter Casts. The shorter the cast, the less line you have on the water, and the less chance there is for drag.
  4. Shorter Drifts. The longer your fly drifts, the more chance there is for the current to pick at the line and create drag. So shorter drifts are usually better.
  5. Reach Cast. During the final forward stroke of your cast (when you are delivering the fly), reach your rod hand to one side. This lays the fly line in a different place, which (you hope) has less drag. A reach cast is a cast with a built-in mend.
  6. Wiggle Cast. During the final forward stroke, wiggle the rod from side-to-side (not too fast, and not too many wiggles). This puts "S" curves in your line. As your fly drifts, the current pulls out the slack, delaying the onset of drag. Wiggle the rod early in the delivery to put S curves near the fly; wiggle it later to put the curves farther from the fly.


This is the first part of a two-part article. The second part describes other dry fly presentations and has more tips for dry fly fishing.

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).