Trout fishing with Dry Flies

Grumpy McMurdo Fishing Tips

A lot of elitist talk has gone down about fishing the dry fly. Yet, out of the various forms of fly fishing, it’s probably the easiest to master. For one thing, it is visual. You don’t have to decide whether or not a fly has been taken, it’s obvious — at least to those who can see the fly on the surface.

Having said that, I well remember the struggle I had to land my first trout on the dry fly. Surrounded by the ethereal woodlands of Lake Daniells I broke off several rainbow through striking too hard, and mistimed others. Finally, on attempt number 22 the jaws of a 3-pound jack plucked my Love’s Lure from the surface. This time my strike was ‘just right’. After a couple of searing runs the fish was safely in the net.

But why start with the difficult? The dry fly is easier to use in streams. For a start, there is the force of the current to supplement the pumping action of the gills as the fly is taken. The jaws close sooner to prevent the current washing the fly away. And a trout will most likely be facing away from you, so the fly is likely to end up safely in the back of the mouth. I once caught a one-eyed rainbow in a Hawkes Bay stream (surprisingly not in Canterbury!). It seemed to have no trouble in locating and snatching my dry fly in a bumpy flow. Maybe there is some kind of sonar involved here.

When spotting fish, it is important to observe how high a trout is sitting in the water. If it is close to the surface, it’s a safe bet your fish is either looking for emergers or floating insects in the surface film.

A couple of weekends back, a beginner fly fisherman accessed the lower Hurunui at a place I’d suggested to him. He walked upstream to a pool where he spotted four trout rising to insects on the surface. After trying a nymph without success he changed to a brown hackle dry fly and proceeded to hook four browns, landing three in the five- to six-pound category. The last one took a Humphrey Blowfly. He was buzzing with excitement when he rang me early that afternoon.

Living for more than three years in Harihari, within ten minutes of three world-class streams, I learned that you didn’t have to wait for trout to rise before you could use the dry fly. An attractor pattern such as a Royal Wulff will raise trout not feeding on the surface. At other times a trout will continue to feed selectively while you drift a whole range of dries and nymphs past it. Success in those circumstances is sweet indeed.

It was also in South Westland that I began using the combo: a dry fly tied on a short ledger with a triple surgeons knot about eighteen inches above a trailing nymph. This covers all eventualities. If the nymph is taken, the pause in the dry indicates when to strike. If the dry is taken, care must be taken not to snag the nymph on the net before the fish is safely inside. The weight of the nymph can be an asset when punching your dry fly into a head wind.

Sometimes, when trout are selectively feeding on surface insects, a small trailing nymph will take trout when your attempt to ‘match the hatch’ fails to deliver.

It isn’t necessary to wait for summer months before using a dry fly. I had a trout take my dry fly in South Westland’s Wanganui River in June. However, summer months are better because of the greater frequency of insect hatches and the greater abundance of terrestrials such as cicadas. Great sport can be had in January in the streams of the Ruahines when cicadas abound. The rainbows aren’t too bothered about the exact pattern. Anything like a size 8 or 10 Royal Wulff does the trick.

Deep water can be difficult to fish, but if trout are on the surface, there is a good chance they can be taken with the dry fly. Last February I spent a weekend in Omarama. On the Sunday morning Murray and I headed for the upper Ahuriri. I was to learn a lesson about the kind of river bottom trout will lie over when taking flies off the surface. I crossed while Murray opted for the near bank. I lost a small fish on the nymph, then Murray lost a bigger one after a long fight. I blind fished an area with just the kind of rocky base that would suggest fish, but it wasn’t until I came across a bottom of grey silt that I spotted my first trout.

Further upstream, Murray spotted trout rises on my side of the river. They were feeding on the inside of a bend. Here the water was deep with a silty bottom. Soon I’d landed a couple of two-pound browns on a Size 12 Peacock Humpy. Then I made my way upstream to a shallower section of river, also with a silty bottom. I cast into the lower section. A fish rose to the fly, but it didn’t hook up. Next cast a fish zoomed out from the bank and quaffed the fly. That one was 5 pounds. Next cast: same thing. This fish tore upstream onto backing. I lost that when the leader knot unravelled.

Four casts, four rises. Something has to be happening on the surface for that kind of action. But why were the fish in that area? There were mayflies about, and cicadas. If they were on mayflies, were there more hatching above the silt than above the stones? Did the light grey reflection of the bottom on the surface allow the darker coloured flies to be seen more easily? Was it because the surface was smoother above the silt?

Further upstream I tried to coax a trout to take my fly, yelling, ‘Take it! Take it!’ at the top of my voice. ‘Take it!’ echoed Murray from the far bank. But to no avail.

Later a 2-pound brown caught on the blind with a Humphrey blowfly topped a great morning of dry fly fishing.

Sometimes, because of cloud cover, the colour of the water, or surface turbulence, it is impossible to spot trout. This is where an eye for holding water comes in handy. Last September I made a mid-afternoon sortie to the lower Hurunui to test stories that abundant trout could be had there on the dry fly.

I forded the river to a section that looked like it would hold trout. There was a section of slow water on my side of the main flow. And just enough depth to hold trout. The surface was turbulent which, along with the cloud cover, made spotting unlikely. But the fish wouldn’t spook as easily, either.

Starting with a combo, I had a take close to the edge — and missed it. However, I didn’t miss the next six trout that took the same size 10 Peacock Humpy in the same stretch of water.

When fishing turbulent water it is essential that you keep your eye on the fly. Takes can be very subtle; sometimes just like a small wave covering the fly. With each of these fish I struck as soon as I saw the take, and landed each of them. They were all taken close to the edge, inside the main flow.

Next time I fished this water, I was accompanied by my optician and optometrist. I decided to help the latter as she had yet to catch a trout on a dry fly. I saw her fly disappear and yelled ‘Strike!’ repeatedly until she lifted the rod. Amazingly the trout was still there. She hadn’t seen the fly taken, having thought I was telling the optician, further downstream, to strike. After a strong fight, a nice brown was safely brought to the net.

Nothing beats fishing the dry fly to sighted fish. Towards the end of a hard day on the Upper Waimakariri last I sighted a brown feeding on my side of a large rock. When I covered it with a Royal Wulff it turned and followed. Down, down, down. And right when it seemed too late, it took. I just managed to get the hook in the 5 pound brown with an ungainly sweep of the rod.

I tie a close relative of the Royal Wulff called the Royal Fontaine using Tiemco 900BL barbless hooks. These are so sharp and the shafts so long that they tend to stay in as well as any barbed hook. Dry flies need to be dressed with a water repellent to make them float. They can be soaked in solutions such as Loon’s ‘Hydrostop’ and left to dry overnight or treated on the spot with Aquel or Gink. A little high-speed false casting aids buoyancy.

Back to lakes. Well, the break-offs encountered with the four-pound line I used to use are less frequent now. With a fluorocarbon line such as Deceiver it is possible to get away with a heavier line. And as far as timing the take is concerned, it depends upon the type of take. A sucking rise, evidenced by a swirl, usually requires the count of 1,2,3. However, if you see a top jaw emerge, you can usually judge when the jaws will close without having to count.

I have a lot to learn about how to fish the dry fly on lakes, but experience success when green manuka beetles or dragonflies are on the wing. My favourite lake dry fly is the Love’s Lure, which will attract trout feeding on either insect.

So, don’t subscribe to any of that elitist rubbish. Grab some dry flies. Find a likely piece of water, and go for it.