October 04, 2021
This article was originally titled "Dry Fly Strategies" in the 2021 Fly Fishing Made Easy special publication of Fly Fisherman magazine.
The perfect dry-fly selection won’t help you catch trout if you don’t present that fly in a manner in which a trout will receive it. There’s a great fly-fishing debate about which is more important: fly pattern selection or fly pattern presentation. Some anglers carry hundreds of dry flies, and they believe that they’ll catch more trout because they always have the perfect pattern. Other anglers use far fewer flies—my friend and Catskill fly-fishing legend Ed Van Put is famous for only fishing Adams Parachutes on the Upper Delaware’s Main Stem. I tend to believe that both schools of thought are correct, so I generally have lots of flies and try to present them in the best manner possible.
Reducing Drag on your Flies
Drag occurs anytime your dry fly moves unnaturally on the water’s surface. It’s often the primary reason a fish won’t eat your fly. I’ve heard other anglers explain that drag is caused by a fly floating through conflicting water currents that pull it in different directions. But this isn’t exactly true. Drag occurs only because your fly is floating through these currents while it is tethered to a stationary object: you.
If you drop a dry fly out of your box and onto the water without tying it to your rod, it will float quickly through some currents, spiral over others, maybe even pause nearly motionless in an eddy. It will act just like a living insect, and the fish expect their food to behave this way. If a potential meal doesn’t, they’ll often quickly deem it a forgery. Would you eat something from your plate that’s moving in an unexpected manner? Your fly gets pulled unnaturally only after you lose slack in the system from your rod to the fly. And this is the essence of drag. So to best mimic nature, anglers must purposely resubmit slack into their system, and we do that by mending the line.
Sometimes you’ll see anglers cast to a fish and then walk down a bank as their fly floats toward their target. They’re trying to extend their drift by moving the tether. My friend Charlie Meck used to call this “walking the dog.” But most of the time, anglers must remain stationary as they stand in the water to cast. Creating downstream wakes as you move in the water to prevent drag isn’t ideal. Other times, streamside obstructions impede you from walking far enough along the shore for your fly to reach the fish. This is why to achieve drag-free drifts, under varying conditions, you must be able to mend your leader and fly line to counteract drag from a stationary position.
Properly Mending your Fly Line
Mending is the way in which anglers manipulate their fly line to help ensure that their dry flies float drag-free to the fish they’re targeting. There are two distinct mending categories—aerial mends and on-water mends. In general, aerial mends, which are performed while your fly line is still in the air, are the most important for dry-fly fishing. If you wait to mend until the fly is already on the water, you’ll often cause the fly to sink while trying to mend it, particularly with emerger patterns or other dry flies that aren’t very buoyant. You can also pull the fly away from the fish’s feeding lane if you mend too aggressively on the water.
Many anglers mend too much.
Fly-fishing instructors have placed such a high emphasis on mending that inexperienced anglers believe they have to mend, often multiple times, on every cast. But mending is just a tool to achieve a drag-free drift. So if your fly is already going to float drag-free over the fish you’re targeting, there is no reason to mend. And there are several circumstances when you probably shouldn’t mend at all.
If you’re standing at the bottom of a riffle and casting your fly upstream, toward the top of the riffle, the current will bring the fly back to you drag-free. You shouldn’t mend here, though many anglers often do. The only thing you need to worry about in this position is getting too much slack in your fly line as it floats back to you. To counteract this, you need to strip in your fly line in as the fly floats downstream. Always keep the fly line between one of your fingers and your rod’s cork grip as you strip, or you won’t have tension to set the hook if a fish unexpectedly eats your fly. Once the fish eats, simply clamp the line tight between your finger and the cork and lift the rod tip to set the hook. Always make sure to pace your strips as the stream’s flow rate dictates. Don’t strip so fast that you’re pulling the fly or too slow that you’re allowing slack to form.
Another time when mending is unnecessary, or even detrimental, is when a fish is feeding in a very tight spot where a long drift isn’t possible. Many anglers seem to relish very long drag-free drifts as if that’s the whole point of fly fishing. Often, a short, but on-target, drag-free drift is much more effective. Maybe a fish is feeding in a little cut along the stream bank. Or perhaps it’s under a bush where your fly will become tangled if it floats too far. In these and other instances, it’s best to cast closer to the fish with a shorter drift. Let the fly float without mending, which might sink it or move it away from the fish. Ideally, you want to cast to a fish from a position where you don’t need to mend at all but can just let the fly float naturally. That isn’t always possible. And that’s where good mends can make all the difference between catching a fish or not.
Reach cast. The reach cast is arguably the most important mending tool for catching rising fish. If I had to choose between a client with a perfect dry-fly pattern who couldn’t execute a reach cast or one with an imperfect fly but a good reach cast, I’d take the better caster every time. The reach cast facilitates the maximum drag-free drift length by placing the fly downstream of the tippet, leader, and fly line at an approximate 45-degree angle. This ensures that the fly is floating without drag for the longest time possible, as the line and leader need to catch up to it in the drift before they can pull the fly, creating drag.
Make sure that you are casting to the fish from a position upstream of it, so your presentation will be made quartering downstream. You execute a reach cast on your final casting stroke toward the fish, just before you lay the line onto the water. As your line, leader, and fly are straightening in front of you, toward your target, sweep your casting arm upstream, and then allow the line to settle to the surface. If the fly lands downstream of your line but still upstream of the fish so it has time to float to the target, you’ve successfully completed a reach cast.
The reach cast isn’t difficult to perform, but there is some nuance involved in executing a good one. First, you need to compensate for the amount of line you’re using to reach the fish. If you cast straight at a trout rising across from you, you’ll use less line than if you’re casting downstream at an angle with a reach cast. This causes many anglers to cast short of the fish they’re targeting; they haven’t compensated enough for the mending cast.
The other common problem when anglers are just developing their reach cast is that they use an aggressive, forceful motion to complete the cast. This often causes the line and fly to slam to the water, scaring the fish and usually sinking the dry fly. It takes some practice, but you’re trying to achieve a smooth-motion transition from your final backcast to your reach cast, and you shouldn’t apply any more force than you’d use to complete any other cast.
Curve cast. A curve cast, just as its name implies, is intended to help you throw a curve with your fly, leader/tippet, and line, so that they don’t land in a straight line on the water. Anglers use this cast so that they don’t “line” a fish by having their fly line and leader float over a rising trout before their fly does, potentially scaring it. Some anglers describe this cast as being a positive or negative curve cast, depending on which way they’re trying to curve the fly. But I just refer to it as curving left or curving right.
Anglers often use curve casts when conditions force them to cast directly upstream to a rising fish, and they want to kick the fly to the side of their line. But casting around in-stream obstructions like logs or boulders can also require a curve cast. It’s always better to move to a new position to get into the best casting situation for any particular fish. But this isn’t always possible. Perhaps the water is too deep for you to wade into a better spot, or maybe it’s streamside vegetation or a cliff wall that inhibits you from moving.
The most important thing to remember when executing any cast is that the fly line, and ultimately your fly, will follow whatever you do with your rod tip at the end of your casting stroke. There are multiple ways to achieve the curve cast. I’ll discuss the easiest to learn first, and then a more difficult, but very effective, alternative.
The easiest way to perform a curve cast is to drop the tip of your rod out to your side, more parallel to the ground than near your head. Which side will depend on whether you’re trying to curve the line to the left or right. Dip the rod tip to your right side to make the line curve left, and dip it to the left to curve right. Now sweep the rod tip in a casting stroke toward your opposite side. But stop abruptly when the rod tip passes in front of you. This will cause the line and fly to curve at the end of the cast, continuing in the arc you created before stopping the stroke abruptly.
The easy curve cast requires that you have enough room to your left or right to create the backcast that instigates the curve. But what if you don’t have enough room? There’s another way to complete the curve: by twisting your wrist at the end of the cast.
Here’s how to execute this more challenging cast: Keep your rod tip more vertical (near your head), like any normal cast, and then cycle the cast forward. As your line is straightening in front of you and you’re just about to let it begin to settle to the water, twist your wrist. If you twist it to the right, the fly will curve to the left. And if you twist left (much more difficult to master for a right-handed caster), it will curve to the right.
The curve cast is more difficult to execute than the reach cast, but all it takes is practice. My friend Walt Young throws one of the most beautiful curve casts I’ve witnessed. Many years ago, we would hang out at the fly shop he was managing and practice making curve casts around the outside trash cans. Practice this cast, and someday it will pay off by helping you fool a difficult trout in a difficult spot.
Puddle or pile cast. The puddle cast (also called the pile cast) is a great tool for acquiring a downstream, drag-free drift when swift-moving or conflicting currents make it difficult to achieve. The idea with this cast is to allow the end of your leader and all of your tippet to land in loose coils, in a puddle, with the fly floating beside them. This creates more time for the fly to float drag-free while the current straightens the coils and ultimately pulls your fly, causing it to drag.
Most of the time when you cast your dry fly to the water, you’re aiming for a spot less than a foot above the water on your final stroke— high enough so that the fly doesn’t slam onto the surface when you lay it down, but low enough to allow your leader to straighten. But with the puddle cast, you need to aim your rod tip higher, above the water, rather than toward it.
Begin with a low backcast (rod tip pointing toward the ground) and stop your rod tip higher than normal on the forward cast, then immediately drop your rod tip toward the water as the line straightens. Because the line always follows the rod tip, this will throw your fly higher into the air than normal and allow it to flutter down to the water’s surface. This cast is very difficult to execute if it’s windy because the wind will grab the fly more easily as it falls, often making your cast inaccurate.
But there are places, particularly in pocketwater, swirling backeddies, or other areas of slack current adjacent to moving water, where the puddle cast gives you the best chance to get a drag-free, fish-fooling drift.
I wrote earlier that on-water mends are not ideal for dry-fly fishing. But there are times when the only way to extend your drift is through an on-water mend. And there are two particular instances when these mends are vital to getting a good drift or extending one.
The first important on-water mend is performed by moving only the part of your fly line that is being pulled by the current and repositioning it either up- or downstream, to counteract the pull. This is often necessary when you’re casting longer distances across varying currents. The vast majority of the time you’ll conduct this mend by lowering your rod tip toward the water and then flipping as much of the line as necessary upstream until your fly is no longer dragging. You may have to do this several times throughout the drift if the water is moving quickly. But if you’re standing in an eddy that is moving much slower than the water where your dry fly is floating, you may have to flip some of your line downstream to achieve the same goal. The key is using only as much force as necessary to move just the portion of your line that’s causing your fly to drag. It takes practice to not pull all of your line and move or sink your fly. I believe that longer (10-foot) dry-fly rods make this mend much easier to employ because they use a longer lever to do so. But it can be completed with any rod.
The other on-water mend that’s vital for dry-fly fishing is shaking your line to extend a drift. If you’ve been dry-fly fishing for any period of time, you’ve probably cast to a fish only to see it rise again farther downstream than you expected. Or maybe your fly floated past one fish without being eaten, and you’d like it to keep floating to a fish that’s rising farther downstream. The best way to do this is by shaking line.
The key to shaking line to extend your drift is, again, using the proper amount of force to make it happen. Shake too hard and you’ll sink the fly. Shake too gently and the line won’t come out fast enough. You can extend the drift by moving the rod tip back and forth in front of you, allowing the water’s surface tension to pull the line so that it comes out of the rod tip. But before you do this, you’ll need to pull enough line off your reel to allow it to smoothly slide out of the guides. Make sure to always keep the line between your finger and your rod’s grip as the line slowly glides into the water. That way if a fish unexpectedly eats your fly while you’re shaking line, you can still hook it by simply clamping down on the line and raising the rod tip.
Where to Place your Fly Cast
I had a rather surly guide the first time I went fly fishing for bonefish in Andros, Bahamas. He was the kind of guide an expert loves—he puts you on the fish—but he made it very tough for a beginner. We approached the first tailing bonefish I had ever seen, and the guide said, “Cast, man, cast!” No other instruction. Casting to a tailing bonefish is very similar to dry-fly fishing: you can see the fish feeding, or at least part of the fish, and making an accurate cast is very important.
I said, “Cast where?” The guide was flabbergasted. “You don’t see that fish, man?” I could see only part of its tail poking through the water. Where was its head? Where was I supposed to cast? You might have the right dry fly tied to your leader and a trout rising in front of you, but if you don’t make the correct cast, you’ll have as much success as I had with that first bonefish. Your position in relation to a rising fish is often the key component in whether you’ll be able to get a drag-free drift with your dry fly.
Upstream position. I prefer to cast a dry fly to a trout rising in flat water from a position slightly upstream of it. This casting position, combined with a reach cast, is the most effective way to have your fly float drag-free. It’s also the best way to get your fly to the trout before your leader and fly line reach it. You don’t need to be more than a few feet upstream from the fish for this to work. The cast becomes more problematic to execute well the farther upstream you move, and this enhances the probability that your fly will drag before reaching your target. Solid hook sets are also much more difficult to make as the distance increases.
Anglers tend to pull their flies out of a fish’s mouth more on upstream presentations than any other casting position, so you need to pause before you set the hook. After a trout rises and eats your fly, it will then begin to descend, settling back to its original holding position below the water’s surface. Don’t lift your rod tip to set the hook until the fish closes its mouth and begins to descend. If you set too early, you’ll pull your fly right out of the fish’s mouth before it has the chance to close its jaws; you’ll lift and come up empty.
The importance of waiting for the fish to settle before setting the hook is magnified in some situations and for some trout species. Trout that are lazily gliding through a pool, picking off trapped flies like mayfly spinners or spent caddis, often feed very slowly. It’s easy to miss the hook set with fish feeding this way. Cutthroat trout are also famous for rising painfully slow to your fly, making the angler antsy and often causing a quick hook set that fails.
Some anglers force themselves to utter a quick sentence like “God save the queen” or “Set the hook now” before they lift, to remind themselves to pause. That’s never worked particularly well for me, so I don’t do it. I’m usually too engrossed in watching the fish feed to remember to say anything. But it might work for you, so give it a try. I just wait for the fish to feed and then settle, and that works great, too.
Even with the fish. Sometimes deep water or bankside obstructions stop you from getting upstream from the trout, and you have to cast from a position directly across from it. This casting position creates several problems. First, you still must be able to get your fly upstream of the fish to allow it to float down to it. But if you try to do this by casting right at the fish, you may drop your fly line right on its head, often provoking it to stop rising. There are a couple of ways to combat this.
The reach cast is vital here. But you’ll have to increase the reach by exaggerating the sweeping motion at the end of your cast to get the fly farther upstream. And you’ll need to compensate for the increased distance by shooting more fly line. Anglers trying to shoot their casts higher upstream in this manner also tend to drop the fly line from their off hand (the hand not holding the rod) as they make their final cast. But if you do this, the line will often wrap around the butt of your rod or your stripping guide, or you’ll end up with too much slack line between you and the fish, impeding your ability to set the hook. Make a loop between your index finger and your thumb and allow the line to slide through it as you finish the cast. This helps you maintain line control as it shoots to the fish.
You can also employ a curve cast to try to get the fly to the fish without throwing your leader and line on top of it. But, again, you’ll need to adjust your casting distance to throw your line past the fish before curving it. Even if you execute this cast well, you’re going to place your fly line near the fish. This can frighten the trout if it’s rising in calm water. It’s best to use the curve cast from this position only if you’re casting into a riffle where the broken current can obscure your line.
Downstream position. There are a few instances where casting to a trout from a position downstream of it can be beneficial. But it’s also very easy to frighten a rising fish when casting from below it because you’ll often have to cast your line and leader very close to it. Again, riffles help to mitigate the chances of frightening the trout, as the broken water tends to obscure your line. I usually try to cast from this position only if I’m blind casting into riffled water.
But there will be times when you are forced to cast from a downstream position in flat water. This is where the curve cast becomes a tremendous aid. You can place your line farther from the fish, reducing the chances of frightening it, if your fly has curved into its feeding lane away from your line. But only try this as a last resort. The opportunity for failure here is much larger than if you’re upstream of the trout. Many anglers cast from below the fish in flat water only because they’re too lazy to move from the spot where they’re already standing. The best course is usually to walk to the bank behind you, very slowly and cautiously, and then move to a position upstream of the fish to present your fly.
The downstream casting position does give an angler one big advantage for setting the hook: it’s much easier to pull your fly into the fish’s mouth when you’re setting the hook from below it, rather than pulling the fly away from the fish if you’re upstream of it.
Paul Weamer is the author of Fly-fishing Guide to the Upper Delaware River (Stackpole Books, 2011) and The Bug Book: A Fly Fisher’s Guide to Trout Stream Insects (Headwater Books, 2016). He is the owner/operator of Weamer Fly Fishing LLC and lives in Livingston, Montana, with his wife Ruthann and his English mastiff Olive.