Tips for Better Dry Fly Fishing for Trout – Rick Kustich

Table of Contents

By Rick Kustich:

Dry fly fishing for trout is where my fly fishing obsession started over forty years ago. Regardless of which direction the sport pulls me in, I always return to my fly fishing roots with the same enthusiasm and wonderment. Going one on one with a wily stream-bred trout can be both challenging and captivating and I am always amazed at how the hours just melt away during a hatch on a favorite trout river. And while it is tough to admit that fooling a fish with a brain a mere fraction of the size of mine can be so difficult, a wild trout that is in tune with its surroundings can be a worthy adversary for any angler’s fly fishing skills.

Dry fly fishing can be complex or quite simple. But I have long been drawn to rivers with large wild trout that do not make mistakes easily. This has caused me to refine my craft while learning many lessons along the way. And some key steps have emerged that are essential for success.

Knowledge of Your Water

The starting point for successful dry fly fishing always seems to center on gaining an understanding of the water to be fished. This seems simple enough as a predator should always have an understanding of its quarry’s vulnerabilities. But having a true working knowledge of the insect hatches that a particular river or stream produces can go a long way towards a properly prepared fly box. Hatches can vary by stream, even within the same region. Books, the Internet, local fly shops and fly-fishing acquaintances can all provide useful detailed information. But there is no substitute for personal observation. 

Timing Your Outings

Try to learn something each time you’re on the water and maintain notes of your experiences in a logbook. I consistently discover that my notes are much more accurate than memory and have used this written account to identify certain trends in insect and feeding activity. This information has been the basis for attempting to time my outings to meet peak hatch or spinner fall activity. While seasonal emergences of a particular insect can occur within a predictable range, variations in factors like air temperature, water temperature, sunlight, clouds, and water level can all impact daily timing of insect activity. Use these factors to select the best days to fish or the optimum time within the day when only fishing for a short period.

Careful Observation

When on the water it is important to keep your senses on high alert – both sight and sound can assist in locating feeding trout. At times fish feeding on the surface can be quite obvious, especially when positioned in the middle of a pool or in obvious lanes that collect food. But shrewd trout will attempt to stay hidden even when feeding on the surface. Be sure to look closely around logjams, overhanging brush, and close to the bank. Fish in these positions combined with a subtle rise form can stay hidden in plain sight. So often anglers walk or float right by a feeding trout by simply not being observant. 

Your ears can be as important as your eyes for locating feeding trout. Splashy rises are easy to hear, but also be tuned in for the sounds of subtle feeding. When it is quiet you can actually hear a trout’s lips smacking on the surface of the water as it grabs a fly. Sound can help locate a fish tucked away in the cover or when low light makes it more difficult to see.

Important information can be gained by studying a trout’s rise form. How a trout is feeding is generally dictated by the type and life cycle phase of its food source. Splashy sporadic rises are typically associated with emerging insects such as caddis or fast swimming mayflies. Sporadic activity can also be experienced during some stonefly hatches and certain large mayflies. More consistent slurping rises are usually a sign of feeding on adult insects or struggling emergers in the surface film. Look for bubbles on the surface after a trout eats to determine if it is actually feeding on the surface. A lack of bubbles could indicate a trout feeding just below the surface on emerging insects. 

In slick water the head of the fish may be visible while feeding and can be accompanied by a head and tail rise to eat the fly. Sipping rises can indicate that trout are feeding on spent or egg laying insects and occurs most commonly in the evenings and mornings. The manner in which a trout is feeding can help you determine the trout’s menu and assist in selecting the right fly for the situation.

Stealthy Wading

Once a feeding target has been identified it is time to get into casting position. On most streams and rivers a stealthy approach will allow for a trout to remain unaware of your presence and maintain a feeding rhythm. Drab clothing that blends in with your surroundings is a must, as is removing all shiny gadgets that can reflect light. Avoid quick movements and wade careful and slow so as not to push water and create shock waves. Avoid entering the water if possible, though it is typically necessary. When in the water move carefully making sure you have a firm foot hold before making the next step. Do your best to not kick or grind the rocks since this creates vibrations that can easily be felt by the sensitive lateral lines of a trout. I normally wade without studs in my boots to eliminate the grinding sound that can be caused by the metal scratching across rock. 

Careless wading is the most likely way to alert a trout of your presence. Once a trout feels uncomfortable it will alter its feeding pattern or quit feeding altogether. When dry fly fishing from a boat I am always amazed at how close you can get to a feeding trout, even when creating a much higher profile. But the lack of noise and vibrations experienced when wading allows a quiet boat to have a more stealthy approach. 

Get the Right Angle

From a dry fly fishing perspective a significant effort is made in attaining a natural drag free drift. Drag is caused by the varying surface currents pushing and pulling a tight line or leader in a way that forces the fly to move faster or slower than the current. While many insects swim and flutter when on or near the surface, a dead drift will provide the best presentation in most situations. A dry fly that moves only with the current provides the illusion of being real and is the key trigger point to fool a wily trout into eating.

Positioning yourself at the proper angle will have a direct impact on your ability to attain a dead drift and ultimately the proper presentation. On larger rivers and streams where there is plenty of room for a back cast, the preferred position is slightly upstream and well off to the side from the feeding trout. With an across-stream cast the fly will show itself to the fish before the leader and line. However, using a slightly downstream position when making an across-stream cast tends to be problematic with the pull of the current on the line and leader easily creating drag on the fly. 

On smaller water choked with trees and other shoreline vegetation, an upstream angle will be the best and oftentimes only approach. An upstream cast can be made more effective by maintaining a slight angle with only the fly and a small portion of the tippet floating over the trout’s feeding position. An advantage of the upstream cast is that you are positioned in the trout’s blind spot making your movement much more difficult to detect. However, as you move into position for a cast to a feeding trout it is possible to spook other fish located in the pool alerting your feeding target. It is best to maintain a safe distance to the feeding trout making as long a cast as possible.

Long Leaders

Proper presentation of a dry fly begins with leader construction. On big water when wind isn’t a factor, I prefer a long leader with an extra long tippet section. I commonly use a leader with a full length of fifteen to eighteen feet including a tippet of three to five feet in length. The long leader and tippet section make it difficult to straighten out the leader on a cast to a feeding trout. The slack that this creates helps to facilitate a natural drift. In windy conditions it will be impossible to control accuracy with such a long leader and the overall length and tippet can be reduced proportionately to a total of approximately twelve feet. On smaller streams where it is common to use light, short rods, use a leader with a length not exceeding ten feet.

Slack Line Casts

Additional slack can be added to the leader and tippet through the casting stroke. Both the stop cast and pile or dump cast result in delivering the fly in a manner where the leader and tippet form curls and coils on the water. This allows the fly to float freely until the leader straightens out by the varying pulls of the current. Pulling or flicking the tip of the rod back toward you after the forward stroke has been completed and the line has straightened out performs the stop cast. The pile or dump cast requires a soft or weak forward stroke to deliver the fly. Not forming a complete or abrupt stop on the forward cast but rather allowing the rod to continue to a point of being parallel to the water completes the cast. The result is a leader with slack and coils that helps eliminate drag. Slack line casts take some practice to be able to use proficiently but are a key element of successful dry fly fishing.

A slack line cast can be used at any casting angle to the fish. When making a cast at a down and across angle on bigger water, I combine a slack line cast with a reach cast. A reach entails extending the casting arm upstream so that the line and leader lands upstream of the fly further reducing the impact of drag. Using a stop cast combined with a reach by first completing the stop and then reaching up effectively creates an upstream, mid air mend. When performed correctly this is a very effective approach to fool difficult and challenging surface feeding trout.

Accuracy Matters

When dry fly fishing for trout, accuracy matters. A feeding fish will usually not move far to take a fly if there is an abundance of naturals on the surface. Placing the fly so that it drifts along the same drift line as the feeding trout will be critical. However, a fish may move a bit further for a fly when the abundance of naturals is sparse. An effective cast should land slightly upstream of the fish’s position so that the fly drifts into the trout’s cone of vision with enough slack in the leader to float drag free.

Make a good first cast as it may be the best chance at fooling a wily fish. If possible, line up the distance of the cast well off to the side. It will always be safe to err on the side of making the cast too short. Too long of a cast may place the fly line over the fish and cause it to stop feeding.

Accuracy becomes more challenging when using slack line casts. Since the cast will be completed without the full turnover of the leader, you will need to account for a distance adjustment because of the slack in the leader. This normally means that the line beyond the tip of the rod required to reach a feeding trout will be a few feet longer than it would with a tight line cast. Getting the right distance with a slack line cast requires practice and becomes more problematic in windy conditions as the fly will be blown around as it settles on the water. Reducing leader length, keeping the cast low, and making short drifts with the presentation increases your odds in the wind. If there is an advantage to the wind it is in the fact that the naturals may be blown around on the surface and move at a speed that is slightly different from the current. Under these conditions you can sometimes have a slight amount of drag and still be successful. Having slack in the leader doesn’t just facilitate proper presentation, but also allows a fish to easily suck in your offering. A tight leader can prevent this from occurring.

When there is more than one fish feeding in a small area it is typically best to select one to target. This way casts are made with a specific purpose. In situations where more than one fish is feeding I attempt to pick out the largest fish, unless in doing so my line will travel over the other feeding fish. Casting over other trout can alert all the fish feeding in that area of your presence. 

Get the Rhythm

It is common for a trout feeding on the top to develop some type of rhythm. The feeding fish may not grab each bug floating on or near the surface, but when a sufficient supply of insects is present feeding can occur at fairly regular intervals. I have also witnessed trout that rise to the surface, eat two or three bugs in rapid succession, take a break and then repeat the rapid feeding approach. In situations where the bugs are abundant and the current is fairly soft a trout may stay at the surface and eat nearly every bug that comes its way. But no matter what the rhythm, it is important in most situations to recognize the sequence and present the fly at a time when it is most likely for the fish to feed.

It is important to constantly observe the trout you are targeting. Its rhythm can change at any time, so be ready to make adjustments. And while it is common for a trout to stay positioned in one spot as it feeds, it is just as common for a fish to move around. A trout can move from side to side and up and down in the pool while feeding. In these situations you need to mentally chart the trout’s movements and attempt to anticipate the next place that it will show. After each unsuccessful cast be sure to lift the fly off the water carefully so as not to alert the trout to your presence. 

See the Fly

There is one rather basic factor in dry fly fishing for trout that greatly impacts success – being able to see the fly. With large patterns, good lighting, and placid waters it will be quite easy to view your fly on the surface. But add in the typical factors of smaller flies, varying light conditions, and riffles or swirls in the current and it is a whole different story. Being able to watch your fly not only indicates when it has been eaten by a trout but provides critical signs regarding the accuracy of your cast or how well the fly is drifting. Getting a drag free float is often critical and monitoring how well your presentation is drifting will allow you to make the necessary adjustments to your cast or angle to improve the presentation.

Almost all my dry flies have some type of sight assistance built into the wing or on the topside of the body. I use a white post on many of my dun and spinner phase mayfly patterns. Other mayfly patterns incorporate a synthetic material in the wing that has a shimmering appearance such as Aero dry. Even a strand or two of Krystal Flash can add just enough sight aid for small patterns. Light deer hair shows up well on dark water and is a good choice for emerger patterns. Light elk creates a visible wing on most caddis imitations. White or orange hair or foam on the top of a terrestrial pattern allows it to show quite well on the surface. And a black post can work surprising well on flat water with the right amount of glare on the surface. But too much of a good thing can work against you. Flies that are overdone with sighting material, especially when the wing is too large, will not be as effective. It is also important to have a few styles of fly representing the same insect to show a fish some variety as it is common for a fish to prefer one style over another.

Be Ready for Low Light

While many significant hatches occur during the light of day on prolific trout waters, insect and feeding activity often reach a crescendo in the low light near and after sundown. Late evening hatches and spinner falls can bring on a period of intense feeding and some of the largest fish. Preparation is the key to taking advantage of this opportunity. A good light, preferably a headlamp, is a given. Make sure your tippet is at a desired length as evening approaches and make any adjustments while it is still light. Make sure flies and tippet are organized in your vest or pack for a quick change. Pick out the flies you’ll most likely use in advance to approaching nightfall.

There is an art to fishing in low light. It is best to fish water that is familiar as it gets dark. Flies with a white post will show up for a while after sundown but eventually you will have to rely on watching rise forms. Get the right angle so that any available light can be used to see a rising fish. You can get surprisingly close to surface feeding trout in this low light period. It can take some practice and feel but the key is to know the length of your cast. The drift will not necessarily need to be perfectly drag free and late evening feeders often seem to let their guard down. Slowly lift the rod when it appears that a trout has fed on your fly. As you begin your next cast, watch the fly as it is removed from the surface as this will help determine if the cast is too short or too long. Sometimes you can use your ears as well as your eyes to determine when a trout has possibly eaten your fly.

Get Set

Light, small diameter tippets contribute directly to the effort of attaining a natural drift. Small diameter material has less surface area and is less impacted by the pull of the current but also increases the challenge level in bringing a trout to the net. I really dislike breaking off a fish that has taken my fly so I always use a tippet with sufficient strength. I typically use 5x in most situations. 6x or even 7x can be used with small flies in difficult fishing conditions and I’ll go up to 4x or even 3x in low light or when using large flies for aggressive fish.

When using light tippets the hook-set should consist of a slow rise of the rod to bring the line tight and provide just enough force to place the hook point in the fish’s mouth. A sharp rise reduces the ability of the rod and line to help absorb the shock of the hook-set. Softer rods have a greater ability to cushion the hook-set than faster action rods. A light drag setting allows the fish to take line when needed. In small, confined areas or when a fish is running out of control, tension can be added by letting the line run through the index and middle finger of the rod hand. It takes some practice to get used to the proper amount of tension. Use a net to assist in landing and a successful release.

Dry fly fishing remains one of the most captivating forms of fly fishing. Following some of these rather simple tips is sure to increase your success and enjoyment of the sport. 

Picture of Rick Kustich

Rick Kustich

Rick Kustich is a fly-fishing writer, instructor, and guide who began fly-fishing fifty years ago on the lakes and streams of upstate New York. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications.

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