Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Faith and the Dry Fly

Faith of a different kind, of course….

An allusion to acapella simplicity. The voice of only one instrument; a solo for fur, feather and trout.

One of the most joyful and contemplative angling I have done is fishing the dry fly consistently and purposely, in both an insect hatch and lack of hatch. Obviously, when an insect hatch occurs, one must try to “Match the hatch.” However, in a situation where no hatch is apparent, fishing a dry is often thought to be nothing but formalism, and perhaps an affectation. I beg to differ.

Far from dry-fly purity, this pursuit departs entirely from Halford and the British tradition of casting only to a rising fish. Instead, one is casting to the water, to the structure of a riffle, a clump of grass overhanging the bank, an underwater boulder, or an undercut. I would be thrown off the Avon or the Test for doing this. “Heresy!”

So why the dry fly? And… why fish it when diminished returns in numbers of trout caught may result?

Let’s spend a few moments on the stream together in our imagination…

Seeing a hatch of mayflies, caddis, or other insects and the resulting rise of feeding trout fills in one very large piece of the eternal puzzle of trout and water; ie: where the fish are and why. They are feeding, and have taken up stations on the pool or run with preference to pecking order, size of the trout, cover, ease of feeding, shyness, shadows, or several of dozens of other variables that anglers have spent thousands of pages debating, investigating, and describing. This problem alone solved, the angler can go on to the problem of how to present a fly to the fish. On low-gradient chalk streams, this is the preferred method. Spot the fish, work out the cast, present the fly, try not to put the fish down, etc. An angler by choice and by circumstance may spend hours just working one little spot. The fish are spooky in the gin-clear water and are hiding under weeds. Walking and casting are about the worst things one can do. Prospecting with the dry fly would be like casting a big bobber into a quiet pool.

 Not all spring creeks or small trout streams have this classic English structure, many have more in-stream habitat cover, undercut banks, improvements, and gradient; enough differences to allow us to play a little game with the dry fly called “I wonder where the fish are?” As long as a simple cast and presentation will not either catch the quarry or put down the pool, the game can be very enlightening.

 If we don’t know where the fish are in a pool, we must use our best guess. That alone requires thought, reflection, a sixth sense only acquired by countless hours doing just that: sitting and watching, smelling and listening, seeing things out of the corner of our vision that may not have been there at all, or may be the key to unlock the whole puzzle.

 In layman’s terms, this is called reading water, and is arguably the greatest skill a moving water angler can ever acquire. A literate water-reader seems to ‘know’ where the trout may be, and more often than not, seems to be right. A fish-whisperer or a water wizard… Perhaps. More likely a person who put in their time on the water fishing the edges dry.

The edges. Yes. The edges of the bank, the edges of current seams, and the edges of thought. Somewhere in those edges are the answers.

 So how does this happen? With a little act of faith.

 Put on a dry fly and keep it on no matter what happens. Change the pattern if necessary, but make certain it is a dry. Now go fishing…

 “Yea, but where do I start? There is no hatch!!??”

 Exactly. There are no cliff’s notes. No ready canned answer to the riddles of Yeat’s poetry. We have to start somewhere and interpret what we experience ourselves. Every bend and riffle will be a different poem, and we must reflect that. In other words, we must become a direct reverse reflection to and of the stream and structure and conditions, adapting and changing the view like one would see in viewing the stream through a twisting pocket mirror. Every angler will reflect the stream differently, and come up with a slightly different approach or answer. This is why no Cliff notes is a good thing. By coming up with our own vision, finding our own voice, solution, interpretation, the answers lie outside the over-established convention. Yeats will never be the same to any two readers, and neither will any reflection and adaptation of any two anglers be the same.

I like this. I like fishing this way. It is the most exquisite form of curiosity and surprise, and putting a fly in a place I think a fish will be without actually seeing the fish, and catching it on a dry has a great satisfaction to it.

 It is also the best way to learn to read the water. Why was the fish there if it was directly feeding? What changes in the depth, cover, surface structure, shadows, etc. gave that fish the perfect place to sit? Why wasn’t it hiding like the other fish? What about the water speed changes led the fish to pick the closer or further of two identical clumps of overhanging grass to hide under? Would that fish be back there tomorrow, or next week? How about when the water is colored up? How about in an actual hatch? When the water is warmer, cooler? Would it? Only one way to find out; have confidence and fish the edges with a dry. The discoveries are worth the efforts.

 This kind of fishing can also be restraining. It requires a sort of restraint and commitment, and a carefree soul. One has to get used to going fishing with no expectations. The fishing could be fast or slow, but sticking to the dry and prospecting the water while moving from pool to pool takes courage. This is not to denigrate those that choose to fish the nymph, or anglers who will do whatever it takes to fool a fish; those are other very apt learning paths and must be pursued as well. Indeed, it might be a neat description to state that the angler who will figure out how to take a single fish while using a dry, nymph or streamer is turning the combination again and again until the safe opens and the puzzle is solved, while the prospecting dry fly angler is looking for the key in different although equally methodical manner, like looking for fingerprints and foot impressions and a disturbed stone to find the key hidden under. These are just many methods of approach to the same vision. Catching a trout can be painted in expressionism, pointillism, realism, abstraction, or one of a thousand different means to the same end. That end is learning, and that happens when the fish is hooked, regardless the approach.

Dry fly fishing is a visual experience. One sees exactly what is happening or more often not happening. We can see a good presentation and a bad one. We can anticipate what may happen, and the sight of a fly dancing down the stream just asking to be taken is an exquisite torture of watching.

 Fishing this way is also simple. One spends less time futzing with indicators, droppers, multiple fly rigs, tangles etc., and spends more time with their fly on the water. Sometimes I will handicap myself on purpose by only taking as many flies as I can fit into a patch on my hat. Three patterns in two sizes or something like that. Elk hair, Goddard, or Henrysville Caddis, a Blue Winged Olive, a beetle or a hopper. Now I have no choice on how I am going to fish that day.

The first time I did this, I did it by accident: by forgetting my entire main fly box back at the car. I accepted my own self-imposed challenge, despite my friend’s insistence that he lend me flies, and I stubbornly fished a hopper pattern although no hoppers were out yet in July. What I discovered blew clouds of dust from my brain, and shattered 4X tippet all day.

Prospecting with the dry can be either fast or slow, entirely at one’s whim. How long one spends on one piece of water is up to the angler. Often using a delicate but faster approach, in effect ‘shotgunning’ the runs makes the best use of time and energy. In doing this one is looking for the exact opposite of the ‘classic’ dry fly presentation. Instead of slack line leaders, drag-free drifts, and complicated mending, the angler is looking to produce a rise when the quarry does not necessarily want to rise to the fly. Try dropping the fly with a ‘splat!’ Step up a size or two in pattern, or twitch the fly invitingly as it drifts back to you. Skitter the fly down and across, or cast the leader over a low hanging branch and let the fly be pulled up and over the branch to alight on the water again. All these are methods I have used to catch trout, often learning by accident, and then retaining the moment in the ‘ol rusty file cabinet brain.

 If it doesn’t work, move on. Leave the little push-button fish counter back at the car; this is not a game of numbers. Instead it is a mind game, and one beautiful way to spend a morning or evening discovering something new where the water speaks to you.


  1. Excellent piece Mr. Helm.

  2. Nice! Out here, "reading the water" is the most valuable skill one can have.

    In one of those odd business deals, I found myself "guiding" a gentleman from back east, reported to be a real wizard on the spring creeks of Pennsylvania. He was a gentleman too, polite, well spoken and literate. And, as it turned out a pretty accurate caster. But when we crossed the Bungalow Bridge over the North Fork of the Cleareater in late June, his jaw dropped and his eyes glazed over a bit. He turned to me and choked out "Are you serious?"

    Learning where the fish are, and more importantly why, was a skill he had never acquired.


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