Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Eclipse of the Wet Fly


Of all the aspects and methods of fly-fishing, none stood so dominant and disappeared so fast as the wet fly and its fishing techniques. Look back to the book ‘Trout’ by Ray Bergman, one of the seminal tomes of the sport, and we find it opening at the very front with 9 pages filled with wet flies. Within 40 years of its publication, the wet fly in all its style, colors, and glory was eclipsed and disappeared like the passenger pigeon as newer nymph and bobber techniques developed allowing easier catching. Wet flies were banished to the lochs of Ireland and Wales from which they were born. Except… for people like me that are so curious that they can’t leave well enough alone!

Wet Flies on Hardy reel with my wet fly box.

For those that think that fishing with a wet fly is no longer a good way to catch trout, or inelegant, au contraire! It worked in the past, and it works just as well today… if it could emerge from the shroud of history. Not that there is much opportunity, for a trip to a fly shop and a query regarding a stock of wets might raise some eyebrows as very few or none are available, and the kid behind the counter may not even know what they are.

This is a shame, since all the thought and skill put into their development deserves another look. What about those gaudy colors one might ask? Well, see.. the developers of such flies as Greenwell’s Glory, Claret and Grouse, Tup’s Indispensable, Butcher, etc. designed them to be fished wet. When wet that yellow silk with a dark hook underneath turns the perfect olive. The claret becomes a wonderful glowing deep brown, and the oranges a fiery sienna. Wet flies can represent anything in the water in a swimming stage. Swung downstream they are a hatching nymph, pulsed and twitched a swimming nymph, and fished upstream an emerger. They are as versatile as they are beautiful. Those names that call from the past such as the Professor or Governor were lovely too. The lighter flies could be dressed with floatant and fished dry. Indeed, this is how the dry fly developed. The wet fly was first. A partridge and green, a wet fly without a wing known as a North Country wet due to it’s origin in Yorkshire makes a deadly caddis emerger in faster water. ‘Soft-Hackles,’ the category of fly that includes unwinged flies often hackled with soft grouse or partridge feathers have seen a resurgence in some circles due to their being championed and written about by Sylvester Nemes, but still seem to be a long shot to be found in an American trout fly-box.

In the past, and still practiced in the British Isles is the technique of assembling the “Cast.” This is an arrangement of a number of flies attached to a leader at different spacing and different arrangement. A point fly and droppers and dapplers: the arrangement of such and sequence leading to many scotch-fueled arguments and squabbles after the fishing was done. However, we don’t have to place 3 flies on a leader to fish a wet….

In fact, the oldest technique to fly-fishing may be the wet-fly swing. Funny, but that was eclipsed too, banished to the world of spey flies and rods. I keep having to explain it to anglers on the stream. No, drag is good! Just cast it across and swing it down below you. Control speed and depth by leading or following the fly with the rod tip. Add mends and experiment with casting angles. How many today could identify the Leisenring Lift? This is the moment the swung fly becomes tight and begins to rise in the water column: a sure sign to the trout that this bug is alive and needs to be eaten! A single wet fly fished on the swing or actively can be deadly! Tied on a larger hook such as a size 8 heavy wet hook, they can represent even a baitfish. One can fish them just as we fish a modern streamer.

It isn’t only the flies and how they were fished that were eclipsed and then relegated to the ash bin, but also the amazing art of tying the wet fly. The blending of dubbings and colors takes up whole books, as does correct feathers for winging and the proper colors of floss. The techniques of hackling a wet and how to reverse and hump a wing, correct proportions, and dubbing blending are an important aspect of the art of fly-tying, yet few people would even know where to start.

The ironic thing is it is easy. Tying the flies is comparatively easy, and fishing them is simple as well.

You don’t need any special equipment either. I like fishing heavy and long old wet-fly rods with sloppy action because I think it is fun, but any rod will work. Add a small sink-tip or sinking poly-leader to your line if you wish.
British tubular steel wet fly rod with a nice brown trout caught swinging a wet fly.

It might open angler’s eyes to a whole ‘new’ way of approaching the rivers and streams, but first we have to overcome the prejudice of unpopularity. G.E.M. Skues and Kingsmill Moore rusting away in some attic…

It makes no sense. The wet fly is still viable… Possibly even more so today when generations of trout have never seen its like on the stream…


Perhaps it is time to get a little wet…

1 comment:

  1. Thanks once again, Eric, for your shining prose. I'm one of those old farts who knows and fishes the Leisenring lift and, like you, I tie and fish the wets. I've also bought Robert Smith's outstanding book on "The North Country Fly", just bought silk thread, and have a flybox dedicated to those patterns. When I tie and talk at the Sports Show this year, it will be wet flies [softies] all the way.


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