JEFF KNAPP: Fishing with wet flies was once a staple
Typically, the saying “getting there is half the fun” doesn’t apply to fishing trips, which tend to be filled rather with eager anticipation of things to come. But when your fishing partner is any especially talented one, it’s a great opportunity for selfish interrogation.
So it was recently when my friend Tom Ference found himself riding shotgun with me en route to a late-winter trout trip. I suspect that Ference, a former fly-fishing guide and tackle retailer, knows he’s going to be cross-examined on some aspect of fly-fishing during the ride.
In this case the subject was the use of classic wet flies — the likes of the Royal Coachman, Professor and Alder Fly.
Wet fly-fishing was once a staple of American trout fishing, an art that’s largely fallen from favor. Even though Ference is adept at modern methods of trout fishing, he’s also a traditionalist, one that appreciates the scenarios where wet fly-fishing excels.
“Later spring and into the prime of the season,” Ference responded, when asked the best time of year to fish wet flies. “Extremely cold water in late winter and very early spring keeps the fish from moving or chasing. Clear water is generally better than a dirty color. Fish often hit the fly as soon as it hits the water, or they may follow it for a distance, and off-colored water hinders this.
“Also, sections of streams that have a multitude of mixed currents are often difficult to achieve drag-free drifts necessary with dry flies. Swinging two or three wet flies through these currents seems to trigger strikes.”
As Ference mentioned, the use of multiple flies is common in wet fly-fishing, a “cast” of flies as it was described a century ago. There are many methods of rigging multiple flies. Pennsylvanian Charles Meck’s book “Fishing Tandem Flies” does a great job of explaining them.
Wet flies don’t necessarily represent any particular life stage of an aquatic insect. Thus they can be fished in various manners, including ones that mimic emerging insects rising from the bottom. The traditional one is that which Ference initially mentioned, a cross-stream cast where the flies rise at the end of the “swing,” as the line straightens out in the current, or from the lift of the rod, or a combination of both.
“The fish that see the movement of a fly during the lift get excited and bolt quickly to make a grab,” Ference noted. “I believe that many times a trout sees the upper fly as it swings by, but ends up grabbing the lower fly just due to the quickness of the process taking place.”
When swinging wet flies, Ference experiments a bit. Sometimes he’ll quickly feed out some slack as soon as the flies hit the water, so they’ll quickly sink. At other times he’ll incorporate a series of quick pulls to the flies.
In addition, he will fish them more like a nymph, making short upstream casts and fishing them back on a short, tight line.
“I also like using a short line when working pocket water,” he continued. “I’ll use a heavy, fairly large-size wet fly on the point of the leader, along with a size 12 or 14 brightly colored wet fly as the upper fly. The brighter top fly helps me control the drift and also works as a strike indicator. Using multiple flies works well in this situation because with the short amount of line being fished they’re not as likely to tangle.”
Wet flies can also mimic drowned insects, spent bugs suspended subsurface, ones that have completed the short but intense metamorphosis to complete their life cycle.
“Soft hackle-style wet flies work well during these conditions,” Ference said. “Also, water-logged dry flies have been ‘accidentally’ turned into great fish-catching flies when fished in similar fashion.”
He said that a neat presentation for use during a caddis hatch is to have a wet fly on the end of the leader and a brushy dry fly tied about two to three feet above.
“The cast is made downstream and across, then the rod tip is held high in the air, and the dry fly is ‘bounced’ across the surface,” he said. “It’s fun stuff! Make sure to strike to the side and not directly straight back upstream, otherwise you will be pulling the fly out of the fish’s mouth.”
In terms of patterns, Ference carries the Black Gnat, Gold Ribbed Hares Ear, Ginger Quill, March Brown, Coachman, and Royal Coachman — sizes 6 to 16 — as well as green-bodied, orange-bodied and peacock-bodied soft hackles sizes 12 to 18.
“Generally speaking, though, the pattern is not as important as finding which presentation is working,” he emphasized.