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JEFF KNAPP: Trip leads to practice of lost art

by JEFF KNAPP on August 05, 2014 10:30 AM

Wet flies — and the use of them — have become something of a lost art in the realm of fly-fishing for trout. That is unfortunate, as wet flies are both easy to fish and productive. So when my friend Mark mentioned to me that he’d had a good day on a well-known central Pennsylvania trout stream while “swinging” soft hackle wet flies, I convinced him he should make a return visit, with me along.

Soft hackle wet flies are an example of simplicity, often no more than a subtle body tied of silk, with a light wrap or two of partridge hackle at the collar. In the water they can represent many life stages of an aquatic insect, from an emerging bug to a drowned one, now suspended in the stream. Since these various stages are found in differing levels in the water column, one pretty much can’t show a soft hackle in a way that might not result in a bite from a trout.

The traditional way of fishing a soft hackle is by way of the swing. Whereas in other forms of fly-fishing, such as with dry flies or nymphs, the presentation is made upstream so the fly (flies) drift back down drag free, it’s effective to fish wet flies downstream. You make a cast across the current, mending the line as necessary so the pseudo bug drifts naturally, and then allow it to hang in the current at the end of the drift. Thus the term “swinging” a wet fly.

Essentially you’re casting the fly out in the flow, and then letting it swing downstream. Since the line is tight during the entire presentation, there’s little doubt when a trout takes the fly. Many bites happen at the end of the swing, when the fly lifts up to the surface like an emerging bug. You can impart a few twitches at this point to coax a fish into hitting.

It’s also common to fish multiple wet flies at once. Laws differ from state to state on the maximum you can fish; in Pennsylvania the number is three, though I usually fish only two.

There are many ways of rigging multiple flies. Here are two of the most common. 1) Leave a tag end of 6 to 8 inches when you tie the tippet to the leader. Use this tag as a dropper for a second wet fly (the other attaches to the end of the tippet). 2) Tie a wet fly to the end of the tippet, in the traditional manner; then tie a short section of tippet material to the bend of that fly’s hook with a uni-knot. Tie the second fly to the other end of the tippet material.

Mark and I didn’t set the world on fire during our outing to Pennsylvania’s Little Juniata River. But we did manage to land a few wild brown trout by swinging wet flies. Not bad considering we fished the middle hours of a warm mid-July day. And we certainly gave other methods — including nymphs and dry flies — their chances.

The Little J has 13 1/2 miles of All Tackle, Catch-and-Release fishing for trout.


WARM-WEATHER TROUT: Fishing for trout during the heat of summer — particularly wild trout such as those of the Little Juniata River — should only be attempted under certain conditions, i.e., ones that result in cool water. As water temperatures approach the 70-degree range, released trout might be too stressed from being hooked and played to be successfully released.

This summer’s wet weather has equated into higher-than-normal flows. Though we’ve had periods of hot weather, in general air temperatures have been moderate. This combination has been to the benefit of stream-dwelling trout.

The day of our Little Juniata outing the water temperature was 64 degrees and the flow a bit higher than average for this time of year. At around $15, a stream thermometer is a good investment in ethical summertime trout fishing.

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