For the purpose of this article, we will be discussing dry fly fishing for Trout on UK rivers.
WHAT IS DRY FLY FISHING
It seems like a simple question! In simple terms, a dry fly is a floating fly. When a fish takes the fly it rises to the surface, the angler strikes to hook the fish upon observing the rise. A dry fly is a fly in which the dressing is designed to float truly on the surface of the water. This means flies such as Klinkhammers where the some of the dressing will sit slightly under the surface film are classed as emergers, not dries. Is this important? Well, it can be if you are fishing on a stretch of water that has a dry fly only rule, if you use what is technically an emerger then you could well be breaking the fishery rules. Dry fly fishing is commonly (but not always) carried out by casting roughly upstream and allowing the fly to travel back towards you. Many anglers enjoy dry fly fishing specifically as it’s a highly visual form of fishing where the angler sees the fish rising to the fly.
WHEN & WHERE
Dry fly fishing can take part in most Trout streams however it is particularly useful on slower glides and pools where fish are rising freely. It can also be effective to prospect areas where fish might be present particularly in riffles (see prospecting below).
Knowing your hatches (the flies on the surface the fish are feeding on) is very useful for dry fly fishing. My first recommendation is that you are unfamiliar with UK hatches, sign up to our weekly hatch report using the form below. Our weekly email will give you the critical hatches through the season and the artificial flies you need to be using.
It’s most useful when dry fly fishing to be fishing where fish are willing to rise. This is governed by 3 factors. Water temperature, weather conditions and food availability.
Anything less than 7 degrees Celcius will certainly start having an impact on the Trout’s willingness to rise.
The season on many UK rivers starts around the end of March. At this time in the year, we can still have snow on the ground, freezing air temperatures and snowmelt from the hills sending icy water down into the river. Dry fly fishing on rivers at this time of year is heavily governed by the weather, if we are still in the grips of winter with cold water then fish are likely to be slow, sitting near the bottom and not rising. Where the weather is favourable and hatches are present, dry fly fishing can undoubtedly be successful.
As winters grip fades and spring takes root, the water temperature warms up which will increases the trout metabolism and its willingness to rise for flies.
During the Summer the water temperature will warmer, and through scorching days this could have a detrimental impact on the Trout’s behaviour. Summer can often see a lull in dry fly fishing and early morning and evening are probably the best time to be fishing unless the day is overcast and cool. There are other factors other factors in summer that can impact dry fly fishing too (see seasons below).
Autumn temperature can be similar to Spring providing excellent conditions for dry fly fishing.
For me, the worst enemy of dry fly fishing is bright sunshine, this is even worse in low water conditions. In these conditions, fish are less likely to rise and will often seek shelter under boughs of overhanging trees or around the rocks on the river bed. During very bright, cloudless days it’s usually better to fish when the light level is lower such as early morning or evening.
The best weather conditions for dry fly fishing are milder, overcast days with lots of cloud cover. A little drizzle is fine, but heavy rain will kill off rises. Fishing with a dry fly after a sharp shower can be excellent as lots of insects have been thrown from overhanging trees and hit by raindrops. There will often be a sudden rise after the rain has subsided.
Tacke and Equipment
I usually fish a 9-foot rod in a #4 weight. This is a pretty standard set up for dry fly fishing although if you are restricted by trees, you may need a shorter rod. You may also decide to go a little lighter regarding weight if you think your stream allows for it (smaller fish and shorter casting distances). It’s certainly unlikely that you will want to go any heavier than a #4 weight for normal UK river dry fly fishing for Trout. A rod with a medium or mid to tip action is generally preferred however some anglers enjoy fishing with soft actioned fibre glass rods or even traditional wooden rods.
A river type fly fishing reel that’s appropriately suited to your line weight is all that’s required. A small, light reel will help as there’s lots of repetitive casting involved when dry fly fishing. Spend what you feel like spending, it won’t catch you any more fish! For much of the time, your reel is just a line holder.
To this day I mainly fish with a standard weight forward line. I have tried lots of the specialist dry fly lines and I never really got much extra value out of them. That said, fly line choice is very subjective, and many people swear by more specialist dry fly lines. So if you prefer to invest in a specialist dry fly line then go for it. If you are unsure, a standard weight forward fly line is a good bet. I like the traditional Cortland lines for my dry fly fishing, and you won’t go wrong with the Cortland 444 peach.
If you are on a budget or just an occasional angler, then some boot foot nylon waders are just fine. If you fish regularly and have a bit extra to spend then buying some breathable stocking foot waders with separate wading boots is money well spent – you will undoubtedly thank yourself when walking through fields to the river on warm days.
Leader & Tippet
You can’t go wrong with a copolymer or monofilament tapered leader with a couple of feet of tippet tied on the end. Your tippet should be thinner in diameter than the leader to ensure a good turnover. I would avoid fluorocarbon as this can sink a little on slower moving water and pull your fly under. If you wish to experiment with furled leaders and other types of leader then feel free – a word of warning though; If your line, leader and fly are not turning over properly, there’s a high chance that this is through a fault in your casting. Most people who endlessly try different leaders because of poor presentation have faulty casts.
Degrease just your tippet with a good degreaser to sink it just under the surface this will avoid a crease on the surface for the last few inches of tippet and improve the presentation. For 9 foot rods, a 9-foot tapered leader and a few feet of tippet are about right. If you are fishing with a short rod, then you may prefer a 7-foot tapered leader and a couple of feet of tippet. You don’t have to use tippet however it’s much more economical when you are regularly changing flies.
Lotions & Potions
A real dry fly with float perfectly fine without adding any treatment. In turbulent water, or with a few splashy casts it will sink. Adding some floatant will waterproof your fly for longer. There are also some powders to help dry our you fly after you have caught a fish and your fly is sodden.
Here’s a couple of my favourites:
A scoop style landed net is essential. It needs to fasten to your back, out of the way when you are fishing, but allow quick access when you are ready to net your fish. A magnetic release clipped on to the back of your jacket is my favourite method. I’ve seen other anglers manage perfectly well with a length or stretchy bungee cord.
Spring is probably the best time of year for the dry fly angler. This is due to a combination of factors, all happening at once. The warming water increases the metabolism of trout meaning they need to feed, and at the same time the first hatches of the year start to appear on the water. Spring also has quite a few cloudy and overcast days, a lower sun in the sky and a decent flow of water from the winter rains, all these positive things coming together often provide excellent conditions for the dry fly angler.
Although the warmer water of summer increases the trouts metabolic rate and its desire to feed, other negative factors are also present – low water levels, bright sunshine & occasionally, very warm water.
A Trout’s predators mainly come from above in the form of herons and cormorants, Millions of years of evolution have certainly honed a trout instinct that to be exposed in low water in bright sunshine is not a desirable place to be!
Trout also hate looking into the bright sun just as much as we do, they will rise less in these conditions. Rivers which have a few riffles and decent flow are generally ok in terms of oxygen levels however during low water, as flow rates decrease and pools of shallow water develop, the saturated oxygen level can fall enough to affect the trout feeding habits, In extreme conditions, this can lead to problems with the fishes health.
As the Autumn rains refresh the summer level, the temperature and light levels decrease, a small window of opportunity exists for the dry fly angler before the season ends and the trout’s attention turns to spawning. Fishing can be much the same as Springtime for short periods, and it’s worth making the most of pleasant days before this short window closes.
METHODS AND TACTICS
The southern school of fly fishing which evolved around the clear waters of Hampshire chalk streams had a distinct etiquette, including mainly casting to identified rising fish, this is undoubtedly a delightful way to fish (see below). There are many rivers, however, especially ones which are rain-fed where many fish are caught by prospecting. Prospecting simply means casting into areas you feel are likely to hold fish even when you haven’t seen fish rising.
Some excellent areas for prospecting are:
A riffle is a fast turbulent area of water, generally located at the head of a deeper pool. Fish will sit in the riffle at the head of the riffles to get first dibs on food entering the pool. Fish also tend to be confident feeders in riffles as they are well-hidden from predators by the turbulent water. You can’t see the fish in the riffles which also means they can’t see you, this gives the angler a distinct advantage. Rises can be tough to spot in the riffle, but with some practice, you will become accustomed to them.
Bubble streams are areas of concentrated current where the bubbles on the surface of the water are concentrated into a line on the surface of the river.
These are always excellent fish holding areas as a concentration of current also means a concentration of food is moving down the stream. Fish will often sit in or around bubble streams feeding on nymphs and other food items as they tumble down the bubble stream.
Stalking an individual fish you can see rising is a thrilling way to catch. This method is more suited to clearer streams where spotting fish is easy. On other rivers many people stalk a particular fish by casting to its rise, having never actually observed the fish itself. On the whole, it’s easier to see fish rise in slower sections of the river where the slightest disturbance of the surface is visible. However, after a few years of fishing, you will be able to train your brain to spot rises in quick turbulent pieces of water. Fish spotting and rise spotting is a skill that takes time to develop, the brain almost has to lead the eye to the rise.
Here are some essential river dry flies for your box:
The up-wing fly is a name for a group of aquatic flies (they hatch from the river) which all follow a similar lifecycle. When at rest, up-wing flies close there wings up above their body. This group of flies contains the most famous of them – the Mayfly.
Upwing flies are the darling of the dry fly world and all dry fly anglers love to imitate them, there are some very common up-wings that hatch for longer periods and some that are very localised.
To find out what’s hatching each week of the year, sign up to our free hatch report newsletter which gives details of what’s hatching and the artificials to use to imitate them.
Upwing flies have a distinct lifecycle, the newly hatched fly is called the Dun. After a period resting on nearby vegetation the Dun moults and the Spinner emergers, this is the fly that goes on to mate and lay eggs, often dying and floating down the river becoming a tasty meal for fish. All the different up-wing species have their own unique ways to hatch, mate and lay eggs.
Here are some of the more common up-wing flies found on UK rivers:
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The caddis fly is probably the most abundant aquatic fly in your stream. Pick up almost any rock, and you will find the small sandy cases of the larvae which will emerge and hatch as flies. There are many species of caddis, but a few imitations are often all you need. They can start hatching in Spring and continue until Autumn.
Often overlooked by river anglers, the midge is present and will hatch in every river in the UK. It is particularly useful in very slow, almost canal like sections of the river where the fish will rise to tiny flies. If the fish are sipping at small flies, it can be particularly frustrating as they often ignore the artificial.
Terrestrial insect (things that hatch from the surrounding countryside and get blown on to the water) are a huge part of the trout’s diet, particularly during the summer when aquatic hatches are minimal. A good beetle pattern fished under the shady branches can work wonders. Hawthorn flies, Daddy Long Legs, Beetles, Black Gnats are all going to play a part in your terrestrial strategy. Just like aquatic flies, terrestrials are present at certain times of the year. To find out what’s hatching each week, sign up to our fly fishing hatch report below!
It’s all about the cast. Dry fly fishing requires precise, controlled casting and a near perfect turnover of your leader on to the water. You are often casting under the boughs of trees or from a crouched position on one knee behind a fringe of bankside vegetation. Trout seem to have a 6th sense in some rivers! There’s a stream I manage where clients often remark that they can’t see any fish. This is because these fish will spook and shoot under the rocks when you are a good twenty feet behind them. Too many anglers clomp there way up the stream sending huge waves up the pools and then wonder why they can’t catch. When fishing from the bank, ensure you are low down, away from the skyline and not casting a shadow on to the river. Approach very slowly and cautiously. Even if trout don’t scurry your approach can alarm them enough to stop them feeding. Take your time and as Izaak Walton said: “study to be quiet”!
Upstream dry fly fishing
Most of your dry fly fishing will be upstream fishing, This means you are behind the fish casting upstream towards it. The idea is your line should be landing behind the fish, so only the end of your leader and fly are visible to the fish. If your thick fly line splashes down in the fishes window of vision, you are likely to spook it. Your first cast is better off being a little short instead of too long, use a few false casts to hover you fly over the target and then deliver the line to the water. Your line, leader and fly should unfurl above the water before gently touching down. Retrieve the slack line as it travels back towards you but make sure not to move the fly. The fly should run in a dead drift, this means that it’s moving at the exact pace of the current just the same as all the other insects on the stream. Watch the fly like a hawk and strike at any rises to the fly.
From my experience out on the rivers, unnatural drag, where the fly is moving unnaturally on the stream is one of the biggest causes of fish refusing to take. Fishing a short, controlled line can help – if you have a huge line out, snaking all over the river, then drag is almost a certainty. Keeping as much fly line off the water as you can help reduce drag. When you are ready to recast, make sure not to rip your line of the water! A gentle pick up is less likely to scare the fish.
Across stream dry fly fishing
Dry flies can be fished across stream too. You won’t get as much time with your fly on the water before recasting, but it’s entirely possible to go across the stream. It’s far easier to fish across the stream when the river has an even current. Most rivers, however, have lots of seams of current, all moving at different speeds. This means the fly will often drag unnaturally when fishing across, drag can be counteracted with mend in the line ( where a bend is thrown into the line either during the cast or after the line has landed). Another option is the slack line cast – when the line is being delivered to the water the rod is wiggled so the line lands in the river in a wiggle pattern.
Downstream dry fly fishing
It’s entirely possible to fish a dry fly downstream. It’s not going to be your go-to method. However, when fishing upstream there will often be a splash of a fish rising behind you, and you need to be able to cover these rises. The cast is a little more complicated. You need to make a slack like a cast to allow the fly to run naturally down the river. Probably the two easiest methods are to ‘check back’ the line before it lands on the water or to make a slack line cast by wiggling the rod just before the line lands ( as described above) It’s crucial to recast before the line has fully extended or your fly will become swamped in water.