Ask most anglers these days what methods they use when fly fishing for trout and you'll probably get dry fly, nymph and streamers in various order of preference. Wet fly fishing has been largely overlooked over the last decade or more, even though it is one of the earliest and still very effective fly fishing method. In 1450 Dame Juliana Berners in her book "Treatise of Fishing with an Angle" listed dressings for 12 wet flies. In 1676 Charles Cotton, in the second part of Isaac Walton's Compleat Angler describes 65 wet flies including the Black Gnat and the Cow Dung, which are still in use today. The Coachman wet fly was invented in the 1830's and is still a very popular pattern. Canadian patterns developed for brook trout such as the as the Dark Montreal and Parmachene Belle came along in the 1850's. These flies caught trout then and still work today. As a matter of fact, there are times when they are the most effective way of taking trout on the fly. Many of the common dry flies and nymphs used today have a wet fly version with the Adams, Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear and Mosquito being a few examples.
Wet fly fishing has been largely overlooked over the last decade or more
Wet flies have four styles, winged wets, soft hackles, wingless wet (flymph) and fuzzy nymphs. Winged wets are most often tied with paired feathers from mallard, pheasant, duck or turkey. Soft hackles, vigorously promoted by angling author Sylvester Nemes are flies with slender bodies of herl or floss and are hackled using feathers of water absorbing land birds with the Hungarian Partridge being one of the most common. These feathers, when tied in sparsely will move and undulate in the water giving them a very lifelike appearance. Flymphs are basically nymphs with fur spun loosely and spiky over a coloured under body of thread, floss or silk which is meant to show through and then add some soft hackled fibres wound at the front to imitate the insects’ legs. Fuzzy nymphs are all fur nymphs with loosely dubbed fur for the body and a collar of longer fibres using a complimentary colour spun on the front of the fly. You may want to have some of your wet flies tied with a little weight to allow them to sink a little more covering the middle of the water column. What all of these flies have in common is that they use materials that move without the help of the angler, the current does the work. Some of today’s more popular nymphs can be fished wet fly style quite successfully as long as they have something that will move and undulate with the currents. A CDC Prince nymph or a Rubber Legged Squirrel nymph are better choices than say a Copper John.
Traditional wet flies on the left, modern nymphs that can fished as wet flies on the right
Fishing wet flies is best done with a slower action fly rod rather than the fast action models that are in vogue these days. Casts don't have to be long and a gentler presentation is preferred, especially when fishing smaller rivers or streams. Often when fishing wet flies more than one fly is used and a moderate action rod will allow you to throw a more open loop avoiding the tangles that would occur with a faster action rod throwing tight loops. A 9 foot rod that throws a #5 or #6 line will work just fine. Leader length and size is much the same as dry fly fishing, a nine foot leader with a couple of feet of tippet, matched to your fly size. One, two or even three flies can be used. If you're using two flies make sure they are not too similar, either use one large and one small or one dark and one light to add variety. This is a good way to find out if the trout have a preference. The downside with all multiple fly rigs is there is always a chance of tangles. If one of your two or three flies is the "hot" one you can go to a back to using a single fly. I find three flies just gets me trouble so I usually only fish one or two. The second fly on a two fish rig should be tied on at the tippet knot, leave a tag end of the heavier leader material and attach the second fly to it. The tag end should be six inches or so and the tippet at least 2 feet. This will allow both flies to swing and move independently of each other and hopefully not tangle. If you are fishing your wet fly upstream you will want to “grease” your leader. This is done by putting floatant on the leader up to about a foot away from the tippet knot. This will help keep the fly in the upper water column and aid in detecting strikes which will not always be visible.
A medium action rod will help you cast open loops that will help reduce tangles
While wet flies can be fished in various ways including upstream, up and across, straight across or the traditional and most common method being the downstream swing. A variation of this is to cast the fly upstream, allow it to sink and then let it swing and rise once it is downstream of you. This method is sometimes called "Chuck and Chance", but it is an effective method to cover lots of water and show your fly to many fish. Long time Bow River guide Barry White's first stop is always "Rumples Run" where he has his clients swing wet flies on the "soft side" of the river. Most other boats focus on the high bank on the opposite side but Barry's experience proves itself time and time again with many trout hooked using the downstream swing method of wet fly fishing. Why trout hit a swinging fly is pure conjecture. Whether it is out of aggression, curiosity or whatever, the main thing is it works as there is no better method to show a fly to as many fish in as many lies with one cast. Wet fly fishing also involves matching the hatch in certain situations. I had the pleasure of knowing and fishing with Gary LaFontaine, author of Caddisflies among other great fly fishing books. He demonstrated to me the wet fly method of fishing his Deep Sparkle Caddis pattern on the Cark Fork River in Montana. He casts it upstream, letting it sink and then swing up and across producing ferocious strikes. This is a method that I have employed on the Bow ever since. Caddis Pupa when they head to the surface do it very quickly and the wet fly swing imitates it well. The Deep Sparkle Caddis pattern has an Antron suck and tail that trails air bubbles as it swings imitating the emerging caddis perfectly. The first time I used this method on the Bow River I had some of the most violent strikes I have ever experienced. A lot of anglers get fooled when they see what they think are fish rising everywhere, even jumping out of the water, yet dry fly after dry fly is tried to no avail. Often what is going on is the trout are chasing and eating caddis pupa on their way to the top and their momentum takes them above the water surface. A wet fly like the LaFontaines Sparkle Caddis swung through they feeding fish will often solve the riddle. Strikes to wet flies are quite strong and setting the hook is not usually necessary. When fishing wet flies upstream the take is much harder to see, especially if the water is riffled. In this case I put a small strike indicator at the tippet knot, usually just a small tuft of synthetic yarn. This will help you not only detect strikes but also track your fly. One tell tale sign that fish are feeding just under the surface, and not on top, is the absence of an air bubble in the rise form. If you see a bubble the fish is feeding on top and a dry fly should be used. If there is no bubble the fish is feeding under the surface and a wet fly should be used.
Next time you go out flyfishing why not try going “Old School” and give wet flies a try. You never know you, might discover a new favourite method and release a lot of trout doing it.
Wet fly success