Go Dry to Wet Your Net…

ACG-(2)tbnailI am, by inclination, a wet-fly fisherman when chasing wild brownies in highland lochs. I think the attraction of this method is that I feel I am actively hunting the fish – as wet fly fishing in such lochs is about keeping moving and covering lots of new water. I fish my wet flies in the traditional way – a team of three, cast and retrieved across the ripple in a fairly rapid manner. I very much fish ‘step and cast’ and keep myself on the go, making lots of casts and really only fishing the first four pulls of the line before lifting off and recasting. Brown trout, being territorial and ‘vertical feeders’, do not tend to follow a fly and seem to respond best when your flies have ‘just arrived’ in their ambush area. This has brought me a satisfying hit rate and in moving so quickly around a loch’s margins, has also allowed me to cover a lot of lochs in a day out in the hills as I do not dwell too long at any one water.

This searching out fresh water is very exciting as I am always wondering when the next lightning fast take is going to come. In constantly covering new water using fan casts, there is often little to indicate a fish holding feature – and, as I am more often than not  fishing a loch for the first time, little experience to guide me onto such likely features. Therefore there is always high anticipation when using this method – in particular when conditions seem right and I have already banked a few fish to heighten expectation.

In terms of converting the interest of a fish into actually being connected to my 5-weight outfit, as I am actively moving my flies through the water, any taking trout is likely in effect to hook itself as long as I maintain a firm connection between my flies and my line; so my ‘conversion rate’ has always been pleasingly competent (unless I have recently been fishing for Oncorhynchus mykiss and therefore need to sharpen my reflexes for wild and lightening-fast Salmo trutta).

The last few years have, however, seen me fishing dry flies more and more often with increasing success – and more importantly perhaps, enjoyment. I confess that I was initially driven by circumstance, choosing to fish a dry fly only when any ripple had disappeared, rendering a team of wet flies all but impossible. At such times (and in particular in September) I would put on a large dry sedge or daddy, degrease my cast and play the ‘sit and wait’ game, my legs all the time twitching to be moving round the loch.

A day to try the dry fly – or guarantee you will be fishless

A day to try the dry fly – or guarantee you will be fishless

Perhaps pleased (and surprised) at the results of this method, I have found myself turning to dries more and more often as my first form of attack. I have also perhaps been driven by the well-held belief that it is often a static fly that attracts the bigger fish. This view is well documented and certainly conforms to my knowledge of fish and animal behaviour. The bigger fish have learnt that the best approach in the ‘energy expended v energy gained’ equation by which all wild animals live, is not to chase something, but to take a food form that presents itself static and apparently oblivious to the danger. Such an equation does, however, rely on the apparent food form closely resembling an actual food form – rather than being a flashy attractor as so many traditional and effective wet-flies are.

My hill-trout dry fly box has therefore expanded and now comprises not just sedge and daddy patterns but now includes many various klinkhammer, general upwing and terrestrial patterns. I don’t believe that you have to be an ardent entomologist in your approach to dry flies for highland trout: the old adage for wet flies can often still apply to dries – ‘any colour so long as it’s black’. Notwithstanding the need for good presentation (the single most important issue in fly fishing as far as I am concerned) size is often the key rather than exact shade/colour of fly. Small and black has worked for me many times, for apart from the larger summer sedges and crane flies, the majority of high altitude flies I have come across have not been large. Small foam backed beetle and heather-fly imitations are always worth a try – although I have found these to be less effective in a complete flat calm than I might have expected them to be. I rationalise this by the logic that on a flat calm day with no breeze, the trout are less expecting a terrestrial windfall bonanza than they are on a day with a strong breeze. This logic does not seem to follow with sedge and crane flies in my experience; however counter-intuitive this may be. When I get my presentation right, a tiny klinkhammer seems to work best in an absolute flat calm, which seems to suggest to me that the trout are expecting the flat calm to be trapping any emerging insects in the surface tension and therefore a klinkhammer is giving them exactly what is on the menu.

Always have a few mayflies in your box however, as if you are lucky enough (or have planned) to be fishing a limestone loch, then hatches of mayfly can produce some spectacular days. My own fishing tends to be in more oligotrophic lochs but I would hate not to have something in my armoury should I find that nirvana – a secret limestone loch, tucked away in some remote and unfished glen…

Casting a dry daddy into the margins of Loch Ailsh, Assynt, on a day with only a light ripple – perfect conditions for a dry approach

Casting a dry daddy into the margins of Loch Ailsh, Assynt, on a day with only a light ripple – perfect conditions for a dry approach

However, if I had to choose one single pattern to take into the hills with me it would have to be the sedge (in various sizes). There seems to be no shortage of Scottish brown trout that will rise like miniature Polaris missiles from the depths to take a static sedge – and the take is always so delightfully aggressive that often I am forced to smile, whether I convert it or not.

A small, but satisfying fish to a dry Sedge, about to go back

A small, but satisfying fish to a dry Sedge, about to go back

The end of a detached-body Daddy

The end of a detached-body Daddy

One thing I have noticed when fishing larger sedge and daddy patterns is the tendency of the average 8oz–sized trout to ‘splash rise’ in what seems to be a premeditated attempt to drown the large fly before coming back to mop up the straggler. This try-to-drown-it tactic means that it is easy to miss these fish by tightening into them too early. At times like these it is imperative to strike by feel rather than sight and I confess that this takes quite some resolve for me in the excitement of the moment. Notwithstanding this situation, I have found that, in general, my best strike conversion rates with dries have been when I have been marvelling at the magnificent scenery around me and I have simply reacted to the pull of the fish rather than when I have concentrated, heron-like, on the fly and have struck a bit too early at the initial splash of the rise. Sometimes it can pay NOT to concentrate…

A method that I have started to experiment with is New Zealand style. This is a well-known and practised approach on running water but I am not aware of its widespread use on wild trout still waters. I am using this more and more often in conditions of near or absolute flat calm, but with enough cloud cover to keep the trout high in the water – especially when there is enough of a rise to give hope that the trout are actively on the feed. The set-up is very standard New Zealand style – a tiny size 18 or 20 pheasant-tailed nymph suspended from the bend of a Klinkhammer. So far my results have been inconclusive – but I do love experimenting, and it has certainly proved exciting as my dry fly dips under a flat calm surface as a trout has sipped in the nymph suspended below.

Into a fish on the New Zealand Method

Into a fish on the New Zealand Method

Personal journeys can be all the better if you ‘allow the scenery to change’ as it were, and one of the best things about our sport is that no matter how much we have read and heard about tackle, flies and techniques, we are each on our own very individual and personal journey whereby we can experience and experiment different approaches and tactics for ourselves.

So if you have been an avid and devoted wet fly man as I have been when on highland lochs, why not try your own experiment with the dry fly, you might even get your net wet.

Anthony Glasgow

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