Beginner's Lesson:
Dry Fly Fishing – Part One

By Jack Gagnon

When you cast to a surface-feeding fish, you are imitating a free floating insect. Your artificial should drift downstream at the same speed as a natural. When your fly moves faster or slower, this is called drag. Fish not only refuse a dragging fly, sometimes they stop feeding altogether. When your fly drags, the line will be bowed by the surface current, either upstream or down. (Think of the letter "C" or its mirror image.) This either pulls the fly along too fast, or impedes the drift. The way to overcome this is to mend the cast.

Mending reverses the "C" belly that develops in the line. To mend, raise the rod, and lift the part of the fly line that you want to mend off the water. Then, with a flick of your wrist, move the rod tip in a quick half circle, either upstream or down, (counterclockwise or clockwise), reversing the bow in the line. It's easy to learn. Have a friend show you, or Google “flyfishing – mending.”

Another way to eliminate drag is to change your position. If the rise is directly across from you, move upstream or down. Casting at a forty-five degree angle is a good rule of thumb. It can be adjusted, depending on conditions. As you reduce the angle, you reduce the amount of line affected by the current, which reduces drag. Where depth and current allow it, positioning yourself upstream is often the best choice. A downstream cast allows you to present the fly first, without any line or leader landing parallel to the fish.

So you're on the river. Fish begin to rise. What should you do first? Nothing. There's no faster way to put down a feeding fish than to hurry a cast over it as soon at rises. Step back and watch. You see insects on the water, but do you know what they are? Do you know what color? Fish see the bug's underside. There are all black caddis, and brown-winged caddis with tan bodies; others have pale wings, with green bodies in different shades. There are olive bodied mayflies with yellow undersides, and some with darkly segmented tops and pale bellies. So what fly should you use?

The solution is to capture one. You can use a small aquarium net, or even your hat, if necessary. Check its size. (Not your hat, wiseguy. The bug.) Note the wing color. Turn it over, check the body color. Now try to match it. If you don't have anything close, something smaller is usually your best bet. You've got the fly tied on. The fish is still rising. Ready to cast? No. You're not. Before you do anything, you want to target a spot well above the rise. A hurried presentation that lands too close to the fish will put it down. Naturals don't splat overhead. They drift into the fish's feeding lane.

Also be mindful that casting directly to the rise often puts the fly where the fish can't even see it. The ripple on the surface is where the fish intercepted an insect, not where the fish is now. In moving water, a rising fish holds its position with a cone of vision that opens to the surface. When an insect drifts into view, depending on the speed of the current, the fish will either drift back while still facing upstream, to intercept the insect, or it will turn and swim downstream to get it. In either case, the fish will then swim back to its original position. The rise is where the fish was, not where it is. To drift the fly where the fish will see it, always cast a good distance above a rise. This will also allow you to adjust the line of drift, and mend, long before the fly reaches the target. I'll continue this next month.

Jack Gagnon is an avid fly fisherman and upland bird hunter. He has written for a number of national sporting publications.

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