Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #6 — Learn by using visible flies

by | Sep 3, 2017 | 7 comments

Watching a trout take your fly — it’s one of the most exciting aspects of this game. All fly anglers talk about it. Streamer guys love watching the transient swirl just before a hulking brown crushes the fly. Dry fly guys patiently tie strands of visible flash into upright wings and bright colors into their parachutes. Nymph fishers walk miles to spot a good wild brown trout in the shallows before setting up to sight fish to it.

Vision is our primary sense, so no wonder anglers go to great lengths to use it. At some point though, we resign ourselves to the facts: fishing is often better when the flies aren’t seen by the angler — when the streamer or nymph gets deeper, and when the dry fly is small and natural enough to get lost in the surface. Visible flies, though, should never be forgotten. They’re effective as a learning tool, and they catch fish at the same time.

Let’s go through the styles.


Every fly fisher I know loves some good dry fly action. We’re attracted to the surface game because we get to see it all go down. After some time with larger and more visible patterns, we learn the unfortunate truth — that the best choice might be a tiny little fly that we’ll never see on the water.

Patterns for solving that visibility issue abound, and my dry box is filled with them. I like parachutes and hi-vis wings. Even my comparaduns are mostly tied with bleached deer hair for visibility — same with my elk hair caddis and those related styles.

When fish won’t take any of the above, I remember the advice of a seasoned fly shop owner: “Don’t get hung up on wanting to see your fly. Just set the hook on maybes.”

I do that sometimes. And I accept that I won’t see the fly much. But just as often, I use a tandem dry rig. I add a second fly as a trailer or tag dropper about 8-20 inches away. Usually, I make the first fly the visible one, but you can do it the other way too.

It’s fun, and it brings sight back into the dry fly game.

Photo by Matt Grobe


Most of my nymph fishing happens with the nymphs well out of site. To sense the take, I either feel the line through the rod, watch the sighter or follow a suspender.

Around here, I rarely encounter sight fishing opportunities. So when I go underneath with nymphs, I rely on experienced estimates about where my nymphs are.

However, I regularly tie on a visible nymph and watch it drift in the current. I use Green Weenies or pink Squirmy Wormies, and they catch fish. Sometimes, I choose a visible fly just to see how the currents are flowing on the bottom. Given the right water conditions, I can peer through about three feet of depth.

Many times, the motion and the course of my nymph is much different than what I expect.

So by watching the visible nymphs, I learn how to better read what my sighter or suspender is showing me. I learn to manipulate the line and rod for better drifts, and I learn what the surface currents may signal about the river below.

Also, just like the visible dry fly, adding a second, more natural fly paired with the visible nymph often results in a lot of hookups.


I’ve found that I catch more fish on streamers when I don’t see the fly. But I love watching a streamer. I used to strip too fast, keeping my streamer high in the water column, just so I could watch it dance in concert with my strips and jerks. Many anglers have the same habit.

Decades ago I read Joe Humphreys’ book Trout Tactics and found his tip for trailing a dark, natural streamer behind a more visible one. Problem solved. I’ve been doing it ever since. I like a white or tan upper fly, sometimes flashy, usually small, and tie it about 24-30 inches above the lower fly. I watch the upper fly in the water, but I have a very good idea about where my lower fly is and how it’s moving.

READ: Troutbitten | Pat Burke on the Sighter Streamer

The added benefit of course, is that some days, trout are all over the upper fly too.

Fish on.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. Just did the hopper dropper rig today, and I was catching all kinds of fish once I did that.

  2. A sighter streamer. Never heard of it, but it makes sense. This older dog is going to try a new trick.

  3. Would you post a few sighter streamer patterns?

    • Hey Bruce,

      I like Shenk’s White Minnow, Motto’s Minnow, and Burke’s Variant. Burke’s Variant and the Motto’s are pictured in the cover photo above. And you can see Burke’s Variant closer in the Sighter Streamer article link above.

      I think the key is to pick something visible, yet relatively small. You don’t want a big fly up top, catching currents and effecting the drift very much. I like white and tan patterns that are about 2 inches long.


      • Thanks, Domenick. I think I have some Shenk minnows I quit using because they would sink enough for me, HA!

  4. Wouldn’t sink enough for me.


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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