Dry Fly Fishing — Back Door, Side Door, Front Door | When the first cast matters most: Part Two

by | Apr 1, 2020 | 7 comments

** This is Part Two of a Troutbitten short series. But it also reads well as a stand alone dry fly piece. Find Part One HERE. **

A fly touches the water with a trout in the area, and a few different things can happen. Ideally, the fish sees the fly, buys our presentation and eats its breakfast. But more often, something goes wrong. Maybe the fly pattern isn’t convincing enough or the drift isn’t right. Or maybe it’s a great presentation in the wrong place, and the fly is too far away to be a motivational morsel.

Things have to be just right to fool a wild trout, and most refusals happen without the fish ever moving — the fly is seen but the trout isn’t interested. (Imagine how many times that happened on your last trip to the river.) So, as trout anglers, our efforts are dedicated to refining the drift into something convincing. It’s a challenge that changes with our every step, wading upstream through flowing currents. And it’s what draws us back time and again.

In Part One of this Troutbitten short series, I argued that the first cast is critical when fishing a streamer. But the streamer is unique. It’s such a large offering that a trout has more to reject, and they rarely come back for a second look. Even more uncommon is a trout committing to eat the fly once it’s already been refused.

But that’s not so true for other fly types. Take the dry fly as our next example . . .

Good Things and Bad

A trout reacts to a dry fly in one of four ways. They eat it, ignore it, refuse it or spook from it.

When a trout ignores our dry fly, we still have opportunities to fool that fish on consecutive casts, as long as we didn’t put the trout on alert. And our primary goal as dry fly anglers is to avoid spooking fish.

What spooks fish up top? I’m sure you’ve seen trout bolt when a dry fly lands with a splash. Right?

That said, a nice plop on the surface can also be a trigger. And with many fly types (terrestrials, dapping caddis, stoneflies, etc.) such a landing may draw positive attention. If you do choose to plop the fly to the surface instead of landing with feather-like softness, the real trick is to keep the leader and fly line from splatting as well. Keep that in mind.

More often, a soft landing is the better option. And, by a wide margin, a dead drift is the best presentation for a surface pattern. Skating and sliding dries are techniques that tend to spook more trout than they convert (usually). And that’s even more true with dragging tippets, leaders and fly lines across the water.

Josh Darling, of Wilds Media, finding the seam

The Back Door

When I locate a rising fish, or when I’ve chosen a target that I believe holds a willing riser, my first cast is behind the trout. I like to place the fly, with the necessary s-curves, to the rear of the trout and slightly to the side. The ideal location is about a foot behind the fish and another foot to the left or right of where I see or expect the rise. Placing a soft-landing dry directly behind a trout may go unseen, so I like to be a little off-center, just barely in the trout’s extended cone of vision. In the right water type, trout also see the fly in the air just before it lands.

Coming in from the back door triggers reaction strikes. Because the fly is downstream of the fish, a trout is forced to make quick decisions. It doesn’t have much time to inspect the fly before committing or refusing.

So the back door cast is my favorite way to begin my approach when presenting the dry fly to a trout.

READ: Troutbitten | Dry Fly Fishing — The George Harvey Leader Design

Side Door

My next cast to a surface-feeding fish is often to the side. I place the fly a few feet upstream of the trout but off to one side. By choosing the near side, I keep all the leader and line further away from the fish. Again, such considerations are often critical to success.

At both the back door and side door angles, it’s easy for a trout to ignore the fly without being alerted. I can offer multiple casts to a trout without much risk of spooking it. So both of these presentations are less disruptive to a trout than the next one . . .

Front Door

Following the back door and side door looks, my next target is whatever current seam will drift the fly precisely into the lane of a holding trout — right down the middle.

Remember that a rising fish most often returns to the bottom. And its position is upstream of the rise. (More on that HERE). So make the front door cast five feet or more ahead of the rise. Give trout enough time to see the fly coming downstream as a natural.

READ: Troutbitten |Fifty Tips # 40 — The Trout is Upstream of the Rise

While the back door and side door casts ask the trout to make quick decisions and move a bit, the front door cast is about making the choice as easy as possible for a lazy, efficient trout.

Here’s an important point: The first cast down the middle should be your best effort. Avoid a dragging fly as it approaches the trout. And once you’ve committed to the front door cast, think of each recurring presentation as having diminishing chances.

Photo by Bill Dell

Cast After Cast?

Can a good angler present multiple surface casts to a feeding trout without putting it down? Absolutely! And this is one of the most intriguing aspects of fly fishing. This is the draw of fishing dry flies.

We make an offering to the trout, working from the back and side door angles first, and then right down the middle at the front door. On the surface, we see if the fly was well presented. We notice when drag sets in. And we often witness a trout rise to our fly and give us the middle fin, rejecting the fly for who-knows-what reason at the end. But as long as the trout doesn’t spook, we might give him multiple chances at the same fly and with the same presentation. Making consecutive casts with a dry fly produces often enough to believe that the next cast will seal the deal. And this is very much unlike a streamer.

Here’s the key: Keep the trout comfortable and unaware of your presence, and don’t let it know there are fake flies around. Be most cautious while picking up the line. Even a picky trout will tolerate the wrong fly drifting overhead multiple times, but it will dash for the nearest log when the leader or line is ripped from the surface. Many trout will tolerate a dragging fly in their lane, but they will not feed after the leader causes unusual disturbance. So mind your line pickup. Be careful about how you lift the leader for the next cast. Allowing both the fly and all the line to drift past the fish first is usually the better choice.

Dries are Different

One could argue that the same principle of refusal, discussed for streamers, applies for dry flies — that presenting to the back door or side door first allows a trout to see the dry fly and refuse it, therefore making our eventual front-door-perfect cast less effective.

It’s a fair assumption. But it’s not accurate. Over the years, I’ve had countless trout see my back door or side door casts multiple times, while seemingly waiting for the perfect front door cast. Finally, when they see it come straight down the seam toward them, they eat the fly. Why? Because it requires less effort to capture the offering.

Oftentimes, trout are very tolerant of the wrong pattern (if presented well). So an angler may change flies multiple times, repeating the cycle of back door, side door and front door with each new pattern until finally fooling a stubborn fish. These are the moments we remember.

Fish hard, friends.

It’s almost time.


** In an upcoming article, this Troutbitten short series continues by considering the first-cast principle with a nymph and looking at how important or unimportant that might be. **

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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. Putting your first cast with a dry fly behind the trout is definitely good advice, especially with terrestrial patterns. Trout feeding on terrestrials cannot resist the plop of a deer hair ant or beetle when it drops in behind them. Years ago I was at a fly fishing seminar where Lefty Kreh and Joe Humphreys were speaking, and one of them said that regardless of the type of dry fly, the first cast should be behind the trout, second cast should be to the side, next cast in front. It makes sense.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. A “side door” first cast to the near side (if you are presenting across) protects the edge of the feeding window by giving a trout the chance to make a lateral move to eat without accidentally lining them. It also allows the angler to pre-measure the exact line length needed for an accurate “front door” presentation while getting a better feel for the complexities of the micro-currents that produce micro-drag. However none of this happens until one has analyzed the big picture presented by a feeding fish. The variables are remarkably complex, including: bug type/emergence stage/fly choice, rise form/film layer (on, in, under), rise frequency/pattern (from one-and-done to super-steady), feeding mood (from voracious/reckless to hyper-skittish), selectivity (opportunistic to tunnel vision) , time of year/accumulated fishing pressure, and water clarity/temperature which affects the size of the feeding window.

    The importance of a good first cast is indirectly related to feeding frequency and directly related to degree of skittishness. A good general rule to follow is no more than two or three casts per rise, that is try to match the feeding pace of the fish. For those very infrequent, rare and random one-and done risers – a quick and accurate “front door” first cast is usually the best bet. Excellent topic for getting ones head ready for a full season of dry fly fishing. Thanks for allowing me to ramble on. Blogs like this are a helpful distraction in trying times. Fortunately the bugs will be popping soon enough – the ultimate distraction!

  3. Although this was basically for dry flys,when using an indicator I’ve found it’s very similar to a dry fly,if it isn’t completely free of any drag might as well recast. And can’t tell you how often the first pass results in fish,so learned to be totally focused on first drift!!


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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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