The fundamental kernel of fly fishing lies in the angler’s ability to cast and manipulate line, leader and tippet, to send not just a fly to the target, but to also control what that fly is attached to, both in the cast and throughout the drift. This is what separates fly fishing from conventional tackle. And nothing teaches or trains an angler better in this concept, revealing the options inherent, better than fishing dry flies.
Decades ago, nymphing was a mystery to most fly fishers, and the streamers were tied on when trout wouldn’t play ball. But much has changed within the thirty years or so that I’ve been paying attention to industry trends and angler interest. And now, more than ever, we see fly fishers specializing in every facet of the game, from wet fly devotees to streamer junkies and euro nymphers.
In just a few years, the tables have turned. While once it was common to run into the dry-flies-only crew around every bend, I now talk with anglers, every day, who don’t fish dry flies, don’t tie dry flies and can’t cast a fly line. Instead, they are dedicated to nymphs or streamers, either having no interest in fishing dries or, more often, are intimidated by the challenge of casting them.
That’s too bad, because dry fly fishing is easier than nymphing, by a wide margin. Nymphing is an art of the unseen, played on a three-dimensional field of depths and angles, full of educated guesses and calculated coverage. Mastering the casting challenges of dry fly fishing is a significant hurdle, but once the fly lands, we can see success on the surface. There are fewer questions with a dry, and the results are observed. Good drift or bad? That’s easily known on a dry fly.
Those who follow Troutbitten already understand that I’m not here to tell you my way is best. But I’ve been around the game long enough to see what works for people, what brings about struggles or boredom, and why anglers give up. So when people ask me the best way to get into fly fishing, I strongly suggest this, every time — learn to fish dry flies.
Troutbitten has become closely tied to Mono Rig and tight line tactics, so I field endless questions about euro nymphing from beginners. And I tell them the same thing — learn to fish dry flies, or you’re missing the point.
Why? Not for aesthetics and not for tradition, neither of which I care a lick about. Learn to fish dry flies, or you’ll miss the point of fly fishing. Meaning, you’ll miss the ability to push line and leader through the air, under control, to manipulate and mend that tether to the fly through aerial maneuvers born of great speed and crisp rod tip motions, all of which hold tremendous value for the other styles of fly fishing, lending excellent presentations to nymphs and streamers. So, learn to fish dry flies, and you’ll fish nymphs and streamers a whole lot better too.
I’m a tireless advocate for long leader styles when weight is involved. I write and speak of the Mono Rig because the tight line advantage beats the handicap of a fly line once the weight of a nymph, streamer or split shot is involved. But I have never met an angler who casts a tight line system worth a damn, if they have no skill with fly line and a dry fly. As a guide, casting is the biggest struggle that I see, day to day. And when a new angler picks up the fly rod with a long leader and weight attached, they never learn to cast the leader itself. Instead, the weight of the fly or split shot becomes the focus.
I’ve encountered this so often and found so few exceptions, that I finally understand what ails many nymphing anglers. They can’t cast dry flies. They lack the ingrained habit, the learned instinct for loading a fly rod and swiftly sending that flex in the other direction. I now believe it’s a feeling that is only learned by spending time with dry flies and a fly line, without the weight of a tungsten bead or lead to do the work that the hands and a great casting stroke should be doing.
I recently spoke with Tom Rosenbauer about this, when I was a guest on his Orvis podcast. And during that conversation, I realized this fact more clearly than ever. As I told Tom, the difference between fly casting and conventional casting is the ability to cast and place not just the fly, but the line and leader itself. And this is too often missed by anglers who have done no work with dries.
With conventional gear in hand, the line from rod tip to lure is straight and tight (generally), with no option to mend line on the water, to introduce meaningful slack or even change directions dramatically. Likewise, the cast finishes in a straight line on conventional tackle, without option for a tuck cast, a curve cast or some other aerial mend.
That ability to manipulate and deliver the line and leader, in addition to the fly, has great value throughout all styles of fly fishing, from wets to dries, from nymphs to streamers. It’s intuitively learned by casting dry flies but easily missed when casting the weighted setups of nymphs or streamers. And it is almost always missed when an angler learns by casting long leader systems only.
Again, Troutbitten regulars are familiar with my insistence on casting and not lobbing, on treating the Mono Rig, for example, like a fly line — because it fishes better that way. Indeed, I build my favorite tight line leader so it has that performance capability. But most recently, I’ve finally come to believe this . . .
. . . If you can’t fish dry flies, you’re missing the point. I’ve yet to find an exception.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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