If You Can’t Fish Dry Flies, You’re Missing the Point

by | Apr 2, 2023 | 36 comments

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Strategies — Learn the Nymph

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.

Photo by Bill Dell

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Bob’s Fly Casting Wisdom

Photo by Bill Dell

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.

 

** Donate ** If you enjoy this article, please consider a donation. Your support is what keeps this Troutbitten project funded. Scroll below to find the Donate Button. And thank you.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

 

Share This Article . . .

Since 2014 and 1000+ articles deep
Troutbitten is a free resource for all anglers.
Your support is greatly appreciated.

– Explore These Post Tags –

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.

More from this Category

Cherry Picking or Full Coverage?

Cherry Picking or Full Coverage?

  Today, Hatch Magazine published an article that I wrote about two different approaches on the river. Here are a few excerpts ... -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- ... Like a slow and silent time-lapse parade, over the span of an hour, the next fisherman took the position...

Take Five

Take Five

2:15 pm. Conditions are perfect and the trout should be active, but I’ve caught so few fish that I still know the slim count. Six. That’s four wild browns and two stocked rainbows that found their way here from only God knows where. But stocked bows have no regard for...

Fly Fishing Strategies: Tags and Trailers

Fly Fishing Strategies: Tags and Trailers

Sometimes trout are feeding so aggressively that the particular intricacies of how nymphs are attached to the line seem like a trivial waste of time. Those are rare, memorable days with wet hands that never dry out between fish releases. More often than not, though, trout make us work to catch them. And those same particulars about where and how the flies are attached can make all the difference in delivering a convincing presentation to a lazy trout.

Two nymphs can double your chances of fooling a trout. But there are downsides. Here are some strategies for rigging and getting the most from two fly rigs.

Streamside | Hatch Mag Tight Line Leader

Streamside | Hatch Mag Tight Line Leader

We've gotten a lot of questions, comments and reactions to a few recent articles that we published about Sighters, Tight Line Rigs and Why Fly Line Sucks. It's cool to see so much interest. Many of the questions are about the mono rig itself, and there is definitely...

Trophy Hunting: Meet Jercules

Trophy Hunting: Meet Jercules

. . .I’ve gone through a couple phases of trophy hunting, but I’m always careful to return to my roots before the obsession overtakes me. I don’t want to lose my enjoyment for the simple things on the water: the friendships, the forests, the mountains, the mysteries and the way thick, cool moss on limestone feels like a sofa cushion for a mid-stream lunch. Those are the good things that are available every time I put on my waders, even though the big fish usually aren’t.

While going in and out of these phases of trophy hunting for wild browns, I’ve learned that I was looking for big trout in the wrong places. I had to seek out new rivers. And sometimes, I simply had to find new places on my old rivers. Point is, I learned that trophy hunters need a target. It’s not enough to go to the same places and fish the same ways as you always have. You have to learn where the big fish are, go there, and put on your patience pants — because Whiskeys don’t come easily . . .

What do you think?

Be part of the Troutbitten community of ideas.
Be helpful. And be nice.

36 Comments

  1. I’m not convinced, Dom. Isn’t the point to fool a fish into taking a fly? Or does that open it up too widely?

    My 16yo son has never really properly learnt how to cast a fly line. On a couple of occasions I have, with a cringe on my face, watched him try and cast a dry on the mono rig, or a 12ft straight leader into small lakes. His casting of a fly line is poor, and I own that as his primary source of instruction and mentorship. But boy, he can tightline nymph and mono rig a streamer with deadly effect, with pinpoint accuracy. Heck, some days (more often than I like) he outfishes me.

    Sure, when conditions get tough, or the fish only want to eat dries, I’ll catch several to his one. But that’s because I’ve got a couple of different arrows in my quiver that he hasn’t learnt yet. But I don’t think he’s missing the point. He’s generally very effective at fooling fish into taking a fly. We both call what he (we) do(es) fly fishing.

    Reply
    • Respectfully, John, you’ve read it wrong.

      The point of fly fishing, as I’m writing it here, is that we can cast the line and leader as well as the fly. And when we don’t have that facility, whether that’s me, you or your son, we’ve missed the point. We’ve not made the most of it.

      Can we catch fish without that? ABSOLUTELY. And I addressed all of this in the article. But the fact remains that if we can’t cast the line and leader, then we’ve missed the best part of fly fishing. And that’s not just for dry flies, but for ALL styles of flies.

      This has nothing to do with whether people can catch fish without being good casters.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • I’m still not sure I agree. I think you can learn how to cast a mono rig with weighted nymphs or streamers very well without first learning how to cast traditionally. The principle is similar, loading the rod and using rod speed and stops to induce the right amount of slack, but the technique is different.

        Respectfully, you see a lot of anglers, but I think guides are exposed to a very biased sample. My sample size is limited to the people I fish with, but my observation is that practising mono rig casting makes you better at casting a mono rig, and practising fly line casting makes you a better at casting a fly line.

        Reply
        • John, it’s alright that we won’t agree here, and I won’t argue or reply after this comment. I knew this article would run into opposition, and some people would not understand my argument.

          You end by writing this:
          “practising mono rig casting makes you better at casting a mono rig, and practising fly line casting makes you a better at casting a fly line.”

          THAT’S my point here. THAT is the problem. And when anglers skip over the casting of dry flies, they don’t learn to use the long leader stuff to maximum effectiveness. Same can be said if they are fishing fly line but with a weighted streamer or even a bobber rig. Adding weight changes how people cast UNLESS they already have the baseline of good casting form and understand that “point” of fly casting anyway.

          The technique for casting fly line or weight is actually NOT different, as you say. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. The pause time is lengthened a bit. That is all.

          Fish on, my friend. Have fun out there.

          Cheers.
          Dom

          Reply
          • Appreciate that this isn’t a forum, so I don’t expect an ongoing conversation. I understand your argument, and I’m happy to concede that learning to cast a fly line and present dry flies well can translate to better casting skills with a mono rig (and any other fly fishing system). I just don’t think that’s the only pathway to learn and become a great caster of any system.

            I’ve had plenty of success teaching friends and family to cast the mono rig, and they’ve developed the skills to manipulate the power and timing to present the flies in different ways to suit the application. In fact, parking trying to teach my son how to cast a fly line, and getting him using a mono rig kept him interested in fly fishing because he was catching fish and had the sighter to provide feedback on his casting and drifts. I’m pretty confident that he’ll pick up casting a fly line extremely quickly when we focus on that, because he’s now confident that fly fishing is (usually) a better way to catch trout, and all he really needs to fix to translate across is timing (and the stopping point on the back-cast).

            Anyhow, love your work, and looking forward to the next podcast season.

            John

  2. I fly fish for fun. I don’t believe in paying to do something I do not enjoy. I do not enjoy getting a headache trying to see a size 22 trico with my 76 yo eyes. So if I have more fun and enjoy throwing a large streamer during a trico hatch-that is my fun and I really could care less about “my casting” trying to pitch a size 22 fly into a dime size slot. I try and learn from every guide I fish with but if he/she tries to tell me what and how to have fun
    it will be a very short day on the water.

    Reply
    • Good way to see that 22 Trico is to pair it up with a second dry that you can see.

      I’m glad you know what you enjoy about fishing. This article has nothing to do with what anyone likes best, nor is the article telling you to stop fishing streamers and fish only dry flies.

      Go get ’em.
      Dom

      Reply
  3. There are so many subtle aspects to fishing a dry. To me, they are part of the joy of fly fishing. And yes, those skills do make one a better caster.

    Reply
  4. Great article as always. And I agree with you 100%.

    I am a HUGE proponent for the Mono Rig, whether it be to fish for trout, bluegill, bass, etc.; literally anything that swims.. I call my 4wt setup “the most effective fishing tool I own”. But I ALWAYS recommend learning fly line first, for all of the reasons you mentioned. Starting with dries, and progressing through wets/small streamers, and nymphs. Biggest reason being is to learn how to cast; to load the rod and know what it feels like when it is loaded properly/ vs not.

    When they do move to a Mono Rig, the casting stroke is still mostly the same but it is very inherent to most in the ways that it excels over fly line in most short to med range situations. Yet still wont take the place of it for every situation, one example specifically being dry fly fishing at distances further than 20, 25 ft.

    Reply
  5. I guess you’ve never been a fan of G.E.M Skues. Too bad, you’re missing 70% of the strikes.

    Reply
    • I don’t understand the application. Happy to listen. Want to explain further?

      Reply
        • Yeah, sure. I know who Skues is. But . . . I don’t understand the application here. Not sure how that applies to this article or discussion. Happy to listen, but I have a feeling EZDrifter won’t reply.

          Reply
          • Especially as Skues almost certainly learnt to fish dries first, the ‘proper’ English way. He wouldn’t have gotten a foot in the door of the fly fishing aristocracy otherwise.

  6. Dry fly fishing, simply, is the purest, most difficult version of the activity. It is one that demands the most skill and knowledge, and should be what every fly fisherman strives to be good at. Much like fly fishing vs gear fishing, you never hear someone say “I used to primarily fish dry flies, but switched to euro nymphing for the challenge”. Lobbing a bobber and split shot may be fly fishing, but, as the article above states, it misses the essence of the sport.

    Reply
    • I think fishing nymphs is far more challenging than fishing dry flies — that is, if the angler is striving for great, one seam dead drifts. It’s harder because the fly cannot be seen and because you’re dealing with complex currents in three dimensions. With dry flies, we deal with one level (the surface), and we can see the fly and the results of our cast. Good nymphing is just tougher. The trouble is, many anglers think of nymphing as you just said — lobbing a bobber and split shot — and then hoping something good happens. That’s not the kind of nymphing most of us like to do.

      Lastly, I certainly HAVE heard people tell me they switched to nymphing for the challenge. In fact, many/most fly anglers start with dry flies. Then they often branch out and learn nymphs. That’s still what I see most. And, to the point of this article, I suggest that is the best path.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • Let’s agree to disagree, but it really comes down to the fishery. Plopping a chernobyl ant in a plunge pool filled with cutthroat is an entirely different (and far easier) game than a 60′ reach cast with an 18″ leader on a river like the Missouri or Delaware is the pinnacle of the sport.

        Reply
        • Meh. Not the pinnacle of the sport either. That’s for each angler to decide.

          I don’t plop Chernobyles much, but I can tell you that the advantage of SEEING success on top is enormous, as is the advantage of dealing with one layer of current — the top. Nymphing, approached seriously and done well, is far more complex that fishing dries.

          I feel like a have a pretty good handle on both dries and nymphs.

          I’ve often put it this way — dry fly casting seems more difficult with dry flies at first, but nymphing drifts are much more complex.

          Good argument, though.

          Would make a good podcast.

          Cheers.
          Dom

          Reply
  7. simply … well written .. as usual.

    Reply
  8. I started “fly fishing” in the summer of 1960 on the Merced River of Yosemite NP with my dad and his well used 6 1/2 foot Fenwick spinning rod, fluorescent 6# Stern mono and a weighted black thread black hackle home tied ant. Sixty years later I’m using a $1000 Sage 4100-4 Z-axis, Troutbitten mono rig and home tied Egan Red Darts in everywhere Alaska … with exactly the same “technique.” I don’t look back … cause there is nothing there for me. Still use the Fenwick when it feels right. Life is good.

    Thanks for your time and knowledge … and I honor the light within you. Richard

    Reply
  9. As always, great article.
    I totally agree with all of it.
    Also, by fishing traditional fly line before fishing a mono rig, you’ll better understand the advantages of a mono rig.
    For me, after fishing only fly line for years, it was really cool to see all the problems a mono rig solves.
    Today, a beginner could conceivably skip fly line, jump right to mono rigs or euro styles, catch a bunch of fish, and fully miss out on the experience I (and many of us) have had.

    Reply
  10. I enjoyed reading the article. I haven’t ever been fly fishing however, my dad did tie a line to a long stick and used a small stick (after he removed the bark) as the hook. I did catch a bluegill. It was really cool. I may just have to learn how to fly fish.

    Reply
  11. Appreciate your thoughts here. There are multiple levels of complexity to dry fly fishing and casting and at the upper end of the scale way more challenging than nymphing IMHO. Mostly this occurs on pressured water. Casting an ant on a mountain stream or lake in August is pretty easy and can be very effective. But pressured water and specifically gold medal water is entirely different. I’m thinking the Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork or Silver Creek. Both will push the skills of an excellent fly caster to their limits. Add in the challenges of fly selection, casting a 12′ leader and playing a monster rainbow on 6X tippet and the skill level goes far beyond what’s required to be a good tight line nympher.

    Personally, I love the challenge and try to make it to the Ranch several times a year and Silver Creek at least once so that I can continuously improve. In my world dry fly fishing is the pinnacle. Size 28 midges in the winter, BWO’s and caddis in the spring, Drakes, stoneflies, tricos and PMD’s in the summer. Mahoganies and baetis/pseudos in the fall. If the hatch isn’t happening, I prefer to swing wet flies, stripping streamers next and lastly nymphing.

    One thing you did not address in your article is the fly rod. The trend in fly rods is stiffer/faster. These newer rods are perfectly suited to casting heavy streamers or a nymph rig loaded with tungsten bead head flies. Not so great for casting dry flies, especially smaller ones. Aggressive weight forward fly lines work great when loading that stiff rod, but don’t contribute to a smooth dry fly cast and a delicate presentation either.

    Reply
    • Good stuff, I appreciate the comment. So, I’m gonna reply, not because I need to be right about this, but because there are a couple things that really matter.

      We fish over some of the most difficult trout in the world here. We fish for them with dry flies and nymphs. We’ve fished the challenging waters that you mention as well. My judgment about what is tougher comes not just from experience in mountain streams, but over super selective trout, as you mentioned. We’ve done it. Our opinion is well thought out and tested. And we/I/most of us believe that nymphing is harder.

      Who cares’ really? Right? But I do think it’s an important mental exercise. Here’s why . . .

      Just because nymphing might usually produce more trout, doesn’t mean it is easier. When I say nymphing is tougher, I mean that getting a great/perfect drift on a nymph is simply . . . harder. Try nymphing on the same waters that you mentioned, and get true, convincing dead drifts. It is, quite simply, harder to achieve because you can’t see success on the invisible flies underneath, and because the complexity of currents is WAY more intricate in three dimensions. I feel like that is undeniable. When people think nymphing is easier, it’s usually because they catch more on nymphs. But that doesn’t make it EASIER. That just means trout eat nymphs way more often. However, getting that perfect one seam dead drift on a nymph is a more complex undertaking. It is harder to achieve. And when you present to very selective fish underneath, you must do many of the same adjustments that you speak of above. Many people just don’t take it that far with nymphing. They think their drifts are good enough, because they caught a few fish. But excellent nymphing requires more. The ceiling is high.

      This topic needs a full article . . .

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  12. You use the phrase “the point of fly fishing” like it’s some singular, irrefutable truth. But “the point of fly fishing” is determined by each fisherman. I’m 70 and have been fly fishing for decades. Now, more than at any time in my fly fishing days, my goal is to enjoy myself, and hopefully catch a few fish. For years I was dedicated to fishing nymphs, because it was by far the best way to catch the most fish, and I caught a bazillion fish. But now I find nymph fishing too tedious and have no desire to engage in it. Streamer fishing is the only way I fish anymore. Even though it’s not the most productive, I find it the most enjoyable. And since I’ve focused exclusively on streamers, I’ve gotten more successful with them.

    The last couple of years I’ve taken to carrying a lightweight camp chair with me. A couple of time during my day I’ll assemble my chair and sit for awhile. I watch the clouds, eagles if they’re around, and sip from a flask of good bourbon. The point of fly fishing is to enjoy myself, and casting dry flys doesn’t even enter the picture.

    Reply
    • Kern,

      You wrote:
      “You used the phrase ‘the point of fly fishing’ like it’s some singular, irrefutable truth.”

      Sigh . . . No. No I didn’t.

      Sadly, you’ve read what you wanted into my words instead of actually reading my words. Throughout this article I expressed what I meant by the POINT of fly fishing. Hell, I opened the article with the description of what I meant.

      Not sure what else I can do here. This article has NOTHING to do with why we fly fish. I agree with you wholeheartedly, that there are many, many wonderful reason to fish. And I’m very happy that you’ve found your way, your path and your peace in the sport. But that’s a DIFFERENT CONVERSATION, and there are many, many good articles on Troutbitten about that side of fishing (find the Stories sections). This article is about the fact that fly fishing — the point of fly fishing — is to cast the line and leader itself, and not just the weight of a lure or bait.

      That idea, that thesis, is there in this article from the beginning to the end. But if you choose to read a piece with your own preconceived notions and fighting points, there’s nothing I can do about that.

      Dom

      Reply
      • The point of CASTING is to cast the line and the leader itself, that’s not the point of fly fishing. Two different things.

        Reply
  13. Great article Dom, the ones that get flyfishing know that the catching of fish isn’t the most important thing. I would not fish a nymph under a bobber if you put a gun to my head. The guides I have had really appreciated taking someone that could cast and enjoyed the participation in the hunting of fish. We maybe could have caught more using a nymph or a worm or (cringe) power bait, but it would not have been any fun. I can’t even watch videos today and see that ugly bobber on the line of a guy that couldn’t cast 20 feet…

    Reply
    • Fair enough. But I will say, a bobber and many other indicator styles, are an amazing tool if used well. And once again, it comes down to the ability to cast them. Full turnover allows for accurate placement of the nymph entering upstream of the indy, in the same seam and fishing well from the beginning.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  14. So this is only tangentially related, but I had a talk with a young guide friend about this sort of thing yesterday. We were talking about why young (American) anglers don’t seem interested in fishing for Atlantic salmon. Other than some obvious reasons (travel, expenses, etc.), my friend made a good observation about the casting skills of this demographic. He said, when it comes to trout fishing, anglers his age want to chuck meat 40′ tops or euro nymph. He said that even if they did want to try salmon fishing, their limited casting skills would frustrate most too much to ever want to do it again. He said many of them can’t consistently throw long and/or accurate casts or can’t control how their fly, line and leader land once it hits the water. I would add that if they can’t do that, forget about aerial mending, or even knowing when to mend down or upstream depending on the current(s) being fished.

    Having guided for salmon myself, I added that I’d take a decent saltwater angler over a trout fisherman 8 times out of 10 for the casting thing alone. The saltwater angler might not have the subtleties down, but at least the physical stuff wouldn’t be as much of an impediment.

    Having come up during a time where people mainly fished dries, transitioning over to salmon fishing wasn’t a big deal for me. I had to get better at distance and casting in the wind, but all that took was a little lawn casting practice. All the basics were already there. Anyhow, not 100% related to what you’re saying, but it’s in the ballpark and I agree with you on this.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Articles

Recent Posts

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.

Pin It on Pinterest