Central Oregon’s warm summer days provide various opportunities to fish dry flies on local rivers and lakes. Most anglers love the challenge that dry fly fishing presents, for there is little more captivating than rising a fish to an artificial fly. Dry fly fishing differs from the subsurface tactics we use in our pursuit of fish through much of the year, and requires a touch and precision that is not always easy to achieve. The upper portions of the water column a fish must enter to feed on the surface can be a vulnerable place for a creature that is instinctively concerned about predation from above. Fish often grow wary and very observant of their surroundings, which presents a unique set of challenges to anglers. Fly selection and presentation become more complicated in these situations of heightened awareness, and there are many potential missteps that should be considered anytime the dry fly rod is being put to use.
The most apparent challenge of fishing dries to wary trout is proper fly selection. An important first step is to build confidence in distinguishing between Caddis, Mayflies, Midges, and Stoneflies. Everyone in the shop is happy to help with any questions pertaining to basic insect identification, so don’t hesitate to swing in for additional information. Determining the stage of the insects life cycle that the fish are keyed in on is next, and can be a very real challenge for even the most seasoned angler. Surface activity means fish are feeding on emergers, adults, or dead insects. Knowledge of the timing and conditions that prompt a specific hatch will go a long way in helping to determine what life cycle stage is most prevalent and likely to attract a fish’s attention at any given time. This knowledge is typically gained through time on the water or information from local fly shops and other anglers. The characteristics of many hatches are specific to the body of water and local conditions, and will change with location.
When fishing unfamiliar waters, there are various visual queues that will help an angler select the proper fly. Emergers can be the most difficult stage of the life cycle to identify and imitate, and are often the focus of fish during the early stages of a hatch. Slow, sipping rises can be representative of a heavy emerger presence. Because the insects are not yet on the surface of the water, but rather in the surface film, it may appear that there are very few insects present with only the few early adults on the surface or in the air. Successfully choosing an emerger pattern can come down to trial and error. With very little visual information, educated guesses as to the size, color, and positioning of the fly and frequent fly changes will provide the best chances of success.
It is typically easier to identify and imitate adult insects, which fish will key on when the hatch is at its peak. Bugs will likely be visible on the water and in the air, and rises typically become less subtle and more aggressive as fish move to flies that could potentially move or fly in an attempted escape. The majority of dry flies in fly shops are meant to imitate the adult stage of the life cycle so there are usually many options for matching the exact size and color of the natural insects. It is not unusual for fish to continue feeding on emergers through the duration of the hatch, so don’t necessarily assume that an adult pattern is the best option anytime there are good numbers of bugs in the air. Evaluate the character of the feeding activity throughout the hatch, and maintain an active approach to best suit the conditions.
Dead or “spent” flies are the last potential food source that will bring fish to the surface. Mayfly spinners and spent Caddis will fall to the surface of the water at the end of the hatch, and make an easy target for cruising fish looking to capitalize on a food source that has no ability or will to escape. These insects are always easily visible on the surface of the water and obviously dead. There are many patterns that specifically imitate these dead insects. Some of the most commonly used in Central Oregon include Rusty Spinners and the Spent Partridge Caddis. Depending on the timing of the hatch, these dead insects can be most prevalent at night or in the early morning following the hatch.
A very important and enjoyable aspect of fishing dry flies is achieving a light and natural presentation. There are multiple components of a proper presentation, for simplicity we’ll define them as positioning, the drift, and the orientation of the fly on the water.
The positioning of the cast and fly should be considered before the first cast is made. It is wise to spend at least a couple of minutes observing the feeding activity and habits of a specific fish or group of fish before formulating a plan as to where to cast for the best chances of success. One common and disheartening mistake is to spook fish with either a heavy handed presentation or by placing the line directly over the top of feeding fish. Always try to lay out a light and straight cast when fishing dries, and consider where the line will land in relation to the targeted fish. The goal is to present the fly to the fish without disturbing any part of the feeding zone with the butt of the leader or fly line. Each scenario should be evaluated for water currents and structure of the bank adjacent to the fish. An approach from downstream of the fish will minimize the likelihood of the fish seeing the angler or casting motion, but can increase the likelihood that the line crosses the feeding zone before the fly is presented. Approaching the feeding zone from the upstream side allows the angler to feed the fly into the fish’s field of view before any portion of the leader or line, and can be the preferred method for fishing to wary fish. Keep in mind the fish will be facing the angler and have a better ability to see any unnatural movements along the bank. It can also be more difficult to achieve a natural drift from upstream of the fish, and each situation should be evaluated on a case by case basis.
When it comes to achieving a natural drift, the most general piece of advice we can give is to mend early and minimally. A light dry fly will be affected greatly by an imperfect mend, which can ruin the one chance an angler might have at a wary fish. Additionally, any line movement in close proximity to the feeding zone has the potential to spook the group. It is best to make any necessary mends well ahead of the feeding zone, or to avoid mending altogether with proper cast placement and short but accurate drifts.
Ensuring that the fly is oriented properly on the surface of the water after the cast is made is a factor that is often overlooked. Most flies are properly designed and tied to sit correctly on the water, but we do have the ability to influence the flies positioning through the use of various floatants. It’s important to note the proper application of floatants, so we’ll go through a quick overview of some of our preferred options and how to use them.
When a fly is completely dry and fresh out of the box we’ll use either a gel or liquid floatant to create a waterproof film around the outside of the fly. Gink, Loon Aquel, and Flyagra are all appropriate options. We prefer to use Gink and Aquel on the water, Flyagra should be utilized as a pre-treatment at least a couple of hours before using the flies. Dry shake and other powder floatants should be used in combination with the gels and liquids, and are most effective when used to dry the fly after it becomes saturated. Do not use gels or liquids after the fly is wet, as they will do nothing but further saturate the fly and seal in the water that is present. Additionally, certain materials like CDC do not take all types of floatant well. Specialized floatant like Dry Magic and Loon Lochsa are the best options when fishing CDC flies.
The way we apply floatant will determine the positioning of the fly in regards to how it sits on the water. In general, floatant should be applied lightly and evenly to ensure the fly sits upright. This is particularly important when fishing emergers because part of the fly is typically designed to sit in the surface film rather than float on top. For these flies, apply floatant only to the upper portion of the fly that is designed to sit above water. Applying floatant to the entire fly will lead the fly to lay on its side or in some other way that looks unnatural to feeding fish.
The visual nature of dry fly fishing is a joy for anglers of all skill levels, and offers endless opportunities for learning and progression. Last light Caddis on the Lower Deschutes, late morning PMDs on the Metolius, and terrestrials on high mountain creeks are just a few of the various dry fly fishing opportunities that Central Oregon has to offer. The late summer and early fall are peak months for much of the insect activity in the area, and the perfect time to learn a new skill on the water or enjoy a favorite riffle full of rising trout. It can be easy to put the dry fly rod on the backburner in favor of more consistent tactics, but now that the time is right we can all benefit from the refreshingly simple use of a single dry.