The great thing about fly fishing is that you have almost unlimited options and can change it up when the fish aren’t biting.
It is fast, mobile and exciting! Knowing what technique to use and when is vital to success.
When it comes to wet flies vs. dry flies, the jury is still out, as both are really effective.
Want to know which to use and when? Read on to find out!
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Table of Contents
What’s the Difference Between Wet and Dry Flies?
Wet flies and dry flies are both designed to generally imitate what the fish are normally feeding on. But that’s where the similarity between these types of flies ends.
The real difference?
It’s all about how you fish the flies.
Dry flies are tied and designed to float on the water’s surface without sinking or becoming submerged (hence the term ‘dry’).
Wet flies are purpose-built to sink and be fished beneath the surface.
If you have a floating line, you can fish both wet and dry flies. However, if you only have a sinking line, you will be limited to fishing wet flies as the weight of the line would pull a dry fly beneath the surface as it sinks.
Want to see some other differences? Here’s a good overview so you can tell between them…
Dry Flies – An Overview
Dry flies are normally designed to represent organic life found at the very top of the water. If you’ve ever been to a lake or river in summer, you will have undoubtedly noticed that the surface is often littered with various insects and bugs.
A dry fly is meant to mimic this phenomenon…
The vast majority of dry flies are tied to look like an insect. Some might look a bit obscure when they are in your fly box on the bank. However, it is the silhouette that is important.
Trout normally lurk in the depths looking up for tasty morsels to eat off the surface. Anything that even slightly resembles what they would naturally eat becomes a prime target.
To fish a dry fly, you will have to ensure that your fly is capable of floating. You’ll nearly always find that the bulk of a dry fly is made up of wing material, also known as a hackle. This helps the fly stay afloat.
As a general rule, you’ll nearly always find dry flies are a little smaller than their wet counterparts.
If you want to know the reason why…
Let me put it like this…
Unless you are fishing in the jungle, it is doubtful the trout will have seen anything that’s two inches long!
How do You Fish with Dry Flies?
To fish with a dry fly, you will definitely need a floating line. When it comes to choosing the weight of the line, your best bet would be to opt for something that is a #6wt or below. This allows you to cast with precision and ensures that your fly has a gentle landing, just like the real thing!
You can adopt a fairly targeted approach with dry flies.
Because the fly floats, you can see it all the time. As a result, you can cast and control your fly to arrive at an exact spot on the river or lake. If you’ve seen fish consistently rising in that location, there’s a good chance you can expect a take.
All you have to do is watch your fly. Trout don’t mess around when they decide to annihilate a fly. The takes can be super aggressive and hard to miss. Here’s a quick video to demonstrate what it looks like:
When to Fish with Dry Flies
You can catch fish with dry flies any time of the day. However, you’ll tend to find that certain conditions are better than others.
Here are the times I find best to fish with dry flies.
Early Morning and Late Evening
Ever seen a trout blink?
No, me neither… Because they don’t have eyelids. As a result, they don’t really like bright light. If it’s a clear blue day, you might struggle as the fish tend to hunker down in the depths.
If you fish early in the morning or late in the evening, you’ll find that the trout are much more active on the surface. The lower light seems to encourage them to feed more readily in the higher sections of water.
If you have ever fished for any species, you’ll know that it is easier to see under the water when it’s bright.
And here’s the thing…
Trout are keen to avoid predators and have a natural instinct to avoid bright conditions during the day. If you want to fish with a dry fly in the midafternoon, be sure to choose a cloudy day or overcast for the best results.
Fish on Top?
A great signal to use dry flies comes from the fish themselves.
If you arrive at the swim and see evidence of surface feeding, go straight for a dry fly, as it will be obvious where the fish are actively feeding.
Ever seen a swarm of midges in winter?
Fly life tends to flourish when the weather is warmer. For that reason, you’ll tend to find that fishing with dry flies is much more effective in summer. If you want to know what flies to use in summer, check out the guide.
Wet Flies – An Overview
Wet flies are slightly different as they can represent a myriad of different aquatic life. This includes:
- Drowned surface bugs
- Insect larvae (nymphs)
- Tiny fish
- Worms and grubs
- Mollusks, like snails
- Crayfish and shrimp
There’s a lot more diversity with wet flies. Often, they can look a little unworldly and only loosely resemble what they are designed to imitate.
Wet flies are purpose-built to sink. You’ll often find that they are tied on bigger hooks and have additional weight to help them sink through the depths.
Any fly that is fished beneath the surface of the water is a wet fly.
They can look super realistic… Here’s a video showing you what it is all about:
How do You Fish with Wet Flies?
To fish with wet flies, you can use either a floating or a sinking line. The advantage to using a floating line is that it is easier to cast as you can use a shorter fly fishing leader. If you are fishing with a floating line, you’ll need to make that leader longer to ensure that the fly can sink as far as possible.
Wet fly fishing can be really effective, but it isn’t quite as visual as dry fly fishing.
In a nutshell…
Wet fly fishing is easy. You simply cast out to where you think there might be fish and retrieve the line before repeating the process.
Here’s a great guide to how to fish effectively with wet flies:
Divide the Water into Segments
There’s no point repeating the same process over and over, hoping something might change.
Here’s what I like to do.
Imagine the water in front of you is a clock face. I start by casting at 10 o’clock. With my next cast, I aim at 11 o’clock… And work my way around the clock face. This way, I can ensure that I’ve covered every square yard of the water in front of me.
Work on Distances
Distance is another factor. I tend to start with long casts and then work my way back. That way, I can still target both the fish close in and those further away.
Work on Depths
With wet flies, you have the opportunity to fish at different depths. I start at the surface and start a slow count to 3 before retrieving my fly. Once I’ve worked my way around the clock face without success, I add another 3 seconds and repeat my cycle.
This allows me to fish the entire water column from top to bottom methodically.
Vary Your Retrieve Speed
I’ve had days where the fish are in a feisty mood and won’t touch a fly unless it is pulled screaming through the water. On other days, they are in a chilled mood and won’t touch anything going too fast.
How did I know which retrieve style worked?
Trial and error.
Vary your retrieve with a wet fly until you start getting bites.
Change Flies Regularly
This is the beautiful part about fly fishing.
This is what I say.
If it ain’t working… Change it.
If after, say, 10 casts, you haven’t had a take, then change your fly and repeat the process until you find what gets them going.
When to Fish with Wet Flies
Wet flies are great for a number of conditions.
Here’s when to use them:
For the reasons I described above, if the trout aren’t coming up to your fly, you are going to have to take it to them. A wet fly on a sinking line allows you to get down deep where the fish are hiding!
Very Windy Days
Casting tiny, light dry flies can be a real challenge when it is windy.
So, what’s the answer?
Wet flies tend to be heavier and work exceptionally well with heavier lines. These allow you to ‘punch’ your cast into the wind and cast further.
If You Haven’t Seen Fish on the Surface
If they aren’t there, you can’t catch them. If you notice an absence of fish on top, then your go-to choice should be a wet fly.
When the water cools down, so does the trout’s appetite. They tend to avoid the aggressive aerial feats of the summer and prefer to sit in the depths, saving their energy.
Often a large, slow moving wet fly is just enough to tempt them out of their slumber. The prospect of a big meal can be enough to galvanize them into action. If you want to know which flies are best for winter, I’ve got a dedicated article right here.
How Can You Tell Dry Flies from Wet Flies?
There is a significant crossover between wet and dry flies.
Remember I said the main difference is how you fish them?
All that said, there are some key attributes that you can look out for that will give you a good idea of whether you are looking at a wet or a dry fly.
Here’s a quick run down:
- Are normally fairly small, on hook sizes of 12 and smaller.
- Have substantial wings or ‘hackles.’
- Have the eye of the hook angled upwards.
- Have a significant wing.
- Often include buoyant materials like foam or deer hair.
- Tend to be larger in size in hook sizes around 14 and bigger.
- Often have a mobile tail, made from marabou or fur.
- Have a downward pointing eye.
- Feature a weighted head, normally a gold or lead bead.
- Have bodies made from material that soaks up water. Such as chenille.
Want to know who decides which is the best when it comes to wet flies vs. dry flies?
The trout will make their mind up on the day… and change their mind often.
The art of fly fishing is picking the right fly for a particular day, and there are thousands to choose from. Wet and dry flies are just the start!
Which have you had the most success with? Let me know in the comments.