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With passing time, many underwater flies have been added which do not even attempt to resemble a fly. They are minnows, caterpillars, grubs and so on, and to be perfectly literal, wet flies should therefore include streamers and nymphs. But the method of fishing them is so different that I have made an outof-hand division, accepting as the average angler does, those classifications which have developed through practical use and common nomenclature. This chapter, then, deals with those standard wet flies known to nearly every fly fisherman, old standards tied first many, many years ago and still great producers to the point that most wet fly fishermen seldom bother with any others. These are the old time flies such as the royal coachman, black gnat, gray hackle with yellow body, gray hackle with red body, brown hackle, the quill Gordon, light Cahill, McGinty, cowdung, coachman, leadwing coachman, and the ginger quill, tied mostly on hooks ranging from 6 to 12. In recent years fly tyers have had calls for many of these ties on smaller hooks, sizes 14, 16 and occasionally size 18. It is hard to say whether the fish take wet flies in such small sizes for small terrestrials that have fallen into the stream, or for drowned dry flies, or for nymphs. Certainly many of them look more like nymphs, to the human eye at least, especially after they have been used a bit. And the more ragged they become, the more strikes they seem to attract.
Practically all the standard wet fly patterns do a good workmanlike job. They catch fish and they catch them almost every time you use them. Most wet fly anglers have a favorite fly which they are sure is deadly poison to the trout population, and with which they do take more fish than with others. There is a simple explanation-they fish that fly more often and they fish it with confidence, and hence they give it everything they have when they show it to a trout. Believing as they do that this is the fly trout have a yen for, they are more alert for the strike, more ready to take full advantage of every opportunity.
My favorite wet fly is a coachman, size 12. I can readily believe that a trout will see that white wing sooner than any other color, I believe that trout like a combination of brown and white, and I am sure that when I retrieve that fly in short jerks, it looks exactly like the small minnows so often found in trout waters.
There are some wet flies that are tied for a certain section of the United States and Canada, such as the wooly worm of the Rocky Mountain states, and the flies tied years ago especially to take wilderness trout, that is, native brook trout, called in various .,places speckled trout, red trout, brookies, and along the shores of the big lakes, coasters. Often referred to as Canadian flies, or Northern flies, these include the professor, royal coachman, scarlet ibis, Parmachene belle, brown hackle, gray hackle, Montreal, dark Montreal, March brown, dusty miller, Alexandria, and so on. It used to be that no angler headed for either Maine or Canada without a supply of these, plus that oddity the fontinalis fin, a tie representing the fin of a brook trout, which was often cut from a fish and used as bait. Besides the standards and the Rocky Mountain and Canadian flies, there are quite a number of wet flies tied today with rubber bodies and hair hackles. These are used mostly in the West, where they are known as the "rubber-bodied hair-hackle flies" but they are beginning to come into use elsewhere, too. They are tied in many delicate colors with segmented bodies that look translucent, and are shaded from light color underneath to darker backs. I hate to use the word to a fly fisherman, but they have a very "wormy" look and they surely are excellent trout getters.
Another great tie, and one of the most beautiful wet flies, is made with a woven body of nylon hair which is intermingled in such a manner that it produces the characteristic shape and color effects of various grubs in shades of yellow, orange, black, cream, brown and green. These flies have hair hackle tied sparsely around the body and the whole effect is completely realistic.
Just as with dry flies, a wet fly that is good in one part of the country is usually effective in other parts, too, so that any division into Eastern and Western flies is impossible. However, there are a few ties entirely Western that are a bit too big for Eastern fishing. This group could really be called bi-flies because they can be fished either wet or dry. In fact called fishermen use them as a dry for the course of the downstream float then yank them beneath the surface and bring them back in short jerks, as a wet fly. Outstanding among these ties are the Joe's hopper, Bailey's bi-fly, the sofa pillow and that hot Colorado tie, the sure strike special.
Perhaps the all-time great Western wet flies is the wooly worm. Many Rocky Mountain anglers will tell you that the wooly worm is the one and only fly for that part of the country. It is tied in many sizes and colors and combinations of colors. The orange and black with a few sprigs of white mixed with the black at each end is probably the best of the lot, being a true imitation of the wooly bear, a caterpillar which appears in the fall. Weather prophets claim to be able to foretell the severity of the coming winter by the width of the orange band around the woolly bear's middle.
Regardless of the width of the band, the trout bust it with vigor and it is one of the most successful wet flies in use today. There are certain of the wets which should form the basis of the fisherman's fly book. These will give him a start, wherever he fishes, to be added to as he discovers the natural food of the fish in the stream and learns of the patterns which local fishermen are finding successful at the moment, or which have proved to be consistent fish takers over the years.
As with dries, I give the ten I would choose, could I have no others:
GRAY HACKLE, YELLOW BODY, SIZE 8 BROWN HACKLE, SIZE 8 COACHMAN, SIZE 14 ROYAL COACHMAN, SIZE 12 BLACK GNAT, SIZE 6 WOOLY BEAR, SIZE 8 MCGINTY, SIZE 10 COWDUNG, SIZE 12 ALEXANDRIA, SIZE 14 GINGER QUILL, SIZE 12
FISHING THE WET FLY
The wet fly is at once the hope of the beginner and the veteran. There are many old timers who will use nothing else, for wet flies have paid off for them over the years with some mighty big fish that seldom rise to dries. And the novice, providing he can wade to within easy reach of a current where fish are likely to lie, and can heave the fly out there to drift in the current, can usually manage to hang a trout, even though his method may involve more dunking than finesse.
Nevertheless, to really fish a wet fly with the greatest success calls for a knowledge of fish lies, their feeding habits and the ability to cast the fly to the greatest advantage. With the exception of those times when a wet fly is played to imitate a moving bit of food, such as a minnow or shrimp or nymph, it seems to me that the one big thing with wets as with dries, to get consistent hits, is the free float, without any semblance of drag. Therefore, the up-and-across cast pays off best. With that presentation, the fly should float along naturally with the current and the trout will rise to it much as they do to a dry fly, thinking it is what it's meant to be, a downed fly, floating downstream.
On the up-and-across cast I allow the fly to float motionless for almost the complete length of its downward swim, until it begins to swing in below me in the current. Then I often manipulate the rod tip so that it will cause the fly to hop forward in a series of short jumps, a couple of inches at a time, and continue that technique until the fly is directly below me in the water, and then I bring it my way for 10 or 12 feet before lifting it as quietly as possible from the water.
This up-and-across-stream cast permits delivery without letting the fish see the angler. Since fish usually lie facing into the water, nowever, a very short line must be thrown in order to be able to retain any control and be ready to strike. A cast of 25 or 30 feet is plenty long enough, and then the line should be stripped at approximately the same speed at which the current is riding the fly down towards the angler-and as he raises the rod, he is then ready for the strike or for the pickup for the next cast.
Sometimes when trout seem to be lazy, they can be stirred into striking by throwing the wet fly across the current and then bringing it back at once in a series of foot-long jerks, much as a streamer fly is fished. This is one of the times when I am convinced the fish hits the fly as a minnow, not a fly.
When using the across-current cast, the line must be mended and the fly led down with the rod tip ahead of the line. (See FLY FISHING FOR ATLANTIC SALMON in this book.) with that method the angler has good control of the line, avoiding a belly that would delay his strike to the fish; and the fly is presented broadside so the fish has a better view than if it were hurtling down head or tail first. Then, when the fly starts to swing in below, it can be given motion by imparting short jerks which should attract a trout's attention and cause him to go for it.
Another almost sure-fire method to get a hit on a wet fly is to let it float for several yards, then give it motion for a couple of feet, then stop the strip and let the fly float free in the current again. What the trout thinks of this one is any man's guess, but it may be that he mistakes the feathery fooler for a fly still struggling, or a wounded minnow, floating, fighting to regain his equilibrium, floating and fighting.
Whichever retrieve seems to be the payoff of the day, that is the one to stick to that day, as trout appear to follow a pattern in this. Once I have found out what they want I stay with it till they stop hitting, and then I try something else. And regardless of how the fly is played, it must be played with confidence. With a dry fly, the angler knows what the fly is doing, and if the fish are rising he knows they are there. With a wet fly he must believe that the fly is doing what it should be doing, and he must believe the fish are there. He must be convinced that they're down there just waiting to knock the hackles off his fly.
Most anglers fish far too fast, passing up chance after chance because they do not figure the water before they start. Every pool and run should be figured out and a pattern set for casting. This not only makes for more pleasant and leisurely fishing, it brings a better harvest from the water.
For instance, sometimes I spend more than an hour fishing a pool 100 feet long. But I cover all the water starting my first cast up and across current and not too far from me. I fish that cast through the length of the float and then make my next throw a couple of feet farther out. And so on, until I have fanned well out, 6o feet or more, and the fly has gone over practically any lie of a trout within that area. Then I move to a point just below that covered by my first series of floats, and repeat. This is the drop system of fishing a wet fly for Atlantic salmon and it is equally effective for trout. It pays off. It covers all the water and when you are through you are likely to find that you have picked up a couple of fish from spots you might ordinarily have overlooked.
To fish a wet fly properly calls for just as much, or even more, finesse than fishing a dry fly. A dry fly is easier to cast, the angler can see all the action, including the strike. But the wet fly is comparatively heavy and does not have the balance, the padding, so to speak, of the hackles of the dry, to set it down lightly and quietly. The wet hackles are tied backwards and are sparse, and therefore the fly comes down more heavily.
One thing that will help the beginning fly caster is a nicely tapered leader and one that is long enough to take up a lot of the shock of the heavy wet fly, allowing the lighter delivery that is a sure aid to getting strikes. Yet the majority of wet fly fishermen seem to gravitate to unnecessarily heavy leaders and many a wet fly addict I meet on the stream is all set up with a short, six-foot leader running as high as 20-pound test. Even though in some circumstances, such as very heavy water, the fish might not spot this atrocity, the heavy leader hurts the action of the fly. A 9-foot, or preferably a 12-foot leader, would get many more strikes, especially when the water is clear. And for almost any trout, regardless of size, a six-pound test tippet should be more than adequate. For average fishing, the tippet can be almost as fine for wet fly fishing as for dry. And certainly these calibrations are far less noticed by the fish.
Once on Slate Run in Pennsylvania, a good stream for small trout, I ran into a wet fly fisherman coming down the creek. We stopped and talked awhile, and as we talked, a trout rose across from us.
"Why don't you show him that wet?" I asked.
"Oh, they won't hit a wet when they're rising," he said. "I've tried."
"As far as that goes," I said, "I've fished a dry over risers for many an hour and not caught them. Anyhow, throw it over there and give it a try."
As he got ready to cast I noticed that he was using a leader tippet that must have gone about 20-pound test. He didn't even get a flash in ten casts.
"See?" he said at last.
"Lemme that fly," I said. When he took it off and handed it to me, I tied it on the end of my 4X tippet.
"Try this," I said, handing the rod to him.
He hemmed and hawed and said he couldn't cast such a leader as that I2-footer, and the whole thing was too light for him, and so on.
But his first cast went out there perfectly and dropped the size 12 black gnat he had been using just right. The trout took on that first float and came struggling out, a nice 12-incher.
That man looked at me as if he couldn't believe it.
"It's nothing but the leader," I said. "The fish can see the one you've been using."
It isn't often that you have such a chance to show how important the smaller leader can be. Or the trout may be selective and feeding on only one type of fly that happens to be emerging, but they will still take time out to sock a wet if it is presented to them right. Maybe it resembles the nymph of the fly they are taking, or maybe it just looks good, but either way, it's well worth while to cast your wet among the surface feeders.
The exception to the light leader rule comes when the fly is being retrieved in fast, foot-long jerks, in water where a heavy trout might hit in the middle of a strip and break the tippet. But the angler will have so many more strikes on light gear that even in such water it is more fun to keep the wet fly leader down to a fine terminal point and take the chance of losing a fly or two.
Probably because they are fishing blind, rather than to specific fish, or rising fish, all too many wet fly anglers fish in a hit or miss fashion.
Selection of the wet fly to be used is more a matter of chance than is the case with dry flies, where the angler sees the natural and the fish rising to take it right before his eyes. But many times a careful study of the stream will reveal flies floating down, or bugs or insects which can be matched with a certain wet fly, if not in exact conformation, then at least in color and size. And once a fish has been landed, it is easy to open him up and examine the contents of the stomach and quickly determine what is the main item on the menu that day.