Wet Fly Fishing – An Old But Proven Method

Wet Fly Fishing. The little wet fly can be fished directly upstream too, just as you would a nymph or dry fly.
The little wet fly can be fished directly upstream too, just as you would a nymph or dry fly.

Wet Fly Fishing – An Old But Proven Method

By Tony Orman

Wet Fly Fishing is one of the best methods for a beginner to start with. Yet it has been forgotten by many in their dogmatic obsession with one method, such as nymph fishing. I have been cited as a reason for the focus on nymph fishing.

Sure I wrote Trout with Nymph in 1974 with two reprints, keeping nymph fishing in the minds of anglers. But I didn’t originate most of the ideas. The inventor of nymph fishing goes back to the UK’s Skues, Sawyer, Kite and others. Other anglers who are far more skilful than I adapted their techniques to New Zealand.

If you have a copy of Trout with Nymph, read the chapter, “By Other Means”. In it, I stressed the need for lateral thinking, rather than tunnel vision on just one method. In there, I related the little wet fly. By wet fly I mean the “wee wets” not streamer or Taupo lures. The method of wet fly has been around for centuries but has been forgotten by too many trout anglers.

Wet Fly Fishing. Hardie's favourite wet fly - good for "Flymphing."
Hardie’s favourite wet fly – good for “Flymphing.”

Yonks ago, in 1676, Charles Cotton wrote of trout fishing in England with a small wet fly “at the top of the water”. Then about two hundred years later, W C Stewart in “The Practical Angler” put forward the concept of “spider” wet flies (simply soft hackled wingless little wet flies) and then the father of nymph fishing in the US, G E M Skues wrote of the soft hackled wet fly.

Trout with Nymph by Tony Orman.
Trout with Nymph by Tony Orman. First published in 1974.

Skues wrote – “A hen’s hackle, or a small bird’s hackle, would respond to every movement of the current and would thus suggest an appearance of life in action. What these flies represent cannot always be certainly predicted. Doubtless, the hackles in some cases suggest the wings and legs of hatched-out insects, drowning or drowned and tumbled by the current, and in others, they suggest some nondescript, struggling subaqueous creature.”

In New Zealand in 1904, Captain G.D. Hamilton wrote a book Trout and Other Sport in Maoriland. Captain Hamilton lived near Dannevirke and constructed what is believed to be the first trout hatchery in New Zealand.

Captain Hamilton recommended just five flies, which were in essence little wet flies. Two were winged, one with a light brown mallard wing and one with a grouse wing, but the other three were essentially soft-hackled spiders. They were sparsely dressed, as evidenced by number two “turn of brown partridge hackle“, number four with a black hackle and number five with a brown partridge hackle.

Wet fly fishing was popular in the early settlement years of New Zealand. Derisley Hobbs in “Trout Fisheries in New Zealand”, a Marine Department bulletin, described fishing by Neil McKay, a wet fly exponent in Southland’s Oreti River, some eighty or more years ago.

McKay caught over 19,000 brown trout averaging over thirteen fish for each day’s fishing!

The method works. However, the advent of nymph fishing has pushed little wet fly fishing into almost obscurity.

A brilliant article by Nelson angler Jim Ring, in an anthology published in 1980, entitled “Trout and Salmon Sport in New Zealand”, told again of the attributes of fishing the little wet fly across and down.

Jim Ring, in his contribution to the anthology “The Small Wet Fly – a lost art?”, posed the question as to why such a successful method became a lost art.

Beware of shop-purchased flies. They are often excessively dressed. You may need to pull some of the dressing off! Trout are the final judges as to the best fly. Often I have seen a little wet fly reduced to a quarter of its original dressing by several successes with the trout and still catch fish. To emphasise the point, such a “reduced” bedraggled fly may increase its fish-catching rate!

Small wet fly fishing is ideal for the beginner. There is no need to cast long distances. It’s repetitive practice casting, but it’s an easy and relaxing way to fish.

Carefully approach the water’s edge. Wade in at the head of the riffle. The first casts are made from the edge to avoid spooking trout that may be close to the bank. Fish the water nearest to you with a short line, and extend your casting further out. Move a couple of steps downstream and repeat the sequence.

I cast out and let the line swing around to below, then strip the line in and cast again. Try to avoid false casting. You should be able to cast with just one cast, certainly several metres. After each cast, I move perhaps at a shuffling pace and then cast again.

Sometimes after the cast, the line bellies or curves with the fly upstream. The nett effect is to pull the fly across.

The best way to fish the little wet is with as natural a drift as possible, or just subtlely dragging. I suspect that when the little wet fly is cast and enters the water and winks, it drifts freely for a few metres until the current pulls. Then the fly gently lifts towards the surface, probably simulating the action of a hatching caddis as it struggles to the surface.

It is in this first four or five metres of the natural drift, then the lift, that trout are most likely to take the fly.

However, if the belly in the line is too pronounced and diminishes the direct line contact with the fly, you need to remove the curve. This is done by an upstream “mend” which involves lifting the floating part of the water and rolling it upstream. The line flicks over upstream, removing the pulling of the fly.

It may be possible to mend two or three times in a cast to get as near to the natural drift, but when the fly just starts to lift is a crucial time that a trout may just take your fly. Direct line contact is vital to hooking a trout. Unlike dry fly fishing where a pause is needed between the take and the strike in little wet fly fishing, the tightening must be instant.

Bright moonlit nights can be difficult to fish. While I have found sea-run browns are not put off by the moon, river-resident trout seem to be. When it’s moonlit, fish “far and fine”, using smaller flies, longer nylon leaders and longer casts. Do not slap the water with your line and fly.

Delicacy becomes paramount. False casting is used in dry fly fishing, but if you have a longish rod which is best for little wet flies, avoid false casting if you can. At the most, only one false cast before gently putting the fly on the water out from you. If the cast is not a good one, let it swing down and around and then retrieve it. Do not lift the line from the water where trout may be.

Trout will often take gently. A beginner will likely set the hook too hard and be broken off. Experience will teach you. Generally, forget the word “strike” that many books talk of. Think of tightening the hook home.

As you develop sensitivity, you’ll find this method can be used on deep, slow pools where trout can feed in the surface film. Often a foam-flecked current will curl in towards a rocky outcrop. A little wet fly fished in the film can induce many a take after dusk.

The little wet fly can be fished directly upstream too, just as you would a nymph or dry fly. Use a floating line with a strike indicator just under two metres above the fly. The fly comes down in the top strata of the current, probably just under the surface and often you’ll see the trout roll over just sub-surface to take the fly.

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