Wet Fly Fishing


By Russ Bouck

Thank goodness it is easier to fly fish than it is to explain the sport. Long ago it was simple, dry flies floated, wet flies sank. End of discussion. Now we have dry flies, damp flies, wet flies, nymphs, streamers, emergers, terrestrials, realistic flies, attractor flies, well, you get the idea. Let’s try to simplify one aspect of fly fishing, the traditional, time tested art of fishing wet flies.


Wet fly fishing predates dry fly fishing. In the book Treatise of Fishing With An Angle reportedly but probably not written by Dame Juliana Berners and printed in 1496 by Wynkyn de Worde there is a list of twelve patterns. The evidence points to these as being fished downstream just under the surface, hence the wet fly.

Our discussion of wet fly fishing will center on three styles of these flies. First, the traditional winged wet flies such as the Coachman, the Professor and the Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear. Second, the soft hackles, which are also known as North Country Flies or Yorkshire Spiders. Popular patterns include the Grouse and

Green, Partridge and Orange and Snipe and Purple. The third category contains flies known as flymphs. Three of the most well known are the March Brown Flymph, Little Olive Flymph and the Little Yellow Flymph.


The traditional winged wet flies were first tied to imitate insects which anglers saw on or above the surface of the water. Trout would take these imitations because they represent insects moving to hatching positions, insects during the hatching process or insects which, for one reason or another, failed to hatch completely. Many of the “gaudy” patterns rely on the fact that trout mistakenly will take these flies for small baitfish. Sometimes fish will hit them because of territorial aggression. As far as I know no one has ever interviewed a trout being released as to why they hit a particular fly but the above three scenarios would seem to cover most situations. Ray Bergman’s book Trout has about 400 traditional wet fly patterns listed.

The traditional winged wets are usually tied with tails and bodies from varied sources, hackle from chicken necks and wings formed by matching sections of quill from duck, goose or turkey wing feathers. While these flies have caught many trout the materials used to construct them are somewhat stiff and “unlifelike”. Many modern tiers have “redesigned” these traditional winged wets in the following ways: One, incorporate more dubbed bodies, both from natural fur and from many of the new synthetic dubbings. Two, replace the quill wings with hair (squirrel, badger, calf body and tail, etc.) or hen hackle fiber wings. Third, use gamebird or soft webby hen feathers for hackle and tie it in between the wing and the eye of the hook. These substitutions give the traditional wet flies more motion and, hence, a more lifelike appearance in the water.


The Soft Hackles or North Country Spiders were born in the British Isles. They imitate caddis pupae plus mayflies, caddis adults and stoneflies. They are simple flies consisting principally of a body plus hackle from a variety of gamebirds. The body is usually thread or floss but peacock herl, various fur dubbing and pheasant tail fibers can be used. The hackle is the key, it must be soft and the individual fibers larger in diameter than that found in good dry fly grade hackle. Feathers from gamebirds such as Hungarian Partridge, coot, grouse, quail, snipe, woodcock and even the common starling work well. Many modern breeders of roosters that are used for dry fly hackle are now marketing hen capes that have been genetically engineered to produce hackle that will work well for soft hackle flies. When tying one of these imitations the tier has to guard against over hackling. Sparse is best.


Flymphs are wingless wet flies usually tied with dubbed fur bodies and using hackle palmered over the front half of the body only. Many people think flymphs are an American invention popularized by Jim Leisenring and Pete Hidy in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Leisenring and Hidy did initiate the “flymph movement” on this side of the Atlantic but their flies closely resemble patterns discussed by Charles Cotton when he wrote part 2 of The Compleat Angler in 1676 and refined by W. C. Stewart when he published The Practical Angler in 1856. Leisenring concentrated more on the body which he formed by spinning natural furs on waxed thread in a process separate from the actual tying of the fly. These were stored until needed. The hackles used are from chickens, tied on before the dubbing brush was wound but left unwrapped until the body was formed. The hackle was then palmered over the front half of the body.


The angler can fish these flies either unweighted, with weight attached to the leader, with various types of sinking lines or with weight applied directed to the fly during the tying process. The fly can be tailored to fit the style of presentation used and water types the angler will be fishing. The fly could be tied on a heavier hook, with wire ribbing applied to the body, with an underbody of wire or even a beadhead. All of this depends on how and where the angler will be fishing the fly.


The nice thing about fishing wet flies is that they can be fished anywhere you find trout and by using many different methods of presenting the fly to the fish. There is no set right or wrong way to fish these flies. The fisher must have knowledge of where trout are to be found in a stream, the insect life of the stream, the feeding habits of the fish and the hatching characteristics of the insects. These flies can be fished upstream dead drift (fishing wet flies to a rising fish during a hatch can many times be more productive than fishing a dry), upstream with imparted motion, across stream dead drift and across with imparted action (the angler should be familiar with a tactic called the Leisenring Lift) as well as the traditional down and across with the “wet-fly swing”.

The most important part of fishing a wet fly with any of these methods is that the angler must know how and when to mend the line. Most fly fishers realize that mending the line is often necessary when fishing dry flies upstream with a dead drift. Mending is just as important when fishing with wet flies. This insures that the fly behaves in a natural matter and reaches the spots where trout will be holding. It is also important to mend a wet fly when fishing down and across the stream. In swifter currents an unmended wet fly will not sink very deep and travel at too high a speed. In slow currents an unmended wet fly will just hang in one place and not present itself to as many trout as the angler would like. Dave Hughes in his book, Wet Flies, does an excellent job of explaining the different methods of wet fly presentation.


The tackle needed to successfully fish wet flies is nothing out of the ordinary. Within limits the longest rod that the stream will allow the angler to use would be beneficial. The more line one can keep off the surface of the water the easier it is to mend. A floating line is all that is needed in most rivers. A sinking line would help if fishing in a still water situation. A four or five weight is a good rod to use although you could go up or down a size. Leader length as well as diameter will be dictated by the water type and ultimately by the fish. If the angler wants to fish a cast of flies (more than one fly at a time) use one of the stiffer brands of leader material for the dropper to avoid tangles.


Anyone interested in fishing wet flies should read Hughes’ book entitled Wet Flies. It is the “Reader’s Digest Condensed version” of how to fish and tie soft hackles, winged wets and the flymph. If you really get into this style of fly fishing you should also study The Art of Tying The Wet Fly And Fishing The Flymph by Jim Leisenring and Pete Hidy. In addition The Soft Hackled Fly by Sylvester Nemes is a book that would be extremely helpful. There are several excellent web sites concerning wet fly fishing and tying. Run a google search and see what turns up. It is surprising. Two DVD’s that might be of interest are Wet Fly Ways with Davy Wotton put out by Fly Fish TV and from the Essential Skills series with Oliver Edwards the volume entitled Upstream Nymphing and North Country Spiders. Both contain info on tackle, tactics and fly patterns.


Fishing wet flies will not turn anyone into a lean, mean fish catching machine (especially me) but it will broaden your angling experience and let you enjoy one of fly fishing’s oldest techniques. Best of luck, Russ Bouck