Dry Fly Tactics for Spring

Ernie Moeck casts to another rising trout on the lower Bighorn River

Many of you have probably heard that the dry fly fishing on the Bighorn River has been epic this spring. Low water, abundant insects, and hordes of hungry trout have created an ideal situation. Some people take full advantage of this convergence of favorable circumstances, while others struggle. Here are some tips to help:

Casting Well

Learn to cast well. In real estate it’s supposedly all about “location, location, location.” In dry fly fishing it’s all about “presentation, presentation, presentation.” During our midge and Baetis hatches, casting accurately is a huge issue. There are a variety of fly patterns that will work as long as they fall into a certain size and color category. When you find a feeding fish, your ability to place that pattern in front of it again and again is the key to being effective. Guides understand that there is usually no such thing as the magic pattern; instead, great presentation can make a variety of patterns appear magic.

Also, remember that your guide is too polite, plus he knows that it is not conducive to receiving large tips, to tell you that you suck. Because the guide can’t be totally candid with you, why don’t you help him out and work on your game. You will then discover that many of his recommended dry fly patterns are very effective.

Fly Patterns

Okay, so I just finished telling you it’s not about the fly pattern. But it is about the fly pattern to some degree. Obviously, you can’t throw a #12 Royal Wulff out there when fish are eating #20 midge pupa. You do have to match the hatch somewhat, or at least figure out the manner in which the fish are feeding. For example, if you see swirls or fish tails, rather than classic head-and-tail rises, odds are the trout are eating midge pupa or nymphs just below the surface. You can fish a classic pupa pattern just below the film, but at the very least you should fish a pattern where the body of the fly rides low in the water. The Smoke Jumper is an example of a pattern I’m talking about. It has no tail and is designed for the bend of the hook to sink below the surface just a smidgeon. The Sipper Midge also qualifies.

Fly Rods & Lines

What weight of rod and line is best? Well, if you’re an expert caster, anything from 3 to 6 weight will work, but there are some inherent advantages to staying in the 4/5 weight category. Lines above 6 weight are just heavy enough and visible enough that an angler has to be quite careful with his casting, lest he spook fish. You might then assume that if heavy is bad, light is good. Well, to a point. 2 and 3 weight rods can be great presentation tools, but they have their limitations when it’s really windy. That’s why I think 4 and 5 weights fall into the sweet spot. They are light enough to be delicate, but can get the job done in the wind.

I prefer weight forward fly lines with less aggressive tapers for dry fly fishing, such as the Rio Trout LT or the Scientific Anglers Sharkwave Ultimate Trout. I like premium fly lines because they actually tend to FLOAT, an essential quality of a dry fly line. Some of the less-expensive fly lines have problems. If the tip of the line sinks, you’ll make a lot more racket picking the line up out of the water for the next cast.

Leaders, Tippets, Flotants and Powders

I like 9′ or 10′ leaders, and I add a section of tippet to them. I usually use two flies, with 5X tippet to the first “visibility” fly, and 6X tippet to the bottom fly. If you’re prone to set the hook like a tournament bass fisherman, go 5X to both flies. I don’t have a huge preference for a particular brand of leader or tippet. If any leader or tippet manufacturers out there would like to pay me, I would be happy to shamelessly promote their product. I’ve gotten into the habit of using RIO over the years, and have had good luck with their regular mono leaders and tippets. Our guides are generally RIO or TroutHunter users. One of our guides assigns almost magical properties to TroutHunter 6.5X Fluoro tippet. That’s right, TroutHunter makes half sizes, and the material works very well.

Loon Lochsa has been the flotant of choice for many guides using CDC flies. Lochsa is a very thin gel that it doesn’t mat down the individual CDC barbules. Flyagra is another popular flotant, as is Shimizaki Dry Shake Liquid. All of them can be used on CDC flies.

Once you’ve caught a fish or two and the fly is waterlogged, I recommend using a drying powder such as Frog’s Fanny or Fly Duster. But first, squeeze water out of your fly with amadou, a highly absorbent mushroom sold in most fly shops—not to be confused with Xanadou, a film made in 1980 starring Olivia Newton John, and quite possibly the worst motion picture ever made. Yes, I watched it, but my girlfriend at the time made me. But I digress. After the moisture is squeezed from the fly, use the brush in your bottle of powder to fluff up the fly’s wings. If you’re a former drug abuser, resist the urge to snort this white powder.

I Still Can’t Catch Them

So what do you do if you just can’t catch fish consistently on the surface? Well, there’s golf, tennis, or shuffleboard, but all these sports can be frustrating as well. Before you throw in the towel, consider this: no two “dry fly days” are the same. Yes, if you see fish feeding on the surface, there is usually a way to catch them with proper technique, but during some days conditions conspire against you. Bright sunny weather, slick water, and fish eating just below the surface can create the perfect storm. One thing Bighorn guides have figured out is that certain places on the river are easier than others. If you’re on an inside bend where a lot of insects are being funneled toward the trout, the sheer numbers of insects available to the fish can make for inconsistent results. There are simply too many bugs for the fish to choose from. You might be better off finding a place where there may be fewer rising fish, but the fish are more willing, such as in a gentle riffle. I usually don’t recommend leaving fish to find fish, but there are times it needs to be done.

If the fish are really being difficult, you may have to fish a sinking pattern below your dry fly, for example, a Zebra Midge or JuJu Baetis Nymph. Choose a buoyant pattern for your “up fly”—it will act as your strike indicator, and the occasional village idiot fish will eat it—and then suspend the pupa 29.4 inches below—30 inches is too far. Okay, only kidding, that was directed at a client of mine who insists on precise information. Fish this setup over fish that are “giving you the middle fin” and you should be able to educate a few of them. You can also fish this rig as a light, sight-nymphing setup in shallow water.

Low-water years like this one are tailor made for dry fly opportunities. Come over and have some fun.