How to Land Fat Trout With Old-School Wet Flies

Traditional wet-fly fishing may be an ancient practice, but embracing this old-school technique will make you a modern-age king of the river.

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Old Guard: A box of classic wet flies ready for action.Dan Saelinger

✕ Wet-fly fishing is at least 2,000 years old and for centuries was the primary method for catching trout with the long rod. Yet with so many new-age patterns vying for your attention in today’s fly cases, it’s easy to forget that a partridge-and-orange soft hackle catches trout as well now as it did hundreds of years ago.

That this ancient style of fishing is still practiced at all is a testament to its effectiveness, but every year, fewer and fewer anglers take to the river with traditional wets. Big mistake.

Whereas nymphing covers the bottom foot of the water column, and dry-fly fishing happens on top, wet flies can be fished anywhere in the water column and can mimic a vast amount of forage. Even when there’s no sign of hatch activity or feeding fish, I’m confident I’ll catch trout with wet flies. If there is a hatch, I know I might lose count of my fish. With an understanding of wet-fly theory, you’ll catch far more trout with a fly rod than you ever thought possible.

1. Feature Presentation: Downstream Mended Swing and Dangle

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The SwingMike Sudal

› Begin with a quartering cast downstream (1), then throw a series of upstream mends to slow the swing of the flies (2). Once they are downstream of you, animate the flies by slowly raising and lowering your rod tip, mending line to either side, or performing a slow hand-twist retrieve (3). Strikes can be violent, so don’t set hard. Instead, calmly ask yourself, Are you still there? Then gently raise the rod tip and fight your fish.

2. Feature Presentation: Upstream Dead Drift

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The DriftMike Sudal

› The upstream dead drift is an essential arrow in your presentation quiver, which starts with a long cast directly up current (1). Because you’re positioned downstream of the trout, they cannot see you. And it’s natural because your flies drift through the strike zone at the speed of the flow. Success hinges on line management; if your line forms slack loops and begins to drag, trout might refuse. Gather the slack as the flies drift toward you (2). Watch for the flash of a take below, or a stall in the tip of the line, and set the hook. You may also see a splashy take near the surface. Combine this presentation with the downstream mended drift once the rig is past you, and you’ll cover a tremendous amount of water in a single cast.

3. Feature Presentation: Short-Line Dredge

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The DredgeMike Sudal

› Want to fish a deep, slow hole with classic wets? No problem. Go short-line deep. If you’ve done any short-line nymphing, you’ve already got a head start. This isn’t about covering vast expanses of river. Instead, you’re using a rod’s length or less of fly line. After making an upstream cast, raise your rod tip, making sure your fly line is off the water (1). Track the flies at the speed of the current with your rod tip (2). If you have a taker, your leader will come tight. Purists may howl, but in faster, deeper water, I’ll affix a BB shot to the leader just above the knot that forms the middle dropper. This gives me one fly on the bottom, and two riding above.

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Gold Digging: A fat brown taken on a traditional wet fly.Brian Grossenbacher

THE RIG: TRIPLE DIPPER

From the earliest days of wet-fly fishing, there has been the three-fly team, consisting of a top dropper, a middle dropper, and a point fly on the bottom. The dropper flies are not connected by the hook bends as they would be in a double-nymph rig; rather they swim freely on short tags. Multiple flies mimic varied sizes, colors, species, and life stages of bugs to give the trout plenty of options.

This rig allows you to present at three different depths. The top dropper will always be the closest to the surface. That’s why I usually place a soft hackle or other emerger pattern in this position, and choose a size and color that matches whatever is hatching.

The middle fly is my wild card. I may just go with a favorite, proven pattern, or try to match something other than the main hatch that’s likely to be in the water. If my top dropper and point fly are light-colored patterns, I’ll often go dark here, or vice versa. The trout will always tell me if I’ve made the right decision.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a team of three is easier to cast if the point fly is the largest, heaviest fly. So this is where I often place a beadhead, or a fuzzy nymph, which will get deep if you mend.

To build a three-fly team, start with a 9-foot, 3X tapered leader. Clip off the bottom 3 feet, then add three 18- to 24-inch sections of 4- to 6-pound leader material with triple surgeon’s knots. Make the tag ends of each knot 4 to 6 inches long for the droppers. I like Maxima Chameleon or Ultragreen leader material here, as the thicker diameter helps keep the droppers away from the leader, and it’s strong enough to handle a 20-inch brown that rips the line out of your hand after pummeling your soft hackle.

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The Down Lows: Wet flies often score the larger trout feeding below smaller risers.Brian Grossenbacher

THE APPROACH: STICK AND MOVE

The best wet-fly water is frequently the least fished. It is 1 to 4 feet deep, has a broken surface that indicates bottom structure, and has current moving at a brisk walking pace. While other anglers will be jockeying for position in the hero dry-fly pools, you can have the riffles and runs above to yourself. Of course, any water with actively feeding fish is fair game, and it’s never a bad idea to drift a wet fly past a rising trout.

Your primary targets will be aggressive fish, even though they may not be visibly feeding. That’s why rougher water is your best bet. The fish that live there must decide in a split second whether to pounce, and it’s hard for a genetically programmed opportunist to pass up an easy meal.

Above all, if you’re not catching, move. Too many anglers beat the same unproductive water into a froth and then bemoan a skunking. Wet flies let you cover a tremendous amount of water. Some of my most pleasant hours are spent walking a half-mile stretch of river, swinging wets the entire way. Just think like a trout: Where would you go to find current, cover, and a steady supply of food? Current seams, glassy water behind boulders, submerged structure, dropoffs, transition zones between riffle and pool, and foam lines are all prime places to swing a team of wets.

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The lowdown on the essential wet-fly patterns.Dan Saelinger