F&S Classic:Dry Fly Fishing

July 1922

Field & Stream Online Editors

When one sees a number of salmon side by side, as they often lie in the tail of a pool, and watches a regular salmon fly pass over them or past their very noses without any attention or motion on their part, except to move away if the fly or leader comes too close, one is tempted to wonder if these fish will really take a fly at all under these conditions. And yet it is these very fish at this time which will furnish the best of sport. For some reason they are in a state of mind where the wet fly does not attract them at all. Perhaps they have reverted to the state when they were parr, taking insects off the surface. Let a real fly or a small butterfly float over them and see how often one will rise and suck it in. It was observing this which made me try a dry fly, with not much success at first, because I did not know how to use it, but soon I made a proper cast, quite by accident, and raised a fish. The fly was a Greenwell's Glory, No. 14 hook. I soon observed that the fish rose on some kinds of casts, but never on others, with considerable regularity. I was interested to discover which casts were wrong. The place was on the Indian River in Newfoundland, at the outlet of a lake where there were a large number of salmon. For a week previously they had bitten well and we had had good sport, but suddenly overnight the fishing had stopped. Conditions had changed. The water temperature had risen to above 60 deg. F. The fish were there, I could see them, so there was no use going anywhere else. If I could not get them there I had little chance elsewhere, so I settled down to find out how to catch them.

The first thing to discover was what effect the leader and its shadow had on the fish. To discern this I tied leaders of various sizes, going down to the finest gut made (.004-inch diameter) and up to the regular salmon gut (.020-inch diameter). I always carry a small gauge for measuring the size in order to make the leader of the proper taper so it will cast well. I soon found when the sun was out I raised many more fish with fine gut, and those which did come up almost invariably got the fly, while those which raised on the coarse gut very often turned away just before taking the fly in their mouth; they seemed to see the leader and be frightened.

The problem became largely one of fishing so that they would not see the leader. This can be done in two ways, first by having it as thin as possible. This is not very practical because it is difficult to hook and land a fish of considerable size on a gut which will break under a strain of a pound and a half or less. The second way is to see if the leader could not be cast so that they would not see it is readily. I soon found this to be possible to a certain extent. If the leader extends up stream from the salmon for a couple of feet or more it is in a straight line away from him when he comes to take the fly, and he is not so likely to see it in time to avoid the fly. This is the key to dry fly fishing for salmon. Have the fly float directly over the fish so that he will see it with both eyes and have the leader lead directly away from him. If the fly was pulled on the surface, I found that he was far less likely to rise and a fly partly submerged almost never takes a fish. It must float on the surface of the water well up on the top of its hackles.

The light effects are what attract the fish, because this is what occurs when natural insects float on the surface. Be this as it may, the fact remains that to be successful you must either use the fly on top or submerged. A dry fly pulled below the surface often works well. It seems as if the fish saw the fly on the surface and did not take it but decided to do so when it was being pulled away below the surface. Under some conditions this method takes fish better than any other. One afternoon recently I hooked fifteen fish nearly all in this way and found it better thaa dry or wet fly used alone.

In regular fishing I find that too many fish are lost by breaking the leader in hooking them if the size of the leader near the fly is less than .010. I have gut of this size which pulls four pounds, but this is very exceptional. The usual gut pulls about two to two and one-half pounds in this size. When I find that fish are not being hooked and are missing the fly I put on smaller gut. In order not to break this fine tackle, I have had made a special form of rod which is adapted to this purpose. It is ten feet six inches long, the greatest length which can be continuously used without undue fatigue in one hand. The weight is 7 oz. Without the extra hand-piece below the reel which I use in order not to become too tired in my left wrist if I hook a large fish and have to play him a long time. I can rest the butt of the rod against my body, and get at the reel with my right hand without danger of getting the handle tangled in my clothes. Such a rod will not pull over one pound when the tip is up and the greatest strain possible put on the butt. This will not stop or turn a good sized salmon but will tire him out quickly. Of course, the pleasure of playing a salmon on good heavy tackle and giving him the butt and making him jump is sacrificed to the pleasure of seeing him rise to the surface and hooking him, often at close range. But with this tackle I raise and hook many more fish. Such a rod works best with a tapered E line about .035-inch diameter in the heavy part. If it is well handled it will put a fly ninety feet and lay it down lightly. I have hooked fish at this distance quite often and regularly fish at seventy feet with ease. The leader must be very long for dry fly work, as I find the line floating over the fish or striking the water scares them badly. I use regularly a fourteen-foot leader with the large end about .020-inch diameter. Often I have found that this is not long enough and added three to six feet more finer gut.

It is very hard for the novice to tell when the salmon is alarmed. He does not usually run away, as does the trout, unless he is very frightened indeed. If you watch carefully the only thing you can observe is that he settles a little toward the bottom and often changes the motion of his fins and tail. When this happens a salmon will not rise and there is no use casting over him just then. On the other hand if he begins to work his front fins faster and raises his head or whole body in the water as the fly passes over him, he is taking notice and will most surely rise to the fly if it is put over him enough times in the proper way. When I have seen him take notice I have sometimes kept at him an hour or so, and almost invariably raised him to the fly. This is quite the opposite from the effect of a wet fly, which offers its greatest attraction when first seen, and the probability that he will take it decreases with the number of times the salmon sees it. It is for this reason that the old fishermen rest a fish which has risen short and are certain that they have more chance of taking him if he gets a fresh view of the fly after an interval. I feel that the warm water has in some mysterious way brought to the surface of consciousness the habits formed during the parr stage of growth of taking insects on the surface, and that the adult salmon behaves in a similar way, driven on by these old habits which became his dominant impulse because he is cut off from his regular feeding on fish, squid, etc.,

It is on this theory that I have worked in studying the dry fly and the remarkable results which I will describe later seem to bear out my conception. Dry fly fishing seems to be regulated by the water temperature and the lateness of the season. Until this year I had always supposed that dry fly fishing was better the later it was practiced; but this year about August 2 I found that in some places salmon would not take a dry fly when they had taken it readily July 12-15. This may be due to the fact that this season was very exceptional, and that the fish were much further advanced toward spawning than usual. In other years I have always had the best of dry fly fishing on August 15, and have had excellent sport in Newfoundland in September.

It has been my experience that salmon do not take a dry fly well when the water is below 58 deg. F. and begin to take it well when the water is 60 deg. F. The best dry fly condition is with the water 60 deg.-66 deg. F. It may not be generally known, but the long Northern days warm up salmon rivers greatly before night. On this trip I frequently noticed a rise of 10 degrees from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The size of the flies seem to be very important; at times the small flies, even as small as No. 16, seem to be better, while at other times very large flies as big as two-inch in diameter seem to raise more fish. It perhaps somewhat depends on the depth of the fish in the water but more probably on the clearness and light at the time or the background in view from the window of the fish.

I remember one day fishing a run on the Upsalquitch with Mr. Monell. The fish were in about two or three feet of water and under a moderate current running rather smooth. The bottom was covered with stones of about a foot to two feet in diameter. I was using a small gray hackle of about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. He was using a larger gray hackle of the same pattern, an inch and a quarter to an inch and a half in diameter. We took in all about forty fish in the afternoon. Those I got ran from six to eight pounds, while those he hooked ran from ten to twelve pounds. We did this in order to see whether the larger fly took the larger fish, and it certainly proved so in this case. Recently in the Restigouche I could only raise one fish on the large inch and a half hackle, and got as many as I wanted on the smaller three-quarter inch hackle. These fish ran from about twelve to eighteen pounds. Another time at The Forks on the Upsalquitch on a clear, hot afternoon I could not raise any from a bunch of fish along a ledge with the three-quarter inch or the one and a half inch diameter flies. I went into camp and tied the largest hackle I could, over to and a quarter inches in diameter, and immediately hooked three fish in succession. It will be seen from this that no general rule can be given for the fly to use at all times; a man must be a fisherman to know. He should experiment and find out the best size for each day.

Recently I had a most interesting example of how the diameter of a leader affects the number of fish hooked. I was fishing the run above Jimmy's Hole on the Restigouche and took one salmon from the fifteen or twenty spread across the bar at the top, in about two feet of water. Thwould not take a dry fly when they had taken it readily July 12-15. This may be due to the fact that this season was very exceptional, and that the fish were much further advanced toward spawning than usual. In other years I have always had the best of dry fly fishing on August 15, and have had excellent sport in Newfoundland in September.

It has been my experience that salmon do not take a dry fly well when the water is below 58 deg. F. and begin to take it well when the water is 60 deg. F. The best dry fly condition is with the water 60 deg.-66 deg. F. It may not be generally known, but the long Northern days warm up salmon rivers greatly before night. On this trip I frequently noticed a rise of 10 degrees from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The size of the flies seem to be very important; at times the small flies, even as small as No. 16, seem to be better, while at other times very large flies as big as two-inch in diameter seem to raise more fish. It perhaps somewhat depends on the depth of the fish in the water but more probably on the clearness and light at the time or the background in view from the window of the fish.

I remember one day fishing a run on the Upsalquitch with Mr. Monell. The fish were in about two or three feet of water and under a moderate current running rather smooth. The bottom was covered with stones of about a foot to two feet in diameter. I was using a small gray hackle of about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. He was using a larger gray hackle of the same pattern, an inch and a quarter to an inch and a half in diameter. We took in all about forty fish in the afternoon. Those I got ran from six to eight pounds, while those he hooked ran from ten to twelve pounds. We did this in order to see whether the larger fly took the larger fish, and it certainly proved so in this case. Recently in the Restigouche I could only raise one fish on the large inch and a half hackle, and got as many as I wanted on the smaller three-quarter inch hackle. These fish ran from about twelve to eighteen pounds. Another time at The Forks on the Upsalquitch on a clear, hot afternoon I could not raise any from a bunch of fish along a ledge with the three-quarter inch or the one and a half inch diameter flies. I went into camp and tied the largest hackle I could, over to and a quarter inches in diameter, and immediately hooked three fish in succession. It will be seen from this that no general rule can be given for the fly to use at all times; a man must be a fisherman to know. He should experiment and find out the best size for each day.

Recently I had a most interesting example of how the diameter of a leader affects the number of fish hooked. I was fishing the run above Jimmy's Hole on the Restigouche and took one salmon from the fifteen or twenty spread across the bar at the top, in about two feet of water. Th