Fishing Dry Fly on Scottish Still Waters by Colin Riach

Fishing Dry Fly on Scottish Still Waters
by Colin Riach

If you have already caught the stillwater dry fly bug and have been fishing dries as much as my mates and I have over the last decade, you should ignore what follows.Don't worry: you won't miss anything.

For those of you who have been making tentative inroads into the technique, I will attempt to give a few hints and tips that you may find useful.  I'm no expert.  I still learn every time I fish dries.  However, I've fished with one or two beginners and have spotted a number of areas where they could afford to make changes.  So, for what it's worth, here's my advice to all who want to do a bit more with dries this season.

If you are fishing the still waters of Scotland, there are one or two minor differences from the tactics advocated in the likes of "Trout Fisherman" magazine.  Although their articles are not read solely by those fishing Rutland, Chew and similar English waters, they certainly write them as if they were.

First, lets define terms.  By dry fly, I am referring to fishing static flies on or in the surface of the water, not to fishing wet flies on a floating (or "dry") line.  I've no problem with that and I do it myself; it's just that folk often get confused when you are talking about one and they are talking about the other.

Tackle: 10½ to 11½ foot through action rods rated 7/8 are fine for wets, nymphs and lures, but you'll restrict your ability to fish dries to maximum advantage with them.  A 9' to 9½' rod rated 5 or 6 is better.  A through action will let you fish finer tippets and smaller flies, but a faster, tip action will often catch more fish, as it will let you pick the line off the water, change direction and cover a fish more quickly.  It will also let an average caster (such as I) put out a longer line in calm conditions to cover a fish.  A 5 or 6 weight line will land more delicately in calm conditions than a 7 or 8.  My dry fly rod for the past 10 years has been the Orvis Rainbow, a 9½' 6-weight.

On leader material: I know that some swear by double strength, while others only swear at it.  I swear by it, and use nothing else for dries.  I used to use nothing but Smart, but when that became unavailable here, I switched to Tectan, which costs a bomb in the UK, but is dirt-cheap in the USA, and available mail order from Cabela's.

So far, I've been unconvinced about the argument for using fluorocarbon for fishing dries.  Its advantage is its low visibility.  Its disadvantage with dries is its high density, as it pulls the flies under.  It's not a black and white thing here.  Some folk fish what they call dry fly, but in reality, they are ginking up the fly to float for a few seconds after casting, before they use a stripping retrieve to pull the flies just subsurface, then fish them back "damp".  Fluorocarbon is probably the perfect thing for this, but it is a minor tactic in its own right and not what we are dealing with here.  Chris Howitt wrote about how he uses fluorocarbon for fishing dries by greasing up the leader except for the last few inches before the fly, which length is de-greased. I keep promising myself that I'll give this a try.

We've also been experimenting with the new "double strength" fluoros, like Rio Flouroflex Plus and Riverge Grand Max.  These materials are certainly so fine that they do not pull the flies under.  The problem I have with them is that they float like corks in a flat calm and no amount of degreasing will get them to cut through the surface film.

Meanwhile, I'm sticking with double-strength, which I use in 4 lb to 7 lb, depending on conditions: calm/tricky, 4 lb to 5 lb; rough/easy, 5 lb to 6 lb.  Very rough or big fish on the go: 7 lb.  The diameter of 7 lb Tectan is only 0.18 mm.  That's finer than 4 lb Drennan subsurface.  Use only water knots for joining and droppers (use end pointing down cast for dropper).  Attach flies by ½ blood or grinner knot.  If you have no confidence in double strength, try 4 lb Drennan Subsurface Green.

A tapered leader between fly line and nylon makes for improved presentation.  I currently use an Airflo floating polyleader, which floats nicely and has less air resistance than braided leaders.  I'm also about the only person I know who uses a permanent shock-gum section in their leader set-up.  I put 6 inches of Gardner Tackle 11 lb clear shock-gum between the end of the polyleader and the nylon cast.  Always have, always will.  It only needs changed, maybe twice a season.  If you have a touch like a gorilla and are always snapping off, give it a try.

Try a 3 fly cast when it's rough and there's nothing rising, 2 flies for general purpose work and go down to a single when it's calm and tricky; or when the fish are going loopy all around you.  My leader make up for a general-purpose 2 fly cast is: 4' of 6 lb Subsurface, knotted to 2' 6 lb Tectan, which changes at the dropper to 7' of 5 lb Tectan.  This makes the cast manageable in calm, at 13', while keeping distance between the flies.

Accessories: Your two most important items of tackle are floatant and sinking compound.  I still use "Gink" floatant after many years of tried and trusted use.  Most folk make their own sinking agent by making a paste from Fuller's earth, glycerine, washing up liquid and water.  Proprietary brands are available - at a price.  I also recommend you track down a bit of amadou for drying your flies.

Flies:  We are all still learning as far as flies are concerned.  Every season seems to find something new coming out on top.  I would say, however, that about 90% of the time you won't fall off if you fish with the sparsest fly you can still make float.  On many occasions, if you fish with anything heavier dressed than that, you will catch far fewer than you could (perhaps without realising it).  Watch out for the situation where fish appear to take your dry, but you miss take after take.  If that happens, go slimmer.  Be prepared to fish anything from 10s to 18s, but concentrate on 12s and 14s.The other 10% of the time you are on your own: try going bigger and heavier dressed until something works.

Base your fly collection on hoppers, Shipman's buzzers and CDCs.  You could go out nine times in ten and catch as many on these as on anything else.  Flesh out your collection with Klinkhammers, suspender buzzers, and Bob's bits.  Depending on where you live and fish, the specific imitations required will vary.  They may variously be: olive duns (or other Ephemeroptera), sedge patterns, beetle patterns, adult midge imitations, heather flies or daddy-long-legs.

This is an area where there has been very little acknowledgment in the angling press regarding the different waters focused on in dry fly articles.  The different hatches encountered and the imitations required to copy them differ hugely throughout the country.  Southern waters are much richer in subsurface insect life, while many northern waters rely more on wind-blown terrestrials to supply surface feeding for trout.  These falls include gnats, beetles, weevils, cowdungs, daddies, heather flies, shield bugs and others.

The species of water-borne insects differ too, between north and south.  We have many more waters where claret duns, and for that matter olive duns, form important hatches.  Most autumns, the Lake of Menteith gets good numbers of shield bugs falling out the trees onto the water, and although their nickname is stink-bug, the fish love them. They are a swine to do a good imitation of, being, eh… shield-shaped, but we find a size 12 fiery brown hopper works for us most times.

Incidentally, a size 12 fiery brown hopper is worth a try when fish are feeding on Corixae and proving difficult to catch on nymph patterns.  It probably gets taken for a Corixa pausing at the surface to renew its air supply.

Although the most killing colour varies from year to year, the colours to have are, in descending order of importance: 1st equal, black, claret and hare's ear; 4th fiery brown; 5th, ginger (colour of opaque honey, not cinnamon); 6th equal, red and orange (I cover them both by mixing 50% hot orange and 50% fluorescent red dubbing); 8th equal, greens and olives; 10th grey.

There is a difference in the favourite colours up here in Scotland compared to the big southern reservoirs. We do not get the range of colours of buzzers that they get. Most of ours are either black or the colour of hare's ear. Some are just about a colourless grey, which we call Scottish blend (after the tea!).

Claret is just so good everywhere, and although the adult buzzers are drab, the emerging pupa is often a rich claret colour.  While on about drab colours, a pale grey Shipman's buzzer is worth a try when fish are mopping up Caenis spinners, shucks, still-borns etc.  Don't worry about size, a B400 14 is small enough.  Two or 3 spinners collected together make a more tempting mouthful than one on its own.

Parachute Olive

Getting your fly in the water: The key here is to have the fly float and the leader sink.  I find the biggest mistake most people make is in not degreasing the leader often enough.  Even in a ripple, you will need to do this again and again.  In an oily calm, you may need to do it every other cast.  Keep checking it by dropping it in the water at you feet.  If your nylon is sitting on the surface, the fish will see it.  Bring it in and rub it down with sinking compound.

Don't over-gink your fly.  There are times the fish want the fly sitting right on top of the water, but more often they prefer it sitting down in the surface film.  Gink scores over sprays and liquids in that you can apply it to specific parts of the fly.  By only applying it along the back of the fly, it will sit down on a wet belly.  CDC's have the advantage of built-in buoyancy without the spin-ability of suspender buzzers.  Some say they are better because wised-up fish start to recognise the oil slick emanating from a ginked fly!  I still find I need to put a little bit gink on a CDC to avoid it getting quickly waterlogged.

The different styles of dry fly patterns are all about different footprints.  The footprint is the mark the fly makes on the surface of the water.  It is sitting in the surface film to a greater or lesser extent, and distorting the light in different ways, as well as presenting a silhouette to the fish.  If the fly you are fishing is not drawing interest, or the fish are coming to it but shying away, change it for one with a different footprint.

Hopper, Shipman, CDC (F-fly), CDC (shuttlecock), Klinkhammer, suspender and others all have radically different footprint/silhouette specifications, with some part of the fly sitting in the surface, to all the fly being below surface (in the case of a suspender).  When tying hoppers and bits these days, I clip off all hackle fibres below the body level of the fly.  This helps them sit well into the surface.

Presentation and boatcraft: Everything up to this point is a doddle.  This is the area where most people have most to learn.  Because we are putting our fly into the interface between our world and the fish's world, we have to do it very carefully, so as not to spook the fish.  Stay sitting down in the boat.  It is much more difficult to cast standing up without shifting your weight.  When you do, you send ripples across the water and set up a 30 yard fish-free zone about yourself.

This puts you in a death spiral: you flog harder and harder to cast far enough to reach the fish, so putting out bigger and bigger ripples and driving the fish further and further away.  I know; I've been there.  There's nothing more frustrating than to be put in a boat with a new fishing partner, only to find he's a member of the John Wayne Angling Club… stands with one foot up on the gunwale, resting his elbow on his knee while he retrieves. And it's a big club!

It is much better to get the spiral going in the other direction: concentrate on being as quiet as a mouse.  Be aware of your body's movements as you cast, and concentrate on casting without rocking the boat.  Cast using only the arms and shoulders, not the waist.  The more you practise this, the nearer the fish will come in to you.  The nearer the fish, the less effort you put into casting and the less movement you make.  Furthermore, the shorter the line, the less likely the line in the air is to spook the fish; and, the shorter the line, the more accurately you will be able to cover the fish.  Two experienced anglers will be able to have trout rise in a flat calm within 5 yards of the boat.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the shorter you are able to fish, the better you will see your flies.  If you tie your Shipman's buzzers with the front breathers cocked upwards, it will aid vision.  Bob's bits have a white wing tuft for the same reason.  If you can see your flies, you can see when a fish takes them.  That moment is the essence of the whole thing.  There are unavoidably times when you can't see your flies.  If a fish rises where you think they are, give a slight lift.  If you feel resistance, keep lifting into the fish.  If you don't, the action you have imparted to your flies may be enough to induce a take anyway.

There are 2 basic situations for fishing the dries: when the fish are not rising and when they are.  When the former applies, instead of casting straight downwind at 12 o'clock to the boat as you often tend to do when working the wets, you will cover much more water, and hence fish, if you and your partner sit angled outwards.  The left rod concentrates on an arc of water between 9 o'clock and 11 o'clock, while the right rod does likewise between 3 o'clock and 1 o'clock. (Watch the back casts!)

This is because the dries are not working a track, like the wets are. They just sit there, calling to the fish below.  Going out to the side covers the water in steps, rather than putting the flies back into water that you have already covered. You will also be better placed to have several pots at a rising fish as it rounds the end of the boat.

Having said that, there are 2 schools of thought on how long to give the flies when you are fishing blind this way.  One says, cast, give them a count of 5, then lift off and recast.  The thinking is that the fish that is prone to taking a dry is lying close to the surface and will, if a fly lands in its window of vision, either take it within a few seconds, or it is not going to take at all.

This is all well and good if you are fishing the pelagic expanses of Chew or Grafham, but it doesn't work like that on many of our waters.  A good illustration is the area at the back of the promontory formed between the heronry and the shooting butts at the Lake of Menteith.  The wind coming through the gap formed by Inchmahome Island brings a steady supply of leaf debris, dead flies, shucks, and all manner of stuff with it.  It collects in the lee of the promontory to form a scrot line, as we call it.

Resident fish patrol this line, and they are wary.  If you went in after them, casting and lifting off every few seconds, you would not catch much.  You have to sidle in and sit still until they adjust to your presence and resume feeding. You must pick out the point you think they will meet your fly, and cast to it.  Then sit and wait for the fish to find your fly.  This could be several minutes.

We've even seen a fish come up to the fly, stand on its tail immediately under the fly and within one inch of it, then take a further 20 seconds to decide that it was going to take. No "count to five and lift off" stuff happening there!  The other occasion where continuous casting is detrimental is when fishing for brown trout.  They are often territorial, and will sit well down from the surface in clear water.  There's no doubt in my mind that they often take their time when a fly lands in their window.  If, having cast your fly, you take it away after a few seconds, you may have done yourself out of a take.For these reasons, I usually prefer to fish a cast out just as if it was a wet fly cast, but simply taking up the slack line as the boat drifts forward.  The major variation on this is to give the flies a figure of eight retrieve.

If you strip, the stop-start action will pull the flies under, but a figure-of-eight will usually be possible without sinking the flies.  They may gradually submerge towards the end of the retrieve, but that may be to your advantage if it creates exactly the effect that triggers a response.

I have given below, some variations on tactics to watch out for when fish are rising.

Fish feeding steadily in a nice ripple: A fish is coming towards you, some 25 yards ahead.  You are not John Horsey: don't try to cover it (unless you are as good a caster as Mr H!).  Your accuracy and leader turnover will both be compromised and the long line in the air may spook it.   Let it rise again and get a fix on its route.  Put out a short cast to lay your fly in its path and wait for it to come in and find it.

If you don't get a buzz every time this works, consult a doctor.  As well as getting a fix on a rising fish's route, you should try to get a handle on its cadence: the distance between the rises.  If it is rising every ten yards, there is no point putting your fly into the rings of its last rise, or even putting your flies 5 yards in front of it.

When it's calm and the fish are going frantic all around you: When you see a fish rise, use the shape of the ripples to try to work out the direction in which the fish moved away.  This is much more random than in a ripple and takes a lot of practise.I'm still hopeless at it.  The quicker you can lift off and put your fly in its path, the more chance you'll have.  Sometimes they are so haphazard, your best bet is to sit with your line in front of you, ready to cast immediately into the rings of a rise.  If you are quick enough, you might just get there before the fish moves off.  If you manage this, you might get an induced take.

When the only fish you've seen all day rises 25 yards out at 2 o'clock: All the above goes out the window as your adrenalin takes over.  You'll do as I do: stand up, rip 20 yards off the reel, rock to and fro, and go for broke!

Timing the strike: When I get this right, I'll tell you how to do it.

Caution: This is as addictive as any drug, and the management accepts no responsibility for anyone who ends up gibbering on about fishing dry fly all hours of the day.  Let me be warning enough.