Wet Flies ….. they just catch fish
By Paul Prentiss

wet flies
A classic selection of wet flies in an old style fly box

It’s interesting to note that the oldest form of fly fishing, the use of wet flies, is something of a mystery for today’s anglers.
In point of fact, dry flies, nymphs, and streamers are relatively new.  Realistic dry flies got their start on the chalk streams of southern England in the mid 1800’s.  Nymphs and streamers came into their own in the early 1900’s.  On the other hand wet flies arrived on the scene in the Third Century AD!  Basically there are two versions, winged flies and soft hackles. Soft hackles gained popularity in northern England and Scotland about 300 years ago.

Instead of looking like a particular type of insect, a wet fly imitates a stage of the life. As such, they represent a struggling nymph that is attempting to reach the surface or a dead or drowning insect. Either way, they are designed to impart motion.

Wet flies dominated American fly fishing until the 1950’s.  In the early 1960’s you could walk into Hank Robert’s fly shop on Pearl Street (the forerunner of  western fly shops) and buy a wide selection of wet flies including snelled versions.  Snelled flies were pre-tied on a heavy leader (cat gut) already attached to the fly.  The leader was six-inches long with a loop at the other end which anglers attached to a dropper loop. You fished two, three or even four of the snelled flies at one time.  This setup was referred to as a cast of flies.

I made a point this summer to fish a lot of soft hackle wet flies.  I actually did this more often than nymph fishing in local waters.
I fish three flies about 20-inches apart on a 7-foot leader.  Two of the flies are tied on the tag ends (a six-inch section) of a surgeons knot and the point fly at the end of the leader. When the tag ends get too short to tie on another fly, I’ll trim off the end and attach some leader material above the knot with a Duncan loop. The point or anchor fly is the heaviest and the top fly is light enough to fish on the surface.  In fact, I like to use a down wing dry fly like a Stimulator in the top position.

The classic approach is to cast the fly down and across, swimming it through potential lies and allowing it to rise towards the surface at the end of the swing. Then take a step or two downstream and repeat the process. I fish my flies in an active manner mending the line upstream of potential holding water and then fish the fly through likely looking spots. Occasionally, I'll strip the fly in with slow or fast retrieves much like you might fish a streamer. This is not a mechanical blind casting approach. It's systematically covering the water with controlled casts and measured retrieves.

If you have never fished wet flies to rising trout you're missing out on a real opportunity. The fish taking flies off the surface are generally taking even more emerging insects just below the surface. To catch these fish you need to present your fly upstream of the target. As the fly reaches the fish, tighten the line so that it begins to rise to the surface and be prepared for a solid hit.