Dry Fly Strategies for Catching More Trout

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It’s a cool, overcast spring morning when you throw a size 16 blue-winged olive fly (Baetis) into the current. You watch in amazement as within seconds it gets crushed by a hungry brown trout breaking the surface.

Welcome to dry fly fishing, one of the most thrilling methods for catching trout on a fly rod.

What Is Dry Fly Fishing?

The dry fly is designed to float on the surface of the water and imitate an insect that a fish would eat. Dry flies catch everything from trout (including steelhead) to bass, salmon and even northern pike just to name a few species.

The technique of fishing dry flies is one of the most popular to use when you are fly fishing. It can be done almost throughout the year, taking into account seasonal hatches relative to different insects.

Fish them early on in the morning, when the fish are most active and attracted to insects on the surface like emerging and winged adult flies. You can use dry flies any time though – even during midday if you’ve spotted a really tricky-looking pool.

Some of the best dry flies for trout fishing include:

  • Blue Winged Olive
  • Parachute Adams
  • Royal Wullfs
  • Stimulator
  • Black Ant
  • Chernobyl Ant
  • Griffith’s Gnat
  • Hendrickson
  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Pale Morning Dun

4 Dry Fly Trout Tactics for More Hookups

However, to get the most out of your dry fly fishing, you will need to pay attention to certain things. Here are a few important tips to keep in mind when fishing this type of fly:

  1. Avoid “drag” and “lining” trout. These are two of the toughest challenges facing the dry fly angler.
  2. The straight upstream cast is an effective dry fly technique, but the quartering upstream cast is the most versatile method.
  3. Retrieve slack line as your dry fly drifts in the current so you can set the hook when a trout strikes.
  4. You can use a quartering downstream cast in certain situations where upstream casts won’t work.

Avoid Drag

To understand this phenomenon, go to your local trout river, put on your waders, rig up your rod and tie on a high-floating, highly visible dry fly (a Yellow Humpy will do nicely). Wade in up to your waist and cast directly across stream.

Currents will grab your line and leader, pull them downstream and cause them to move faster than your fly. At this point your fly will begin to pull or “drag” through the water, leaving a wake on the surface.

Trout will almost never strike a dragging dry fly. Why?

Ideally, a dry fly should mimic a hapless insect drifting in the current. Natural insects may wiggle or vibrate on the water, but they almost never leave a wake.

Of course, a trout does not understand the concept of drag. When a trout sees a wake trailing your artificial fly, he simply interprets it as “not food” and will most likely completely ignore your offering.

If you want to learn how to avoid the dreaded drag, the bane of the dry fly angler, keep reading to find out how …

Straight Upstream Cast

You can combat drag by approaching from directly behind the trout and casting straight upstream. This approach keeps you in the trout’s blind spot.

OK, so you’re in the stream wading up directly behind an unsuspecting trout. You see a snout pop through the water and hear a “slurp” as the trout takes a size #12 cream mayfly. You tie on a size #12 cream mayfly and you’re ready to hook up with a lunker. Go ahead and cast to the trout.

You want the fly to land somewhere between one and three feet in front of the trout’s nose. If you cast too far in front of the fish, you risk dropping your fly line on top of your quarry. This cardinal sin of dry fly casting is known as “lining” the trout. A fly line is highly visible and instantly spooks trout if it lands within their window of vision.

If you cast too short, the trout will not see your fly. Casting short is much preferable to overshooting your target. A short cast may not spook the fish and you’ll get another try.

The ideal cast will put only the leader over the trout. In a perfect world, the trout will not notice the leader and will spot your fly. He will then rise and strike, whereupon you set the hook.

Pick Up the Slack

After your upstream cast lands on the water, your fly, line and leader will immediately begin floating back downstream towards you. This will cause “slack” to develop in the line. As a dry-fly angler, you must prevent this slack from developing.

Why, you ask? When the fish strikes, you set the hook by lifting the rod tip. If your line has slack, you will need more time (perhaps only a half-second) to create the tension necessary to set the hook. In that fraction of a second, a trout will realize his mistake and spit out the bundle of fur and feathers.

After casting upstream, strip in line just fast enough to prevent slack from developing. Keep in mind that if you strip too fast, you’ll pull the fly through the water, causing drag.

Quartering Upstream Cast

The ideal dry fly-casting tactic, the quartering upstream cast, lets you stay in the trout’s blind spot, while reducing your chances of lining the fish and helping you avoid drag. The method is similar to the straight upstream cast, except that you position yourself a few feet to the left or right of the trout.

This casting angle allows you to pitch the fly in front of the trout while keeping the line safely out of view.

Important: Remember to pick up the slack exactly as you would in a straight upstream cast.

Quartering Downstream Cast

In certain situations, the quartering downstream cast will work better than a quartering upstream cast. For example, you may see a trout rising behind a partially submerged log or boulder.

In these instances, the trout is holding in slow-moving water, with fast currents all around him. If you try a quartering upstream cast, the fast currents will whisk your line away and drag your fly at Mach 3 over the trout’s head. He might not only ignore your fly; he might just bolt in terror.

In a case like this, you can try a downstream presentation. Walk upstream a good distance from the trout. Keep in mind that when you move in front of a trout you will leave its blind spot. You’ll have to stay further away from the fish to avoid detection. 

Now measure out your line by false casting. False casting refers to casts in the air that don’t land on the water. When you’ve got enough line aloft to reach your target, stop your cast abruptly before completing the forward motion. Then drop the line to the water with your fly landing a few feet above the trout.

Stopping the cast short will put slack into your line. This slack will let the fly drift naturally in the current over your quarry.

If you’re fishing from a drift boat or a pontoon craft on a river, you’ll need to use a downstream drift when fishing with dry flies. If you cast upstream (in the opposite direction the boat is moving) your fly will usually begin dragging as soon as it hits the water.

2 Stealth Dry Fly Fishing Tactics

Blind Dry Fly Fishing

Most anglers use dry flies only when they see trout rising to the surface. You can, however, use this type of fly to catch fish even when you don’t see any activity “on top.” This tactic is referred to as “blind fishing” dries.

Trout are opportunistic. If water temperatures are conducive to surface feeding, your dry fly pattern will often trigger strikes.

Blind fishing dry flies will test your stream-reading skills. You’ll have to identify potential trout lies and then cast your fly to those spots.

Blind Fly Fishing on Pocket Water

Blind fly fishing is a style of trout fishing that is often used in pocket water. The term pocket water is used to describe the slack water in a stream/river directly behind large obstructions such as rocks, boulders and trees.

The objects disrupt the flow of the current and create slack water that pools around them. They also help to create a “broken” surface that reduces the range of the trout’s vision. This is a great way to catch trout without spooking them.


Hopefully, you have enjoyed and gotten something out of this post. Fishing with dry flies requires a bit more skill than fishing with wet flies or other techniques, but it is arguably one of the most effective and exciting methods to use on a fly rod.

Seeing a fish come up to the surface and devour your fly provides an experience that you will not soon forget. Beyond just the excitement, there are various reasons including the beauty of the technique and more hookups to be had. Tight lines!

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About Dorado

John Pardal, aka Dorado, is the editor as well as an author for Reel Adventure Fishing. He has fished extensively up and down the U.S. Atlantic coast, throughout much of Florida and a bit of the Caribbean. John loves writing about all aspects of sportfishing and is passionate about conservation and promoting sustainable fishing.