How To Fly Fish Wet Flies: Everything You Need To Know

nymph fly fishing flies

How To Fly Fish Wet Flies: Everything You Need To Know

Fly fishing could be described as a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, then wrapped in a puzzle. From a broad view, especially for new fly fishers, showing up to a river and knowing where to start is a challenge. Just like approaching new pieces of water, breaking down the intricacies of fly fishing, helps to calm the mind and makes an otherwise daunting challenge an easier task.

This same approach can be taken when considering distinguishing between fly patterns of both wet flies and dry flies. Humans are visual creatures. We like seeing big hits in football or watching fast race cars. As anglers, we want to see the action happen. This is one reason there is so much hype surrounding dry fly fishing. After all, who doesn’t enjoy watching a brown trout explode on a Chubby Chernobyl, or a large-mouth bass blow up a frog popper?

That being said, for every fish that eats something on the surface of the water, it can be argued that there a hundred times more fish feeding below the surface. This is why wet flies should never be overlooked when choosing flies for your fly box. We are going to demystify the overly large umbrella term of wet flies, and discuss a few tips, tactics and tricks to catch more fish.

Here is everything you need to know about fly fishing wet flies.

What is a Wet Fly?

Generally speaking, wet flies is a generic term that covers a category of flies for fly fishing that are fished under the surface of the water. These flies are the opposite of dry flies. Dry flies are fished on the surface of the water, thus they stay dry.

Aquatic Insect Life cycle

As we have mentioned in previous articles, aquatic insects compose the majority of a trout’s diet. These insects live underneath the substrate of river rocks, beneath logs, and in the detritus of decomposing organic material. As the insect life cycle develops, aquatic insects either crawl to the banks to hatch, or they create air bubbles that are trapped between their nymphal shuck and skin. These insects float/swim to the surface of the river to mature and hatch as adults.

It is throughout all phases of this life cycle that trout have the opportunity eat. The portion of the insects lifecycle under water is the majority of their time on earth. Therefore, it is also the best opportunity for fish to have a meal. Wet flies in general can cover lots of different hatches of mayflies, caddis flies, baitfish, and aquatic food sources like worms, shrimp and crayfish. They are excellent for imitating drowned adult insects.

Wet flies can be tied both weighted and unweighted. There are impressionistic wet flies. Flies that cover several different species of insects. These are flies that are often described as “buggy” looking. There are also imitative wet flies. These are wet flies that are tied to match very specific insect species and hatches. There is a place on the river for all these fly patterns and there are many different ways to rig and fish wet flies.

The Evolution of Wet Flies For Fly Fishing

Like lots of things fly fishing, wet fly fishing can be traced back to fly fisherman in England and Scotland. These wet fly patterns are referred to as traditional wet flies. Fisherman in Europe were targeting Atlantic Salmon. These larger traditional wet flies typically incorporate a soft hackle collar or a large feathered wing. Fly tying recipes for these older flies can range from very complex to very simple. These flies were traditionally fished by casting the fly out at a 45 or 90 degree angle and swung in the current.

Traditional Wet Flies

Traditional wet flies are still fished today. They are effective patterns that catch trout and steelhead. That being said, some of the original recipes have to be altered because many of the bird feathers and species that fly fishers used in the 1850’s are extinct. These flies are primarily tied out of animal bye product and feathers. Thankfully, we have modern fly tying materials that make more patterns accessible to both fly fisherman and fly tiers.

Modern Wet Flies

Modern synthetic fly tying materials have allowed anglers to push the boundaries when it comes to new and innovative fly patterns. Nymphs and wet flies can be tied in both all natural material or blend of of both natural and synthetic fly tying products. In some cases, modern wet flies are tied out of entirely synthetic material.

Recommended Reading: Best Soft Hackle Wet Flies For Fly Fishing

Are Wet Flies Nymphs?

Technically, yes, nymphs and wet flies are both covered under the broad umbrella term of “wet fly”. I think that in most fly fisher’s minds, they are two separate categories of fly design. After all, they are both fished subsurface. That being said, there are some differences in design that separate the two categories.

While both nymphs and wet flies can be weighted or unweighted, the most noticeable difference between the two types of patterns is the presence of a soft hackle or a feather wing. The soft hackle, usually from some type of game bird (but not always, the starling is some of my favorite soft hackles to use when tying flies) is wrapped around the neck of the fly. If there is no soft hackle present, then the addition of a feather wing and throat hackle is usually present.

Common wet fly patterns that would be familiar to most are the Bread and Butter Caddis, Partridge Hares Ear Soft Hackle, and Nick’s Soft Hackle Emerger. My personal favorite soft hackle wet fly is made of peacock herl for the main body and a grey partridge collar. When swinging wet flies this is my go-to fly, and it works in both lakes and rivers.

Nymphs are typically more grub-like shaped flies. They lack the traditional collar or wing that is found in a traditional wet fly. There is more of an emphasis on the thorax of the fly. Many times, you will find traditional nymphs more heavily weighted to get the fly down in the water column.

Nymph patterns are often tied with a bead head or wrapped with a lead under body to help the fly sink faster. Tungsten bead heads can be added to either a traditional wet fly or bead head nymph if you really need the flies to reach the strike zone fast. Common fly fishing nymphs that most fly anglers would be familiar with are: the San Juan worm, pheasant tail nymph, zebra midge, and gold ribbed hare’s ear.

Recommended Reading: Everything You Need To Know About Nymph Flies

What Do Wet Flies Imitate?

So what do wet flies imitate? Wet flies are generally a broad category that covers many patterns and countless variations. They cover anything that a trout would eat that lives under the water’s surface. That being said, there are some very specific times when both nymphs and traditional wet flies shine as the best fly to choose when trout fishing.

If you fish on a river where there are prolific caddis hatches, then you definitely want to have some soft hackle patterns in your fly box. Choose patterns that are both weighted and unweighted. The soft hackle wet fly covers the pupa and drowned adult portion of the caddis life cycle.

Caddis Hatches

As caddis larvae emerge from their case and turn into caddis pupa, the caddis pupa will drift for extremely long periods of time. At first, they will be near the bottom of the river. This long period of drift keeps the caddis pupa in the fishes strike zone and is a great opportunity for trout to eat an easy meal without spending much energy. Eventually, the caddis pupa will trap air bubbles between its larval shuck and skin. This increased buoyancy helps the caddis pupa swim to the surface of the river. They are moving vertically through the water column.

Caddis pupa are alien in nature, they have a rounded thorax with partially developed wings and antennae. Soft hackle wet flies are the perfect imitation for caddis pupa that are swimming towards the surface of the water column. Not only does the pulsating hackle mimic the profile and swimming action of caddis, but the soft hackle is also a great material for trapping air bubbles. This gives your fly the life-like appearance of hatching caddis flies.

Once the caddis pupa reaches the surface of the water, it will break through the meniscus. The meniscus is the tension of the surface water. This acts as a strong barrier to aquatic insects, and it is at this point in the lifecycle of a bug that they are most vulnerable to trout. Some of the insects drown, some never make it through the meniscus, and some get eaten by fish. Trout focus on emerging insects, crippled insects, and drowned adult insects. By fly fishing with wet flies you can take advantage of all three of these opportunities to catch fish.

Recommended Reading: How To Fly Fish Caddis Flies

Mayfly Hatches

Mayfly hatches offer an excellent chance to fish wet flies. In my experience guiding, the best time to fish a soft hackle wet fly during a mayfly emergence is after the hatch is over. My favorite hatch to fish wet flies is after a Pale Morning Dun or Blue Wing Olive hatch is over. Blue-winged olives and P.M.D.’s nymphs are often found in gravel bars. Water coming off the back side of gravel bars usually forms transition zones of shallow to deep water. This area is usually characterized by turbulent water.

When adult mayflies hatch on the gravel bars, they often drown in the surface film, or they drown when they hit the turbulent water at the back side of gravel bars. This means that although there aren’t many adult mayflies on the water, there are still a lot of fully formed adult mayflies that have drowned both during and after the hatch.

Trout love the opportunity to eat an easy meal. The chance to eat a fully formed caddis or mayfly with little effort is not often passed up. As the adult mayflies and caddis leave the water, often times many anglers do too. Just because the dry fly fishing is over and the adult insects are gone, doesn’t mean that the fishing is over. Nymph fishing with soft hackle wet flies will bring more fish to the net.

How Do You Fly Fish With Wet Flies?

There are a million different ways to catch a fish. How to fish wet flies and choosing the right fly is really all about confidence. One disadvantage to guiding is that often times we get set in our ways. We are reluctant to change tactics and techniques. That means that we often miss out on opportunities to innovate and grow as anglers and guides. Here are just a couple of ways to rig a fly fishing rod when fly fishing with wet flies.

If there is a strong caddis hatch that is starting to develop and fish aren’t actively rising, or I just see small fish making splashy strikes, then I would choose to fish a wet fly with a soft hackle. The first tactic that I try is to swing wet flies. There are several different ways to achieve this.

Wet Flies Under A Strike Indicator

Fishing a wet fly under a strike indicator is pretty straight forward. You fish them the same way that you would traditionally nymph regular bead head flies. Make long or short cast. Fish the fly with a dead drift presentation. Add some split shot or weight to the tippet to get the fly in the strike zone.

At the end of the dead drift, let the fly swing up in the water column and hold the fly there for a few seconds. This is imitating a caddis pupa or mayfly nymph swimming to the surface to hatch. The fly transitioning from dead drifting to moving vertical to the water’s surface will often elicit a strike. At the end of the swing, hold the fly in the current for a couple of seconds. Fish will sometimes strike during this pause.

Recommended Reading: Different Types Of Strike Indicators

Leisingring Lift To Fish Wet Flies

The Leisingring Lift is a fun technique that really changes the presentation of both hackled wet flies and nymphs. I would consider this an advanced nymph fishing technique, but with a little practice, it is easy to perform. It is done the easiest from a drift boat, but it can also be done wading as well. Set your rod up like you would with a traditional strike indicator. Make short casts. As your flies drift to 90 degrees to you or just below you, slowly raise your rod tip into the air and bring the flies to the water’s surface. The advantage of this technique is that it can be used when specifically sight fishing for a particular trout. It also allows you more control over the speed at which the nymphs are moving vertically in the water column.

Recommended Reading: How To Fly Fish Soft Hackles

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How To Swing Wet Flies

The simplest form of fishing wet flies is to swing them in a traditional manner. This is done the same way our fly fishing forefathers did it with traditional winged wet flies all those years ago. Contrary to traditional wet and dry fly fishing techniques that dictate a dead drift presentation. The goal here is to make both short or long casts at a 90-degree angle across the water’s current and let the flies swing through the water column. This action often provokes strikes from feeding trout that are keyed in on caddis pupa making their way toward the surface of the water.

With your fly rod, make a cast at 90 degrees slightly upstream of your position. Mend the line and let the wet fly sink and drift dead in the water. Watch for subtle takes and rolling fish. As the flies reach you perpendicular to you and pass slightly downstream, lightly animate your rod tip and continue to mend the fly line. Once the flies completely swing past you in the current, you can lift your fly rod up and down and even bring the flies to the water’s surface. They can be skittered across the surface of the water. or gently raised or lowered eliciting a strike. This can be done for 10-15 seconds. You can fish a single fly, tandem, or even three flies.

Most of the time your last fly is going to catch most of the fish. In my experience, I have had more success in using a tandem fly rig. I am not sure why, but my theory is that the additional flies add additional excitement to what is being offered to the fish.

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What Is The Best Fly Line For Fishing Wet Flies?

Generally, wet and dry flies are fished on a floating line. A weight-forward floating fly line is an all-around solid choice for fishing a variety of wet flies. A wet fly can be swung, nymph fished under an indicator, euro nymphing, and even stripped in when lake fishing. If you are only going to only carry one fly line, then choose a weight forward floating fly line as your main tool for presenting flies for fly fishing.

If you are fishing deeper water and need to present flies at greater depth in the water column, then you might want to choose a sinking fly line to control the depth and speed in which the wet fly gets to feeding fish. Sinking fly lines can be fished in both moving water and still water. When fishing lakes, it is often an advantage to get your flies to a deeper depth quickly. Fish that hang out around lake shelves and ambush points like the mouths of creeks require a sinking fly line to properly reach the strike zone.

Streamer fishing with a sink tip line also gives anglers certain advantages over floating fly lines. Sink tip fly lines, are fly lines with heavy sinking tips but floating fly line bodies. Not only do these offer the advantage of getting baitfish wet fly imitations to the correct depth, but the sinking tip allows anglers the ability to easily mend the fly line. While mending a fly line in still water is not usually necessary, mending your fly line while fishing from a drift boat or in moving water is critical to a proper presentation.

The floating body of the fly line creates a hinge point on the water where the sinking tip of the fly line is submerged. This hinge point allows fly fishers to present both wet fly patterns and streamers with an easy mend and drag free presentation when needed.

Recommended Reading: How To Rig A Fly Fishing Rod

What Are The Best Wet Flies?

What are the best artificial flies to fish with? That all depends on who you ask. In my opinion, the best wet fly patterns are the ones that the fish are eating on any given day. This changes from day to day, season to season, and the body of water that you are fishing. Different flies work in different places. That being said, there are a few wet and converted dry flies out there that most fly fishermen agree universally to catch fish.

Pheasant Tail Nymph (and all variations)

The pheasant tail nymph is a great fly that covers most mayfly insects. It can be tied in many different forms: with a bead head, weightless, flashback, and even with soft hackles. Most mayfly nymphs are naturally brown, so the natural color of the pheasant tail is a perfect match. The unweighted version of this fly can be fished deep under an indicator, or dusted with a powder floatant and fished in the surface film as an emerger behind a dry fly. It is very versatile and it catches fish.

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Zebra Midge

Zebra Midge

Midges should not be overlooked when fly fishing. Lots of effort goes into understanding mayflies, caddis flies, and terrestrials. After all, they are much more enticing to fish then midges. Midges are the only food source that hatch year-round. They are the fly of choice in winter. In small streams at high altitudes, they might be the only food source present.

After hatches are over and the fishing dies down, midge imitations will often produce more strikes because they are only food source that is still hatching. This makes small flies like zebra midges a great option when fishing during the hot summer months, on over pressured water, or after a prolific hatches. Such flies as these can be the right fly when it seems like nothing else is producing fish.

Elk Hair Caddis

We know the elk hair caddis is a dry fly. That being said, it is the most versatile fly out there, and there have been many days on the water, where a drowned elk hair caddis will catch fish.

This fly pattern can represent all of the following depending on how you fish it: a dry fly caddis pattern, dry fly mayfly pattern, clip the wing and trim the soft hackles to make it an emerger in the surface film, fish it as a wet fly and it is a drowned adult. It can be swung or fished under an indicator ‘dead drifted’. It catches fish, and when you are in a pinch or need to offer a fish a different look that other anglers haven’t tried, this is the single fly that I would choose.

Traditional Wet Fly Patterns

Traditional wet fly patterns with soft hackles are great all-around wet flies that can be fished in a variety of ways. Here are a couple of fly patterns that shouldn’t be missed when choosing wet fly nymphs with soft hackles.

Red Fox Squirrel

Dave Whitlock’s Red Fox Squirrel nymph pattern truly is a special fly and work of art. It represents everything and nothing at the same time. It is so versatile. The motion of the soft hackle pulsating in the water catches lots of fish. It is a solid fly choice in both lakes and rivers. A larger pattern can be fished as a streamer for larger prey.

Purple Haze

The Purple Haze is one of my all-time favorite soft hackle wet flies. It takes a traditional wet fly with a soft hackle collar and adds some modern flare to it. It can be swung, fished under and indicator as a nymph and even used as an emerger. The sparkle gives it that extra touch that makes it stand out in an otherwise crowded field of naturals and other angler’s flies.

Peacock Soft Hackle

The peacock soft hackle is a simple wet fly. This wet fly has a peacock herl body with a soft hackle partridge collar. There is something special about peacock herl. The shimmer and shine of this natural fly tying material gives both wet fly and nymph patterns a realistic appearance. It is the perfect balance of a natural appearance with subtle sparkle. This is my go-to pattern when swinging flies during a caddis hatch.

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