Bill May: Dry fly action for dry fly action

Bill May: Dry fly action for dry fly action
This Casselman River, Maryland rainbow took a drifted Mr. Rapidan dry fly. (Bill May photo)

Fishing with dry flies is regarded as the epitome of trout fishing or even of all sport fishing in some circles. Indeed some trout fishermen use no other method, even though trout do most of their feeding below the surface often near the bottom.

The classic method, we are taught, calls for upstream casts and frequent “mending” of the line and leader to achieve a “dead drift.” Mending is done by lifting part of the floating line and leader off the surface then dropping slack upcurrent or down so that the fly drifts along the surface without any movement at the same speed as the water beneath it.


This is called a dead drift. The major error to avoid is “drag” which is caused by current pulling on the line or leader causing the fly to move unnaturally fast or across the current.

In my experience, the classic method is often wrong. I first started flyfishing for trout over 25 years ago with soft hackle wet flies. My first experience with dry flies was on the Jackson River in Virginia on an overcast, spitting rainy spring day, classic conditions for the hatch of blue wing olives that occurred. I tied on a blue winged olive pattern, and, “not knowing any better,” cast quartering downstream.

Since the natural mayflies were moving actively on the surface, I imitated their movement with an occasional twitch of my fly. It worked with brown trout — again and again.

When later in the day I met up with my mentor who introduced me to this fishing and related what happened and how active the natural flies were, he related this was typical of blue wing olives and complimented me on imitating the naturals.

The lesson of that day has served me well over the years. So I cast dry flies, upstream, downstream or crossstream depending on how I can get the flies to drift most naturally to the ideal holding water. I move the flies as minimally and naturally as possible, trying to imitate the actions of flies I see. With actively feeding trout, I try to drop my flies just above the fish or right on their heads, eliminating any drift and action.

A typically beautiful Green River, Utah brown trout took the foam bug shown dropped onto its head under shoreline shrubbery.
A typically beautiful Green River, Utah brown trout took the foam bug shown dropped onto its head under shoreline shrubbery. (Bill May photo)

A prime example of this approach occurred a few years ago when I was invited to observe fracking operations and fish local waters in north-central Pennsylvania. At dusk I was taken to Slate Run and my guide tied a Parachute Adams and said, “Try here.”

It wasn’t the most promising place, there were no signs of activity, and looked like the kind of water where soft hackles would be the best choice. But as a guest and with little time before dark, I went along with my host’s plan.

I waded out to where I could cast to a narrow seam of current to the left of a long, flat pool that terminated in a series of riffles. I cast directly across into the seam and found that with a series of easy upstream mends I could drift the highly visible Adams 50 to 60 feet to the tail of the pool. There, just before the riffles, I gave the Adams one tiny twitch and a 16-inch brown trout inhaled it. My host netted the fish, took a quick picture, released it, and we both left satisfied.

I was invited the fish western Maryland’s Youghiogheny River years ago and opted to cover a section in my float tube. My DNR hosts recommended caddis patterns, so I tied on a classic Elk Hair Caddis. (This fly and Prince Nymphs are musts on western Maryland streams.) Fishing was slow, with long pauses between hookups.

I often fish tandem rigs for trout, two wet flies or a wet and a dry. For some reason, this day I decided to tie on another Elk Hair Caddis six inches off the hook bend of the first one. I figured the result would be a major tangle. But it worked. When I cast this rig into the quiet water along the banks under overhanging shrubbery the highly buoyant flies drifted apart, occasionally imparting a tiny, very natural hopping action to each other. The rainbows loved it. Fortunately, I never had a double hookup on those light tippets.

I’ve never repeated this. I think it depends on a perfect constellation of high floating flies, slow bankside currents, streamside shrubbery.

But I have often done well with a combination of a dry fly and a wet fly. I hit a minor Pale Morning Dun hatch on Utah’s Provo River one afternoon, and while I quickly lost count before it was over, I recall catching over a dozen rainbows in what seemed like equal numbers on the dry fly and wet fly. I did the same thing on a drift on the San Juan Fiver in New Mexico, under very difficult conditions, boating fish on six consecutive casts at one point.

My final example comes from a story I did with Maryland Trout Unlimited (TU) fishing the famous “white fly” hatch on the Yellow Breeches Creek at Allenbury, Pennsylvania. Since this is a late evening hatch, making photography difficult, I went in late afternoon to interview and take pictures; I did not intend to fish. The TU guys split up, so I latched onto a local fisherman, who took an occasional trout on a nymph and was happy to be photographed.

But when the heavy hatch came off on schedule, he waded out into the middle of the action and struck out completely. When I met him later he said, “I don’t understand it. I was getting perfect dead drifts.”


“I think dead drifts were the problem,” I told him. “The trout were hitting emergers. The guys giving their dry flies some action or fishing wet flies with a lift had success.”

So cast in the direction that best gets your flies to the trout. And don’t dead drift, live drift.