Wet Flies vs Dry Flies: What’s The Difference?

Flyfishing can be broken down into two major categories:

fishing with dry flies and fishing with wet flies

Food sources for fish can come from underwater: aquatic insects early in their life-cycle or other fish.

They can also come from on or above the water’s surface: adult flying insects or terrestrial insects or animals that fall into the water.

This difference, while it seems obvious, is key to understanding how to fly fish for different species at different times and in different terrain.

What’s The Difference Between Dry and Wet Fly Patterns?

Each of these types of fly is designed to mimic different types of organisms.

As such, they behave differently in the water, and need to be fished differently.

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Dry Flies are those patterns that are designed to float.  They sit on top of the water and mimic adult insects, emerging adults, or terrestrial organisms that have fallen into the water.  For the purposes of this guide, I’m going to lump emerger patterns in with dries.

Wet Flies which mimic nymphs, larvae, chironomids, fish eggs, and other submerged sources of food are designed to be fished below the surface of the water.

Streamers, which imitate baitfish, leeches, and other aquatic organisms are fished much more actively and I’ll cover them at the end of the article.

The Prince Nymph is a wet fly pattern – goes underwater

Presenting Both Wet and Dry Flies

While the presentation of wet and dry flies differ, there are some important similarities:

Both wet and dry flies need to drift as naturally as possible in the current.

Rivers and streams are not simple and straight.  The current moves at different speed in different areas and twists and turns around obstacles.

Imagine the river as a series of vertical slots extending up-and-downstream.  You want your fly to drift along one slot, and not hop cross-current.

To achieve this, cast across and slightly downstream of where you’re standing.  And, add a mend to your line.

A mend is, simply, additional slack loops of line upstream of your fly.  Most times, it will resemble a series of S-curves in the water.

We want to avoid having the heavier fly line dragging the fly.

Adding a mend allows the line to be caught by faster currents without dragging the fly along.

How to Fish Dry Flies

Dry flies

Dry fly fishing is far and away the most exciting and, I think, what people are looking for the most when they get into fly fishing.  Seeing a fish strike your fly right in front of you is a pretty cool experience.

Presentation and delicacy can matter a lot when fishing dries.  Except for some large terrestrial patterns, splashing dries can spook fish.

Avoid large splashing deliveries.  Cast delicately and carefully.  Use long, light leaders and lines.

Fishing Wet Flies

Wet flies

While everyone gets excited about fishing dries (and with good reason) most fish get most of their food from below the surface.  Not surprisingly, then, wet flies are extremely productive, even if they’re a little less exciting.

Fish can be amazingly picky about the speed and depth of their food, even if you’ve got the pattern correct.

So, everything you do should be to maximize the amount of time your fly is at a depth and speed that doesn’t arouse suspicion.

For the most part, aquatic insects don’t move in the current beyond the occasional wiggle.  Any movement you make with line or your arms is going to be far too big to look natural.   

The bobbing of a strike indicator on a rough surface can, however, cause your fly to rise and fall gently enough to look natural.

While there are some deadly effective advanced techniques, a good place to start with wet flies is indicator fishing.

How to Fish Wet Flies Under an Indicator

If you’ve ever fished with a worm under a bobber, you’re familiar with indicator fishing.

It’s a little more complicated and involved, but the basic idea is the same.

Attach an indicator to your leader above your fly.  I’ve seen many different types of indicator and everyone seems to have a preference.  Experiment a little bit and you’ll find something that suits you.

You want your fly to hang near the bottom, but not right on it – trout usually sit less than a foot above the bottom, but do not look for food below them.

A good rule of thumb is to attach the indicator at a length one-and-a-half times the depth of water you expect to fish.  

The Hopper-Dropper Technique

This technique is a combination of a wet fly under an indicator and a dry fly.

It’s a great technique for flowing water when you really can’t figure out what fish are feeding on.

To use it, tie on a large, high-floating dry fly. I often use a big terrestrial pattern or an attractor such as a Humpy or Stimulator.

Then, use a length of tippet to tie a nymph pattern to your dry fly.

When you put this in the water, your dry fly should float as normal, but also act as a strike indicator for the nymph hanging below.

Fishing Streamers

Steamers, as noted, imitate highly mobile aquatic organisms.

As such, they’re typically fished in a much more active manner.

You can allow your streamer to drift naturally, like a nymph or a dry fly if you’re looking to imitate a dead baitfish.

Likely, however, you’ll want to strip your streamer back into you.  Use your free hand to pull the line back to you, by hand.  You can get creative with this – experiment to see what works.

You can also combine a dead drift with a stripped return.  I’ve had a lot of success by stopping a drift and starting to strip right in front of predatory fish.

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