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Swinging Wet Flies or Nymphs on Streams and Small Rivers

Fishing wet flies is one of my favourite forms of fly fishing - in the right water.

When ‘traditional’ dry fly or nymphing is just not getting the job done, swinging a wet fly or nymph through likely water often gets results.

Fishing 'on the swing' is simplicity itself.

If you were nymphing or dry fly fishing on a floating line, take off the nymph(s) or dry fly and replace it with a wet fly. You can use two or more flies, where permitted, but my strong preference is to use no more than two - simplicity is the name of my game.

Cast across the stream and let the fly swing back across the stream till it is below you. Retreive line slowly until the fly is on the surface and creating a 'wake'. Repeat as necessary, while moving downstream a step or two every few casts.

If the fly is not sinking enough as it swings, it is sometimes necessary to cast a little upstream and throw in a little up-stream mend to allow the fly to sink before it begins to swing.

If the fly is sinking too deep on the swing, cast slightly downstream, and if necessary, toss in a downstream mend.

It is important for both the upstream and downstream, that you try to get the mend in before the fly begins to swing. A 'reach mend' will usually do the job.

Sometimes, casting a wet fly upstream and fishing it like a nymph is appropriate, (more later).

Fly depth is important.

We need to remember that this method is not streamer-fly fishing.

Big, heavy streamer fly

As a wide and pretty wild generalization, streamer-flies are big, bold and brassy - designed to be fished right on or near the bottom. They tend to imitate baitfish, but also come in a range of gaudy colours not repeatable in nature.

Wet flies work best in the water column from about two feet deep to just under the surface. (Again, this is a generalization.)

When 'drag' is not a problem.

Most times when fishing with nymphs or dry flies, anglers spend a good deal of time trying to avoid the fly being dragged by the fly-line. Usually, best practice is to make sure the fly drifts as naturally as possible in the current.

There is one time when drag is not always an issue - that is when fishing in riffles or boulder strewn water. Here a main current is broken into many smaller currents as the water surges past, over and around boulders. In this water "leading" nymphs and wet flies on a short line around boulders can produce fish - and lot's of them.

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Fly patterns for swingers.

When using this method we are most often attempting to persuade the trout that the fly is an insect swimming or drifting up from the bottom of the stream to the surface where it will change into its winged dry-fly form.

Flies in this stage of their life-cycle are called 'Emergers'. Emergers, along with nymphs which live on the bottom, form the vast bulk of food for trout - dry flies are the smallest part of trout food intake.

Because of the way they feed on Emergers, it is often possible to believe that because you have had no success with nymphing or dry-fly fishing there are no trout in the stretch of water you are fishing. But trout are happily feeding away in mid-water, and you are fishing over or under them.

Wee Wets.

wee wet fly

Originating in Scotland, hence the description "wee" meaning small or tiny, wee wets are designed to imitate or strongly approximate insects emerging. These flies are the most traditional of all wet flies - but they still account for many trout.



'Flymph' is a name 'invented' to describe a nymph tied with a soft hackle. The movement of the soft hackle may imitate an Emerger's legs or wings. Many fly tiers now dispense with the soft hackle and use thin rubber legs to give the fly 'natural' movement. Flymphs can also be tied with the hackles curved forward, as for Tenkara flies, (see next paragraph). To my eye, and I suspect a trout's eye, there is very little difference between a wet fly and a Flymp.

Spider and Tenkara flies.

Spider fly

Spider flies are, like wee wet flies, very old patterns, but originating in the north of England.

The name ‘Spider’ is not because the pattern is designed to imitate a spider in the water, but describe it when dry and out of the water.

Good Spiders are tied very sparsely, and the long hackles are designed to imitate the legs of a nymph breaking out as the Emerger heads for the surface.

Despite the anorexic look of Spider flies they were, and continue to be, very effective.

Tenkara reverse hackle fly

Tenkara is a fishing method that originated in Japan many hundreds of years ago.

Amongst the Tenkara flies are some where the hackle is tied so that the feather curves forward, not back, as found on the vast majority of ‘western’ flies.

This method of tying in the hackle seems to me to provide for much more animation as the fly moves in the water. I now tie most of my hackled wet flies, including nymphs, with the hackle curved forward.

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Butchered and drowned Dry Flies.

If you are caught with no wet flies about your person, good substitutes can be made by attacking some of your dry flies. Hack the wings off, or leave a stub of the wing, and use like any wet fly. Or soak a dry fly in leader-sink and again fish it like any wet fly.

Sometimes ‘drowning’ a terrestrial fly like a hopper, beetle, moth or cicada will do the trick. This can be especially effective when you know, or suspect, that trout are feeding on small Emergers. Like putting a big steak on a table surrounded by plates of little nibbles.

Alternative wet fly fishing methods, without the swing.

Fishing a wet fly upstream, like fishing a nymph, can be very effective, especially with Flymphs, Spider and Tenkara flies.

If directly upstream is 12 o’clock, then cast upstream to about 1 or 2 o’clock or so, and strip in line as the fly drifts back. The aim is to get yourself into a position where you can control the drift of the fly with the minimum length of line on the water.

As the fly starts to pass you, lift the rod tip and ‘lift’ the fly up to the surface – this can provoke savage strikes.

A wet fly tied off the bend of a dry fly which is fished as you would a dry fly, can be a lethal combination. In fact these days I rarely fish a dry fly on its own, as the wet fly under the dry is usually the one that gets hit.

An after-thought on where to use wet flies.

While I have indicated that wets are mostly suited to streams or small rivers, some bigger 'braided' rivers in effect produce a series of 'streams' as the rivers flow and wind down through the shingle beds.

Wet fies can be very productive when fished in these individual channels or 'streams'.

Another after-thought on where to use wet flies

Small streams that flow into rivers often hold good fish, and suprising numbers of fish. Certainly worth a look. Fishing wets 'delicately' is both possible and effective.

Yet another after-thought on where to use wet flies

Wet flies can work exceptionaly well in wide, shallow rivers with a slow flow. By 'shallow' I mean less than waist deep but no less than about knee deep.

Swing flies as described above, but if the flow is really slow, add some 'life' to the fly by subtle little pulls on the line now and then. Slowly lifting the rod tip by a foot or two, then quickly dropping the tip back to water level can also spark a trout's interest.

Muddler wet fly

Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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