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Surface Fishing Techniques

Surface Fishing Techniques

Surface fishing (more commonly referred to as dry fishing) is by far the most popular method of this sport today because it is nearly 100 percent visual.

Surface Fly Fishing Techniques

The surface-floating dry fly represents an insect (or in the case of popping bugs for bass, a frog or other surface-swimming creature). While surface fly fishing with dry flies can be challenging, it is still simpler than wet fly (subsurface) fishing. Once the fly is on the water, fishing with dry flies is a two-dimensional game compared to their wet fly counterparts, for which the game is three-dimensional. However, fly fishing with wet flies does not require the same degree of fly casting skill that surface fishing with dry flies requires, so many people take up the wet fly first.

Dry fly anglers use the same basic technique to fish a dry fly regardless of whether fish are rising (except when surface fishing for carp). In most cases, the angler casts to a specific target – either the rising fish or a spot in the water where a fish might lie. However, when surface fishing carp, experts recommend holding off on those surface fishing rigs until after you see carp feeding on the surface. If no fish are rising, the angler must read the water’s speed, depth and general character to determine where the fish may be located.

How To Surface Fish

The basic dry-fly procedure goes something like this:

  1. Use the right tackle. Surface fishing is usually done best with fly lines of 6-weight and lighter. These lines land gently and reduce the chance of frightening fish, and rods designed to cast them have softer tips than rods designed for heavier lines. The softer tips cushion the lift on the fine fly tippets you use when fishing small dry flies. (Casting large hair bugs for bass requires an 8-weight outfit.)
  2. Select an appropriate fly. If fish are rising, you must determine what they are eating. Put your nose down near the water, take a good look, and try to catch a sample of the insect or insects floating on the surface. A small aquarium net makes it easy. Choose a fly from your box that is similar in size, shape, and color (in that order) and tie it on your fly leader or fly tippet.
  3. Pick a target (a surface-feeding fish). Remember that obstructions in the stream can cause the currents to swirl and change direction. The fish face into these swirling currents, which are not necessarily from upstream. In this situation, cast so the fly lands where it can float toward the fish's head first. Wind can also blow a fly into the fish's view.
  4. Deliver the fly to the target, or if you are on a stream to a spot a few feet upstream (or upcurrent) of the target.
  5. Allow the fly to float over the target, with the fly behaving like a natural insect (dead drift or slightly twitching). The fly should act like a natural insect once it is on the water. This usually means that it should free-drift downstream with the current as if unattached to a fly leader. Because your fly is attached to a leader, the current acting on the line makes the fly skate unnaturally across the water creating "drag." Dry fly anglers spend most of their time trying to eliminate drag.

The Reach Cast Technique

One of the special casts you need to eliminate drag when surface fly fishing is the reach fly cast, which you make like a normal forward cast, but after the fly rod has stopped, yet before the line hits the water, you extend your rod-arm to the side of your body.

When the fly cast is complete, the fly should land at the target while your surface fishing line rests on the water, angling across current from your fly rod tip to the fly. This cast demonstrates a basic principle of fly casting: After the power has been applied to the forward cast, you can't change where the fly will go, but you can change the position of the line between you and the fly. Think of it as making a normal cast and then using the rod to lay the line on the water out to the side of your body.

By moving the rod to either side of your body, you can angle the fly line across the current regardless of direction. If you are upstream and across from a fish, make a reach cast that finishes with the arm and fly rod extended to the upstream side of your body. Then, as the fly drifts downstream, move your arm and fly rod downstream at the same speed that the fly floats downstream. Your reach allows the fly to drift drag-free, because everything, including fly, line and rod, move downstream together.

You can obtain a drag-free drift of 20 feet or more with this method. The drift starts with the fly rod tip 11 to 12 feet upstream of your body (rod length plus arm length) and ends when the fly rod tip is the same distance downstream of your body. Of course, it's imperative that the fly floats over the fish during the drift.

Parachute Cast Technique

A variation of the reach cast, called a parachute cast or parachute mend, can help induce slack in the leader and prevent drag. To execute the parachute cast, make a forward cast aimed slightly higher than normal, and wait for the fly line to straighten over the water. When the fly line straightens, smoothly move the fly rod tip up and back toward you before the fly line settles to the water. The parachute mend is essentially a reach cast made back toward your body, rather than to one side. Use the parachute cast when directly upstream of the fish and casting downstream.

The downstream surface fishing method is especially useful for fishing adult caddisfly imitations. Caddis often skitter and twitch on the water's surface and this method allows you to manipulate the fly by tightening the line briefly to imitate the movement of the natural.

Unfortunately, when you use the downstream method, it's sometimes difficult to set the hook when the fish takes. The striking motion can pull the fly out of the fish's mouth. Wait until the fish takes the fly and turns down before you set the hook. The technique requires restraint.

Some content courtesy of Fly Fisherman Magazine