Dry Fly Fishing: An Angler’s Guide

An angler's guide to dry fly fishing. Everything you should know about fishing a dry fly including the best patterns, techniques, casts, seasons, and more.

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In this post, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know about fishing with a dry fly.

Dry fly fishing is what put the sport on the map. Legendary fly anglers spent their time on the streams in Eastern Europe perfecting the art of dry fly fishing and created an activity that has taken the world by storm.

Dry fly fishing is some of the most entertaining fly fishing a person can do. Laying down a fly perfectly on clear water and watching the fish strike is something that helps establish a fly fishing addiction.

A dry fly was the first type of fly I ever threw. I will always remember seeing the brown trout slurp it off the surface and dive back to the depths. I missed the fish, but it sparked something in me that has yet to leave. I will credit dry flies with starting my obsession.

What is Dry Fly Fishing?

Dry fly fishing looks different depending on what type of fish you’re targeting. However, the common characteristic is that no matter what type of fly you use, it will always sit on the surface.

trout feeding on the surface

Dry fly fishing is often done in the mornings and evenings when the fish are feeding on the surface and the flies are hatching. It gives anglers the opportunity to entice the fish by teasing them with a bait on the top of the water.

How To Cast a Dry Fly

Casting a dry fly requires quite a bit of finesse. You’ll likely be using lighter tippet and leader so the chances of the fly getting tangled are fairly high. Therefore, you need to be patient with your casts and let it completely unfurl before you make your next move.

An easy way to learn how to cast a dry fly fish is to use shorter casts. Anglers find themselves in trouble when they are trying to make a 35 foot cast with a size 22 dry fly. Stay close and pick the spots near you where the fish are feeding.

What Do Dry Flies Imitate?

Dry flies can imitate any sort of food that would fish on the surface. They most often imitate a fully grown adult fly that is about to take flight from the surface of the water and begin its life.

dry flies imitate mayflies and other insects on the surface
A Live Mayfly Sitting on The Surface of The Water

Dry flies can also imitate frogs, mice, and a variety of other prey. Depending on what type of fish you’re targeting, there is always going to be a dry fly that will entice them to eat.

The Best Dry Fly Fishing Flies

Choosing a list of the best dry flies is controversial. Dry fly anglers are extremely particular with what flies they prefer, but it mostly depends on where they are located in the world.

Here is a list of a few dry flies that are always going to catch you fish.

Best Dry Flies For Trout

Trout love dry flies. Whether it’s a hatch or a late fall terrestrial bite, trout are always going to aggressively feed on dry flies. Always be aware of the time when throwing a dry fly and be sure that they’re surface feeding.

Elk Hair Caddis

The Elk Hair Caddis needs to be in every fly angler’s box. This fly is extremely useful anywhere Caddis flies hatch. Matching the hatch is important in fly fishing so be sure that a species of Caddis fly hatches on the water before you decide to use it.

how to tie an elk hair caddis fly step 16

When throwing Elk Hair Caddis, be sure you’re using 5x tippet. For one, the eye of the hook is going to be extremely small, but you’ll also want the fly to appear natural. The lighter the tippet, the less of a chance the fish have at realizing it’s artificial.


An Adams dry fly is another one of those flies that is always going to work. The realistic-looking wings and extra hackle allow the fly to sit nicely on the surface of the water. The grey and tan color can imitate quite a few flies in a variety of regions.

how to tie the ultimate parachute adams(1)

When using an Adams fly, 5 or 6x tippet is absolutely necessary. These flies are small and need as little outside intrusion as possible. It’s also important to use floating fly line when using dry flies. Any sort of weight forward or sinking line will pull the fly under and not allow it to fulfill its purpose.

Chernobyl Ant

The Chernobyl Ant is perhaps my favorite fly to throw. When terrestrial season arrives, fly fishing is at its peak. The fish are hugging the banks looking for large insects to fall off the weeds into the water.

How to tie a chernobyl ant - fly tying tutorial

When you start seeing grasshoppers and ants in the weeds around the water, take a deep breath because you know that life is going to get extremely exciting. These fish are familiar with the look of a terrestrial fly on the water and are eager to eat them.

You can use 4x or 5x tippet with a Chernobyl Ant. They’re going to draw some larger fish due to their larger body. Therefore, you need to be prepared with a bit heavier tippet to ensure that you won’t lose fish.

Best Dry Flies For Bass

Here’s a list of some great dry flies for bass that you can use when hunting down largemouth, smallmouth, peacock, and the like. I’ve found these flies to be wildly effective with bass.

BlockHead Popper

The BlockHead Popper is always going to catch bass. Throw this early in the morning or right at dusk and it won’t take long for a bass to fly to the surface and strike. These are great to throw through Lily Pads or other thicker vegetation.

When using poppers, make sure you have 1 or 2x leader. These fish are going to fight you with all of their ability. You don’t have to worry as much about hiding your identity with these flies. The bass care most about the commotion.

These will move quite a bit of water so be prepared for an entertaining day on the water when these flies work.

Deer Hair Popper

The Deer Hair popper is a bit more elaborate than a traditional popper. There are rubber legs that imitate a frog or large insect that has found itself caught on the surface.

Photo of a deer hair popper on a vise

When fishing with these poppers, make sure you’re using short strips. Anywhere between 12 and 16 inch strips are great. The fly will cause quite a commotion so you won’t have to worry too much about drawing attention to the fly.

Be sure you have 2 or 3x leader when using the Deer Hair Popper. It’s also important to use floating line. You won’t want your line dragging this fly underwater. Floating line is going to keep it afloat for the longest.

Mad Scientist

The Mad Scientist is a blast to use. It is a strange-looking fly that can imitate just about everything you would like. They can represent a dragonfly, wounded baitfish as well as a smaller frog.

The Mad Scientist is made out of quite a bit of foam so it’s extremely water-resistant. It will stay high on the surface and not create as much of a commotion in the water so be prepared to vary your retrieval.

For equipment, you’ll want 2 or 3x leader as well as floating line. You want this fly to sit as high on the surface as possible. The Mad Scientist is something every angler should throw at some point. You can’t help but have a great time when it’s in the water.

Gear To Use When Fishing With Dry Flies

In fly fishing, anglers can get away with using incorrect gear for just about everything. Whatever you have, you can likely make work. However, with dry fly fishing, equipment is important. The most success is going to be had when you use the proper equipment.


When choosing a rod to use for dry fly fishing, you need to first be aware of the type of dry flies that you’ll be throwing as well as the size of fish you’ll be catching. If you’re spending the majority of your time in smaller mountain streams, you’ll only need a 2 or 3-weight.

catching a fish with 3wt fly line

If you’re going after large trout with mouse flies in wider fly fishing on rivers, you’ll want to be sure that you’re using a 6-weight. These still have finesse, but still have enough power to land those larger fish.

You’ll also want to be sure you have a sensitive rod tip and enough flexibility that you can finesse your fly into some tighter spots. At the end of the day, however, whatever rod you feel comfortable with will do the trick.

Dry fly fishing is all about feel. So, as long as you’re able to feel your way around the rod and make accurate casts, you should be good to go.


You’ll typically use the same reel for dry fly fishing as you would for other types of fly fishing, but your reel will be spooled up with floating line and a short section of leader and tippet.

Rod and Reel in Cold River Fly Fishing Alberta

Euro nymphing is the only time that the reel will actually change. Generally, hardcore euro nymphing fishermen will use a traditional European-style lever crank reel and a silk line, though it’s still possible to euro nymph with a regular set-up.


Having a great fly line is another vital aspect of dry fly fishing. Floating line is the best line for fly fishing trout and other species. Weight forward line will work for a bit, but it will eventually pull the dry fly under water and turn it into an emerger or a nymph pattern.

Sinking line will immediately pull the fly under water and fully defeat the purpose of dry fly fishing. Floating line will keep the fly on the surface and let it do the work. Your fly needs to be on the surface and if it isn’t, you’re no longer dry fly fishing.


When choosing leader for your dry flies, you want to make sure that it isn’t too much larger than your tippet. If it’s too large of a contrast, the fish will realize it and not be as willing to strike. If you’re using 4x tippet, go ahead and use a 3x leader.

fly line leader

This will be a more natural presentation and allow you cast a bit easier. Also, if the leaders and tippet contrast, casting can become difficult. You’ll find the fly getting tangled on the leader and force you to spend more time untangling line than you would like.


Tippet is another important feature that many anglers leave out when they fish with dry flies. With nymphs and streamers, you don’t always need to use tippet. With dry flies, however, it’s necessary. You need light line to help keep your fly camouflaged as well as near the surface.

Anywhere between a 4-6x tippet will work well when fishing for trout. They won’t be able to see the fluorocarbon line in the water and be more tempted to strike the dry fly. The more natural of a presentation you can create, the more fish that you will catch.

Dry Fly Fishing Conditions

When fishing with dry flies, you have to be sure the fish are surface feeding. If you don’t see rises, the odds of you catching a fish aren’t high. When the fish are looking towards the surface, they’ll feed on it.

Fly Fishing Dry Flies in a Lake

Dry flies are the only way that I’ll fly fish on a lake. I believe they’re the most successful still water type of fly, but you have to be sure that the fish are surface feeding before you make that decision.

Long cast with floating fly fishing line

When you choose to use a dry, you’re doing so because you see fish rising. Wherever you see fish rising is a good place to cast your fly. The beauty of dry fly fishing on lakes is that as soon as your fly hits the water, it will likely get eaten.

As long as your fly pattern matches the hatch, it will take a matter of seconds for the fish to eat. You’ll rarely have to do any stripping when fishing with a dry fly on a lake. Cast towards a rise, let it sit and drift in the water.

If nothing strikes, it’s time to strip. The way you strip depends on what type of fish you’re targeting. If you’re after bass, you’re likely using a popper. When popping flies, short strips are going to do the trick.

Six to twelve-inch strips with your popper will work nicely. This will cause quite a bit of water to move and you’ll capture the attention of the bass.

If you’re fishing for trout, subtlety will work more in your favor. You don’t want the fish to realize that your fly is attached to your line. If nothing strikes the fly when it hits the water, let it drift for a bit.

If there is still no action, long and smooth strips are going to work best.

Fly Fishing Dry Flies in a River

Fly fishing dries in a river is amazing. Pay close attention to the surface of the water and pay attention to the ripples. Some of the ripples will be flies in the water, but the larger ripples are going to be fish targeting flies on the surface.

Trout Rising to take a dry fly
Trout feeding on the surface. Sometimes you only see ripples, but you know they are there.

Depending on the pace of the current, it will be easier to pick out the rises. Cast towards the rise and let your fly drift downstream. As long as you’ve matched the hatch, a fish will likely strike your fish within a few seconds.

If a fish doesn’t take your fly in the first few seconds of it hitting the water, the odds of you catching a fish decrease. Let it complete its natural drift and get ready to cast again. You’ll only have a few feet of natural drift so don’t let it sit in the water for too long.

Fly Fishing Dry Flies in a Small Stream

No matter what fly fishing destinations you choose to fish at, small stream dry fly fishing is going to test all of your fly fishing abilities. It requires quite a bit of finesse and will require some of your most accurate casts. These fish are going to be spooky and spend their time in the pockets as well as cut banks.

In small streams, there are limited areas for fish to hide so they’re picky and the flies need to be presented well.

Species For Dry Fly Fishing

Dry flies will work for a variety of species. Any fish that feeds near the surface is going to likely eat a dry fly. You must match the fly to the hatch or whatever type of food they’re pursuing.

Dry Fly Fishing For Trout

When you’re dry fly fishing for trout, do some research before you head to the river. Look up your local hatch chart and see what flies are hatching. There is some truth to the statement that trout will eat any sort of fly that is presented well, but you have a higher chance of success if you match the hatch.

Fly Fishing For Trout with flies

Dry Fly Fishing For Bass

The key to catching bass on a dry fly is action. You need to make quite a bit of commotion in the water to draw the attention of the bass and ensure that they will eat.

Don’t be shy with your retrieval. Use short and long strips and experiment with different methods to get the fish to eat. Also, remember that you’ll need heavier leader and tippet so the bass don’t break you off.

Best Time for Dry Fly Fishing

Dry fly fishing can be done year-round, but it’s most successful during the early spring and late summer. These are when the hatches are the most significant and fish are at their hungriest.

Fly Fishing in Oregon in The Spring

During the early spring, the fish warm up and are looking to fatten up for the summer months. During the late fall, the fish are preparing for winter and the color months so they tend to be more aggressive with the dry flies.

Dry Fly Fishing Techniques, Tips & Tricks

Dry fly fishing is all about feel. You have to understand how to read the water, present the fly and force the fish to strike without feeling as if the fly is unnatural.

Cast Near the Rises

If you see a fish rise, cast near it. It doesn’t matter if you cast directly on top of the rise. The fish will likely still eat the fly as long as it is similar to what they had been feeding on already.

Don’t Force Casts

If you see a rise all the way across the stream and see another rise fairly close to you, focus on the rise that is closest to you. Dry flies can be difficult to cast long distances so don’t worry about trying to make 40 to 50 casts with your small flies.

If one fish is rising, there are likely others that are rising as well. Put yourself in a position that you can target a variety of different spots where the fish are eating.

Don’t Stick to One Pattern

The odds of you choosing the correct fly pattern on the first try are small. If you have done research before you went to the river and you understand what is hatching, then it’s a different story. Don’t expect to show up to the river, tie on any random fly and catch fish.

Opening fly box from pocket in fly fishing vest on river

If you aren’t sure what is hatching, take a look at the spider webs in the trees or bushes surrounding the water. There will likely be flies trapped in the webs and they will provide you with a better idea of what to use.

There are going to be times when you have to switch your flies and you can’t be stuck on one specific pattern. The fish are often picky and there’s nothing more frustrating than watching dozens of fish rise and not eat your fly.

If this is the case, it’s likely because of two things. First, your fly isn’t a close enough match to what they’re eating. The second reason is that your leader and tippet may be too large. If the fish can identify your leader and tippet, you’re done.

Always go lighter when it comes to leader and tippet. You may break off and learn the hard way, but it’s better to know that you can catch fish instead of sitting on the water for an hour and not landing a single fish because your equipment is wrong.

Are You Ready to Fish With Dry Flies?

Fly fishing is always going to be best learned through experience. When it comes to dry flies, it’s going to take practice to become proficient. Spend time on your local waters studying the hatches and learning how the fish eat.

Once you find yourself in the midst of a dry fly bite, you’re in for a treat. There’s nothing better than spending an hour in the midst of a hatch landing fish. Learn the tricks of the trade and you’ll make a lifetime of memories.

Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.

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An Angler's Guide To Dry Fly Fishing
Guide To Dry Fly Fishing

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My name is Danny Mooers and I’ve been fly fishing for five years. As soon as I went to college, I dove headfirst into my obsession for fly angling. Every spare weekend or long break was dedicated to finding fish. I’ve fished all over North America in search of trout, salmon, steelhead and everything in between. I currently write articles for Guide Recommended and Reel Adventure Fishing. Fly angling is one of the most challenging yet rewarding hobbies any person can have. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.  It’s an addicting activity that tests everything from your fine motor skills to your patience, but it’s well worth your time.

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