One question faced by a beginner fly angler is the difference between a dry fly vs wet fly. Also, what can be considered a dry fly or a wet fly?

Historically, a wet fly was considered any fly fished below the water’s surface and a dry fly any fly that floated. A lot has changed in fly fishing since its conception, so there’s a lot more to expand upon to define the two flies and methods.

Throughout my 10 years of fly angling, I’ve spent quite a bit of time fishing both wet and dry flies. I’ve also learned to tie many dry fly and wet fly patterns. Their uses are numerous, and it’s important for an angler to understand them in order to have success on the water.

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What Is the Difference Between Dry and Wet Flies?

Streamers, nymphs, and poppers have made the old definitions of flies less applicable. Not every subsurface fly should be called a wet fly, nor should every floating fly be called a dry. This may seem to make the wet fly vs dry fly question more complex. However, it’s really fairly easy to understand.

What Is a Wet Fly?

A wet fly is a hackled or winged fly to be fished in or below the water’s surface film. Wet flies typically imitate small invertebrates, most commonly emerging aquatic insects.

wet fly fishing flies

Occasionally a wet fly may imitate very small fry or minnows. Often, wet flies are very impressionistic and can loosely imitate more than one food item. The Picket Pin, for instance, may look like a swimming stonefly or mayfly nymph, or possibly a small blacknose dace or trout fry.

Types of Wet Flies

What Is a Dry Fly?

A dry fly is a fly tied to float on the surface film and imitate an aquatic or terrestrial insect, or occasionally an organic food item like a berry. A dry fly may get its floating properties from stiff hackles, CDC, deer or elk hair, floating yarn, or foam.

Some dry flies, like the Atlantic Salmon Bomber, are more attractive and less imitative, and are given some action in order to draw a fish’s attention.

fly fishing dry flies

Large flies that float but are given a lot of action and meant to be fished on the retrieve, like poppers and gurglers, are generally not considered dry flies despite being fished on the surface.

Types of Dry Flies

How to Tell a Dry Fly from a Wet Fly

The best way to tell a dry fly pattern from a wet fly pattern is to look at the hackle. Dry flies that are tied with a hackle typically use a stiffer, more full-fibered hackle. Wet flies typically use a softer, sparser hackle. Common wet fly hackles are hen hackles, partridge, pheasant, and starling. Dry fly hackles are usually rooster cape or neck hackles.

In cases where a wet fly employs a stiffer hackle, it’s usually still possible to distinguish them. Wet fly hackles are typically wrapped or palmered in such a way that the fibers bend back towards the tail of the fly. This usually is not the case with a dry fly.

How to Use a Dry Fly vs Wet Fly

The biggest distinction between a wet fly and a dry fly is how they’re fished. There is some crossover, but the biggest difference is where in the water column the fly is fished.

fly fishing for trout

Dries are fished on the surface, while wet flies are fished below it.

Presentation

Learning the many ways to effectively present a dry fly vs wet fly is an important step in becoming a better fly angler. In this section I’ll go over each commonly applied method and some of the situations they’re most appropriate in.

The Dead Drift

The dead drift came to be applied to both wet flies and dry flies, but it’s more typically used with dry flies. A dry fly can be dead drift casting up, across, or downstream. Regardless of the casting direction, the key is to assure the fly is drifting at the same speed as the current.

Mending, or adjusting the fly line with the rod, is often employed to maintain a dead drift. Dead drifting dry flies is the method most commonly used to catch actively rising trout in rivers. It can also be used in stillwaters and for other species.

The Swing

Both wet flies and dry flies can be fished on the swing, but it’s most often used to present wet flies. A swing is performed by casting down and across current, and sometimes straight across or slightly up and across.

A fly angler fly fishing on a lake

Mends are employed to slow the pace of the flies and get them deeper in the water column. Often, the angler points the tip of their fly rod in the direction of their flies and follows them through the swing. As the flies perform their down and across swing, they ride the currents and begin to rise in the water column. At the end of the cast they can be retrieved, twitched, or immediately recast.

The Twitch

Employing a twitch in the presentation of both wet flies and dry flies can often be a good strike trigger. Aquatic insects, after all, are regularly not completely sedentary. The best way of twitching a fly is by moving the rod with a very short wrist action. Make sure not to be too aggressive. An aggressive twitch can sometimes drown a dry fly.

The Riffle Hitch

This method is sort of a crossover between dry flies and wet flies. It’s typically used with wet flies, but is a way to fish them on the surface. As the name implies, it’s performed in riffles and broken moving water.

To fish a wet fly with a riffle hitch, a simple hitch knot is tied just behind the eye of the hook. This changes where the line is pulling on the fly when it’s swinging. With a rifle hitch, a wet fly will skate across the surface on its side while it’s swinging. This is a great method for aggressive Atlantic salmon.

Drowning Dry Flies

Sometimes it’s appropriate to fish a dry fly as a wet, just as it’s appropriate to fish a wet fly on the surface with a riffle hitch. Often, a good way to fish a dry fly subsurface is when casting downstream. Let the fly dead drift, then twitch the rod to sink it and swing it or retrieve it back upstream.

A fisherman fly fishing on a river

This method allows an angler to cover both surface and subsurface presentations in one cast with one fly. If fish are only taking the fly on the surface, you may want to switch to only fishing the fly dry. If fish are only taking it drowned, it’s probably time to change to a wet fly.

The Figure-Eight Retrieve

This method is commonly used with wet flies in still waters and big, slow pools. A wet fly or a team of wet flies is cast over promising water. The angler then retrieves the flies slowly by collecting the line with their fingers in figure-eight loops. This gives the fly or flies a slow steady action.

The figure-eight retrieve can be done with both floating and sinking lines. It’s great when damselflies or swimming mayflies are emerging in stillwaters. It’s great for trout, but also works on bass, panfish, and even carp when wet fly fishing lakes or ponds.

When to Use a Wet Fly

Wet flies can be very effective during hatches and to attract fish when there isn’t a strong hatch on. They’re often the best choice when fish are feeding specifically on emergent insects.

An angler fly fishing in cloudy water

During a Hatch

Oftentimes during a mayfly or caddis hatch, trout will focus not on the floating bugs but on the emergers swimming below the surface. It’s key to be able to fish wet flies in this circumstance.

When a hatch is on and there are bugs in the air but you either aren’t seeing many fish rise or aren’t doing well with dry flies, try swinging a wet fly. Choose a winged, hackled, or spider wet fly that best imitates the species, size, and color of the insect you think the trout are feeding on.

Bear in mind that emergers are often different in color than the adults. Brown, black or olive are good choices for mayflies, while tan or green are good choices for caddis.

After Spinner Falls

After a mayfly spinner fall, trout may feed heavily on drowned spinners below the surface. This is a good time to swing or dead drift a wet fly. Choose one that imitates the size and color of the mayfly spinners.

Stillwaters

In stillwaters, wet flies are often the best way to catch trout. Try the figure-eight retrieve with buggy wet flies during the beginning stages of a hatch. Flashy traditional winged wets can imitate small fish fry and are great for bass, trout, and panfish.

Salmon & Sea Trout

Large, gaudy wet flies are often used for salmon and sea trout. Wet flies are often the best choice for salmon when big streamers and tube flies are just not working. Low water conditions often call for wet flies when Atlantic salmon fishing.

Fishing traditional sea trout wet flies on the swing in a river or with a figure-eight retrieve in a bay is a great method. Although more modern streamers have become popular for sea trout, the old wet flies still work well.

When to Use a Dry Fly

Dry flies are often the best choice when trout are rising heavily and a hatch is in full swing. Large dry flies that imitate terrestrial insects are also excellent searching patterns.

Trout Rising to take a dry fly

During a Hatch

Use dry fly patterns that imitate the emergent or adult winged stages of an insect that trout are rising to. Dry fly patterns are often the best fly to choose during mayfly, caddis, and stonefly hatches. Sometimes employing an occasional twitch or even skittering the fly on the surface is effective when the bugs are fluttering around on the surface.

During a Spinner Fall

When the mayfly in its final life stage lays its eggs and dies on the surface of the river, dry fly patterns that imitate them are very effective. Dead drifting is the best way to present a dry fly during a spinner fall.

When Prospecting

Dry flies, especially large and gaudy ones like Stimulators or Chernobyl ants, are good for prospecting streams for trout. Even if consistently rising fish aren’t visible, cast attractor dry flies in riffles, runs, and pocket water for a trout that’s looking up for food.

A common prospecting method that uses a dry fly is the dry dropper rig. This is a two fly rig in which a nymph or wet fly is tied on a tag a foot or more below a very buoyant dry fly. This method can cover two parts of the water column and more than one variety or life stage of the bug.

To Imitate Terrestrial Insects

When wind or behavior is causing terrestrial insects to end up on the water, dry flies are a great way to catch fish. Wind often causes grasshoppers, beetles, and cicadas to land on the water. Big foam flies are best for catching fish keyed on these big insects.

Fly Fishing Flies - Terrestrials Type of Fly

Periodic emergence behavior of some ant species can result in many of them getting on the water and in the feeding lanes of trout. Small dry flies imitating winged ants work best in this case.

Now You Know the Difference Between Dry Flies & Wet Flies

Hopefully this article helps clarify the distinctions and similarities between dry flies vs wet flies. In some cases, the two are almost interchangeable, but as I’ve discussed, there are still ways to distinguish one from the other.

Knowing how to present both dry flies and wet flies is important for fly anglers to learn. Each represents an important facet of the art of deceiving fish. Knowing how to dead drift a dry fly is as important as swinging a wet fly.