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Forgotten flies & angling methods – Wet flies

Published: 7th June 2017 | Author: Eric Kelley

Wet flies; For some of us the term conjures images of a forgotten time when this type of fly ruled the roost. Over the years many have left their mark with this type of fly from Bergman and Jim Leisenring to modern day fanatics like Dave Hughes and Oliver Edwards. I could go on about the influential anglers who’ve left their mark on me but, let’s discuss patterns and the techniques associated with these dainty little morsels.


In 1857, W.C. Stewart published a book by the name of “The Practical Angler”, within its pages he talks of fishing his spiders on a short line, upstream to rising fish. When I say a “short line” I’m talking about maybe a foot of fly line out of the top guide. Stalking the fish was the name of the game here. The most popular fly from this book that is still in use today and is definitely in my box is, the Black Spider. These flies were a two-material fly, waxed silk thread and game bird feathers, in this case an outer covert from a Starling. This teaches us a couple of things on wet fly fishing; When used correctly these flies can be incredibly versatile and the sparseness of these flies should speak in volumes to you. Imagine this fly presented upstream to a rising fish, softly falling on the water with its soft iridescent feather sitting in the surface film like a struggling or stillborn insect. A surefire win for the pickiest of fish, trust me.


In 1922 William Nelson published his wonderful little book “Fishing in Eden” a record book of sorts of growing up in the Eden and Eamont river valley in England. Inside he discusses fly tying and angling with a gentleman from his local town that went by the name of “Bob”. Bob would gather the boys from the town and show them the art of tying and how to fish these flies. Bob’s preferred method of fishing wet flies was what we all think of when fishing wets, the down and across method. This method is what most anglers today think of and imply when fishing wet flies. Some may find this approach a little… more relaxed than other fishing methods, and it is but, only if you want it to be. I myself, enjoy targeting risers by putting a little soft hackle right on their noses on a slow controlled swing. Very enjoyable. I’ve used this method for many years and it works from the famed Firehole River in West Yellowstone N.P to the famed Chalk streams of the UK. It works, and works very well.


Jumping ahead to the time of the 1930’s-40’s in America, particularly in the great state of Pennsylvania, my home state, we find Jim Leisenring, or “Big Jim” as he was referred to by friends and locals in NE PA. Jim was coined as being the “Skues of America” and the “Wet Fly Wizard”. For good reason, he was a master at his craft. Jim would target subsurface fish that were actively feeding and would present a wet fly on an upstream cast, allow the fly to sink and initiate the swing right in front of the feeding trout. The Leisenring Lift as it was called, is an astonishing tool when used correctly. Forcing a fish to eat is always fun, let’s face it. Jim’s flies were unlike any of the previous master’s I’ve mentioned. These wet flies were dressed with cock hackles, sometimes hen and the dubbed bodies being made of various furs, spun on silk. Today we know these wet flies as, Flymphs (coined by his apprentice, Vernon “Pete” Hidy). Jim would wax a length of silk, lay it on his leg and lay out the appropriate amount of dubbing on half of the silk. He then took the other half and brought it back over the section with the fur and spun the length of silk on his pant leg. The end result being a pre-dubbed body that he could make in numbers for when he needed to refill his fly box.

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Today’s world of wet fly fishing we have modern day masters who have studied the previous works of the aforementioned people and have successfully taken fish with these methods. Davy Wotton, a name well known in the world of wet flies is a successful guide on the Arkansas’s White River. Oliver Edwards, who everyone knows is an angling guru and is particularly keen on wet fly fishing. Both of these men use and have developed their own methods for wet fly fishing that shouldn’t be ignored. A technique used and developed by Oliver is the “Escalator Cast” and is one of my favorites. Shooting your cast straight across and making an upstream mend, hold the rod tip high so you keep line off the water allows your flies to dead drift. This allows you to keep in touch with your flies while they’re drifting downstream. On top of this you can then allow your flies to swing out at the tail end of the drift for an additional chance to pick up a fish. A genius method.

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