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The Ultimate Debate: Nymphs vs. Dry Flies

Sport fish sometimes deserve the haven of deep water.
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May 22, 2024
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The Ultimate Debate: Nymphs vs. Dry Flies

Skues vs. Halford… I had to decide for myself.

I’ve wrestled with this issue for years. So, I finally made a point to go and fish where the debate started over 100 years ago.

The fabled chalk streams of southern England. The River Test, and the River Itchen. It was in these rivers where Frederick Halford drew his line in the sand and suggested that any fly fishing that doesn’t involve a dry fly was akin to heresy. And it was also here where G.E.M Skues introduced fishing with sub-surface nymph flies to usher in a more “enlightened,” all-season approach.

And, as I understand it, Halford and Skues would debate the virtues of each method, sometimes in the very pub where I now enjoy a pint. Skues would contend that “dry-fly-only” was an archaic, myopic, lame approach for snobby prigs, and Halford would counter that casting a nymph was a method for knuckle-dragging dotards who didn’t respect the fish.

Well, they might not have said it exactly that way, but there’s still tension in the air, even now, even a century later. And let’s be honest, that tension pervades world-wide now, from the banks of the Madison and illustrious spring creeks in Montana to the upper stretches of the Delaware–from the Motueka in New Zealand to the Rio Simpson in Chile.

The real crux of the debate may have been best articulated by American angling icon Lee Wulff, who professed (not all that long after Skues and Halford were mixing it up) that a sport fish (trout or otherwise) sometimes deserves the haven of deep water.

In other words, you let the fish decide. And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And that’s perfectly okay.

Now, times have changed, of course, and back then, landing a fish often meant a swift bonk on the head with the “priest.” And these days, there’s this “catch-and-release” mantra, which by no means ensures the survival of every fish caught, but it’s a far cry better, in terms of sustainability, than tucking everything caught, no matter how they are caught, in the creel.

As for me, I just look at the water. When you see what a real “chalk stream” looks like (and there are fewer than 300 chalk streams in the entire world, the most of which are in England), one cannot help but stare in awe of what a cool, clean natural stream can be. 

And yes, on any waterway as magnificently pure as these, fishing with a dry fly, eliciting an instinctively natural, biologic response, just seems a little more fair, and right, than gagging a fish with a sunken fly. Of course, that depends on the season. But when they’re eating on top, the right thing to do is to feed them on top.

So, maybe you win Mr. Halford.

But at the end of the day, it’s really about the place, the conditions and the fish.

I don’t think anyone is destined to go to angling Hell if they fish a nymph rig, especially where it’s obvious that nymph flies are all the fish are really eating. And I, for damned sure, am not going to swear off throwing nymph rigs–or streamers–on my home waters in Colorado. 

But when the heads are poppin’, it’s worth stoppin’ and throwing dry flies, to trick the instinct. That’s the true top of the game, and it has been for a century or more. 

With all due respect to Mr. Skues, we owe it to the fish to let them decide, and match skill with nature, whenever the opportunity presents itself. 

It’s happy hour across the pond and morning in the States–so, enjoy your morning brew, but I’m headed back to my pint… – Kirk Deeter

The Best Times to Fish Dry Flies

If you’ve ever wondered about the best times to throw dry flies, here are a few tips to point you in the right direction:

When fish are surface feeding–seems obvious, but always fish dries when the fish have committed to eating off the surface. Ripping streamers or running plastic bobbers through active surface feeding lanes will only annoy, or put the fish down. Dry fly fishing is about hunting for specific targets, not randomly prospecting.

Speaking of randomly prospecting–before and after specific hatches, with slightly oversized patterns, can be a great time to prospect for fish with strong memories to certain bugs. Grasshoppers, large terrestrials, stoneflies and damselflies can often create interest with staging fish.

Low light (night, early morning, overcast)–in the midwest, fish that can be reclusive during bright, daylight hours often use low light conditions to target their feeding activity: mice, crayfish, Hexagenia mayflies and whatever else falls into the water are likely targets. Fish are also eating above their position at night, so your flies should float on or swing closer to the surface.

Shallow, broken water–big, summer fish, particularly rainbows, often move into surprisingly shallow water to take advantage of prime feeding lies, food and oxygen. These fish can often be coaxed to a dry fly if they haven’t been run over boats, or stepped on by wading anglers.

Hopper-dropper rigs–popularized by western float guides over the last 15 years, the “hopper-dropper” setup (a floatable, bushy dry trailed by a smaller, weighted nymph) turns your dry fly into a strike indicator. Dry flies spook a lot less fish than bright, gaudy indicators and even can be eaten from time to time.

Snowstorms–unforgiving weather can bring reclusive fish out to feed; wet snow can trap insects on the water’s surface. The combination can provide some unlikely and memorable dry fly days. 

Everyone should fish more dry flies this summer–and we didn’t even cover mousing for rainbows, floating crabs, or hopper-feeding carp…

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