Eye of the Guide


Tom Travis - January 17, 2011

Of all the ways that there are to fish for trout with a fly, none are as popular as fishing with the DRY FLY. Dry flies will work in all types of water from rapids, riffles, and smooth flowing flats to stillwater sloughs or ponds.

The key to successful dry fly fishing is using them in the right places in the various water types and knowing what flies to choose and what to look for. The information offered within these pages is based on several years of guiding and fishing the waters of the West.

This information is not complete, nor was it meant to be. The matter of fishing the dry fly could fill a book. As a matter of fact, several excellent books have been written on the subject.  If you are interested, I suggest Selective Trout by C. Richards and D. Swisher, Trout Strategies by E. Schwiebert, Fishing the Dry Fly as a Living Insect by L.M. Wright or Dry Fly Fishing by A. Lee.

In this section, I will only cover the basics of fishing of the dry fly. I hope to cover fishing riffles, rapids and pocket water such as would be found on the Madison or Gallatin Rivers, and also fishing the dry fly on smooth waters like those found on the Spring Creeks or the Big Horn, and tips and tactics for fishing sloughs and ponds, as well as information on fishing from a boat.


The major groups of insects, which the angler has to deal with while fishing dry flies are stoneflies, caddisflies, mayflies, midges and terrestrials.

We are not going to discuss life cycles or any entomology in these pages as there has already been lots of fine work done on that subject. The important thing to remember when choosing an imitation to fish with is: "Does the pattern match the general size, shape and color of the natural?"

Stoneflies tend to be larger and have wings that are held flat over the body. When the stoneflies are on the water, the rises tend to be somewhat violent. Good patterns for the dry stones are large Coachman Trudes, Bird's Stonefly, Fluttering Stone, Low Floating Stone and large Stimulators.

Caddisflies appear to be smaller moth-like insects. They carry their body like a tent. The rises to caddis tend to be very quick. These flies are very swift and sometimes the trout will leap clear of the water in their efforts to capture the adults. Good all-around caddis patterns are Royal Trudes, Elk Hair Caddis, Goddard Caddis, Parachute Caddis and Fluttering Caddis.

Mayflies resemble little sailboats on the water and the rises to the newly hatched insect can be very deliberate with the trout leaving a telltale bubble and ring on the surface. Once the mayfly duns have become spinners, the rise to them is much harder to detect as the flies float flush in the film and are unmoving. The trout has all the time in the world and almost kisses them off the surface.

Good rough water patterns for mayflies would be Humpys, Royal Wulffs or H & L Variants. Actually, just about any good, bushy pattern will work in the proper size. For smooth water, try patterns like Comparaduns, No Hackles, Parachute Duns and traditional duns dressed lightly. Also try spinner imitations in the proper size and color.

Midges are tiny insects that sometimes hatch in astounding numbers and the trout feed on them very readily. The midge appears to look like a mosquito, only it doesn't bite. The best all-around midge imitation I've found is the Travis Para Midge Adult. My second choice is the Griffith Gnat. Because midges hatch slowly, the rises are very deliberate. These insects hatch in large numbers on many of the spring creeks, smooth rivers and lakes here in Yellowstone Country.

Terrestrials - If you see a lot of rising activity during the middle of the day in the summer months yet you don't see any insects, look closer. Chances are the trout are taking small ants or beetles. Because these insects are out of their element, the rises are steady and deliberate, except for the rise to hoppers, which can be very harsh and violent. Good all- around terrestrial patterns are Dave's Hopper, Henry's Fork Hopper, Whit's Hopper, Fur Ant, Parachute Ant and Hi-Vis Beetle.

Remember, if there is a major hatch in progress and lots of flies are on the water, the trout may become very selective to one certain insect. Using these major insect groups, the dry fly angler can find good dry fly fishing from March to October in Yellowstone country.


The trout has certain requirements that must be understood if the angler is going to be successful while fishing the dry fly. These are protection from predators, heavy currents and a good source of food. The trout's survival is based on energy taken in versus energy used to feed. The places where the trout lives in the streams are called lies. There are sheltering lies, feeding lies and prime lies. These are the areas in which the angler will find trout. Let's discuss what these lies are and how to recognize them.

Sheltering Lies: - Offer protection from heavy currents and predators. They also offer some feeding opportunities. Sheltering lies are found around boulders, under logs, in the deepest parts of the riffles and the deep sides of weed beds.  A hooked trout will often head straight for his sheltering lie.

Feeding Lies: - Most often are found in shallow water and offer little cover.  Trout in feeding lies can be spooky, so be careful. In riffle water, feeding lies will be along current edges, off the shallow side of gravel bars or anywhere there is a concentration of currents. In smoother water many times you can find the trout in the shallow water on top of weed beds or in shallow water very close to shore.

Prime Lies:  These offer both shelter and a good feeding station for the trout. Good places to look for these are in water that isn't deeper than waist deep, in the riffles, behind big boulders, current tongues along sunken longs, the drop‑off edges of riffles, undercut banks and brush piles in the stream. Look carefully for these places, as they can hold the larger trout.


Fishing the dry fly in fast water can be both fun and challenging for the angler. The fly will float through the water quickly. The angler is casting more often and the strike can be startling and fast. Once hooked, the trout will use the currents to its advantage in trying to rid itself of the fly. The fishing in riffles and rapids can be very rewarding as there are many places for the fish to hold. Rivers like the Madison and Gallatin have lots of riffles and rapids, so the following techniques will aid the angler visiting these waters.

RIFFLES: Those waters that run over a stony, rocky bottom with lots of choppy water but very little white water. There are several factors that make fishing the riffles so attractive and effective for the dry fly angler.  First, my favorite method of fishing the riffle is using the upstream technique.  In riffle water the surface is choppy and this distorts the trout's view. Also, the trout is facing upstream looking for food. The sound of the rushing water will allow the angler to approach the feeding fish from behind and get quite close, sometimes as close as 15‑20 feet.

The best method for fishing the riffle upstream is to cast up and slightly across the stream. If you cast straight up, the trout, when rising to the fly, may bump the leader and push the fly away. If you are fishing to a rising trout, remember that the rise form moves quickly downstream in the current so cast 6 to 8 feet above the rise, as the trout may not be just where you thought. If you see no rising trout, fish the water carefully, looking for those sheltering and prime lies discussed earlier. Take your time and cover the water, just don't make a couple of casts and move on thinking there are no trout here.

RAPIDS & POCKET WATER: Generally have lots of big boulders and heavy currents with plenty of white water. Remember, as a rule, if the water is more than waist deep, the trout won't come up to the surface for a dry fly. Behind those big boulders or other obstructions, there are pockets and it's these pockets on which the angler will want to concentrate. The wading in rapids can be difficult, but the rewards are worth it. In many rivers, these areas are barely touched by fishermen and many times hold the largest fish in the rivers. Here, again, the best method is the upstream technique.

Remember, due to the fast flows and many obstructions, the currents are many and varied so keep the cast short and pick your spots, such as tails of the pockets, in front of the boulders, near overhanging brush along shore or at a point where many currents come together. A long cast for pocket water is 25‑30 feet.


When fishing during windy days, the angler should try to keep casts as short as possible and cast as tight a loop as possible. If the wind is very brisk, don't fight it ‑‑ go with the flow. If it's blowing downstream, then fish downstream.

When fishing in the fast water I grease my entire leader so the leader won't sink and then pull the fly under or cause drag. Under any dry fly fishing conditions, the most important item the angler has to deal with is drag. Learning how to use a "reach mend" and learning to mend your line on the water will go a long way toward solving many of your drag problems.

The reach mend is accomplished by reaching the rod to the left or right after the cast is completed, but before the line has reached the water. Mending your line on the water is most often done by flipping the belly of the line upstream to put some slack in the line and leader. For better line control while casting, try shooting the line through your line hand but not releasing it, then placing the line under a finger of the rod hand lowering the rod to a horizontal position and stripping in the slack line with the line hand.

With a little practice, you will find that you never have to look down at your hands and can pay closer attention to the floating fly. Sometimes when fishing upstream, the angler has problems picking up the line for the next cast. Try using a roll cast pickup to start the cast. All one needs is a couple of false casts and put the fly back in the water, that's where the trout are. Watching some anglers,  a non‑fishing person might get the idea they were fishing for birds with as much time as they spend false casting.

Once the fish rises to the fly, set the hook ‑‑ smoothly and firmly. That doesn't mean trying to rip the jaw off!! Once you feel the fish, give a little and let the trout have line if he wants it. If the fish runs at you, strip in the slack, but put that slack on the reel as soon as you can. Do so by hooking the line under the little finger of your rod hand and putting the slack on the reel under tension. Putting the line on loose will cause real problems if the fish makes a second run. Follow the fish downstream if you have to. If you let the trout get too far below you, the weight of the current on the line will pull the fly out or break the tippet. Work the trout into a quiet water pocket or into shore to land it. Try to release the trout in quiet water so the chance of survival is greater.


Many of the techniques used in fishing fast water are also used while fishing in smooth water such as the angler will find on streams like the Big Horn or the spring creeks of the Livingston area. On smooth water, the angler must use care and approach the trout with caution. Trout in smooth water tend to be a little spookier than those found in fast water.

Presentation of the fly is also much more demanding on trout feeding in smooth water. Trout will often take the most abundant food form available in this type of water so the angler should watch closely to see what the trout is taking. Many times, when approaching across or below a rising fish, the angler should try to break up the silhouette of the body by placing some brush in front or behind him/her. Bending over also helps to present a smaller target for the fish to see.

If the trout is lying very close to the surface, his window is very small and he can't see very far. Under these conditions the angler can sometimes approach within 15' of the trout. However, this also means that the trout's feeding lane is very small and the angler is going to have to put the fly in that feeding lane if the trout is going to be taken.  If the trout is laying a foot or more under the surface, then the closest the angler better approach is about 30'. When wading in smooth water, do so slowly and carefully as the trout will spook off if you go charging about like a wounded buffalo. Remember to look for the lies in flat water like weed beds in close to shore, under overhanging brush around the edges of logs or other obstructions.

Sometimes the upstream approach isn't getting the job done and other techniques are needed. Try the downstream method using a parachute cast.  Remember to wait until the fly is past the trout, then lean the rod off to the side and pick up the line gently. Don't cast directly over the trout, the shadow on the water coming off the line while casting can put the trout down.

When fishing smooth water you often find yourself fishing fine tippets and small flies, so remember to set the hook gently. Just tighten until you feel the fish then give back the rod. If the take is downstream, hold up a second and let the trout turn down before you set the hook or you'll pull the fly right out of his mouth. If the trout runs below you when fishing fine tackle, use gentle, steady pressure and work the rod side to side. By doing this, you will be able to walk the trout right up the stream.

When fishing down and across to a rising fish, use a parachute cast and a reach mend. This will allow you to put the fly to the fish before he sees the line or leader. In some cases you can cast down and across then lift the rod and skate the fly directly into the trout's feeding lane and then lower the rod tip to obtain the proper slack.


The most important thing to remember when stillwater fishing is that the fish are moving and the water is not. Look for cruising lanes like off the edges of weed beds or drop‑offs, around downed timber and the edges of defined channels.

Also, be aware of the wind direction as the wind can concentrate food and thus concentrate the trout. Watch and try to establish the trout's cruising pattern. Random casting seldom does more than spook the trout in stillwater angling situations.

On waters like Hebgen Lake, Quake Lake and the sloughs of various streams the angler can be well rewarded for the time spent if a little caution and careful observation is applied to the situation.


On rivers like the Yellowstone and Madison much of the fishing can be done out of a boat. This adds a new dimension to dry fly fishing.

Float fishing is a fun way to fish the water and allows the angler the opportunity to cover a great deal of water during a day. Also, the angler can cover water that normally doesn't receive a great deal of pressure.  The single most important item for the dry fly angler to remember while fishing out of a boat is that everything is moving--the water,  the  fly and the boat. The placement of the cast depends upon the speed of the current in relation to the speed that the boat is moving downstream.

Under normal conditions the angler is casting slightly ahead of the boat.  The angler, while fishing from the boat should also be mindful of the "lies" and cast the fly accordingly. Many times the angler must rely on the oarsman to point out the best areas to cast to.

One final note on float fishing - During certain hatches and various times of the year, the boat is used primarily for transportation from place to place and the angler gets out and wades. This is often very true when fishing rivers like the Missouri below Holter Dam and the Big Horn. From a boat the angler can employ the reach‑mend and can mend the line on the water to avoid drag and prolong the drift.


There is no doubt that fishing the dry fly is both fun and productive, whether you're floating down the river or wading along its edges. Many anglers are leery of big western rivers like the Yellowstone or Madison. Just remember to look at these rivers and think about what the trout needs and the various types of lies and you'll be able to read these waters.

Hopefully I  have been able to give you a few tips which will assist you in enjoying your dry fly fishing a little more, while being able to fish more effectively,

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