Anyone who’s ever fished a dry fly understands that the struggle to keep dry fly from sinking is real. Very real.
But by utilizing stiff-fibered “genetic” hackle, generous deer or elk hair wings, and in some cases, foam rubber bodies, it’s possible to construct dry flies that are incredibly buoyant straight off the vise. Even so, no matter how bobber-like a dry fly is (unless it’s all-foam, of course), there comes a time when the materials become so saturated with water that the fly sinks. This is especially true—and most frustrating—for the trout angler who fishes delicate traditional dry flies tied with natural materials like the Adam’s, Royal Wulff, or Elk Hair Caddis.
Thankfully, the frustration of drowned dry flies every few casts has driven innovative, problem-solving anglers to find clever solutions and develop useful products to keep those topwater bugs riding high and, well, dry.
Today, I want to introduce you to the wonderful world of dry fly dressings, floatants, and desiccants, so you’ll have the tools you need next time fish are hitting on the surface. Let’s start by looking at one of your main lines of defense: floatant.
What is Floatant?
If you walk into any reputable fly shop and ask for floatant, you’ll be handed a small bottle of a gel-like substance or a jar of a paste-like substance. Regardless of the specific forms the various floatants takes, they all function similarly and serve the same purpose: the chemicals in the floatant soak into the fibers of a dry fly and repel water, thus preventing it from absorbing water and sinking.
For maximum floatability, it’s best to apply floatant to your dry fly when it’s fresh out of the box and perfectly dry. Squeeze or brush a dab of gel floatant onto the fly and rub it in with your fingers. Cast away, and when you notice your fly starting to sag, apply more floatant (more specifics on that later).
Like with most fly fishing products, you’ll find a wide selection of fly fishing floatants on the market. What’s the best fly fishing floatant you might ask? At this point, they’re all pretty good. Try out a few different products and give whichever you don’t like to your buddies.
Gehrke’s Gink, the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Fly Floatant,” has long been the gold standard and is widely used by fly anglers across the globe, and for good reason. You can always count on Gink. Gink is one of those MUST haves, it’s pretty cheap check it out here on Amazon – Fly Fishing Gehrke’s Gink
Loon also makes some excellent dry fly floatants and dressings worth checking out. With several different application-specific products, Loon’s floatants are good options for those who like to fine-tune their game. I really like the versatility and temperature stability of Loon’s Aquel which is designed to perform in extreme cold and heat.
Problems with Floatant
Before you go and slather half a bottle of Gink on your pale morning dun, take note that using too much floatant could have the opposite effect. This is especially true on flies that utilize hackle feathers to stay afloat as excess floatant can cause the barbs of the feathers to bind together, greatly reducing their buoyancy. Even if your dry fly doesn’t plunge toward the streambed upon landing, all that goop will likely have a negative effect on the appearance of your fly and its action in the water.
The problem with using too much floatant is amplified anytime you’re fishing flies tied with CDC (Cul-de-Canard). These down-like feathers, sourced from the butt of a duck, are naturally impregnated with oils that make them water repellent and buoyant, though not impervious to sinking after several casts. Normal floatants, like Gink, aren’t recommended for use on CDC flies as the thousands of micro-barbs on the feathers can be easily squashed down, reducing their loft and floatability. Fortunately, special floatants made specifically for CDC flies are now available, and if you’re interested, check out either the Tiemco Magic CDC Fly Fishing Floatant or Loon’s Lochsa.
What to Do When You Run Out of Floatant? Try This Hack . . .
We’ve all been there. Your dry fly goes under within a few seconds of hitting the water. You reach for the zinger on your vest holding your bottle of floatant, but to your horror, it’s gone. Before you freak out, try this:
Coat your dry fly in a thin layer of lip balm—any brand will do.
This isn’t a perfect solution, but if your success on the water is dependent on presenting a dry fly on the surface, not below, then a little lip balm could save the day.
Boom. Crisis averted. Let the fish slaying proceed.
DIY Dry Fly Floatant—Should You Use It?
If you like making stuff and saving a few sheckles in the process, mixing up your own DIY dry fly floatant is a good way to spend an afternoon. However, keep in mind that since such small amounts of floatant are required to keep most dry flies afloat, a bottle of Gink only costs about six bucks and can last a long time. Still, just like catching a fish on a fly you tied yourself, using floatant you lovingly made may bring you more satisfaction than using a product that is off the shelf.
A quick Google search brings up a bunch of different articles talking about how to make your own floatant. And guess what? All the recipes use the same two ingredients:
- White gas
- Paraffin wax
There are several different ways to arrive at the finished product, but here’s the simplified version of how to make DIY fly fishing floatant:
1. Dissolve shavings of paraffin wax in white gas.
2. Adjust the amount of paraffin wax you add until you achieve the desired gel-like consistency.
3. Transfer the finished product to a small bottle for streamside application.
That’s it . . . for the most part. For detailed instructions on how to make your own dry fly floatant, check out this helpful tutorial by Micheal Gracie, https://michaelgracie.com/2014/08/not-so-secret-fly-floatant-formula/. While this extremely simple recipe might not have the level of technology and innovation found in some of Loon’s floatants, it works as it should and a lifetime’s supply can be made for pennies on the dollar.
The Best Treatment for a Dry Fly
Floatants and desiccants (which I’ll cover later on) are intended to be used on the water while actively fishing. However, there are some good products on the market known as fly “treatments” or “dressings” that are similar to floatant but are designed to be applied well in advance of fishing to allow the dressings to set up and cure.
Watershed and Hyrdostop are two of the most popular and effective dry fly treatments, which are also known as “permanent floatants.” These concoctions aren’t perfect, but if you struggle with keeping your dry flies from sinking or get tired of reapplying floatant all the time, using fly treatments might be worth a try.
What Fly Tying Materials Float Best
If you dress your flies with a quality floatant, you shouldn’t have much of an issue keeping your dry fly floating air-side-up for the entire day of fishing. But goops and pastes aren’t the only solutions to keeping flies afloat. Flies can be constructed with materials that float better than others, and if you’re serious about dry fly fishing, it’d be wise to add these materials to your fly tying bench.
Genetic hackle. When I picture a dry fly in my mind’s eye, I see something on a light wire hook with a slim body and a stiff hackled collar like a classic Adams or Quill Gordon. Don’t you? If you enjoy fishing these beautiful and effective dry flies, it’s worth your while to invest in the highest quality hackle you can afford. In most cases, what you’re looking for is known as “genetic hackle” created when special breeds of chicken are selectively bred based on preferable genetic traits to produce hackle feathers specifically for fly tying. Whiting Farms is perhaps the most famous company producing genetic hackle, and while they produce many different styles of hackle for various applications, their standard Whiting capes are among the highest quality dry fly hackles you can buy. These specialty hackles have extremely stiff fibers that don’t collapse or crush as easily as softer, webbier feathers, and are closely packed together to create fuller, more buoyant collars with fewer wraps on the hook shank. Expect to spend a decent chunk of change on genetic hackle, but if you’re serious about dry flies, the extra cost is worth the performance gains.
CDC. Earlier I mentioned some issues related to using standard floatant on CDC feathers. But as long as you use the appropriate floatant, CDC is one of the best floating materials for tying your smallest dry flies. To learn more about CDC and its many applications, check out this in-depth article over at Global Flyfisher http://globalflyfisher.com/tie-better/tying-with-cdc.
Polypropylene floating yarn. This synthetic material, made popular by Enrico Puglisi’s saltwater fly tying materials called EP Fibers, has been adopted by dry fly tiers looking to add more buoyancy and a bit of flash to their flies. Now, you’ll find “polypro yarn” made by several manufacturers, but one of the best for dry flies is the Polypropylene Floating Yarn made by Hareline Dubbin. It’s available in many different colors and is perfect for making wings, tails, and the posts of parachute dry flies. This stuff is cheap and effective, so why not give it a shot?
Foam. If you’re looking to achieve maximum buoyancy in your dry flies, few materials will increase a fly’s floatability like foam rubber. There are lots of different sheet foams in different densities, colors, and patterns made specifically for fly tying, but don’t overlook the offerings at your local craft store. Foam can be incorporated into practically any dry fly pattern as a post or a body and even a small amount will make your fly more bobber-like.
Deer and Elk hair. The hair fibers of ungulate animals (deer, elk, moose, etc.) are hollow like a straw, making them naturally buoyant. Dry fly patterns that incorporate hair wings, the best example being the elk hair caddis, are remarkably buoyant on their own, and using a good floatant makes them even better.
How to Use Desiccant
As I mentioned earlier, for floatant to work, you must apply it to a bone-dry fly. Douse a wet elk hair caddis in Gink and the substance will actually trap the moisture into the fly’s material causing it to sink.
The question is, how do you apply more floatant to the fly you’re currently fishing, without trapping in the moisture?
The answer is desiccant—your new best friend.
Most desiccant powders for fly fishing are made of silica which is used to wick away any moisture in your fly. Keep a jar handy whenever you’re on the river, and before you reach for the floatant, give your dry flies a nice hit of desiccant.
Here’s an easy procedure to follow:
1. Open the container of desiccant.
2. Place your fly inside the container and if it’s still tied to the tippet, run the tippet through the little notch on the rim of the container—that’s what it’s there for.
3. Close the lid and give the entire container a good shake.
4. Open the container and remove your fly.
5. Shake or blow off the extra desiccant powder coating the fly, apply a drop of floatant, and get back to fishin’.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, sometimes a well-presented dry fly is what it takes to catch fish that are keyed into food on the surface. While many dry flies serve as direct imitations of aquatic insects, “attractor” dry flies—those that look buggy but don’t imitate any particular insect—should not be overlooked as they can work when nothing else produces.
Of course, it doesn’t matter which dry fly you’re using if you can’t keep it afloat. Luckily, all it takes is some floatant and desiccant powder, and for extra security, a fly dressing or treatment. Use widely available products like Gink or any of Loon’s floatants or go the DIY route and make your own. However you choose to fish your dries, I hope you found this information helpful. May all your dry flies stay up, your drifts drag-free, and your lines tight!