How to fly fish with wet flies

The Magic of Wet Flies (Fly Fishing Guide)

One of the experiences that have etched a memory into my thoughts is of an old timer rhythmically casting what I later learned was a wet fly on the famous “Holy Waters” of the Au Sable River.

I was maybe 20 years old, running over to the river from college for a weekend of camping and fishing.  Spinning rods dominated my fishing, I didn’t grab a fly rod until I was in my mid-30’s.

That old-timer “worked” the river with complete confidence – cast, mend, swing, and step – cast, mend, swing, and step.  When he got to my bankside spot, I did the polite – how’s it going?  I had seen him catch and release a half dozen brook trout and my internal score card was keeping track, so I knew the answer.

He raised his rod and answered beautiful.  I checked out his fly line to see if I could steal some wisdom and I saw the small flies – that I later learned were wets.

Spin the clock ahead…Ugh… 30 years and I’ve fished, tied, and developed some of my own techniques for tossing wets.

Fishing Wet Flies – Traditionally

Wets have lost favor in the last 30 years, I’d like to say I’m seeing a resurgence, but it’s more likely I’m looking for folks using them and not if they’re being used more. Whether they’ll continue the slide remains to be seen. If so, it’s our loss. The fact is that few recent innovations are any more effective than wet flies.

Classic wet-fly fishing is still the simplest way for novice anglers to gain experience while hooking many fish. A rudimentary presentation demands no more than casting a single fly across-and-downstream, with an upstream line-mend to prevent drag.

Casting Wet Flies
Casting Wet Flies

That accomplished, your attention is free to monitor each swing without needing to manipulate the fly.   And since this style keeps the lined taunt the trout normally hook themselves.  This allows you to relax until you feel the tug that signals a fish-on.

What I love about this technique is the beginner gets to develop a couple skills, while eliminating some of the frustrations that come with dries and nymphs.

Once you gain some confidence (and net a couple trout) you can develop some techniques to enhance your hook ups.  Introducing a twitch to the rod tip and striping line in to impart action.

Guide Tip: With casting skills a string of wets can be fished – which is the traditional method.  I’ve read of folks tying 4 flies on – I DON’T ADVISE THIS.

Wet Flies for the Experienced Flinger?

Fundamental wet-fly techniques shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand by experienced fly rodders either. Sometimes the most elementary forms have turned the trick for me on challenging streams when more sophisticated techniques failed.

A memorable example: is wary daytime browns that sulk in woody bends in my home water – the rifle river.   In a last-ditch effort, I tied Blue Wing Olive Wet that enticed that brown into playing.  (I lost)

Blue Wing Olive Wet Fly
Blue Wing Olive Wet Fly

The Versatility of Wet Flies

Traditional wet flies can be roughly divided into two categories: imitators and attractors. 

Imitators as the name suggests mimic natural insects that appeal to a trout’s appetite.   The wet BWO I pictured above is a perfect example. 

Attractors depend largely on a fish’s disposition to provoke strikes. Akin to gaudy streams that don’t represent anything, they seem to “trigger” a responsive strike. 

In either event, the classic wet’s silhouette bears a striking resemblance both to drowned and emerging aquatic insects. Emergers swim to the surfaces and drowned nymphs tumble downstream.

Traditional presentation techniques were developed to copy both actions, sometimes in a single drift. 

Wets tumble along at the whim of prevailing currents imply naturals that didn’t make it.  This occurs during the initial moments after the fly touches the water and a mend is added.

By beginning the presentation on a loose line (mend) with an upstream cast direction the fly gets the chance to sink and tumble

As the slack is removed during the drift the fly begins to swim and rise with the currents imitating an emerger.  

An advanced presentation is the ability to read the water currents and achieve both presentations in a single cast.   This alone ranks the wet as among the most productive fly fishing techniques ever conceived.

Has Wet Fly Fishing Died?

Why, then, the wet’s diminished popularity? The answer may simply be the growth of dries and the visual appeal of a trout taking a dry on the water surface.

Specific nymph patterns are developments from those traditional wet patterns.  We’ve learned from fly life cycle graphics all about dries, nymphs and emergers.  It seems the “Wet” was left out of the entomology mix. 

Life Cycle of Flies for Fly Fishing
Life Cycle of Flies for Fly Fishing

Do Wets Still Work?

Small wonder wet-fly diehards are seldom bewitched by biology. 😎

While dries get the fame and nymphs provide the numbers.  Wet flies were developed and fished for hundreds of years.  Most were developed for specific jobs, that is, to appeal to trout under certain conditions.

My recommendation is to combining wet patterns with both nymphing and dry fly fishing techniques.  I’ve written extensively about “adding” droppers to presentations.  A perfect addition to a streamer setup is a wet.  

Adding a wet as a dropper to a dry fly pattern adds another offering often just different enough from other offerings to induce a take. 

Guide Tip:  A sparsely hackled black gnat hanging from an attractor pattern is a go to setup on late afternoons.

Selecting a Wet to Fish

Remember, the characteristics of effective wets are like those of any fly: size, shape or silhouette, and color.   Most modern wets marketed to fishers seem to have forgotten these attributes.  Tie on small, sparse, morsels that mimic those naturals.  

Sizes 16 to 20 are my favorites.  Tied on light gauge dry fly hooks.  Black gnats with no wings and hackle that extends back to the hook bend and lies against the fly body have a spot in my fly box.

Wets, that works one day may not the next, because it fails to create the right impression. In this, wets are exactly like drys.  If we switching dry flies to match a size and color shouldn’t we adopt similar thought with wets?  If the fly shape and size are a trigger, switching patterns to match the occasion is required.

5 Favorite Wet Flies

  1. Blue Wing Olive Wet, I mentioned my tried-and-true Blue Wing Olive wet above.  I carry size 16 in this pattern.  If you enjoy tying here’s a link to  This fly is super-fast and easy to tie.
  2. March Brown Wet Hackle, size 14.  On my home water here in Michigan we get a prolific hatch of March Browns.  Carrying some wets can often increase takes early in the hatch.
  3. Partridge and Orange Wet, I prefer size 14.  The sparse hackle flutters in the current creating the “breathing” affect seen on nymphs.
  4. Black Gnat, size 20.  A traditional material for the hackle is starling.  Get black it simulates ants and other tiny gnats that can be blown into the water
  5.  Brown Hackle Peacock Wet in size 16.  The red tail adds some contrast next to the sparkle from the peacock.
Favorite Wet Flies for Fly Fishing

Developing Presentation Skills

Refining presentation skills works miracles. (Given the option, I’d rather fish the wrong fly well than the right one badly.) Nevertheless, wet or dry, there’s only so much any angler can do. Developing the right technique with the right fly is the goal.

For the beginner, concentrate on the down and across cast with a big mend cast into the fly as soon as the fly touches the water.  Conflicting currents can make this tough, so make short casts and work your way across stream to likely holding water.

With added skill cast slightly upstream with a stack cast.  This cast will drop extra fly line at the fly entry point. 

Modern Wet Fly Patterns

The March Brown recommended above is a modern development that has proven itself for me the last few seasons. 

By varying only leader length and hook size during March Brown emergences, traditional dressings and techniques handled most pocket-water situations nicely.  I did especially well by positioning myself to cast an individual wet drifted or swung in toward the shallower shore aligning with hatch patterns.

Here in Michigan, dry fly fishing the March Brown is a staple.  The burnt red and brown tint to the wings is easily matched in the wet versions.  This fly is a good size as a dry, often a size 12.  As a wet I prefer a size 14 though.

As a modern combination, I’ve been having good success with a parachute adams in size 12 and the addition of a wet march brown yielding decent results.

Is Special Equipment Needed?

When wet fly fishing started, silk lines and supple bamboo rods were the norm.  Liting that wet silk out of the depths, often required fly rods stiffer than needed.

Modern floating fly lines and moderate fast action graphite fly rods are perfect for tossing wet flies.   A wet drifts or better described as swings just below the surface.  I mostly use 5X – 9ft tapered leaders common to dry fly fishing.  If I’m exclusively going to fish wet flies, I’ll use a fluorocarbon leader.

Don’t fuss over getting a new rod for wet flies.  That favorite dry fly rod will be perfect.  Most times if I tie on a wet , it’s a s a dropper off a dry fly.

Continuous control of the fly is the key to most wet-fly techniques, including those involving drag-free drift.

Setting Up a Fly Rod for Wets

Don’t over think the setup, that favorite 5 weight 9 foot dry fly rod is perfect. A matching weight forward floating line that casts well like a Scientific Anglers Amplitude (link to Amazon – amazing line).

A 5X – 9 foot tapered leader – nylon will work but if you know all you’ll be casting are wet flies and nymphs I would recommend fluorocarbon for its sinking properties and strength.

wet fly fly rod setup
Wet fly fly rod setup

TRUST in the versatility of wets.  Dead drifted or swung – Wets, represent an excellent alternative to fragile, emergers tied with CDC that are killed after a single fish.  To imitate all but fluttering caddis, wets have become one of my favorite catch-all imitations.

Success with wets depends, not on learning new and particularly complex techniques, but on mastering presentation. Fish wets as dries just as you’d fish a nymph when dead drifting or a small streamer swinging across the stream.  Add a twitch and strip to impact action if the take is slow.

As a dropper, wet flies can be drifted through gentle runs enticing those tentative trout to sniff when of flies fail.

I Love Fishing with Wet Flies – Check Out More Wet Fly Articles

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish

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