If you are just getting stared into fly fishing, you’ll realize there is a lot of terminology and techniques you’ll need to learn and be familiar with in order to have success.
A common question that a lot of beginner anglers have is what’s the difference between a wet fly and a dry fly?
A wet fly is designed to be fished below the surface and imitates emerging insects as they swim to the surface to hatch. Dry flies on the other hand float on top of the surface and imitate a mature adult insect. Dry flies are typically made from foam, deer or elk hair which makes the fly float and allows anglers to see it on the surface. Dry flies are considered by some to be the most traditional method of fly fishing.
In this beginners fishing guide to wet flies and dry flies, I’ll share with you everything you need to know about the differences between the two flies, when & how to use each, as well as discuss the other types of flies that are used in fly fishing.
Let’s get started.
Dry Flies vs. Wet Flies
What’s the difference between a dry fly and a wet fly? Well, the name basically gives it a way. The main difference between the two is that a dry fly floats on top of the water and is designed to imitate adult insects on the surface.
A wet fly is designed to be fished below the surface and imitates emerging insects. Wet flies are often weighted and have more movement than other types of flies.
Visual differences (Wet Fly vs Dry Fly)
At first glance dry flies and wet flies can look similar, but here is how you can tell the difference between a wet fly and a dry fly just by looking at them.
Wet flies are typically weighted with a brass bead head and have a metal wrapping around their look to help them break the surface and sink. They also tend to have a thinner overall profile.
Dry flies, on the other hand, are much lighter and designed to float. They have a fluffier winged style and look more like an actual insect. They are typically made from feathers and animal hair and sometimes have flotants attached to their bodies.
Overall Key Differences
- Dry flies float and imitate adult insects
- Wet flies are often weighted and are designed to be fished sub surface
- Wet flies are typically easier to cast and present effectively
- Dry flies are typically lighter and require some type of flotant
- Dry flies generally are winged and weightless
- Wet flies resemble emerging insects
- Dry flies require floating line
Now that we have covered the basic differences between a dry fly and wet fly, let’s talk more in-depth about these two categories and how and when to use each type of fly.
Ideal for imitating emerging insects as they swim to the surface to hatch. Trout can feed heavily on insects in this stage.
Wet flies imitate emerging insects that are swimming to the surface to hatch. They typically have more movement, and this is where fly fishermen will use swinging techniques to give them a little more action to entice bites.
Wet flies are fished below the surface, because of this the fly-fishing anglers using this technique will use an indicator or look/feel for movement and potential strikes.
Wet flies are shaped to imitate those insects that hatch below the surface or are rising to hatch on the surface. Most of these styles of flies are weighted with a brass or gold bead near the eye of the hook. This weight allows them to sink and reach deeper water.
Nymphing is one of the most popular wet flies and can be extremely effective at catching trout. However, there are several different patterns and thousands of color variations anglers can choose from to match the hatch.
Popular Types of Wet Flies
There are literally hundreds of different types, colors and patterns of wet flies you can choose from. To keep things simple here is a list of some of the best and most common wet flies to help get you started.
- Caddis wet fly
- Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail
- Cannon’s Worm
- Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear
- Sow Bug
- San Juan Worm
- Blue Winged Olive
When to Use Wet Flies
One of the great things about fishing wet flies is that they can be effective under many varying situations. They are especially good when insects are emerging or laying eggs.
Wet flies can be used to imitate a variety of trout forage and can be fished anywhere in the water column with the right line and weights.
Here is a list of some of the best times to fish a wet fly:
- When the fish aren’t surfacing
- When insects are emerging or just begging to hatch
- Ideal to fish right before a hatch
- When targeting fish subsurface in deeper water
Advantages of Wet Flies over Dry Flies
Wet flies are a great way to target trout and other species sub surface. Although they may look like dry flies in some cases, they provide anglers with some unique and important advantages. Some of these advantages include:
- Easier to cast and present effectively
- Great for beginners
- Around 70% of trout forage comes from insects subsurface
- Can target deeper pools and water
- Effective when fishing in lakes on sinking line
Basic Wet Fly Gear
Rod & Reel – A 10’ mid flex rod in a 4 weight that has a soft tip is a great choice for wet fly fishing. A soft tipped rod allows you to work the flies and help them look and act like a natural insect.
Floating line – Both a dry line and an intermediate line are the standards when using wet flies.
Leader – A lot of the leader comes down to personal preference and the caliber of fish you are after. Most anglers use 12-16-foot leaders in either a 5 or 4x.
Flies – There are a lot of great wet fly choices anglers can choose from. The best thing to do is to look up a local hatching chart in your area and grab the flies that will resemble the kind of insects your fish will most likely be feeding on.
Weights – When nymphing or using other wet fly-fishing techniques weights may be required to ensure your flies sink to the optimal depth.
A dry fly floats on top of the surface and imitates a mature adult insect. Dry flies are ideal to use during insect hatches when trout are feeding on the surface.
When aquatic insects reach the surface and shed their nymphal shuck and hatch it turns into what anglers call a dry fly. Dry flies are designed to imitate the adult insects we see flying around or are floating on the water.
There are also dry flies that are designed to imitate terrestrial insects like grasshoppers, beetles, crickets and sometimes even mice can fall into the dry fly category. Basically, anything on the surface would be considered a dry fly.
Dry flies are thought by some to be the most traditional way of fly fishing and is often considered to be as good as it gets in fly fishing. There is something about watching a big fish come up and eat your fly on the surface that really gets your heart racing.
Fly fishing anglers will use a variety of dry flies to imitate any insect or forage that their targeted species might want to feed on the surface.
Here are some of the most popular and effective dry flies.
When to Use Dry Flies
You can have success fishing with dry flies all throughout the year during most any situation and season. However, there are some key things to look for that will increase your chances of success.
Here is a list of some of the best times to fish a dry fly:
- When you see fish rising
- During an insect hatch
- When fish are aggressive
- During the summer
Advantages of Dry Flies over Wet Flies
Fishing with dry flies is one of the most exciting and fun ways to fly fish. Although wet flies can also be an effective way to catch fish, dry flies offer anglers some unique advantages. Some of these advantages include:
- Effectively imitate adult insects
- Can catch larger fish (although that’s not always true)
- Can be fished anywhere (not depth dependent)
- Wont’ get snagged
- Way more fun
Basic Dry Fly-Fishing Gear
In order to be effective at dry fly fishing it requires very specific gear and setup. Here are the things you’ll want to have when fishing with a dry fly.
Rod & Reel – Ideal length for most freshwater dry fly fishing is 9-foot, 5-weight.
Floating line – A floating line is crucial for this fly-fishing technique.
Flotant – A substance you can add to your flies to make them float more easily. This is a must have if you use dry flies a lot.
Leader & Tippet – The right leader and tippet will allow your fly to gentle land on the surface without spooking any nearby fish. 9-foot, 4x leaders work well for most dry fly fishing, but you’ll want to match your leaders to the size of flies you plan on using.
Flies – Look up your local hatches and grab the right dry flies for the time of year you are fishing. The size of dry fly you use is also extremely important. They are measured from size 2 which is a very large fly to upwards of 24, which is very small.
Other Types of Flies
Dry flies and wet flies are some of the most popular and common flies used in fly fishing. However, there are some other categories of flies that are also important, and you should be aware of.
Some anglers may consider nymphs a wet fly, but it’s a big enough category I think it’s worth calling out separately.
Nymphs are ideal for targeting trout that are feeding below the surface. They are typically weighted flies that are fished under an indicator or using light line techniques.
Nymphs can be extremely effective as trout do about 70% of their feeding on this type of forage. Making it one of the most productive fly-fishing techniques.
A streamer is fished under the surface like a nymph or wet fly using either a swinging or stripping technique. They are designed to imitate baitfish, leeches, sculpin, or other forage that swim below the surface.
Streamers are typically heavily weighted and are most effective when using stripping or swinging techniques to entice strikes from any nearby predator.
Most flies are considered to be freshwater flies where they are designed to imitate forage that can be found in lakes, rivers and streams.
Saltwater flies are much different and are in their own category. Saltwater flies are typically wet flies and are designed to imitate ocean forage such as crabs, shrimp, bait fish as well as others.
There are several different types of saltwater patterns and thousands of color variations. The best saltwater fly will depend upon the type of fish you are targeting, the season, and region you are fishing.
Other Fly-Fishing Resources
- What is Mending the Line in Fly Fishing?
- Is Fly Fishing Difficult to Learn?
- Fly Rod Weight Guide: How to Choose a Fly Rod Weight
- The Best Fly Fishing Setups for Small Streams
Understanding the different types of flies used, what they imitate and when to use each type is foundational knowledge that all fly-fishing anglers need to have.
In this wet fly vs dry fly-fishing guide, we have explained the difference between the two to help you have a better idea of when and how each should be used.
This basic knowledge will help you decide when to use each fly and make you a more effective and efficient angler out on the water.
Now it’s your turn. Go out there grab your fly rod and flies and have some fun targeting the fish in your area.