Fly Fishing – Wet Flies

wet flyGuest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody, Wyoming, retired National Park Superintendent

Fishing with wet flies was more popular in another era of fly fishing in America. Wet flies were a standard in the 1800s, but their use declined in future years. Most fishermen were still using wet flies when I started fly fishing in 1948, though the thrill of dry flies being taken in sight on top of the water and the rapid development and availability of better fly rods gradually reduced the use of wet flies as the preferred lure of choice by many fly fishermen.

The “father” and most notable expert on wet flies was Ray Bergman whose book Trout, originally published in 1938 with numerous full color plates of wet flies painted by Dr. Edgar Burke is a classic publication and a collector’s item today. It has been republished several times and is still available. If you are interested in tying and fishing with wet flies, this is one book you should have in your library. However, a personal tip, create your patterns using the colors of tan, green, olive, grey, brown , or black as I have found those body colors to be more effective.

As a young fly fisherman, I recognized that most of the time as much as 90% of the food of choice by trout was under the water in the form of aquatic insects in various stages of development. Naturally my efforts of creating flies that promised to be more effective led me to tying and fishing primarily with mayfly and stonefly nymphs and sub-adult caddies fly imitations. Wet flies were still very popular by many fishermen in the early 1950s and I added those patterns to my fly box as well. Fishing with nymphs and wet flies is a skill as well as an art that takes some time to learn, because you never see the fly being taken by the fish. What makes it more difficult is many fish simply take the nymph or wet fly presentation by creating a vacuum and sucking in the fly which is quickly spit out if it is not recognized as a true insect. While it is true that some fish will hit a nymph hard, that is more common with a wet fly.

In preparation for this article I talked to several of the local professional fishing guides and was surprised to learn that they still often fish with wet flies. That surprised me, because I thought it was an ancient skill of years past. Perhaps you should seek out Bergman’s book because the professionals are still using some of his patterns and techniques.

3 thoughts on “Fly Fishing – Wet Flies

  1. Mike Cline

    I doubt wet flies ever lost their effectiveness, just their popularity. Probably has a lot to do with limited space in the fly bins and the rise of synthetics. My first Firehole fish was a rainbow that took a swinging Lead Wing Coachman—a classic wet fly. Even today, the wet fly tradition of the North Country Flies (Pritt 1889) is alive and well with the soft-hackle wet flies re-popularized by Sylvester Nemes. Although Ray Bergmans Trout is indeed a classic American work on trout fishing and his plates of fancy wet flies are brilliantly done, Bergman can hardly be labeled “the Father” of wet fly fishing. The wet fly technique (as thus wet flies themselves) was the standard in England in the early 19th century. Dry fly and nymphing techniques followed in the later 19th and early 20th century on the heels of Halford, Marryatt and Skues. Trout fishing with flies in America pretty much mimicked the techniques and flies used in England. As early as 1859, in Frank Forrester’s Fish and Fishing of the United States and British Provinces of North America (Herbert, Henry William 1859), there is a nice plate of wet flies and discussion of the traditional wet fly technique. Even the great majority of the wet flies depicted in Bergman’s book are discussed and included in Favorite Flies and Their Histories (Marbury, Mary Orvis 1892). The “Fancy Wet Flies” as Mary Orvis Marbury labeled them are indeed an American innovation and evolution of the traditional English wets, but that innovation occurred well before Bergman’s time.

    One of the reasons that Bergman’s 1938 work is held in such high regard, is that it was one of the really well thought out works on trout fishing published at the end of the depression. The early 20th century through the late 1930s is pretty much void of decent trout and fly fishing literature and entire generations of would be anglers had little contemporary knowledge to refer to. With access to or knowledge of the great angling literature of the 19th century, one might indeed think Bergman was “the Father” of wet fly fishing.

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    1. Mike Cline

      ADDENDUM Comment: the last sentence above should read: “Without access to or knowledge of the great angling literature of the 19th century, one might indeed think Bergman was “the Father” of wet fly fishing.”

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  2. Michael Vorhis

    Thanks Clay for a nice article. My fly boxes are a bit light on the classic “winged” wetfly ties, although I find myself choosing “swingable” nymphs and fishing them like the wet fly is fished. It works, but maybe it could work better with the classic lines of a winged wet. So you’ve inspired me to not only remedy that fly box deficiency by focusing more on wet flies in my tying, but to also descend into the crawl space below the house, open up dozens of unlabeled sealed storage bins, and find my old Bergman volume. I spent a good chunk of my youth poring over that book with quickened pulse, and dreaming.

    – Mike

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