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Micro dries

By Jeremy Lucas

Jeremy Lucas yearns for the river to be low and clear, for then he can put his downstream micro-dry presentation into practice.

A size 10 hook dwarfs the author
A size 10 hook dwarfs the author

There is an enormous riffle above Hochewka section on San, low down on the legendary ‘no-kill’ sector; among the most protected trout and grayling water on the planet. Double world champion Pascal Cognard was fishing, actually giving a masterclass, in bright July sunshine. There was a downstream wind. Throughout the morning the hatch of various ephemerids, and a few sedges, had been building, but it was inconsistent. There were olive uprights, pale wateries and spurwings on the surface. Friends and I had been working upstream, fighting the wind (very British), taking the odd fish, but nothing spectacular. I paused, naturally, to watch Pascal.

The next hour became a waypoint in my dry-fly fishing life. I had a very good view of his rig, and later examined it in some detail. The leader was an unconventional ‘French’ leader, steeply tapered at the butt section and very long, over eight metres, at least four metres in the tip section being level 7X (I think it was a copolymer). It glittered in the sunshine as he cast. He stood with his back to the wind, fishing across and downstream. He was way out over the riffle water, perhaps half way across the river, about 70 metres from either bank.

He settled himself into position and for three quarters of an hour took no more than half-a-dozen steps downstream. He was using what most would call a parachute cast. I call it, more descriptively, a stun cast, with drag back. Almost no fly line was out of the rod tip and the forward cast stopped at just beyond the vertical, followed by a pull backwards (upwind and upstream) so that the leader and fly dumped on the surface about five metres downstream of Pascal. When the fly and leader alighted on the surface, the rod tip was slowly lowered in pace with the current. There was just sufficient contact with the fly so that it could dead-drift without drag, and with the scale of leader and length of rod (over 11ft), this dead-drift phase was approaching 10 metres, which in itself is hugely impressive.

Now, before I describe the effectiveness of this presentation, just examine the pragmatism of the approach compared with our conventional, upstream presentation. The downstream wind had necessitated a short, steeply tapered leader and turnover was extremely difficult. Only by casting up and very much across – almost square – could we achieve reasonable presentation, and then only for a metre or two of drag-free drift. Even though we had covered a great deal of water with continuous wading, my companions and I had effectively covered very little. In two hours of fishing, I personally had caught three grayling and three trout. The French approach, however, was markedly more efficient.

Barely moving his feet over the ensuing three quarters of an hour, Pascal adopted the routine of casting, tracking the fly downstream, rising, hooking and netting a fish (or recasting), squeezing out (to dry it) and preparing the fly for the next drift. During this process more than 20 grayling were caught (and three trout)! On average, one drift in three brought a rise, and almost every one of these resulted in a hooked and netted fish, so good was the control over and contact with the fly. He enjoyed one ‘purple patch’ of six consecutive casts with six fish netted.

The fly was not visible to me, but I glimpsed it later and noticed that it was CdC dressed short on about a size 20 or 22, possibly a Tiemco 103BL 21. I have seen and used many of this style of micro-dry used by the continental masters of this technique since that encounter. The versions shown in this article are my own, all tied on the hook above, the FM 2487, or for the absolute ‘micro-dots’ Varivas Ultra Midge 2300, which go down to an incredible nano-level at a size 30.

Since that inspiring encounter with Pascal on the San, so reminiscent of similar technique-changing events with Arthur Cove in the 1980s, I have spent so much time exploring the new possibilities opened up here. I have been very conscious of breaking down barriers and conventions, of a more non-linear approach to dry fly presentation (and this has also fed through to nymph presentation). In some ways it is infuriating, because I now appreciate that our very English approach of fishing upstream, no matter what, was ridiculous, and I hate to think of the time I have wasted in the past. Why struggle with a compromised presentation, when the solution, so naturally achieved by the Continental dry fly masters, is so simple?

Look at it like this. When we want to change the direction of our cast on the river, we manufacture the back-cast, or dynamic loop and anchor, so as to give us good presentation on the forward (final) rod and line movement. If you accept that this is the only sensible approach to casting, it is a natural progression to accept that fly presentation is at least related to this. It is completely unproductive to fight against the prevailing conditions; futile to try to punch a dry fly upstream in a downstream wind. All we can possibly do here is spook our target fish. Rather, we should always strive to achieve the best presentation in the wind and water conditions with which we are presented.

I call it the 360˚ river: when you are wading out there, working your way up the stream, the entire circle of water around you is the potential target area. With dry fly presentation we are hugely dependent on wind direction and strength, much more so than with nymph, spider or streamer. Of course, we are most comfortable in a nice, gentle upstreamer, because this allows us to wade up on fish from behind – where we are least visible to them. Think about the advantages of an across or downstream presentation, however. Although there is the problem of the duration of the drag-free drift (with the fly always falling away from you downstream), at least only the fly is being shown to the fish; no leader or fly line.

Fishing dry, and most especially micro dry, a drag-free drift is completely essential. Midges, smuts, small ephemerids and even micro sedges, can do no more than twitch in the water’s surface. They cannot move ridges of water as can a dragging fly; quality summer trout and grayling will immediately be wary of a dragging micro dry. All your tactical approach with presentation should be dominated by the need to achieve as long a drag-free drift as possible.

The following tactical approach is how I guide anglers on a dry fly session: focus on a target area and analyse how best you can wade, or move on the bank, so that you can place a fly on track of the target fish. The wind and flow directions and strengths will dominate how you achieve this. You will have a prime target area; probably a fish seen rising, but when actually out in the river it is extraordinary how one’s perspective changes, and fresh target fish or areas become more obvious, and this will be anywhere: through 360˚ from your position or track through the water. If fishing across or down wind, you can increase leader length, and the extreme case is somewhere around eight metres, such that no fly line whatsoever is out of the rod tip.

Be aware, however, that handling tippet with a hooked fish is very uncomfortable, so use a long rod (10ft+) and a realistic leader length (max 6m) and a light fly line which is easier to handle than leader. You may need to play fish off the reel. Soft, long rods – a 10ft #3 or #4, for example – help enormously in cushioning the take at short range. Fish feeding on micro dries, particularly grayling, will not move off track. They have chosen their position on the food lane and will not waste energy. Then again, unless the wind is strong, I still always prefer upstream presentation, simply because I can then very closely approach the target fish from downstream. For up-and-across presentation a short tapered leader is chosen, with an overall length of about three metres, including a tippet length of at least a metre. With this, in the 360 degree approach, you should be confident to turn around and fish downstream, and downwind, perhaps even adding length to the tippet.

Always, however, when fishing downstream, stop the rod high on the forward cast, even dragging the line upstream a little before it alights, so that you have the means to track the fly down the flow to avoid drag, though maintaining contact.

If fish are rising, but you either cannot see to what, or they ignore your larger flies; go to the micros. If these are dead-drifted they will be taken. Watch for the rise in the vicinity of where your fly is (if you can’t see it in broken water), and just set the hook – don’t strike. Keep the rod tip up. By default, the fish will be close to you, full of energy and possibly in fast water. You need to cushion the blow. Micro dries tend to hook securely, and the main danger is that the hook will open. Try to swing the fish away from the feed line, where there may be other fish. If you drift over a fish and the fly is refused, allow the fly, leader and line to drop downstream further, and then swing off the feed lane, before lifting off; this will minimise spooking the fish.

My recommendation for tippet material for micro dry leaders is for copolymer; Hardy, Greys or Fulling Mill copolymer have always been good for me. More recently I have been impressed by Frog Hair, but have used this now only for a little over a year.

Go for 6X if you can get away with it, 7X-8X if not. I have never had to resort to finer than this. I do, however, never use shiny leader material and will often apply Fullers Earth/detergent mix or clay, not so much to degrease, rather than to dull the shine, and also to aid sinking in calm water. I think the greatest enemy to the angler fishing micro dry – even more so than with large scale dry fly (19 and larger) – is a floating tippet in calm water. It looks like rope! And don’t think that using the relatively dense fluorocarbon will help you here; in such fine diameter (and fluorocarbon is never finer than about 0.12mm) even copper wire will float if untreated, due to the phenomenon of surface tension.

In the July 2010 issue of the magazine I hinted at the importance of micro sedges and aphids (greenfly) as target food forms of trout and grayling. Of the former I knew nothing at all, until a few years ago I was told about the abundance of these by guru fly fishing entomologist, Stuart Crofts who has been gaining a lot of evidence about these species. With this discovery, I cast my mind back much further to fish that have been caught only when I have gone down to the micros, and reckon now that many of these fish were actually feeding on the micro sedges. Then again, the importance of aphids is far better documented, and from late September onwards, after the bulk of the micro sedge hatch activity, fish rising to invisible food forms, smaller than pale wateries, are most likely to be on these terrestrial ‘wind-falls’, particularly if you see leaves drifting in the water.

As with the micro ephemerids that I described last month, the dressing of these micro dries is very simple.; it has to be on such tiny hooks. There is no room and absolutely no need whatsoever, for complexity, which will be counterproductive. You need only the vaguest GISS, in the form of reasonable, balanced, shape and size, with a minimum of materials.

A great starting point pattern is the micro F-Fly, which immediately offers the sedge shape, with a wing sloping over the back. The materials used are identical to the micro ephemerids described in the last article (though there is no tail of Coq de Leon). Lay a Ghost Thread underbody from bend to close to the head. Dub a tiny amount of grey (natural) CdC from close to the base of a plume. Tightly dub this along the body and pack it in tight to the shank, over-wrapping with the thread if necessary. Tie in a single CdC plume-tip sloping down over the back, reaching down to the hook-bend. Now, a slight variation might be worth exploring: replace the CdC dubbing with mole fur. I think this gives a trigger contrast with the plume-tip wing, and also better approximates the colour of most aphids (black fly). A smear of bees’ wax on the Ghost Thread will help when dubbing mole. Remember, you need only the merest whisp. For better aphid impression, you might tie a ball of dubbing along the top of the shank rather than along its whole length, which provides a more sedge-like profile.

When people think of aphids, they are usually referring to green fly. Actually, in my experience on the river; black (and a slate blue colour) fly are much more common; and they are absolutely irresistible to, particularly, big grayling. Greenfly will, however, sometimes find themselves en masse cascading down the leaf-strewn river, and then the above pattern with a bright green, fine wool dubbed body is effective.

With all of these micro dries, accuracy is the key, because big fish adopt rigorous feeding stations. In slacker pools in high summer and autumn, trout will, however, cruise just sub-surface and just ‘neb’ tiny dries from the film. You still need to be accurate, of course, because a misplaced fly (or worse, the leader or line) in the area of the cruise route will easily spook fish.

In any slack water, and at any time of year, fish on the surface should always make us suspect midges. The F-Fly above, with mole fur dubbing and a white CdC Plume-Tip is good for any river hatched midges.

Prime suspects
A variation of all the above which will, however, shake fish from pre-occupation on any sedge or dipteran species, and will even have them moving ‘off-line’ by at least a few inches, if not feet, is the pink-winged CdC. I first discovered the effectiveness of pink CdC on Muller patterns (The missing kink, September 2007 issue), when substituting the natural looped CdC wing with dyed pink. I used this at first because of the increased visibility in dull light conditions and it was demonstrably effective. I had the impression then that the pink was enough to shake fish off pre-occupied feeding, notably during evening caddis and sherry spinner falls. The micro dries have similarly benefited (again in low light conditions) by the same substitution in the wing; but not the body dubbing, which remains mole or grey CdC, or hare’s mask fur.

Finally, the flies are important in this micro-dry approach, but they are not as important as the presentation. Neither are they as important as the way you put home the hook and deal with the fish. Once you live in the sub-size-20 region, you learn quickly how to feed the fly into the fish’s mouth in the 360˚ river, to set it, and to ease the fish away from the feed lane, steering it towards the net or hand as its energy dissipates. To me, this is the very best in fly fishing. Of course, it is demanding, but mostly of confidence. Once you have been through the micro-dry approach a few times, you will yearn for the river to be low and clear again, because this is when the technique is at its best.

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