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Move them flies...or make them look like they are moving

As fly anglers, we all learned that getting a good, drag free drift is the key to catching fish both on dry flies and on nymphs. No doubt there is some truth to that but I think it is an oversimplification and sometimes a hinderance. From about mid-April when the Grannom Caddis (Brachycentrus spp. - for more, read Five Hatches for the Driftless) begin hatching through the end of May and generally into June, I catch most fish on a CDC and Elk that I skitter. This is not some "secret" strategy. Leonard Wright in his 1972 book, "Fishing the dry fly as a living insect: An unorthodox method; the thinking man's guide to trout angling" was proselytized about this before myself or many others using this method today ever knew fly fishing existed.

Pile of CDC and Elk Caddis
It's no secret - the CDC and Elk is my favorite fly and probably my most used fly. I catch a lot of fish on a moving CDC and Elk!

One curiosity in the fly fishing world is that we were taught that our dry flies and nymphs should be dead drifted but look at the number of traditional wet flies and softhackle flies that were meant to be swung. What is a swing if not adding movement to the fly? And many anglers skilled at fishing the swung fly (I am not one of them, yet), have their own little tricks and line twists to impart other movement into their flies so they are not just swinging their flies.

The truth is, you should be moving your flies more than you do - and I am not talking about streamers. Insects move. Next time you experience a hatch, watch the bugs for a bit and you will see that for many hatches or egg laying sessions are filled with moving insects. Likewise terrestrial insects do not "give up" when they hit the stream, they often kick their way to shore. Don't be afraid to move your flies when it makes sense.

Quikc and dirty crane fly pattern
A crane fly pattern that is both able to be moved and has features that represent movement (even if the fly isn't moving)

We tend to get stuck in this fly fishing orthodoxy that our flies need to be dead drifted. And that the advantage that fly fishing provides us is that is we can cast and present nearly weightless (or heavily weighted nymphs) in as natural a was possible. I argue that few naturals dead drift - they are trying to emerge from their nymphal shucks or pupal cases, they are trying to break from the surface film to take flight, or they are moving and dipping their abdomens to deposit eggs into the water. And we confuse drag - which as bad - with movement which is often a good thing and a way to more accurately imitate natural insects.

When does making your flies make sense?

Certainly when the "bugs" themselves are moving is a prime time to be moving your flies. Caddis, crane flies, terrestrial insects, and even mayflies are moving more often than we seem to give them credit for. Certainly all insects are moving when they go from their aquatic larval stage to their aerial adult stage - they have to move from the water to the air. This is the movement that wet fly anglers have taken advantage of. Most stoneflies and a few species of mayflies crawl or swim to shore or objects that break the surface of the water to emerge into their aerial adult stages. Many species of caddis hold themselves to rocks with a silk "lifeline" and repel themselves back if a current knocks them off their rock. There is an entire group of mayflies we refer to as "swimmers" - and they make up some of our best hatches. In fact Frank Sawyer's Pheasant Tail Nymph was designed without legs because the swimming mayflies he was imitating have their legs held near their bodies when they are swimming.

This method involved the ‘sink and draw,’ where the fly was allowed to sink and then made to swim upwards to the surface either by pulling in line or by raising the rod tip. This raise of the fly in the water column was intended to mimic the motion of an emerging insect, moving from the bottom of the river to the surface.

From a FlyLords article in the series, Famous Fly Origins, Sawyer was using moving flies in the 1950's - moving your flies is nothing new.

Driftless spring creek
Slow water and weed beds - prime habitat for swimming mayflies.

If nothing else, it makes sense to try to move your flies when the fish are not hitting your dead drifted fly. My usual plan of attack is to make a few dead drifts and then incorporate a few twitches or skitters after the less obtrusive methods fail to yield results. Before changing flies, I typically try to move my fly and see if that makes a difference first. And take a page out of the streamer anglers' playbook, change the way you move your fly and see what works.

There are times that moved flies have saved the day for me. None more so than a rather frustrating complex hatch on Colorado's Frying Pan River tailwater where the trout were ignoring my dead drifted naturals I had tied specifically for those hatches. I had mayfly patterns to imitate the Red Quills, Western Green Drakes, and Pale Evening Duns we expected to encounter based on our pre-trip research. Nothing was working well; I had taken a fish or two but there were literally a hundred or more trout within a reasonable casting distance. A bit of observation rather than casting showed that the fish were only taking mayflies that were moving and were ignoring those that were dead drifted. So I cast downstream and twitched my hackled dry flies with a bit more success and still a good number of refusals. Next I switched to the largest CDC and Elk (caddis) I had because I knew I could twitch it more effectively. I had probably the best fishing of the trip for the next 30 - 40 minutes until the hatches stopped. Had I not observed what was happening and tried something different, the story would have been about the tough hatch I could not figure out.

Frying Pan River, Colorado
Fishing on Colorado's Frying Pan tailwater - a bug factory where the moving fly greatly outfished the dead drifted fly.

The problem is moving flies is difficult to do to imitate the scales at which the naturals move. In an earlier post about scuds, I wrote about why and how you should be moving your scud patterns in short twitches of an inch to a couple of inches. It certainly takes a bit of practice and line control to be able to effectively twitch your flies.

Make your flies look like they are moving / Inherent movement

A simpler way to imitate movement is to use materials that either look like they are moving - barred feathers, banded rubber legs - or are easily moved in the "micro-currents" of streams - bucktail, marabou, and soft hackle and CDC feathers.

The first idea, making still flies look like they are moving, is easily accomplished and maybe (?) helpful. Maybe it is more a confidence thing than fish are actually thinking that bug is moving and about to "get away". And maybe the grizzly and barred ginger hackles do a better job of imitating the natural pigmentation of most insects and their wings and/or legs. We are generally imitating the six legs of aquatic insects with MANY more than six hackle fibers. Maybe it is one of those "just so" stories that makes myself and other anglers feel like we have figured it out?

Grizzly, light, and medium barred ginger saddles.
I'm a big fan of grizzly and other barred saddle hackle.

The choice of materials can help give your flies inherent movement. Again, I think this is a place that streamer, warmwater, and saltwater anglers are well ahead of the traditional trout folks. Streamer design is often not just about what the fly looks like when it is being moved but how does it pulse and breathe as it is stopped? Fly tyers can accomplish this by tying sparse flies with materials that are moved by the current. "Euro" nymphs often use a little collar of CDC to impart some movement in their heavily weighted flies. The Guide's Choice Hare's Ear Nymph uses a softhackle to give the fly a little more natural movement. And I think my favorite fly, Hans Weilenmann's CDC and Elk, is so effective because of how it floats low in the water and that the CDC feather gives it natural movement.

I think there are two main considerations in tying flies with inherent movement. First, they need to be tied with materials that are able to move. This means soft hackle feathers, CDC, and in larger flies, bucktail rather than stiff hackle or synthetics. Second, the flies need to be tied sparsely so the materials are allowed to move. We have all tied and/or fished flies that looked great in the vise or fly shop bin but were rather lifeless in the water.

Three articulated streamers
Articulated flies - the "new school" way to incorporate movement into flies.

I suppose the third way (hey, he said 2!) to incorporate movement into flies are articulations that have become commonplace for streamers. There are insect imitations that use tail shanks or other ways to articulate the fly but it is hard to do at the scale of most aquatic insects. But that does not mean that you should not give it a try.

Move them flies

Obviously the most direct way to make your flies look like they are moving is to actually move them. Easier said than done. Most aquatic insects that we are imitating are rather small so their movements need to be scaled to their size. To move flies effectively requires a great deal of line control.

The easiest way to move your flies is a downstream presentation. I have to admit, I do not do this as much as I probably should - in part because I am not particularly good at it. In the Driftless Area where I do most of my fishing, it seems fishing downstream is a minor technique but I have seen friends do very well. In part this is because the silt makes wading and fishing downstream nearly impossible but many streams can be fished downstream from the bank (just stay low). One method is the classic wet fly swing where the current against the line moves the fly through the water column. A second method is to use small strips or rod tip twitches to move the fly short distances. Of course the two can and are often used together.

Run in a small Driftless stream
A classic Driftless small stream run - a place I like to cast close to shore and twitch my caddis imitation. I particularly like the slack water areas and the faster water that is next to them.

My favorite way to fish the moving fly is the dry fly skitter. Most of the time I am doing this with an upstream presentation. This means that I need to keep my line nearly tight to the drifting fly. Random movements are effectively done with a twitching rod tip and more precise movements can be accomplished with small strips. Another technique I have tried with some success is a down or down and across dry fly presentation where the tension on the line and the twitch bring the fly underwater. A number of caddis species - including Hydropsyche spp. which are some of our best caddis hatches - dive underwater to lay their eggs. And I have mostly ignored terrestrials in this post but I am very often twitching hoppers, Hippie Stompers, and beetles.

I sure as hell do not have it all figured out but I am willing to observe and experiment, test my observations, and reassess. Moving your flies does not always work, but when it does, Hold On! Give it a try.

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I was wrapping up my day this past Saturday and cast a bead head hare’s ear into a pool and stripped it an inch or so at a time. Just kind of lazily stripped it in while admiring a farmer’s geese when WHAM a 12” brown hit the nymph. I was delightfully surprised and vowed right then to incorporate movement a bit more.

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