Which Dry Fly Should I Use When There’s No Hatch?

Dry fly fishing is one of the greatest ways to fly fish. There are few things as exciting, intense, and fun as watching a fish come to the surface and eat a fly. It’s a moment where a piece of water comes to life and a normally hidden fish explodes into a demonstration of its grace and power.

Ideally, there will be a hatch going on when you want to use dries. Then you can pick a fly to match the bugs you’re seeing. Other times, though, nothing is hatching. But a dry fly may still be a good way to catch a few fish.

A great example of this is an event called “The spring time Skwala Game”. It shows why a dry fly is a good option even if there aren’t a lot of bugs on the surface of the water.

Big Bugs, Big Flies, Big Fish

In parts of the American west, the spring fishing season is heralded by the Skwala stonefly. Before the trees bloom, before the song birds reappear, and before runoff starts, the Skwala hatch bursts opens the door to dry fly fishing. The diminutive midges of winter become an afterthought as anglers tie on chubby, 1” foam creations and ply the cold spring waters, waiting for big trout to smash the first big bugs they’ve seen in a long time.

Younger, smaller fish are slow to recognize these large bugs. But older, bigger fish remember them from past springs. As the water warms, these fish transition out of their winter pools and into the slow bends and riffles, waiting for fat, helpless Skwala bugs to swim by.

Skwala’s aren’t as numerous as the midges or mayflies that also populate western rivers. Most of the time anglers are fishing the big dry before the hatch is in full force. So why do bigger fish eat them? Simple: They remember these bugs and they won’t refuse the large juicy meal, even if there isn’t a real hatch going.

Prospecting With a Dry Fly

To stick a fish with a dry fly even when there isn’t a hatch going, you’ve got to fish with confidence. What's more important than fly pattern is making sure you put the fly in spots likely to hold fish.

Hit the cut banks and drifts. Get that fly as close to the edge as you can, fish the current seams and bubble lines hard, work the edges of riffles and bends—anywhere you think a fish will be holding is a place to drop a dry.

Don’t give up and don’t resort to a dropper. While fishing dropper rigs is a great way to get into fish, placing a dry in tight to cover is difficult with an extra fly hanging off the back.

Dry flies for prospecting differ from ones you use to match hatches. They tend to be more impressionistic and buggier than ones mimicking insects. When prospecting with dries, you may want to change patterns more often throughout the day until you find something fish are eager to rise to.

Compared to fishing an actual hatch, prospecting with dry flies may mean covering more water. But because you could be rewarded with large, eager fish, it’s worth trying.

Pick a pattern that suggests the qualities of an insect and toss it to any likely looking spot. If nothing comes up, try another pattern in the same area. If a fish doesn’t take that one, move on. Eventually you’ll find a willing player.

Patterns For Prospecting

Here are some dry flies to try when fish aren’t rising.

  • Winter, anywhere: Midges are your best bet. Patterns to try: Griffiths Gnat, Midge Cluster
  • Spring in the west: Midge dries, Skwala dries, Baetis and small mayflies. Bullethead Skwala, Griffiths Gnat, Olive parachute or an Adams.
  • Spring in the east: Midges, Baetis, Quill Gordon, Little Black Caddis. Hendrickson, CDC grey caddis, Adams, Griffiths Gnat, Quill Gordon.
  • Summer in the west: Purple Haze, Chubby Chernobyl.
  • Summer in the East: Adams, Elk Hair Caddis.
  • Fall, anywhere: Ants, beetles, and hoppers before the water and air temperatures drop for the season. Pick any buggy pattern in smaller sizes from #14-20 or a terrestrial like a Joes Hopper or Fat Albert Beetle.

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