Wet Fly vs Dry Fly: Key Differences & How to Decide Which?

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Wet Fly vs Dry Fly: Key Differences & How to Decide Which?

Tackle Village is reader supported. If you buy a product through links on the site we may make a small commission

Updated on:

The difference between a wet fly and a dry fly is simple: a dry fly floats on the surface, while a wet fly sinks below the water surface.

That’s it in a nutshell, although, as we explain in this article there is a lot more to know about both wet and dry flies including how to fish them.

I discuss the different types of wet fly and dry and when you should fish a dry fly vs a wet fly.

I hope this article makes this fundamental choice in fly fishing a lot easier for many anglers.

How to Tell The Difference Between A Wet Fly and a Dry Fly

So you might be in the fly shop or looking at flies in an online fly store. If you are a beginner, it can be hard to tell what’s a wet fly and what’s a dry fly.

To make it simple, here is are some simple rules.

Dry Fly Characteristics

close up macro photo of a Parachute Adams fly in a vice
A Parachute Adams dry fly – note the fine gauge hook and the parachute hackle as signs of a dry fly

There are always exceptions to any rule, but in general terms a dry fly will have at least one of these characteristics.

  • They imitate insects
  • They are tied on fine gauge, light hooks
  • They don’t have a bead head
  • They are often buggy in appearance
  • They frequently include deer hair or foam or other buoyant materials
  • They have a hackle – either parachute or conventional

Wet Fly Characteristics

Backcountry nymph tungsten bead fly tying macro
The Back Country Nymph – note the heavy tungsten bead, 1X long hook, heavy gauge wire and simple construction
  • They imitate aquatic creatures (can be larval/pupal phase of insects, fish, leeches, crawfish)
  • They often have a bead head
  • They are tied on heavier gauge hooks
  • They are often longer, particularly streamer flies
  • They don’t have a hackle, and if they do it is a palmered hackle or a collar in the case of soft hackle flies

When Should I Use a Wet Fly instead of a Dry?

This is another issue beginner fly fishers often confront when they are trout fishing. There are a few things to consider when you are deciding whether to fish wet or dry flies.

  • Consider the season when it comes to wet flies vs dry flies – early season when the water is cold, then start with fishing a nymph as hatches are unlikely. Whereas in late spring, summer or fall a hatch is always a chance.
  • If there are fish obviously rising, fish a dry fly. Pretty obvious right? If it is a hatch, just watch the type of rise form to work out if fish are taking duns off the top or emergers in or just under the surface film
  • If there is a hatch in progress (or it feels like a hatch will start), start fishing with a dry fly. You’ll see the insects as a cloud above the water and as duns or spinners floating downstream
  • If you are fishing a shallow area with aquatic weeds in which a wet fly would get hung up (a very common situation in a spring creek), fish a dry fly.
  • If none of these conditions are present, fish start out fishing wet flies
  • If you are fly fishing a lake and need to cover a lot of water to find the fish, fish a wet fly

Types of Dry Fly

I won’t go into the exact names of dry flies or the myriad types of insect you can imitate with a dry fly, but here is a run down of the main types of both wet flies and dry flies.

Dun patterns

Fly tying macro photo of a fastwater dun sitting on a Hoya filter
The Fastwater Dun is a high floating dry fly pattern

These imitate the dun phase of hatching insects such as mayflies and caddies flies. The duns, which are adult insects, sit on the water’s surface for a period before taking off. Dun flies are usually tied on straight hooks and float high in the water, particularly when treated with floatant.

Popular dun flies:

  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Parachute Adams
  • X-Caddis

Emergers

Macro close up f Fly vise
This one is tied on a straight hook, but the F Fly is a really good emerger pattern

Emerger flies represent the fly transitioning from a nymph to a dun just under the surface film. Trout feeding on emerging insects will often create a rise form that is just a bulge – that’s a sign their mouth is not poking through the film, so what they are eating is just below the surface.

Emerger patterns, such as the famous Klinkhammer, are tied on curved hooks and often have a tail that hangs down into the water. Emerging insects are effectively trapped beneath the water’s surface for a period during which they can’t escape, so trout love to feed on them and it is always important to have some emerger flies in your box.

Popular Emerger Flies

  • F-Fly
  • Klinkhammer
  • Shaving Brush

Terrestrials

The Wee Creek hopper features foam, rubber legs and a synthetic overwing

Terrestrial flies represent any number of insects that hatch on land and fall onto the water (as opposed to aquatic insects that hatch in the water). This includes ants, beetles, hoppers, cicadas, crickets and more. These flies very often incorporate deer hair or foam in their construction.

Popular Terrestrial Flies:

  • Chernobyl Ant
  • Wee Creek Hopper
  • Stimulator

Types of Wet Fly

Nymphs

The key type of wet fly in trout fishing, nymphs represent the larval or imago stage of a mayfly or other similar types of aquatic insects (caddis fly, stonefly, salmon fly and midge among others).

Nymph patterns are wet flies tied on medium to heavy gauge that are often 1x to 2x long and can be range in size from a #20 through to a #10.

These wet flies frequently have a bead head, either tungsten or brass depending how quickly the nymph needs to sink.

Nymph patterns consist of a tail (optional), body and thorax are simple and great for beginners who are just starting out at the vise. See how to tie our favourite, the Glister Nymph.

Although they are wet flies, nymphs are usually fished on a floating line.

Popular nymph flies

  • Pheasant tail nymph
  • Gold Ribbed Hair’s Ear
  • Copper John

Streamers

Note the Crystal Flash and soft fluffy material in this fly. That gives it nice “movement” under water

Streamers are larger, longer wet flies that are tied to imitate baitfish, crawfish and other aquatic creatures.

The Woolly Bugger is probably the most famous wet fly and has probably caught more trout than other streamer fly.

Streamers incorporate materials that create a sense of movement in the water such as the marabou used in the Woolly Bugger or zonker strips and synthetic materials such as crystal flash.

Streamers are tied on long hooks (up to 4X long) of heavy gauge wire and range in size from #10 right through to #2 or larger.

Streamers can be fished on a floating line, intermediate line or a sinking or sink tip fly line to target different parts of the water column.

Popular streamer flies:

  • The Woolly Bugger
  • The Zonker
  • The Egg Sucking Leech

Soft hackles

A simple soft hackle fly. Note is is tied on a heavy gauge wire hook so it sinks

The final type of wet fly are soft hackled flies. These are unweighted or lightly weighted patterns with a nymph style but a soft hackle tied in at the eye of the hook to make a little collar.

These wet flies are finesse patterns that can be swung through a riffle where the extra movement of the soft hackle collar can induce a strike.

Popular Soft Hackle Flies

  • Partridge and Orange
  • CDC Caddis Nymph
  • Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail

Dry Fly Fishing

A nice brown taken on a black spinner pattern

I must declare an interest here, when it comes to wet fly fishing vs dry fly fishing, I am an unabashed dry fly fan and will only fish wet fly if I have to. To me, sight fishing with a dry flies is the highest form of the art of fly fishing and that’s always my first choice in terms of approach.

Fishing dry flies is very visual. Even if you can’t see the fish beneath the surface of the water, you can often see the rises as they feed. Dry fly fishing in a river means casting upstream over the top of the fish and letting the fly drift back over them.

Fishing dry flies involves casting to the fish and presenting the fly so it lands gently on the surface of the water in the fish’s vicinity. If you are dry fly fishing in a river, you should land it between a foot and a yard upstream of the fish to five it time to rise to the fly and take it.

Fishing dry flies involves matching the hatch in terms of using fly selection to imitate the type of insects that the fish are actually eating and presenting a fly that is similar in appearance and size and landing it in a way that makes sense. For example, if you are fishing with grasshopper flies it pays to land the fly hard with a plop just the real thing when it hits the water’s surface of the water. If you are fishing dry flies during a spinner fall, the fly needs to land gently.

How to Fish with Wet Fly?

There are a few forms of fishing with wet flies that we will go through below.

Upstream nymphing

Upstream nymphing involves casting a nymph (usually weighted) upstream and allowing it to drift back through likely holding water for trout. This can be indicator nymphing (either with a strike indicator or a dry dropper rig) or so called naked nymphing (with no indicator). Naked nymphing is harder – if you are able to sight fish, watch for the flash of white as the fish opens and shuts its mouth. That tells you when to strike. If you can’t see the fish even with polarized sunglasses, then watch for any movement of the fly line and then strike.

Obviously with the indicator, strike whenever it pauses or goes down.

The other form of wet fly fishing with nymphs is Euro nymphing or Czech nymphing, an advanced form of naked nymphing with a long fly rod.

Across and Down (Swinging Flies)

The other method of wet fly fishing that has been practised since the early history of fly fishing.

This involves fly fishermen and women casting across a river or stream either at 90% or as much as 45% downstream. The fly or team of flies is allowed to drift down and then rise up through the water column as the line pulls tight. The fly fisher then retrieves the fly with a series of strips, which often induces a take.

Fly anglers can use nymphs, soft hackle flies or streamers for this method. It also works with dry flies that can be skated across the water.

Streamer Fishing

Streamer fishing can be done across and down as mentioned above. You can sight fish wit streamers in clear water lakes or rivers. And you can even upstream nymph with a streamer in certain types of water.

Final Thoughts on Wet Flies vs Dry Flies

Stripping steamer flies isn’t always the most exciting form of fishing but it sure works

At the end of the day we all want to catch fish and that’s what I base my decision on in terms of whether to fish wet flies or dry flies when I am fly fishing.

I love fishing dry flies as a personal preference, so that’s the first choice. Fishing with dry flies is visually stimulating, takes skills and judgement and is deeply satisfying.

But I above all I like catching trout, so if the conditions are telling me to fish wet flies, or I am not catching any fish casting dry flies, then I will switch to wet flies because above all I want to catch fish.

I reckon most anglers are the same. If you’re that same kind of fly fisher, then I hope this article helps you to decide between wet and dry flies next time you go fishing.

Photo of author
AUTHOR
Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water.