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Skating Dry Flies & Accidental Excellence

Excellence by accident. Whether the fly fisher knows or acknowledges it or not, this little quip may very well characterize some of the best experiences we have in angling.

A perfect example is one of the very first memorable trout I caught on a fly rod. Learning to fly fish, it was drilled into me that the fly shouldn’t drag. The dead drift was the goal, and anything else would lead to fishlessness. However, I can still see the wake of that beetle against the current as the white mouth of a big brown trout inhaled it.

Absolutely not dead, certainly not drifting, positively an accident.

I didn’t stumble across some new fly fishing paradigm. Inadvertently, I made a dry fly “move” on the water’s surface. There are a few different ways to give a dry fly a little action, but skating might be the most productive for trout fishing.

Skating dry flies for salmon, steelhead, and trout has been around for ages. Yet for whatever reason (I assume it is the clout of the dead-drift lobbyists) this once-popular technique has fallen out of common use. Even for trout, our fly fishing forefathers would skate mayflies and caddis regularly.

Why? It is what bugs do. Especially on glassy water, caddisflies will skitter their way in every direction as they attempt to take off. The tiny bug, dancing across the surface, doesn’t scare trout away. If anything, it triggers aggressive feeding. Consequently, imitating such movement can elicit those responses and lead to productive fishing.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. It can be a great way to put a spooky fish down. If there are plenty of spent insects floating along, a fish may very well refuse an offering that requires more effort. Most of all, if not done well it can just come across as wholly unnatural. It has to be done right, and it has to be done well.

So how is it done well? Here are a few things to think about:

  • Flies Pretty much any dry fly can be skated in a pinch. High floating, heavily hackled dries perform the best though. Very bushy caddis imitations are serviceable. I find that asymmetrical pattern, such as an elk hair caddis with it’s wing, has the tendency to flip while being skated. That is why I carry a few simple flies for skating. The recipe is easy: a fine dry fly hook, thread, with a full palmered body. I use hackle that is one size larger than the hook I’m tying on. The tie pictured above uses size 14 hackle on a size 12 hook. I’ve used it during tan caddis, sulphur, and the early part of white fly hatches.
  • Gear Lots of flotant on the fly is key. Light tippet, greased starting a foot above the fly for a few feet, is helpful. Longer leaders in the 12’ to 16’ range will aid in the process, too. A long rod makes skating dries a bit easier. I’ll cover why below.
  • Technique Cast to the bank, a rock, or wherever may very well be a good feeding spot in it’s own right. Now just lift the rod tip enough so that the line and leader come off the surface. The longer rod and leader enables you to be in contact with just the fly. With a slow draw, allow the fly to pull free from the surface tension in little hops. You need to only move the leader so that the fly skips on the water. Even though bugs dart about on the water, they don’t move terribly fast. They also move in spurts. Pull the fly a few feet and pause; then repeat. You can do it in any direction, because bugs move in every direction.
  • Timing Not surprisingly, the best time to skate dries is when you see fish chasing dries that are skating. It can be used as an “attractor.” It can be used when fish are rising with reckless abandon. It can be used when nothing else is working!

I’ve skated dries on big, western rivers and on eastern spring creeks. I’ve had feisty brookies jump out of the water to take skated flies and I’ve had big rainbows slash at them from below the surface. It is a skill that isn’t to be deployed every time you go fishing, but it ought to be in the fly fisher’s arsenal. Once you get over the fact that you’re purposefully eschewing the dead drift model, you might be pleasantly surprised with the results.

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