North Woods Wet Flies

By Bob Romano

In addition, many of the northern New England rivers and streams are characterized by fast-running rapids and runs, preventing fish from closely examining insects.

Anglers traveling to northern New England may be surprised to find that although there is a time and place to cast dry flies, on most days, fishing under the surface will be more productive. There is good reason for this. Unlike many of the nutrient-rich rivers and streams found in southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic States, those of northern New Hampshire and western Maine are not nearly as fertile. For this reason, our aquatic-insect hatches are sporadic, both in time and place.

The Rivers

Such rivers as the Housatonic, Deerfield, and Swift, and the West Branch of the Delaware, have abundant insect life that provides sustained hatches, some of which you can set your watch by. These insect hatches can last for weeks and extend over long stretches of water. Whereas, on the Rapid, Magalloway, Cupsuptic, and Kennebago, as well as many of the rivers throughout northern New Hampshire, hatches may continue for no more than an hour or so while lasting for only a few days, with bugs rising upstream, and no insect activity a hundred yards downstream.

To be sure, northern New England has hatches of mayflies, but nothing compared with the blizzards of blue-winged olives and sulfers that can be found on the limestone streams of Pennsylvania or the freestone rivers of Connecticut and New York state.

In addition, many of the northern New England rivers and streams are characterized by fast-running rapids and runs, preventing fish from closely examining insects. It’s not that our brook trout and landlocked salmon are dumb, but under such conditions, they have come to learn that acting quickly is a necessity. A brown trout residing in the Housatonic can take its time while finning in a quiet pool or sluggish run to inspect your fly. These selective princes of the stream have the time as well as the menu from which to choose an offering while the rough and tumble nature of northern New England’s rivers and streams have produced, over time, what I believe are fish that have developed a more predacious nature.

Matching the Hatch

For these reasons, it’s rarely necessary to closely “match the hatch” as required on other waters. Sure, there are times when the fish are looking toward the surface, and may be more selective than usual, but more often than not, they are feeding under surface in an opportunist manner, taking whatever the river is willing to provide at that moment.

Over the years, I’ve adapted my methods to meet the expectations of the trout and salmon inhabiting the waters surrounding my camp.

During the early part of the season, while fish are concentrating on smelt and the sucker spawns, I prefer casting streamers and egg patterns, but during the remainder of the year, my go-to patterns are wet flies.

Caddis and stoneflies far outnumber mayflies in our northern waters. Soft-hackled and fixed-winged wet-fly patterns can be used to imitate both insects, taking fish under most any conditions. These patterns can be fished deep if sufficiently weighted or as an emerging insect with a greased line.

Drag Free  Drift

From that afternoon when I first picked up a fly rod, I was taught to fish with a drag-free drift. In all but extreme situations, such as when skittering a dry fly across the surface to simulate a caddis returning to the river to drop its eggs, giving action to the fly was verboten!

This is another difference that I’ve discovered when fishing northern New England waters. There are times when a dead-drifted wet fly will go untouched, but give the line a twitch and be ready to hang on! It’s my belief that twitching the fly triggers the fish’s predatory instinct, compelling it to strike or lose the chance at a meal.

The Leisenring Lift

The Leisenring Lift is a subtle technique developed by the well-known Pennsylvania fly fisher, Jim Leisenring. The name can be deceiving, as many anglers believe it requires the lifting of the fly rod, but this would be wrong. Instead, a cast is made up and across stream from a suspected lie, allowing the wet fly time to sink to the appropriate depth so that it passes in front of a fish at about the same time as the leader straightens out, allowing the fly to rise toward the surface, in a natural manner, thereby provoking the fish into action.

I have been successful casting wet flies on large rivers such as the Rapid, as well as on smaller brooks and streams. I use a floating line with a standard leader between 7 ½ and 9 feet long, varying the length of leader and size of the fly, depending on water conditions. I’m too lazy to switch back and forth between floating and sinking lines. Instead, I carry a sinking leader, with a loop-to-loop connection that allows me to switch back and forth between leaders with relative ease without having to change my floating fly line. A sinking leader is a bit harder to cast, but it gets that fly a foot or two deeper, which can make all the difference in a day’s fishing.

Cast the right pattern, on the right leader, using the right technique, and you may find that the fish will attack your wet fly so eagerly that by the end of the day all that will remain is a slip of thread and bit of tinsel.

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