My grandfather was a fisherman and my earliest memories of him are surrounded by fishing. He loved to wade in clear creeks in West Virginia and took pride in his fishing tackle. Every visit with him would require a trip to his basement to lay out all of the fishing gear and sit for hours listening to him tell me what each fly was for and how many fish he had caught with them.
Many years later, after his death, I started to take a closer look at his fly fishing collection. I noticed his fly boxes were full of a different kind of fly than I was used to fishing. My fly fishing had grown into a career of teaching folks to cast fly rods and walking behind them in creeks pointing to rising trout. My fly box was filled with sophisticated dry flies, streamers, nymphs, attractor patterns, and terrestrials but none like the traditional wet flies my Grandfather had cherished. I began researching Grandad’s flies and talking with some old timers about what I had seen in his box. Grandad was not only fly fisherman, apparently he was a wet fly fisherman.
Through my research it all makes sense now. Traditional wet flies were popular in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1950s. They were excellent brook trout attractors and were designed to be fished just below the surface to imitate a variety of drowned insects. Wet flies were tied to imitate a broad range of insects anglers saw on or above the water with many patterns tied with flash and color to attract more strikes. Fisherman fished them down and across the stream in a technique termed the “wet fly swing.”
Three styles of wet flies were prominent. The winged wet flies were tied with tails and bodies from bird neck and wing feathers. The wings were often very stiff. The soft hackles were made with a thread or floss body and a hackle usually from a game bird. The hackle was soft and sparse. Flymphs is a term Leisenring and Hidy, authors of the book originally published in 1941 as The Art of Tying the Wet Fly, used to describe the transition from a nymph to an adult. They are wingless wet flies tied with dubbed fur bodies and hackle that only covers the front half of the body.
I began fishing traditional wet flies several years ago. A local trout bum introduced me to wet flies the hard way, by a thorough fish spanking at my expense. In fact his favorite, the Royal Coachman wet fly, is a one of my go-to flies when fishing my home waters due to the fact wet flies can be fished numerous ways.
An Appalachian historian once told me he could remember people tying a string of three or four wet flies to a stick and dragging them through deep runs to catch brookies or “speckled trout.” Anglers today fish wet flies either un-weighted, with a small weight attached to the leader, or with some weight tied into the fly during the tying process. I generally fish wet flies as droppers under a dry fly. Appalachia is full of shallow cold creeks were weighted anything means snags.
The “wet fly swing” still rings true today. I often catch fish on the swing out or when I lift my rod to make another cast. This imitates the natural rise to the surface of a hatching insect. Mending the line is very important when fishing upstream or dead drifting. The wet flies are light and will not sink deep. If not mended properly, they tend to ride too high and travel way too fast to be presented naturally. I often find when fishing for rising trout that they will hit the wet fly dropper instead of my dry fly.
Traditional wet flies used in the Appalachian Mountains years ago will never be as popular as the more realistic match-the-hatch patterns, but I have seen more of them offered in fly fishing shops lately. I’ve noticed the ties that Grandad wore religiously to Sunday dinner are now back in style. Perhaps Grandad’s wet fly collection is making a comeback as well.