3 tips for dry fly fishing stealth

Common sense tactics to improve your dry fly fishing success
new zealand fly fishing
Photo: Jeremiah Clark

Low water and skittish trout are common during the late summer and early fall trout fishing seasons. While most any fly fishing tactic will produce results at those times of the year, dry flies are often an excellent option. Although some hatches still occur, reduced activity of aquatic insects both above and below the surface often leaves trout looking up for food, specifically, for terrestrials. But while trout are looking up to feed, they are also on the lookout for predators, thanks to low, clear water, which puts their evolutionary protective alarms on high alert.

Having success with dry flies during these times of the year means being stealthy. Employing a few common sense tips to help stay out of sight and out of mind of the trout you’re chasing can significantly improve your dry fly success during the late season.

Lengthen your leader

Fly lines landing on the water during the cast or presentation is perhaps the most common way to spook trout, especially during times of low and clear conditions. No matter how delicate the angler lays the line on the water, every fly line has mass and—unless you’re able to defy gravity—will land on the surface, displacing some amount of water and causing a disturbance. If you find your cast spooking fish, lengthen the leader by adding a heavy butt section to the back end of your leader. The longer your leader, the farther the mass of the fly line will be from the fish you are targeting when it impacts the water, and the less likely you will be to send it fleeing for cover.

Start off with a standard 7 1/2’ 5X or 6X leader and add anywhere from 4-8’ of 50lb tippet. Lengthening your leader by extending the butt section allows you to minimize the number of leaders you need to carry. If you’re new to fly fishing, I would recommend keeping your leader no longer than 9-12’ in length. As you develop better casting, along with better line and leader control skills, you will be able to fish leaders in excess of 15’.

A Quiet Pickup

A heavy fly line landing on the water will spook fish but so will a partially sunken fly line being pulled out of the water as an angler prepares to backcast. A sunken fly line—or even a submerged leader—must break the water’s surface tension before it can be lifted off the water, which often causes a loud disturbance. If the line and leader cause too much disturbance during the pickup, fish in the immediate area are likely to spook before you present the fly again, robbing you of that second (or third, or fourth) opportunity.

While there are several casting techniques which help decrease the likelihood of a hard liftoff, the most effective tactic is greasing your fly line and your leader’s butt section with a grease floatant—not a gel. A grease floatant like Mucilin or Loon’s Payette Paste sticks to the line and leader and keeps it floating higher and longer than a gel application, because gel is designed for flies, not fly lines and leaders. A high floating line and leader peels off the water with less disturbance.

Start short

Another common cause of spooking fish is casting over a fish. When dry fly fishing, this is called “lining the fish.” This is a mistake everyone (and I mean everyone!) makes. Sometimes it’s impossible to know where a fish is positioned, and accidently lining it is just part of the process. But this mistake often occurs due to impatience.

Here’s an example: you enter the water and see a trout rising on the opposite side of the stream. Your instinct is to immediately cast to that fish. In doing so, you end up lining two other fish in the pool. Those two flee and end up spooking the fish you saw rising. That’s game over. Cast short at first, then slowly lengthen each proceeding cast.

There is no way to eliminate spooking fish, but we can reduce how often we do. These three common sense tips will increase your chances for success the next time you find yourself dry fly fishing during late summer, early autumn, or any other time where stealth is crucial.


You mentioned adding 50lb. tippet to the butt end of a 71/2 ft 5x or 6x leader. Really 50lb. Is that a typo? No problem if that's what you recommend but just checking

I too can't imagine he meant 50# test. I use 20# for stripers and it's massive. Maybe 5#?