A well designed and well placed Wet Fly is often the solution
In 1910 G. E. M. Skues published Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream. The minor tactic that Skues spent most his time on was the casting of single wet flies upstream to visible feeding trout.
Skues was not the first to write about casting wet flies upstream to feeding fish, Robert Venables wrote on this topic in 1662, Richard Bowlker also discusses the topic in 1747 and more recently William C. Stewart wrote about this very same topic in 1857. However, Skues was the first to write about this topic in relation to the chalk stream sense Frederic M. Halford has published his highly acclaimed Floating Flies and How to Dress Them in 1886 and Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice in 1889. During this time period the Dry Fly theory was the dominant theory for the chalk streams and the angler cast upstream to trout that were feeding and visible to the angler.
Skues fished dry flies but still felt that wet flies cast upstream to the feeding trout was an excellent option when the trout were not taking the floating flies and in 1910 he published his finding and stated his reasons and described the methods that he used in clear prose that was easy to understand. However due to the overwhelming popularity of the dry fly the information offered by Skues was only embraced by a few fly anglers. Follow the publication of Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, Skues continued to study and develop the base tactics and fly patterns for nymphing on the chalk streams.
In 1921 Skues published The Way of a Trout with a Fly. This book has often been called the seminal work on nymphing. With all the focus on dry flies and on the new method of nymph fishing all but a very few anglers showed any interest in the wet flies. Therefore the upstream wet fly methods have truly remained the Minor Tactics on many waters that fished even unto the present times.
Now that doesn't mean that all of the anglers or writers have ignored the Minor Tactics that Skues wrote about, over the years many notable angling writers have tackled this subject such as James Leisenring, Sylvester Nemes, Roger Fogg and Dave Hughes to name a few.
However, despite their knowledge or their abilities as writers their collective efforts has been a faint cry in the wilderness and this is due to the continued popularity of the dry fly and the rising interest of nymphing methods combined with increasing focus on emergers. Furthermore I see a great many anglers who want to catch trout but really are not looking for a challenge or to improve their skills.
Now that I have stated my theories on why these Minor Tactics have fallen out of favor with all but the most serious and dedicated anglers. I will now explain I believe that Minor Tactics belong in the bag of tricks of every serious angler who works over difficult trout.
The keys to any fishing situation encountered on any given day is careful observation and that is coupled with a knowledge of what happens to insects on the water during the hatching process, spinner falls, egg laying flight or any other events that places large numbers of insects on the water.
It has been believed by anglers in the past and even some current anglers that the trout don't see adult insects beneath the surface of the water. However observation and stream sampling with a drift screen has proven this to be a false belief. Sampling the stomach content of captured trout can also provide clues to the trout's feeding behavior.
However, the conclusions drawn from the stomach sample can mislead an angler who isn't observant. Now why would these samples be inconclusive or steer the angler to the wrong conclusions when the information comes right from the mouth of the trout, so to speak?
Yes, there may be adult insects found in the stomach sample, however how did those insects arrive within the stomach of the trout, did you see the trout eat the adults, was the insect eaten as a nymph and hatched out inside the trout or was the adult sample eaten beneath the surface of the water. So what is the verdict, note the information, then consider the water type being fish and be aware of the water type the trout was captured which can be a factor of how the adult insect can be found both on or beneath the surface of the water.
Wind, waves and current speeds can all contrive to sink an adult insect beneath the surface of the water. Another factor which has come to light since the time of Skues is that not all of the hatching insects that rise to the surface actually make it to the surface to hatch, a certain percentage of any hatch will emerge three to six inches beneath the surface and then the adult insects will attempt to swim to the surface and crawl out on the surface film. Some make it and some are intercepted by the trout and some are just unlucky. This readily places adult insects beneath the surface of the water.
Also during spinner falls and egg laying caddis flights some adults swim beneath the surface to lay their eggs and fail to return to the surface and the spinner which land flat on the surface can end up beneath the surface of the water.
Now, if you wish to prove this fact to yourself, simply place an anchored drift screen in the stream for a day and then check it periodically noting where in the water column you find the adults. I have done it many times and I am always amazed at the number of adult insects which are found beneath the surface of the water and the majority of these insects are found in the upper third of the water column.
Now as you can see there are times when wet flies designed to imitate the adult insects found on the water we fish could allow us to be more effective if we take advantage of the information we now have. I also use soft hackles under these conditions, however these soft hackles are designed to imitate the general colors of the insects found in the water. Now we come to how would the angler use these Minor Tactics on our favorite trout streams.
The key to employing the Minor Tactics on the water is observation, the ability to judge the current speed and the water types and having suitable wet flies or soft hackled pattern to take advantage of the situations encountered. Finally to keep an open mind and be willing to modify the methods and techniques set forth by Skues and finally to able to see the trout you are targeting.
Remember our tackle is much more advanced than it was during the time of Skues. There are situations where using nymphs or dry flies is the proper choice, however there are also times that the use of wet flies or Minor Tactics can produce when all other patterns and methods have failed. Skues found this out through his observation and experiments over a hundred years ago. My own observations and experiments on a wide range of water types have confirmed Skues finding many times over.
You don't need special tackle to use Minor Tactics, the same rods and leaders used for dry flies or nymphs will work equally well with the wet flies. As a point of interest, Skues was much like many of the anglers of today, meaning he didn't fish everyday as he had another job as a lawyer, yet he continued to work on the situation and problem until he found his answers.
Now remember, Skues method was much like the rules set forth by the dry fly fishing of the day meaning that the angler was casting upstream to trout that were visibly feeding. Skues was also fishing upstream to only trout that were visibly feeding beneath the surface of the water.
Like Skues the anglers need to be keenly observant as to where in the water column the trout is feeding and what are the conditions provided by the water types, the weather and the availability of insects.
Whereas Skues was using either Dry Flies or Wet Flies he had chosen for his experiments, later it would include nymphs, but during the time period he was working on Minor Tactics he was using either dry flies or wet flies.
Furthermore he was only casting upstream to his target and was using only single flies. Today we do so have other options. Over the years I have taught many anglers to nymph upstream without using a strike indicator, the method is called sight nymphing and only a few anglers continue to practice this method. Ok, the ability to cast upstream to a feeding fish with a single wet fly and the ability to see and detect the t indeed takes a bit of practice, but practice is also required to be a skilled fly caster.
Most competent anglers can and have done this very thing while fishing, sometimes we cast to a trout and then lose sight of the fly in light or due to the size of the imitation, yet we react to a take and find that we are fast to a trout.
The difference is that using a single wet fly, we are deliberately casting to a visible trout that is feeding beneath the surface. Now the key word is visible, you are able to see the trout, once you learn to judge the current speed and figure out the distance above the trout to cast.
Then you watch the trout and learn to tighten on the take all the while controlling the slack line that the current is feeding you. Watching the leader track on the water is another way of detecting the take.
When you write and read about such a technique both the author and the reader can believe that WOW, this will be extremely difficult to master. But the truth of the matter is that it really is not that hard and most anglers who fish upstream dry flies already knows how to control the slack line and should be able to judge the current speed and therefore with slight modifications the angler should be able to master the techniques all it takes is the willingness to learn and the willingness to practice.
Now the modern angler can increase his chances by using different methods to achieve the same results as Skues achieved with his method. In Skues day all the casting was upstream, in today's world the angle could use any casting angle available to place the imitation to the trout in a dead drift manner, where you can control the slack and still react to the take. You may also wish to use a dry fly-wet fly two fly combination.
The length of the dropper will depend on the depth of the trout in the water column and the speed of the current. The dropper strand can be attached to the bend of the dry fly or to the eye of the dry fly, depending on the type of dry fly being chosen. Remember, the attachment of the dropper is to allow the dry fly to act in a natural manner; therefore both the dry fly and the wet fly should be presented in the most natural possible.
During the hours of daylight being able to see the trout is critical to success, this is a plus as you will need to be close and this allows for shorter cast and better control and easier reaction to the take.
Now having written at length about being able to see the trout while using the wet flies, however we all know that there are times when we will not able to see the trout.
We may only see rise forms or a surface disturbance when the trout feeds, this may happen during the hours of dusk or on dark days of overcast where the light prevents you of obtaining a clear view of the trout.
These conditions are not rare to the fly fisher as they are encountered during the late evening spinner falls or during caddis egg laying flights. When you encounter these situations the key of when the wet flies should be used is actually easy, that is when the dry flies are not working.
When you encounter this situation don't assume that your pattern is wrong or that you need to change tippets, those are modern hype answers to the problem. The real answer may be to add a wet fly or soft hackle dropper of ten to fourteen inches behind your dry fly as the trout are feeding beneath the surface on drowned adult insects.
During the days of Skues and Halford, well bred anglers did not search the water on the chalk streams with any method when the trout were not visible and feeding. These were the rules that were devised by man and the trout had no say in the matter.
However in the real world of the trout there are many times when the trout will respond patterns both dry and wet that are employed to cover the water, searching for a trout that may be feeding in opportunistic manner.
I often search the water with a pair of wet flies that are designed to imitate natural flies that the trout would be expecting to see, often I search the water preferring to search riffles and especially riffles that empty into pools or runs.
These "Minor Tactics" have proven their worth time and time again through the years, but this method is still ignored by the main stream of fly fishing. However you can add this method to your bag of angling tricks and be well rewarded.
Notes on Fly Patterns
I have not listed any patterns for this selection as I know not the waters and hatches you will be fishing.
However, I will tell you to design your wet flies with the same attention to detail that you give the hatch matching dry flies you construct, keeping in mind that you are trying to imitate adult insects that have found their way beneath the surface of the water. Most of the old time wet flies are not what you want, that has been the problem with wet flies moving forward, new patterns are needed.
Remembering to match the size, color and shape of the wet adults to the naturals, the same would hold true of soft hackle imitations, even though soft hackles are sparser you can incorporate the general color scheme of the naturals into your pattern.
The purpose of this selection is not to displace the dry flies, nymphs or emergers it is however to introduce you to a method which have been effective for hundreds of years yet has been ignored by many in the main stream of fly fishing for the past 125 years. These Minor Tactics are definitely worth using on the waters you fish.
Enjoy & Good Fishin'