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Wetfly - The Forgotten Taper (Chapter One)

By Reed F. Curry, Originally published on Reed's website:

The fly rod is ten feet long, one hundred years old, and bent double over a smallmouth using the fast water to his best advantage. I'd hooked the fish on a large yellow marabou Muddler, the same fly that had tricked numerous "green trout" in the past hours, many more than my nearby companion had hooked, though he was using the same fly. We were fishing the same water, alternating over the long drop of plunge pools and fast water below a spillway. The only difference in our fishing was that I was using a ten foot six-weight wetfly rod with a slow action, and he had a nine foot, six-weight rod with a "modern" action. My rod weighed three times his, but when we sat on the bumper of the car a few hours later, he was the one massaging his wrist.

Why did I catch so many more fish than my companion that day? In thinking about it later, I attributed it to several factors, all of them directly related to the type of rods we were using:

  • He spent a lot of time false-casting, I didn't need to false-cast, so my fly spent more time in the water where the fish were.

  • The high line-speed and false-casting mandated by his rod dried out the fly. This meant that he had less of his drift down where the fish were.

  • With a much slower casting rhythm, I was more relaxed and better able to plan how I would work the water.

  • My longer, more flexible rod gave me better line-mending capabilities.

  • My rod's low line-speed gave me an opportunity to wiggle some "S's" into the line, giving a longer drag-free drift.

How can it be that a rod built before snake guides could out-fish a modern graphite? After all, the prevailing opinion is that a tight loop and high line speed are absolutely essential. And, everyone knows that a rod should be nearly weightless, in order to make fishing a comfortable, pleasurable experience. Yes, that is the modern wisdom, but I would like to introduce an alternative --- the old wetfly rod.

A wetfly rod traditionally was a rod crafted of split-cane, or one of the many rodmakers woods (Bethabara, greenheart, etc.), with a "straight" taper design. Fishing with wet flies also usually meant managing a "cast" of from two to ten flies, all of them on "droppers" except the tail fly. The gut of the droppers would easily tangle around the leader unless the caster kept an open loop in his casting. The open loop was also necessary to prevent a snapping motion that would throw the water from the fly, thus drying it and causing it to float temporarily. Since weighted flies were looked upon as heretical on most trout streams of the period, it was imperative to keep your wet flies wet. Generally, the wetfly rod measured from 8.5' to 11' (even a "ladies rod" was made at 10'). The cane might be Calcutta or Tonkin, but it would probably not be heat-tempered.

The wetfly rod reigned supreme on American streams until approximately 1925, when dry fly fishing started to become widely popular. The soft, webby hackles available for dry flies at that time didn't float very well, so it was necessary to develop a rod that would move the line faster, and dry the fly, just the thing you didn't want when you fished wet flies. Complicated tapers were developed for the new rods, but two of the principal differences from the wetfly taper were, adding more "wood" to the butt and mid sections, and putting a sudden drop in the last eleven inches of the tip. Necessarily, dryfly rods were heavier than wetfly rods, but their greater stiffness and lighter tip gave them a lighter-in-hand feel. However, the combination of their very real weight, and the false-casting necessary to dry the fly, caused anglers to demand shorter and shorter fly rods, thereby losing the multitudinous advantages of the longer lengths.

For many years, until about the late 1940's, rodmakers sold both wetfly and dryfly rods, and many anglers carried both, in preparation for varying stream conditions. However, by the late 1940's, phrases such as "I take my flies and my Martinis dry" gave some indication that the fishing of subsurface flies was considered passe, if not just one short step removed from poaching. This feeling was fostered by the rise of "imitation" and "Scientific" angling. The wet flies, especially in a large cast, did not approximate any stage of the mayfly life cycle (except perhaps death) and were often fished with action, in the manner of lures. Thus, quickly, wetfly fishing became a lost art . . . and with it went the most versatile rod for the modern fisherman. ~ Reed Curry

(To be continued…) © 2000 Reed F. Curry

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