How to Keep a Dry Fly from Sinking

Few things in fishing beat the thrill of watching a big trout rise to the surface and gulp down a dry fly.  It takes practice and skill when making a perfect cast to a rising trout, but nothing spoils the moment like a dry fly that refuses to float.  Have you experienced the frustration of a golden opportunity blown by a sinking dry fly?  Well, you are not alone.  

What are the best ways to keep a dry fly from sinking?  A dry fly sinks when it is saturated with water.  To keep it floating, you need to dry it out with a desiccant and apply a floatant gel, such as Gink.  It is best to apply floatant to a completely dry fly.  For the stubborn fly that refuses to float, changing out flies might be the best solution.   

There is a lot more that goes into making a fly stay on top of the water.  The material it is made from and the techniques used to cast it all play a role.  Now let’s take a look at the basics of dry fly fishing.

What is the difference between dry flies and wet flies

At the most basic level, dry flies mimic mature insects that have fallen into the water and are floating on the surface.  Wet flies, on the other hand, imitate submerged insects and juvenile stages of aquatic insects, like nymphs or pupas.  

The techniques required to effectively fish a wet fly are far more forgiving of the novice fly angler than a dry fly.  A wet fly is tied with material intended to make it sink and be carried with the currents to where hungry fish are waiting.  The only drawback is that a fish strike is harder to recognize without the use of a strike indicator.

When it is obvious that fish are feeding heavily at the surface on flying insects, use a dry fly that closely resembles what they are eating.  

Warm weather brings about prolific insect hatches and often dry fly fishing is most exciting during this time.  Sometimes feeding fish will be keyed in on one particular food source and matching the hatch is essential, as is making sure the fly stays buoyant.

Challenges associated with dry fly fishing usually requires practice and skill to overcome.  The choice between using a dry fly or a wet fly not only reflects what insects are present but also the type of water being fished and the experience of the angler.  

What makes a dry fly float

A dry fly floats because tiny air bubbles trapped by feathers and dubbing material give it buoyancy.  Once a fly becomes saturated with water, it no longer floats.  

Certain fly tying material floats better than others.  You would be hard pressed to make an elk hair caddis sink because the cork-like structure inside the elk hair is naturally buoyant.  

Some feathers are well known for their excellent water repelling qualities.  One such feather is the “cul de canard” (CDC) feather which is located around the preen gland of a duck.  Fly fishermen revere the CDC dry fly for its life-like presentations and its knack to remain floating, even in the most challenging waters.  

Some fly patterns even resort to using foam bodies and stiff fibered synthetic hackle to remain afloat.  

The dry fly’s ability to remain buoyant is not just a function of the material used to tie it.  Water flow and turbulence also determine how well a fly will float.  

The natural surface tension of water acts as a barrier, preventing light weight objects from sinking.  Calm, smooth flowing sections of a river are more conducive to frustration-free dry fly fishing because the surface tension remains intact throughout the flow. 

Whereas, the surface tension of turbulent riffles and fast-moving water, is greatly reduced and you will struggle to keep a dry fly on top of the water no matter what kind of hair or feathers you use.

What is dry fly floatant

Dry fly floatant is a waxy material dissolved in a carrier fluid for easy application.  The carrier fluid evaporates, leaving behind the wax coating on the fly.  The waxy substance repels water to keep the fly dry and buoyant.  

There are numerous manufacturers that produce gel floatant.  Gink brand is by far the most popular.  I find it works exceptionally well, but I have also had success with other brands, like Scientific Angler.  

Other forms of floatant are available as well.  Floatant dips and spray-on varieties are surging in popularity because they are less time consuming to use.  Spray-on types can even be used while the fly is still wet, so you spend less time prepping the fly and more time fishing.

I still prefer the good old gel floatants in a squeeze bottle.  For best success, it is important to apply it on a totally dry fly.  Squeeze a small drop on the fly and gently work it into the hackle and body for an even coating.  Now, it should float like a cork for at least 30 minutes or until a trout starts chewing on it.  

DIY dry fly floatant

A half ounce bottle of gel floatant is going to run you between $5 and $10.  That’s not cheap by any means, although it does last awhile.  For a fun afternoon project that could save you a few bucks, try making your own floatant.

Now days, you can find anything on YouTube.  There are several ways to make your own lifetime supply of floatant.  The straightforward method utilizes paraffin wax and white gas.  

Here is what you need:

  • Coleman camp fuel (white gas)
  • Paraffin (found at most craft stores)
  • A fine kitchen zester or grater
  • A clean 1 liter aluminum water bottle
  • A black plastic bag
  • Small dropper bottle (an eye drop bottle works well)

Exact measurements are really not needed when combining the ingredients.  You can adjust the ratio of white gas and paraffin to suit your desired gel thickness.  I usually fill the bottle half full with white gas and add a third cup worth of fine paraffin shavings. Cap the bottle and swirl the contents.  

Next, place the bottle in the black plastic bag and let it sit in the sun for about one hour.  The bottle should be quite hot.  Quickly open the bottle and make sure all the wax is dissolved.  If the consistency is too thin, add more wax.  If it is too thick, add more white gas.  Seal the bottle and place it back in the bag for another hour.  Keep checking the progress until you get a thick, clear gel.

Now take your empty eye drop bottle and fill it with your homemade floatant.  Store the remaining floatant in the bottle out in the garage.  When you need more gel in the dropper, put the bottle in the sun for a bit and refill.

Easy homemade dry fly desiccant

When your fly is sopping wet, it is a good idea to dry it off before applying more floatant.  A desiccant is the preferred way to speed up the process.  

A desiccant is a hydroscopic (“water loving”) material that quickly absorbs water from the fly.  Small containers of desiccant are sold for this purpose at most fly shops.  

The steps for using it are simple.  Give your fly a quick squeegee on your shirt sleeve and pop it into the desiccant.  Let it sit for a minute or two and you are now ready to apply more floatant.  

Desiccant will save you time and energy if your normal method of drying a fly was to blow on it.  

If you are a DIY fan, then making your own desiccant is a cinch.  Many packaged goods that are sensitive to moisture come with a little bag of desiccant.  You have probably thrown away many of them over the years.  

The next time you get a few, cut open the bags and dump the desiccant beads into a small bottle with a secure lid.  Empty pill bottles or old 35mm film containers are ideal.  A full bottle will dry flies all season long.  When the beads get too wet, pour them out on a metal pan and let them sit in the sun for a few hours.  This will drive all the excess moisture out for the next time you need it.

Summing it up

Keeping your fly on top of the water is the name of the game.  Before your next fly fishing trip, stock up on desiccant, floatant and lots of patience.  No product is one hundred percent fool proof, but try out some of the tips in this article and you will find your dry flies spend more time on the surface.  All that’s needed is a rising trout to prove you mastered the problem of a sinking dry fly.