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Skitter and Skate?

02/24/11 – I dead drift my dry flies – when I don’t skitter and skate them. Or said another way I’ll try most anything if it will bring a fish up including skating my flies.

Ausable Wulff - Fran Betters flyLeonard M. Wright, Jr. called it the “Sudden Inch” in his 1972 book called “Fishing the Dry Fly as a Living Insect” and devoted a whole chapter to the method. He suggested you let your fly dead drift until it was almost on top of a feeding fish and then you work the fly by tightening the line causing the fly to suddenly move UPSTREAM about – you guessed it – about an inch. That motion was meant to imitate an emerging caddis that had finally gotten it’s bearings and was headed upstream as most caddis are known to do. (by the way moving your fly ONLY an inch takes quite a bit of practice)

About two chapters later he expanded this idea in a chapter called “A Searching Fly” and suggested that people who arrive at the water between hatches cast to likely looking spots searching out fish. And the “Sudden Inch” played a big part in his searching. That motion is, he reasoned, what distinguishes a bit of food from a bit of debris for only live food moves. He wrote “For it is the motion that most often helps a trout separate the wheat from the chaff that the current brings his way.”

And for those who who cry HERESY and demand a dead drift, well, you would make Wright smile for one of his opening chapters is titled “Hints of Heresy” but he didn’t forgo the dead drift. In fact, a later chapter is titled “When Dead Drift is Dead Right” and true to form he suggests you only use the dead drift when spinners are on the water because they don’t move much – being dead and all.

I’m not 100% in his corner because I’ve had too many outings where the “Sudden Inch” meant “Sudden Refusal” but to give Wright his due most of those occasions have been during a hatch of mayflies and he does mention frequently that caddis move about more than mayflies. I am strongly in his corner when it comes to searching flies and that “Sudden Inch” has triggered quite a few strikes for me when there was no obvious surface activity.

Ausable Bomber - A Fran Betters flyWright isn’t alone in the move your fly world. Fran Betters of “Ausable Wulff” and “Usual” fame often suggested that you “skitter and skate” your flies – especially in pocket water – for much the same reasons Wright did. In fact his “Usual” pattern, which many think is a “Haystack” tied with rabbit’s foot hair, is designed to be pulled under and then allowed to “pop” back to the surface. Other than the type of hair used what makes a “Usual” different than a “Haystack” is the wings shape and angle. The wing on a “Usual” is tipped towards the eye of the hook, unlike the vertical wing of a “Haystack” and the “Usual” wing isn’t fan shaped like the “Haystack” wing.

Betters tipped the wing forward so that when you pull the fly under the wing will cock back with the expectation that when you stopped pulling the wing would kick back into its normal position and help push the fly back towards the top. The narrow wing and forward tipped angle of the wing are both supposed to aid this kick back to the surface. His hope was that the “Usual” fished this way would look like an egg-laying caddis.

Many of Fran Betters’ patterns are heavily hackled like the Ausable Wulff flies in the top picture above or the Ausable Bombers in the picture lower picture. Much consideration was given to the type of water he fished which is evident in the naming of his flies – the Ausable this and the Ausable that. The Ausable has lots of fast pocket water and it takes a heavily hackled fly to float in that type of water – let alone stay on top if you drag it. But as you can see in the pictures there’s plenty of hackle to keep these flies up.

The different techniques, dead drift and skate your fly, will always generate good, sometimes heated, discussion and both will work for you. Pocket water and smooth dead calm ponds during caddis season immediately make me think skating caddis. And riffles that morph into long slow glides after a light rain will always make me think dead drift. Those situations give me a starting point and away I go. The good part is if one method doesn’t work it isn’t hard to switch over and try the other. All it calls for is changing your fly over to a pattern that matches the technique you want to try. That’s why I dead drift my dry flies – when I don’t skitter and skate them.