Wet Fly Ways
Wet Fly Ways
Lessons from Davy Wotton
- By: David Hughes
- Photography by: David Hughes
- and Greg Thomas
I wrote a book titled wet flies, and generally consider myself competent to fish them. Recently, however, I fished with Davy Wotton on the White River, near Cotter, Arkansas, and received a set of lessons that gave the effectiveness of wets a quantum leap for me. I was invited to present a workshop for the North Arkansas Fly Fishers, in Mountain Home, and did two smart things: accepted the invitation; and instantly booked a day to fish with Wotton.
I’d met him, discussed writing with him, studied his videos, but had never fished with him, and had not got around to incorporating his concepts whole into my own fishing. When I finally got that chance, I was astounded at the breadth and depth of his knowledge about fly-fishing. I also hung well behind him on the river, so that no contrasts could be drawn between his artistry and my ineptitude when we got fly rods in our hands.
Wotton grew up in Wales, and seems to have been plugged directly into nature. He is aware of the intricate relationships among water, insects, flies and trout like nobody I’ve ever met. As an example, as he rigged my rod his way at riverside, leaning against the gunwale of his parked White River boat, he explained how his selection of flies for the moment depended on the quality of light, pushiness of current, his estimation of the ambition of the trout, and what was likely going on in the underwater world of the insects and crustaceans on which those trout might be feeding. It would take a chapter of a book to explain all that Wotton explained to me . . . and then the moment would change, and so would the flies.
Wotton studied the literature and history of fly-fishing. He fished England, Scotland, Ireland and continental Europe. He became a member of the British fly-fishing team, which propelled him to fish trout all around the world. Then he started a successful tying materials business, perhaps best known for his SLF dubbings. His travels took him to Arkansas to fish with his friend Dave Whitlock (you’ve perhaps heard of him?) and Wotton subsequently transplanted there to guide, write, and run a fly-fishing school. He lives on 20 acres with his companion, professional fly tier Theresa “T-Bird” Van Winkle, and a vast sea of dogs, cats, chickens, gamebirds and wild whitetail deer.
The day we fished, the water was running low and steady, though a surge was reported to be coming down from Bull Shoals Dam later in the day. Wotton motored upstream to a broad and well-defined shoal—a riffle in any other river—beached the boat, got out and began the process of rigging our rods and at the same time explaining what he was doing, and perhaps more important, why he was doing it. T-Bird hopped out, splashed off, and immediately began applying the method against trout. She’s an expert at it herself.
The shoal was two to at most four feet deep, somewhat brisk, rippled on top: perfect wetfly water. The weather was mild, the sun out, prospects that trout would be interested in feeding increased slightly by the presence of scattered caddis and mayflies, though they constituted no hatch.
Since the devil is in the details, and success usually resides in them as well, I’ll explain that for his own fishing Wotton used a modest-action 11-foot, 5-weight rod, a double-taper Snowbee 5-weight line, and he rigged a three-fly cast of wet flies, many of them British patterns from the 1800s. He helped design TFO 10- and 11-foot 5-weight rods specifically for his method. Casting with a three-fly rig requires an open loop, so you don’t want a fast rod. He uses British Snowbee lines, in both floating and intermediate, for their suppleness and pleasant lack of memory; Wotton doesn’t like a line that keeps its coils.
I’d like to emphasize that Wotton built his leader and mine while observing the water we were about to fish. Though he varies his leaders from 12 to 18 feet for that water, on that day he rigged six feet of Sunset Amnesia 12-pound-test as a base, then 20 to 24 inches of P-Line Halo six-pound fluorocarbon to the top dropper, the same length of Halo four-pound-test to the middle dropper, and a similar section of the same material to the point fly. He used surgeon’s knots to join sections, leaving six inches of the stout end of each knot for the droppers. His flies were fastened with the figure-eight Wotton Fly Knot, which is small, strong and elegantly simple. Google it, and you’ll get instructions on how to tie it.
Wotton divides wet flies into three types. His attractors are bright, brash, somewhat large—size 8 to 12—and are often designed so they push water, create a disturbance. They go on top, and are there to attract the attention of trout, though as I soon found out, they also often catch the trout. His deceivers are tied in life-like colors, and the mid-range of sizes—12 to 16—but are not tied to represent specific insects. They are generally the central droppers. His imitators are tied for the pupal and emerger stages of particular hatches, and are the appropriate sizes for those naturals, though he’s not always fishing over those exact hatches when he fishes them. These go on the point.
Wotton’s presentation with this three-fly rig, as I observed him fishing it on the White River, also has three parts. His casts were made slightly upstream from straight across, and the initial part of each drift was somewhat free, close to A. H. E. Wood and Jock Scott’s greased-line method. During this part of the presentation, however, Wotton lofted his rod and drew in enough slack line to put him in touch with his flies, to respond to any interest the trout might express.
In the second part of Wotton’s presentation, he teased the three flies through a down-and-across swing, the closest part of the cast to the traditional wetfly swing. However, he kept that long rod lifted high, and gathered line in his left hand, in the figure-eights of a hand-twist retrieve, in order to keep perfect control over the drift of the flies. As often as he brought line in, he also let it out, with the tendencies of an ever-changing riffle current. With his rod held high, Wotton’s line descended toward its contact point with the water in a gentle curve, creating a strike indicator of sorts. When that curve changed, action with a fish was afoot.
Two things stood out as I watched Wotton fish this central part of each cast. First, he had total control of his flies, imparted by the loft of that long rod and the give and take with his line hand. He let the flies swing freely. He took command and animated the top attractor fly. He tossed twitching mends down that curve of line that sped the flies, or slowed them. His posture was intense. I recall watching only one other angler fish with such a connection on what his flies were doing out there: Polly Rosborough, when he fished his famous fuzzy nymphs.
The third part of Wotton’s presentation was a variation on the standard advice, rooted in Ray Bergman’s Trout for those of us who teethed our wetfly fishing on that graceful book, to let your fly reach the end of its swing, then retrieve it upstream a few feet, let it fall back, retrieve it again. This gives any trout that has followed the flies plenty of chances to whack one of them. With Wotton’s long rod and three-fly rig, it’s possible to bring the top fly to the surface, dance and dap it a bit if desired, let them all go to drift freely back downstream. In my brief experience, this all seemed to goad trout into action, and incited a lot more strikes than I’ve ever had by merely drawing wets upstream and letting them drift downstream again.
During my day on the White River with Wotton, I learned that his method (that devil in the details again!) is by far most effective when fished with the right long rod and supple fly line, the appropriate attractor, deceiver and imitator flies tied to leaders of proper construction, with the right materials, brought together with the listed knots.
Following Davy Wotton through his shoals, watching him work magic with his gang of flies, observing wistfully as he brought trout after trout to his hands, made me realize that there are myriad intricate parts to what he does, and to how he does it. Sorry, I’m afraid I’ve written an oversimplification here.
But I also learned that it was profitable to employ Wotton’s method, if a little less effectively, with the rods, lines and leaders you would normally be armed with when astream. I followed Wotton down through those shoals with an 8 1/2-foot rod, the line I’d brought, and the leader he rigged for me. I wasn’t inactive; trout didn’t ignore me; some flopped into my hands, too. I didn’t catch as many as Wotton and T-Bird did. But I got introduced to the method, and was able to catch sufficient trout, to make me realize the need to outfit myself to employ it properly, and that it’s a method that needs to be added to any repertoire of tactics in a well-rounded angling arsenal.
Dave Hughes’ latest book is Pocketguide to Western Hatches.