Over My Waders

Wetfly -- The Forgotten Taper

By Reed F. Curry

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 with the fish.
  • 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 holding.
  • 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. 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 were, 1) adding more "wood" to the butt and mid sections, and 2) 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 myriad 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. The famous Maine rodmaker, F.E. Thomas, carried three wetfly actions and three dryfly actions for each of his rod models/lengths. 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 passé, 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 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.

Charles Ritz in his book "A Fly Fisher's Life" (1972) speaks of the virtues of LF/LL (Long Flex/Long Lift). This was, in part, a reaction to the stiff, tip-action rods of the late nineteen-sixties. However, he did present some compelling arguments for a rod with essentially a straight taper and a tip with some substance. Examined in detail, the rod that he was designing was a traditional wetfly rod. Ritz recognized that the slow flex "reduced falsecasting by 30%", permitted more time to correct the cast, and allowed short or long casts with equal ease.

Let's examine the virtues of the wetfly taper in more detail:

  • Delicacy -- On still pools or shallow water where delicacy and a soft laydown of the fly is essential, the wetfly rod comes into its own. A tight loop and high line speed are neither needed nor helpful under these conditions. The slower line speed possible with the wetfly taper is less apt to aggressively slap the relatively stiff line/leader connection onto the still surface.
  • Lifting sunken line -- When fishing a sunken fly, the wetfly rod can lift a considerable length of sunken line into a backcast, permitting the angler to spend less time fishing water already covered thoroughly. This also allows a faster response to fish activity, or those occasions when an armada of aluminum canoes suddenly round the bend, bearing down on you...
  • Ease in rollcasting-- A long wetfly rod delivers a powerful rollcast through the long, slow unfolding of the rod. Many modern rods lack this capability, due to their stiff butt
  • Minimizing falsecasts - the slower action, especially noticeable at the flex of the tip, permits a shoot with less drag; the tip is parallel to direction of shoot rather than at an acute angle. With stiff, web-free, modern hackles and new floatants, false-casting is usually no longer necessary simply to dry the fly, so we might as well avoid it where possible and keep the fly on the water.
  • Less labor - the traditional use of wrist action is all that is necessary for most casting in small-to-medium stream fishing conditions. For longer casts, a slow, extended upper arm action may be required, but shirt-ripping hauls will cause the rod to collapse. "Let the rod do the work." I owned one 7'6" 3wt Leonard that was so slow ("How slow was it?") that I could start the backcast, go home for a leisurely lunch, and return to the stream in time for the forward cast. That rod was a bit much, even for me. However, with proper use of the wrist, it was possible to throw tight loops.
  • Better for wetflys, nymph, streamers - the open loop doesn't generate the water- scattering terminal velocity once necessary to dry-fly fishing. Keeping sunken flies wet lets the fish see more of them.
  • Lighter - a wetfly rod is usually lighter than a dry fly taper of the same length/line weight. Although the wetfly tip is thicker, the mid and butt of a wetfly rod is thinner than the same line weight dryfly rod. The difference on a nine-foot rod would be one ounce or greater.
  • Longer Rod - because of the lighter weight, slower action, and reduced false-casting, a longer rod may be used. This means better line mending, more fight from the fish, etc.
  • Self-loading - a typical wetfly rod will easily cast 5 feet of line using the mass of the rod to load the rod. Most modern rods require at least twenty feet of line out before they will load.
  • More restful fishing - the contemplative sport returns. No frenetic falsecasting required, or exaggerated arm-waving. The oldtimers were right, you can "Let the rod do the work."

Where to find Wetfly Rods

Tracking down wetfly rods is not difficult, they had a devoted following for many decades. Split cane rods in lengths from nine to eleven feet can be purchased at a reasonable price from cane rod dealers as collectors are not interested, usually, in the longer rods. These rods can be "heavy" in the hand because of the weight in the tip, so be sure to balance the rod with a heavy reel. It may be true that casting improves with the lightest reel, but most of your fishing day is spent getting into position to cast, walking between pools, stalking fish, etc. --- and for all these situations you want a rod with a static balance somewhere just above the grip. A seven ounce 10' rod will feel feather-light in the hand once you bring the balance close to the grip.

Although the best expression of the wetfly action requires some mass in the tip, it is not impossible to find graphite rods from the mid seventies that have a straight taper and work down into the butt, especially if over-lined one size. You would think that early fiberglass rods would also have a "full" action; however, the short period of high-quality fiberglass rods (before graphite superceded glass) coincided with a fascination with "tip-action" rods.

No matter where you find your wetfly rod, you will have the opportunity to experience the relaxed, contemplative fishing so rare in our frenetic age.

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All content copyright Reed Curry © 2006.
Cartoon by Walter Young © 1961, used by permission.