THE enthusiasm which was the result of dry-fly fishing led at one time, amongst those who were fortunate enough to be able to enjoy it, to a tendency to disparage the older art of using the wet fly. A comparison of the two methods is always interesting, but it must never be forgotten that it is not necessary, nor even appropriate, to exalt the one at the expense of the other. It is true that there are rivers on which the two methods overlap, and where each can be used, but even in such places it will be found that the weather, the season, or the character of the water decides from time to time in favour of one method or the other. It is the habit nowadays for nations to divide maps into what they call spheres of influence; a division which sometimes accords with geographical and natural conditions, and at other times is arbitrary. Something of the same kind is possible between the wet fly and the dry fly, but with this advantage as applied to angling, that the division of spheres of influence is not arbitrary, but prescribed by natural conditions, and likely to be maintained by them. Roughly it may be said that the dry fly method possesses the South of England, while the wet fly is superior in the West and North of England, and in Scotland. In the Midlands and in part of Yorkshire there is a disputed territory where both are used, and where there may be a real competition between them.
In late years the literature of wet fly fishing has not kept pace with that of the dry fly. There is nothing known to me in angling literature which for scientific information compares with the books of Mr. Halford and some other authors on dry fly fishing, but that is partly because no such uninterrupted and accurate study of the life of a river is possible in typical wet fly streams. In the clear water of a gentle chalk stream the habits both of the trout and of the flies on which they feed can be studied almost as in an aquarium: not only can more be seen, but observation can be more constant; no floods change the conditions of the river and disturb the fish, while the constant and abundant supply of food has produced a greater tendency to regular habits on the part of the trout. There is nothing in this to detract in any way from the merit of the authors referred to, but it does to some extent account for the preeminence of scientific research and knowledge in the books devoted specially to dry fly rivers.
When, however, we come to discuss the skill required for one method or the other, comparison is not so easy. Some dry fly anglers may have spoken of wet fly fishing as a " chuck and chance it" style, by which small fish are caught easily in coloured water on coarse tackle. Some wet fly anglers, on the other hand, may have expressed a belief that all the talk about dry flies is superfluous, and that large well-fed trout in clear and smooth water, can be caught by the methods, skilfully applied, which are successful in north country rivers. If there be any angler on either side, who still holds such opinions, he can but be advised to put them to the test in practice, and so bring himself to a more just frame of mind.
My own fishing was first learnt amongst northern trout with a wet fly, but from early years it happened to me to spend all the best of the fly fishing season, year by year, upon chalk streams, till the use of the dry fly became much more familiar to me than that of the wet. I have known and tried enough of the wet fly to be sure that the use of it has very narrow limits in a pure chalk stream well fished, where the season does not begin till May; and also to discover that the experience of dry fly fishing has not been gained without sacrificing something of the knowledge and skill which might have been acquired in the other. Any one who can catch a Winchester trout should be able to use wet flies with some effect in rivers proper for them, but his basket will not as a rule be so heavy as that of the expert, who has made a special study of the use of wet flies. It is easier to lay down rules for catching chalk stream trout than for catching those of north and west country rivers; neither the flies nor the fish in the latter can be so constantly and clearly watched, and it is not possible to describe so accurately the motion of the one nor the actions of the other, and therefore to say with so much certainty what should be done. In dry fly fishing there is an ideal way of presenting the fly to a fish, and the angler knows when he has succeeded in doing this : in wet fly fishing this process, from the moment the flies alight upon the water, is out of sight, and even the rise itself is often unseen. This is an instance in which the pleasure of the two methods differs. In wet fly fishing the rise or the coming of a fish is more unexpected. Surprise is a perpetual element of the day's work. The angler must be ready to strike at any moment, and it is in this constant readiness to strike quickly that, other things being equal, the great difficulty of this particular method of angling seems to lie. Time after time the rise of a quick, active, north country trout comes upon me like an emergency for which I am unprepared. I fail in the incessant watchfulness of hand and eye that are required, not as in dry fly fishing at an anticipated moment, but at all moments, when the unseen flies are in the water. A double watchfulness is needed. The hand must be ready to receive the message from the eye, but must not wait for it, and the least touch under water needs even quicker action than a visible rise. We fish both by sight and by feeling, and many a day there is at the end of which the number of fish in the basket bears a very small proportion to the number of those which have been touched, and which might have been hooked and landed, by greater promptness in striking. My own belief is, that in wet fly fishing for trout the more quickly the strike can be made the better, and that nothing but constant practice can give a high degree of efficiency in this respect.