Staying on Top

Staying on Top

Keep your flies floating where the fish want them by using today's flotants in the most effective ways.

  • By: Darrel Martin
Modern flotants include pastes  gels  liquids  powders  beads and fumes
In 1886, Frederic Halford, that fan of the floating fly, merely replaced his sodden fly for a fresh, dry one. "When new, the fly, of course, floats naturally, and the first throw with a new fly should accordingly be made with the greatest care, as the most likely to tempt a fish"." A wetted fly, "must not be returned to the water, but thoroughly dried by making a series of false casts backwards and forwards in the air, so as to free the hackle, wings and body of all moisture."

To further aid flotation, Halford often over-hackled his patterns for the smooth, slow chalk streams of southern England. His advice was "to put plenty of turns of hackle on all patterns for use by the dry-fly fisherman." Even his cast-an underhanded, horizontal cast-was calculated to gently drop the pattern on the water. Eventually, however, every dry fly became a soppy fly. And Halford needed a longer float.

Some "fly floaters" had already found a solution. The first flotants were petroleum oils and red-deer fat, an early dressing for fly line. In 1882, only four years before Halford's soggy fly, David Foster advocated Vaseline, a petroleum jelly developed a decade earlier.

"The use of paraffin oil and Vaseline as an aid to the floating power of an artificial is modern, and that is really, as a matter of fact, the only new feature in the art of 'dry flying' for trout and grayling."

Vaseline increased fly buoyancy and was far superior to petroleum oils, which some anglers used and recommended. Foster further concluded that even North Country hackle flies-the soft-hackled flies-may be floated with "a touch of Vaseline or paraffin on the body and parts of the hackle under the body."

By 1902, paraffin (kerosene) became standard. Frederic Halford noted "The use of paraffin for this purpose was known and practiced for years by a few of the Upper Test fishermen, and told in confidence by one of them to the late [Mr. Thomas Andrews of Guilford]." Halford convinced Andrews to get permission to divulge this secret for the benefit of all dry-fly anglers. Halford concluded that "the use of the paraffin bottle has appreciably altered"the labour of drying the fly." Eight years later, Halford acknowledged that "the advantage of the use of paraffin is so obvious that few dry-fly men in the present age would think their outfit complete without the paraffin bottle and brush."

By 1909, Hardy Brothers of England advertised bottled paraffin oils for baptizing flies. Even today, inveterate angler and tackle inventor John Betts recommends and uses refined lamp oil (a kerosene) for floating patterns made of natural materials. It is odorless, inexpensive and effective.

Before the advent of powder desiccants, amadou-the European hoof-shaped fungus used as a desiccant in surgeries-dried soggy flies. In 1935, writer G. E. M. Skues praised amadou. "Dry fly men who know what is good for them use it for drying flies"Wet and mangled May flies washed and then dried with it resume their pristine youth and beauty. Amadou quadruples the life of an ordinary May fly."

Hardy Brothers marketed the Drifly Dresser with leaves of amadou and paraffin-soaked felt. An angler merely pressed the fly between the leaves to dry and dress it. Amadou is still an effective material for drying drenched fly patterns.

After World War II, silicone came to favor as a fly flotant. Kenneth Mansfield, in the Art of Angling (1957), records its entry into angling. "Most people anoint their dry flies with paraffin or some similar lubricant to assist flotation, but I dislike this practice myself because it makes a sad mess of the hackles".The new Silicone preparations, however, are free from this disadvantage as they are not oily and quickly evaporate, leaving the fly with an invisible waterproof coat," he wrote. Mansfield lamented the fact that silicone sold "in minute quantities at exorbitant prices." He also cautioned against over-application, as "any overdose of grease results in emulsification."

Today you can choose from silicone beads, pastes, gels and liquids to powders and fine "fumes." In desperation I have used Chap Stick for flotant, and some enterprising merchants have sold Abolene skin cream as flotant. Whatever works, you might say".

Using Flotant
Some fly patterns, such as those with foam, cork or CDC (cul de canard), may require no flotant at all; but most require an effective application. All silicones, particularly paste, should be applied sparingly before wetting the fly. Liquid flotants require sufficient drying time before fishing… Read More »

Warm weather also helps this drying process. (Flotants, by the way, do not essentially float a pattern. Instead, they create a hydrophobic cloak that repels water, allowing some pattern parts to ride upon the surface. Even the submerged parts, that help to buoy the pattern, resist water.)
Though many liquid and gel flotants claim no "oil slicks," a few can create a surface scum if the fly is cast wet. In most cases, this is only a trifling problem. Furthermore, although a flotant may be said to have temperature stability, it may readily liquefy in the heat and solidify in the cold.
Thoroughly dry all drenched patterns with a desiccant before you start adding flotant. (False-casting only eliminates some water.) Warm a touch of silicone paste or gel on your fingertips. Gently stroke this into the tails, body and hackle. Quill-wing patterns absorb water and are often disheveled with heavy paste; they are best dressed with a liquid or dust silicate and then, when dry, a light paste on tail, body and hackle.
I use amadou for drying CDC patterns and then dust or fume silicate, but only if I feel it's necessary. Although convenient, aerosols and pumps generally waste flotant. Sprays and liquids are best for penetrating deep into a pattern without disturbing the fibers. As patterns seldom land perfectly cocked, flotant should be applied to all sides of the tail, body and hackle. There is only negligible buoyancy when flotant is applied to the hook itself, though keep in mind that some flotants may be used on tippets, leaders, strike indicators and even fly lines.
For realism and attraction, some anglers paint the thorax and wing case of nymphs with silicate powder with which to create underwater emergence bubbles. A better procedure is to apply a thin smear of adhesive paste flotant to a nymph's wing case and then brush silicone dust into the paste to create sparkling bubbles. There are some pastes that act as primers for the dust. In this case, one flotant may work best in combination with another.
Experienced anglers often match the flotant to the water as well as to the fly pattern. The adhesive pastes are usually best for rough, choppy water or for skating patterns, while spring creeks and stillwaters may require only a double-duty "shake and bake" dust (desiccant plus flotant) or a liquid application. Some liquid flotants contain solvents that clean and remove fish slime that may otherwise sink a dry fly.
Several flotants on the market today contain proprietary enhancements, such as sparkle, iridescence or odor-blocking pheromones. As trout commonly hunt by sight, sparkle and iridescence may be effective attractors. Odor-maskers and pheromone additives, however, may be a moot point, as smell is less important to trout than sight.

Variant Applications
I have drowned patterns in liquid silicone prior to the season to keep them fresh and dry in the fly box. Jeff Wieringa, new product development manager for 3M/Scientific Anglers, offers a creative solution. Just spray the fly with Scotchgard Outdoor Water Shield ($9.95), available at most hardware stores, and follow the directions for drying. For maximum waterproofing, spray two light coats, allowing the fly to dry between applications. Dry the fly thoroughly before fishing. This keeps the fly waterproof and perky for an extended time. These types of pre-treatments, though requiring time, do increase the practical life of a dry fly. Other pre-treatments include Loon's Hydrostop ($6.95), a permanent fly flotant for new flies. You merely dunk your flies for five minutes and let them dry overnight. Hareline Dubbin distributes Water Shed ($3.95), another pre-treatment that must be applied 24 hours or more before fishing. Permanent waterproofing does not affect the color or softness of the fly. John Claggett, a Northwest angler I know, thins Gehrke's Gink with liquid silicone and then uses an old hourglass container for dunking his flies.

Performance Issues
Accurate appraisal of the performance of flotants requires some specialized equipment. For example, Bruce Rich-ards, product development engineer for 3M/Scientific Anglers, describes a test to determine the hydrophobic quality of a flotant. First, place a fine smear of flotant on a glass sheet. Next, upon the flotant, place a drop of de-ionized water. To determine the hydrophobic value, an instrument then reads the contact angle between the side of the droplet and the glass. The drop should stand away from the glass. The contact angle is the hydrophobic value.
Although usually listed as non-toxic, flotants can cause health problems. Anglers should heed all safety and warning precautions, particularly avoiding ingesting or inhaling the fine fume silicates. Prolonged inhaling may lead to lung irritation or actual damage. Some manufacturers add a stabilizer to diminish wafting dust. Avoid eye contact and keep flotants away from children and pets. Also, sprays, liquids and gels may be flammable. All told, the negligible amount of flotant we use on flies should not adversely affect the angler, the trout or the water.
Flotants are essential for long, effective drifts. No dry fly stays on top once it is waterlogged. John Betts speculates that for 150 years anglers have dressed patterns to float. Frederick Halford would have been stunned by the sheer number and efficiency of modern flotants.

Darrel Martin is the author of The Fly Fisher's Craft; order the book at flyrod Books section.