Understanding the fly floatant mystery

By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

Most of our local fly shops have a similar layout: they have extensive fly selections; racks filled with fly rods from the utilitarian all the way up to high-end; clothing and wading gear for nearly every stream and every condition; and then there’s the tackle and tippet sections.

In the tackle and tippet sections there are numerous little bottles of chemicals—floatants, powders, sprays, gels and liquids. When you look at these tiny vials, you think fly fishing today is no longer your grandparents’ pastime.

But using chemicals in fly fishing isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, before plastics were commonly used to coat fly lines, anglers needed to continually apply mucilin to their lines to keep them floating.

Here’s some help in navigating todays angling accessory rock garden.

Fly floatants are essential. If you fish in Montana, and especially for the next few months, using a chemical to help your fly float is crucial. Flies are tied with hooks and hooks sink. Therefore, flies will eventually sink and you want your dry fly on the surface.

Know the difference. Concentrations of fly floatants perform differently. A liquid floatant will perform better on larger, fuller flies such as Chubby Chernobyls or stimulators. A liquid floatant will do fine on small flies, but a gel floatant is best suited for smaller flies such as a Hi-Vis Caddis or Parachute Adams. Because liquid floatants often contain silicone or wax, in colder weather these floatants often congeal. Most gel floatants are less temperature sensitive.

Drying agents are your best friend. These aren’t just for shoeboxes any more. In the past few years the desiccants, or drying agents, available to anglers has grown.

From powders to granules, there is a time and place for them all. Despite its effectiveness, gone are the days of amadou—a soft, leather-like patch—for drying your fly. Amadou worked well, but today it’s easier to carry a few bottles of powder, and they are more effective.

Powders are ideal for small flies or flies with CDC. Powders work best on dry flies that have hackles tied into them or that are tied with CDC, or cul-du-canard—which translates to feathers from a duck. These feathers are naturally waterproof and are used more and more in smaller dry flies. Gel floatants are not ideal for CDC flies, but powders are.

A powder helps coat the CDC in a shade of white, making them easier to see. When fishing smaller flies or flies with CDC, you have to dry the fly with the powder more often, but a few shakes is usually all it takes. Powders tend to have a long shelf life, so splurge on the best one and always be sure to keep a tight lid on the container.

Granules work best on big flies. Granular desiccants are just that—tiny particles in a bottle that extract water from a wet fly. When a large fly is saturated, shaking it in treated granules will restore its buoyancy. Buy these in small doses, as granules tend to lose potency over time.

Pretreat your dry flies before fishing.
Ideally you apply gel or liquid floatants several hours before you venture out, and then again just before fishing. But this is often impractical because you may not always know what body of water you will be on, and what the fish may be eating. Even if you can’t pre-treat flies prior to fishing, after streamside application always allow time for the floatant to sink into the fly or for any excess floatant to be removed. These two things are often accomplished with a few false casts.

Five-step method. Follow this five-step method and your flies will be hanging high:

1. Pre-treat properly: pre-apply floatant, or at the very least allow floatant time to coat the fly before casting.

2. Dry during fishing: between drifts make a few false casts, which allows the fly to dry off.

3. Blow dry your fly: before shaking and reapplying floatant, dry your fly by blowing on it, or if you’re really into it carry a small can of compressed air.

4. Shake it off: use granules or a powder and shake the fly dry.

5. Reapply the appropriate floatant and get back to fishing.

Fishing is often what we do to get away from things like science and technology. However, when it comes to getting the most out of your flies, using a little bit of chemistry can be beneficial in bringing more fish to hand.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky, he is co-director of the Montana Fishing Guide School, and co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.