By Frank Day
I remember when I was a young fly fisher, a ripe 9 years of age ready to raise my first hungry trout to my dry fly. The only problem, within a few casts my now water soaked fly would sink beneath the surface and out of view. As I’m sure older anglers with failing vision can attest it’s a bit difficult to successfully detect and hook up to a strike if you have no idea where your fly is. Because of this every few casts my fishing would be interrupted to dry my saturated fly, a very complex and delicate process of repeatedly mashing my flies into my cotton t shirts in hopes that the material would absorb just enough water to allow my fly to continue floating for a few more casts. Shortly after I made my first visit to a fly shop and was enlightened to the existence of floatant, an almost magical product whose sole purpose was to keep a fly from sucking water!
Historically floatant came into play at the end of the 18th century. Until that point most fly fishing was done with shorter lines with the fly being no greater than 20’ from the rod tip. The longer braided silk lines that became popular created drag and when fished would suck water dragging the fly and fly line below the surface. Because of this all kinds of techniques were used in keeping the lines afloat. One of the first floatants used was red deer fat. When applied to a cloth and rubbed into the line the grease created the floatation that anglers desired. The great downside to this was that very few people had any interest in carrying around a rag soaked with rancid animal fat. This also was not as applicable to smaller dry flies. Everything was tied from organic materials and so cork and straw body flies were popular and had excellent flotation but were bulky and a bear to cast. Paraffin was used next. Paraffin was a natural choice as anglers watched various species of water birds shed water from their feathers with their natural oils produced by their uropygial glands. From here other petroleum based floatants were developed, and eventually modern silicone based floatants as well as with those modern advances in silica gels and other water absorbing crystalline products naturally led to desiccants which we will discuss next.
Desiccants and Floatants are similar in outcome but function very differently. Floatant as described in its evolution above is typically a viscous paste, liquid, or gel designed to keep the fly from sucking water, and is applied directly to the fly. There is a downside to floatant in that they can be applied to heavily. When applied in excessive amounts floatant can reduce a fly’s ability to fish properly. The hackles may be stuck together keeping the fly from sitting on the surface tension, or when applied to an entire hook can cause a fly to ride on its side. When it comes to most rub on floatants less truly is more.
Desiccants are usually some sort of a crystalline powdery substance. A good example would be Shimazaki Dry Shake or Loon Easy Dry for those unfamiliar with desiccants.
Desiccants are powders used to suck the water out of a fly. The soaked fly is placed in the container with the desiccant, shaken briefly, and then taken out. Any excess powder can be shaken off. From here floatant is sometimes re applied, although certain desiccants have water resistant powders mixed in so the both remove water and re apply a water shedding coating at the same time. Loon top ride is an excellent example of this. Certain materials also do better with desiccant as opposed to liquid floatants. A good example is the cul de canard feathers found in many dry flies. It is a very small wispy feather and a powder is much more suitable than a liquid floatant because of the finer delicate nature of the fibers. Liquid floatant no matter how sparingly applied typically over saturate CDC feathers.
Lastly there are long lasting floatants designed to be applied prior to fishing and allowed time to cure. A good example is Cortland dry fly spray. When applied a day in advance and allowed to cure for a period of 24 hours it creates a long lasting water repellent coating on flies almost eliminating the need for floatant. When used in combination with desiccants and floatants it can make a fly nearly unsinkable even in faster rougher water.
Hopefully this takes some of the confusion out of what to use, how, where, and when regarding the use of various dry fly floatants. Now get out there and raise a few.