Dressing For The Occasion

Are you getting the most out of your dry fly floatants?

Presentation of a fly is arguably one of the most important aspects of deceiving a fish, and with a dry fly, buoyancy is right up there in getting that presentation right. Your first consideration should be to select an appropriate fly that has the right size and floatation for the conditions and the fish you are targeting. Hackles, deer hair, CDC and of course foam, among others, all help provide the right level of floatation while imitating or attracting based on the materials’ natural qualities. We can enhance these qualities however, with the use of floatant and moisture absorption before we fish the fly and to bring it back to life once it starts drowning.

Most people have a tendency to find something that works and stick to it. But how long since you stopped to consider the alternatives and whether you could improve the products you use, perhaps in combination, to keep your fly riding high?

Floatants largely fit into several categories, and either keep water out or take it out, although there are many cross purpose products now.

Gels – limit water penetration and can be used to grease leaders

Powders – similar effect to gels only you immerse the fly in the powder

Desiccants – extracts water from the fly to dry it out once wet

Sprays – spray on water proofing, sometimes with sparkle added as an attractant

Pastes – most often used to increase buoyancy of indicators or large dries for nymphing

Choosing the right products

There is no single correct approach, it’s a matter of situation and personal preference. But the simplest place to start is to get one product to keep the water out and one to take it out.

Other alternatives include using a small chamois or drying device to dry out the fly and of course a decent amount of short false casts will do a reasonable job as well, just don’t false cast right over the fish you’re about to target.


Gels are really easy to apply and very effective at keeping water out for a period of time. When choosing a gel consider the following aspects:

  • Maintains consistency across a wide range of temperatures – some gels become firm and difficult to apply at low temperatures
  • Doesn’t leave large oil slicks on the water
  • If you want to use it with CDC feather flies, only certain gels are compatible – the rest will ruin the properties of the CDC and sink it

Powders and Desiccants

Powders can be used to keep water out, as some incorporate floatant while others are just for removing water from flies with a desiccant. There are also products that combine both, giving you the convenience of drying your fly and waterproofing without the need for reapplication of gel. Read the information carefully for the products you are considering and choose the one that provides the most suitable application for you.


Sprays are largely for keeping water out of your fly and some come with added ‘sparkle’ attractants to give your fly added lustre and movement. They provide similar properties to other floatants, with the advantage of being able to apply just the right amount and not get your fingers greasy in the process.


Pastes are often too ‘pasty’ for delicate dry flies, but can be used to great effect on large dries and indicators, especially when using heavy nymphs on a dropper. They also tend to last longer due to their thicker consistency.

How to use them

There are many variations in people’s preferences and approaching to using these, but here are a few simple rules of thumb.

Always apply your waterproofing gel, powder or spray first before you fish the fly, most people use gel for this. It will coat the fibres and materials of your fly, increasing the water resistance and therefore the buoyancy through increased surface tension. It also helps materials like hackles trap air, further improving buoyancy and imitating the air bubbles created around real insects. Think of an upside down bucket versus one the right way up, it’s much harder to sink when you trap the air under it. When applying the gel you can afford to be reasonably generous, squeezing a blob onto your finger and then rubbing it into the parts of the fly you want to float. Remember you don’t always want the whole fly to float, in the case of a Humpy I prefer to not gel the belly so it rides lower in the surface, and with emergers like a Shaving Brush or Klinkhammer, you only want the top bit to float.

At this point, you usually have enough excess gel on your fingers that is perfect for greasing your leader with. Pinch your finger tips together over your tippet at the fly and pull the line through your fingers all the way through the leader. This helps your leader and tippet stay higher in the water and pick up easier for your next cast. There is nothing worse than the audible slurp-plop made by a sunken leader tearing itself from the water and ruining any chance you had at a second cast to a rising fish.

Now you’re ready to fish that turbulent run with the fly sitting nicely on or in the surface. Depending on how rough the water is your fishing, your floatant will eventually wear off and you will notice your fly starting to ride lower in the water or even sink. This is when you should use a desiccant or powder to dry out your fly and restore its buoyant properties. Most options come in a small canister with a pop-up lid. Simply drop your fly in, give it a quick shake and take out your dried fly. You usually need to blow off the excess powder as it sticks to the fly. If your chosen powder incorporates a floatant to keep water out, then you can fish it straight away. If not, simply reapply your gel or spray and keep fishing.

There are many other theories around buoyancy, such as the effects of fish slime that are beyond the scope of this summary. The key is to understand how and where you are fishing your fly and use the appropriate products to achieve buoyancy. If you want to keep it simple stick with a gel, but if you want to rejuvenate your flies without tying on a new one you may need an additional option.

As a footnote it is important to note that a sinking fly is not necessarily a bad thing. Real insects sink too! Sinking a dry down an eddy seam is a very effective way of catching fish so don’t become obsessed with keeping your dry fly dry all the time. Line management is also critical in how naturally your fly floats, but that is a lesson for another day.

For a range of floatant options Mayfly Tackle and Manic Tackle Project provide a significant range of options available through fly fishing retailers.