Tactics and Techniques

Emergers. Four Ways to Fish the Forgotten Fly.

Sheets of light sliced through cracks in the steep rock walls and cut through clouds of insects above the river.  Thousands of dull blue-grey wings sparkled in and out of the rays shifting through the shadows.  Sometimes a breeze carried warmth from where the sun still hit the grass outside canyon to where I waded in the cool evening air. 

I followed the white post of my blue winged olive atop the dark currents.  Squinting.  A violent swirl pushed the fly and I held my breath long past when I knew it was not a take. 

Something different about the rise stuck with me as I cast again.  The trout were feeding aggressively.  Churning the surface of the river with their takes while bugs hovered everywhere around me.  But still, I watched as fish passed on my dry fly with every drift.  I had the correct insect for the hatch, but it would be several similar experiences on the river before I understood how emergers might solve my problem.

The Emerger.

Emergers are aquatic insects that are transitioning from their subsurface lives to one brief adventure above the river.  They might be mayflies, caddis, or midges.  These creatures swim to the surface in order to hatch from their water bound bodies or husks, spread their wings, and fly above the river.  Above the water they will mate and eventually lay eggs and die.  The emerger imitates the time between nymph and dry while the actual hatching is occurring.

Targeting the fluid process of the emerging insect can be challenging because it may not seem like the main event when dry flies are everywhere.  For me it was enough to understand and focus on wet and dry flies.  Nymphs below.  Dries on top.  Are you telling me there is a wet AND dry fly? 

As a beginner an emerger seemed like an outlier that required less attention.  But if the fish are keying in on this transition in the insects’ lifecycle, it may be the only game in town.


I do not remember when I realized that the trout were not feeding on the surface that day. That they were eating insects in the transition between below and above the river.  And that transition was occurring close enough to the surface that the fish heads and backs and tails were splashing, swirling, and slapping the water. Their feast just below the surface had become a confusing ruckus and I was left to watch and cast and mend in grim frustration.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | What to Do When It’s Raining Trout.

It was not entirely that I had forgotten about emergers.  I knew they existed.  I knew the basics of what they were.  But the more I learned about this simple fly, and the more fish I caught with emergers, the more I appreciated them.  My reluctance to fish the emerger initially was due to my combined lack of knowledge and exposure. 

Sometimes the answer is right there in our fly box, but for reasons not entirely logical we do not pluck them out and tie them on.  

READ: WADEOUTHERE | The Orange Scud Theory.

Four Ways to Fish the Emerger.

Insects emerging from one stage of life to another is a necessary part of the life cycle of a trout’s major food source.  It is important to not only understand the emerger, but how to fish them as well.  Here are four of my favorites:

1. On Top.  An emerger can be fished on the surface of the river just like a normal dry fly and often this is all it takes to effectively target trout feeding during a hatch.  When I am fishing an emerger on top, I like to use floatant to keep it from sinking. Often I fish it as a dropper behind a dry.

2. Just Below the Surface.  This technique has helped me catch trout during a hatch when my dry fly was not getting the job done.  Cast an emerger without floatant and let it sink just below the surface.  I prefer to fish the emerger as a dropper off a dry fly.  I usually tie the emerger nine to twelve inches below my dry.  The dry acts like an indicator for the emerger below, but often you can hookset on the take as the trout’s dorsal fin and back break the surface.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | When and How to Fish a Dropper – It Depends.

3. While Nymphing.  Remember emerging insects first swim up from the bottom.  Emergers can be effective at catching fish that are eating these rising insects in the water.  I tie the emerger as a dropper onto a heavier fly, like a Pats Stone, or a Tungsten bead head hare’s ear.  I like using an emerger with some foam in the body when I fish emergers with nymphs, because the lead fly gets it down and the foam helps it float up off the bottom.

4. On the Swing.  Be prepared to set the hook when your emerger is rising up in the water column.  If fishing a dropper, the trout could take the emerger or the nymph.  This typically occurs as the slack in your line straightens out and the current raises your fly to the surface. 

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Fish the Whole Drift.

Bonus.  Tying Emergers is “Easy”.

Another wonderful thing about emergers is that they can be fairly easy to tie.  They are simple flies and generally require very few materials.  Some of my favorite emergers to tie starting out were the WD-40 and RS2. 

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | River to Fly Strategy (R2FS)
READ: WADEOUTTHERE | One story and Six Reasons You Should Tie Your Own Flies.

I cannot remember the moment I learned that the fish were feeding just below the surface on emergers.  It was not that day in the canyon.  It happened with observation over time.  Now, when I see trout rising, I watch to see “how” they are rising.  An emerger is not just a good fly to tie on during the hatch.  The emerger is the hatch.  The actual, physical act of the insect leaving one stage of life for another. 

The next time the hatch is on and you are having trouble finding the right dry fly, try an emerger, and Wadeoutthere.


Jason Shemchuk

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  • Reply
    Randall Durner
    December 30, 2021 at 10:08 am

    Excellent advice. As a younger fly fisherman in Pennsylvania I’ve seen that situation numerous times. It took a Sulphur hatch to make me realize the need to use an emerger pattern or soft hackle, to swing and lift it at the end of the drift when the trout weren’t hitting my dry fly. I often use a Muskrat emerger also as my dropper when nymphing; it has proven to be an effective pattern.

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      January 5, 2022 at 1:41 am

      The emerges is a life saver sometimes for me. When I figure it out I always wish I’d tied it on sooner. That sounds like a real fishy set up. Thanks for sharing and a great comment.

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