DIY Dry Fly Floatant

Dry flies need to float – you can wear out flies with false casts to keep them dry and afloat, or you can use commercial or home-made floatant.

Float High and Dry in High Mountain Country or Anywhere Else

When my friend and coworker, Mark Van Patten, gifted me with a made-to-order fly rod in honor of my retirement a couple of years ago, I was honored and a little intimidated. Mark comes from a long line of fly-fishers and began throwing dry flies not long after taking his first steps. He had his own television show, The Tying Bench, for years. Fly-casting is so deeply etched in his muscle memory, I suspect he could cast in a coma.

Naturally, I feel obliged to “do right” by this special present. I got the perfect opportunity earlier this summer when a friend invited me on a backpack trip to catch golden trout in the Beartooth Mountains of southwestern Montana. The fish were biting when I got there, and we proceeded to wear them out on dry flies. Unfortunately, I also was wearing out my flies with the many false casts necessary to keep them dry. Watching me tie on a third fly, one of my companions considerately asked if I had any “floatant.”

“Any what?” I asked, like the fly-fishing novice that I am. Chris made his way over to me and produced a tiny plastic bottle from which he dispensed a drop of clear fluid onto my fly. The mysterious potion rendered my fly unsinkable for the next half hour.

For those of you who already are initiated in the ways of the Elk-Hair Caddis and Parachute Adams, please feel free to have a good laugh at the expense of the newbie. For the rest of you, here’s a helpful bit of information about floatant. It’s a compound of two petroleum products designed to keep dry flies from absorbing water, thus becoming wet flies. The compound typically includes a waxy substance that coats the fly and a lighter component that is liquid at air temperature and serves as a carrier for waxy stuff, sort of like paint thinner is a carrier for the oil and pigment in house paint. Like paint thinner, the light, fluid component of floatant quickly evaporates, depositing the waxy part on the fly. I made a mental note to buy some of this goop for future trips.

The biggest problem you are likely to face when making your own floatant is getting it into a tiny bottle for convenient use, this eye-dropper bottle worked perfect.

When I got home, I fired up my computer, fully intending to send Amazon.com a bit more of my hard-earned green in exchange for floatant. Then my inner Scrooge McDuck asserted himself. There’s a YouTube video for everything else under the sun. Surely someone had posted one about how to make your own fly floatant. I googled it, and came up with dozens of hits. Visiting several of these pages made it clear that anyone can make fly floatant if they have access to two ingredients – white gas and paraffin. Since I own a Coleman camp stove – the old kind with a refillable tank – and since my wife uses paraffin for canning jelly, I had everything needed, and I proceeded to mix up a batch.

Here’s how I did it. I thoroughly dried an aluminum water bottle with a tight-fitting stopper and poured in about half a cup of white gas. Next, I used a kitchen grater to shave very fine curls of paraffin onto a piece of paper. I made a LOT of shavings – more than enough loose shavings to fill a measuring cup. Using the paper as a funnel, I poured half the shavings into the water bottle, shook it up, put the bottle inside a clear plastic bag and put the whole thing on a piece of black plastic in full sun on my deck. After an hour or so the bottle was almost too hot to hold. I took it out, shook it again and peered down into the bottle to see if all the paraffin was dissolved. It was, so I dumped the rest of the paraffin shavings into the bottle and repeated the process. The next check revealed kind of a slushy mixture, so I added more white gas, let it warm up one more time and came up with a thick, clear fluid.

I was reasonably confident that this would do the trick, but I needed some means of dispensing it. I remembered a bottle of eye drops in the medicine cabinet. I hadn’t used the stuff in years, so I pulled out the stopper, drained and dried the inside with tissue paper and poured some of my home-made floatant into it. After letting it come to room temperature, I squeezed a little onto a fly, worked it in with my fingers and after a few seconds dropped it into a glass of water. It floated like a cork.

I have since used the stuff in the field and it works great. I added a little more white gas after an early-morning trip when it was cool enough to turn my home-made floatant slushy again. I can’t emphasize enough the approximate nature of the measurements given above. I didn’t measure anything. If you try this, keep adjusting the mixture until all the paraffin is dissolved, then test its fluidity by putting it in the refrigerator. If it gets too thick to squeeze out of your chosen dispenser, add more white gas.

The DIY sites I visited recommended heating the gas-paraffin mixture in a hot water bath. I’m sure that works, too. I shouldn’t need to say this, but if you use a water bath please heat the water and remove it from your kitchen range, hot plate or whatever before bringing the gas-paraffin mixture anywhere near it. We don’t want anyone setting themselves on fire just to save a few bucks on floatant.

My cost for the project was zero. I had everything I needed to make enough for 10 lifetimes. Not counting time waiting for the sun to heat the bottle, I’d say I spent half an hour on the project. Compare that with $5 to $12 for a little bottle from commercial suppliers.

Good fishing!

Golden Trout Mother Lode

Like a Peacock and a Goldfish Combined in a Dream, Simply Beautiful!

The Montana Golden Trout at 10,000 feet above sea level in Sylvan Lake showed a marked preference for dry flies while we were there, while those Brook Trout in nearby Crow Lake at an even higher elevation preferred cone-headed wooly buggers.

For the first time in more than two decades, I planned not to attend this year’s annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Then fellow member and OWAA Legal Counsel, Bill Powell, asked when I planned to fly to Billings, Montana, for the event. When I told him I wasn’t going because of the expense, he didn’t play fair. He told me that if I skipped the meeting I would also miss a chance to catch California Golden Trout in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, not far from Yellowstone National Park.

I knew just enough about trout fishing to be aware of this subspecies of rainbow trout, which is native to the South Fork of Kern River in California. I had seen artist Joe Tomelleri’s illustration of a Golden Trout and found it improbable to say the least. His painting looked as if someone had crossed a peacock with a goldfish.

You might wonder, as I did, how the California Golden Trout got to a lake in Montana. The story I heard was that a shipment of Golden Trout was on its way to the East Coast when the train carrying them broke down near Billings. Knowing that the trout would be dead before the train was fixed, some 19th-century angler put a bunch of them into milk cans, strapped them to mules, hauled them 6 miles and up 3,000 feet from the neighborhood of Roscoe, Montana, and dumped them into Sylvan Lake. They have thrived there ever since.

The prospect of seeing these near-mythical fish in person was almost enough to make me raid my retirement account to pay for the trip, almost. But Bill, who has shared many a duck hunt with me and knows my weaknesses, informed me that several writers and photographers whose work I admire and whose company I enjoy already were signed on to make the trip. I registered for the conference immediately and began counting the days until our adventure commenced.

Then reality set in. I had to figure out how I – who live in Missouri, roughly 700 feet above sea level – was going to get from the trailhead at 7,000 feet elevation to the lake at 10,000 feet, carrying a backpack with food, water and camping gear. So, in addition to daydreaming about cool mountain air and ravenous, jewel-like fish, I began hiking 5 miles in hilly terrain with a 35-pound pack twice a week.

The distance and the hills didn’t bother me. At 65 I’m still fairly fit, but I knew that nothing I did around home could prepare me for the thin air I would encounter 9,300 feet farther above sea level. So my excitement was tempered by worry that my lungs wouldn’t be able to supply my legs with enough oxygen to get me up the mountain.

Following a high elevation hike to Sylvan Lake was rewarded with a gracious and delicious meal featuring Golden Trout.

My moment of truth came on July 20, when seven of us set out for Sylvan Lake. Bill, along with Chris Madsen and Jack Ballard, are more or less my age. However, they are accustomed to strenuous hikes at altitude. Hannah Kearse and Birdie Hawkins are in their early 20s. They live at elevations even lower than Missouri, and they too, expressed concern about the hike. Nevertheless, they had 40 years on me. I figured on watching them disappear up the trail ahead of me, not an altogether unpleasant prospect, but not exactly an ego booster either.

The remaining hiker, Tim Mead, of Charlotte, North Carolina, is 78. He was both, my reason for optimism and my worst fear. On one hand, surely I could keep up with a near-octogenarian whose home was at almost exactly the same elevation as mine. On the other hand, what if he left me huffing and puffing in his dust? That would be the end of believing I am in pretty good shape for my age.

I need not have worried. Tim and I made it to the top with enough reserve energy to go straight to the lake after setting up our tents in case the weather turned. We quickly discovered that even Joe Tomelleri’s extravagant rendering of the California Golden Trout could not do justice to the real thing.

Writers are seldom at a loss for words, but when these fish came to hand we were all reduced to the sort of incoherent babbling you expect of an adolescent boy in the presence of Shakira. No superlative can do justice to the visual feast presented by these shimmering amalgams of gold and jewel tones.

Although nothing could match their beauty, the flavor of the 10 Golden Trout we killed that day was a pretty close second. Jack and Chris cooked them in foil with a dab of olive oil to prevent sticking and a pinch of salt for piquancy. Starchy, freeze-dried entrees and brownies with black walnuts, coconut and dried black cherries considerately provided by Bill completed a feast fit for King Midas.

The glacial cirque that cradles Sylvan Lake provides a beautiful backdrop as Tim Mead catches supper.

I thought I would be hiked out after Day 1, but Day 2 offered the chance to hike another 2 miles and 1,500 feet each way to Crow Lake, where Brook Trout were on the menu. These fish proved even more willing than their golden cousins to take a fly. Once again we feasted on the fruits of our “labor.”

Birdie, Hannah and I laid a feast of ramen noodles cooked with fresh zucchini, broccoli and carrots, to which we added foil-cooked Brook Trout. The brownies were gone, so we improvised dessert with excess energy bars, dried fruit and other goodies that no one wanted to carry back down to the vehicles the next day.

The hike out on Day 3 was a breeze, thanks to lighter packs, downhill grades and two days’ altitude acclimation. At the end, we were more than ready for tall glasses of locally brewed beer and half-pound burgers with various wonderful toppings at the Grizzly Bar and Grill in Roscoe.

Backpacking to fish for alpine trout isn’t for everyone. I’m not sure how much longer it will be in the cards for me, but if you want to visit Sylvan and Crow Lakes, take a look at Montana Hiking Trails or AllTrails.com.