Re: Basic Dry Fly Setup
Basic dry set up:
9 ft. mono tapered leader in 3x/4x/5x, approx. 2 ft. of mono tippet appropriately sized (i.e., 4x leader/5x tippet/fly). Fly. Optional second fly. I gernally use Aquel on my flies, mucillin on my leader (I used to grease my leaders from the loop to the tippet knot, but I don't do that anymore. I've found that I only need to grease from the loop to about a fooot short of the tippet knot). I try to dry my flies with dessicant at least every 8-10 casts, and after every fish hooked.
I had the same problems you seem to be having when I first started about 5 years ago, and your question brought back some half-forgotten memories of the difficulties I had when I first started throwing dries. Now, I'm no expert, but here are some of the things I've learned over the years that might be of some help to you.
Leader/tippet selection is dependent on situation. For example, when I fish small, light patterns I tend towards 4x or 5x leaders. When fishing heavier patterns like hoppers or beetles or cicadas, I use 3x or even 2x (note: you can, of course, cast a #8 hopper with 4x leader, but the fly catches so much air and the leader loses so much speed that they alight on the water much like para- flies, meaning very lightly). Here's the reason: smaller, lighter dries are supposed to drop gently to the water surface, whereas terrestrials like hoppers need to splashdown. 4x/5x leaders allow for softer presentations, while heavier leaders tend to promote heavier landings.
Also, fly size can be dictated by speed of current, water clarity, wind, etc. Generally speaking, the lower the light, the faster the current, murkier the water, and/or windier the conditions, the bigger fly you can use. The reason being, all of these conditions reduce the fish's ability to see either you, your rod, your line, your leader, and sometimes even your fly if it's small enough. You might make multiple perfect presentations, but if all these conditions are working against you, then the fish might just not see your offering. Upsizing might get your fly noticed, and eaten.
If your fly is sinking early (assuming you are mending correctly and on time), then upsize until the fly stays up until the end of the drift.
Another way to keep smaller flies above water is to tie on an 'attractor' fly such as a stimulator or a humpy (#12 or #14), tie on another 2 ft. piece of tippet (either same diameter or down one size) and then your #20 fly. The larger more bouyant attractor fly acts as a 'bridge', preventing your smaller fly from being dragged under so easily. The cons are line twist (I usually try to untwist my line between flies after every 5 casts or so), and increased difficulty performing a good mend. Accuracy can also be a problem depending on how much wind there is on the day in question.
Anyway, don't want to bore you to tears, so I'll finish up there. Hope that helps, and good luck.
"Three-fourths of the Earth's surface is water, and one-fourth is land. It is quite clear that the good Lord intended us to spend triple the amount of time fishing as taking care of the lawn." ~Chuck Clark