Extending Your Drag Free Drifts
September 19, 2012
Getting a perfect drift can seem like an impossible task, especially with long casts. Whether you are floating a dry fly or sinking a nymph, the more line you have on the water, the harder it is to get a drag free drift, or dead-drift. In Alaska more than ten years ago, without knowing we were breaking the rules for a proper presentation, Bob Andres and I came up with a radically different approach to getting a dead-drift at long distances. It's a deadly technique that uses an extended loop and it works with nymphs, eggs, emergers, and even drys. Amazingly, we only discovered it because we didn't know we weren't supposed to do it this way.
I started fly fishing in 1969, when the sport was relatively new to the West Coast, so I had to learn by trial and error because I didn't know anyone who fly fished. In 1983 I moved to Alaska and met Bob, who, like me, had never had anyone to teach him even the basics of the sport. Our friendship grew from our mutual love for fly fishing and our pursuit of rainbow trout, which earned us the nickname "The Trout Brothers." Over the years, both of us had taken different paths in pursuit of the rainbows we loved to catch. I used floating lines with dry flies or subsurface nymphs; Bob mainly used sinking lines with Muddlers or leech patterns. While we both enjoyed success, we were not prepared for what was about to happen to us.
Discovery in Rainbow Heaven
We began fishing the Kenai River in the fall of 1985 and found our "rainbow heaven." The aqua-green waters of the Kenai were packed with huge rainbows, some in excess of 40 inches and weighing over 25 pounds. The fish were virtually untouched by the hordes of salmon fishermen, and while we were able to catch some beautiful trout, we knew we were missing something important — salmon eggs.
Red, silver, and king salmon deposit millions of eggs in the Kenai gravel each year and those eggs provide the main food source for the river's rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. We would often use spinning rods with Glo-Bugs to find the trout, then break out the fly rods and Muddlers.
Our lives changed in 1987 after we read an article about using fly rods and strike indicators to fish Glo-Bugs. We adopted the technique and by the following summer, our reputation had grown to the point where the guides were saying, "Fishing behind you guys is like fishing in a nuclear drop zone."
One day, while Bob and I were having a contest to see who could catch a fish the farthest out in the river, we discovered that our lines formed a loop during the drift. Luckily, we had never been told to take the loop out of our line, so we learned to use it to our advantage. We quickly discovered a technique we call the "extended loop," and since then, we have used it to present flies at long distances and set the hook with ease.
The extended loop has become an important technique for us. We have taught it at the Alaska Troutfitters lodge for the past five years, and it has received rave reviews from beginners and professionals. It's an easy technique to learn, but it can take time to master because it is so radically different. It's well worth the time.
Fishing a weighted nymph straight behind (slightly upstream of) a floating line is effective because the surface water moves faster than the water at the bottom of the stream, thus keeping the leader tight. As long as the relationship between the fly line and fly stays the same, the line will stay tight and the indicator will indicate strikes. This works fine when you are fishing upstream or across-stream, but when you want to fish downstream, it is difficult to keep the indicator and line downstream of the fly without creating unnatural drag.
When you fish downstream, if you could keep the indicator and fly line downstream of the fly without dragging the fly, you could cover more water effectively.
If you could also get your line to move with the current, no matter where or at what speed it was going, you would come close to getting the perfect drag free drift. If you could float a dry fly on the surface or fish a nymph on bottom 100 feet downstream, detect almost every strike, and set the hook faster than ever, you could catch a lot more fish.
That's the essence of fishing the extended loop: Keep the relationship between the fly line, indicator, and fly the same throughout the entire drift so you can set the hook faster.
Making the Loop
The extended-loop technique has so many different applications that I could go on about them all day. For now, though, I'll describe the tackle you need, then the basic technique.
Tackle. You can use your favorite rod and line, but I usually use a line that is one or two sizes larger than the line-rating for a particular rod. Frequently I use an 8-weight Royal Wulff Triangle Taper line on a 6-weight rod. I like the line's thick taper because it floats well. I use a leader that is at least nine feet long. If I am fishing water that is three to six feet deep, with a good current, I use one 3/0 split-shot on the leader about a foot above the fly. In slower water, I use less weight to avoid snagging bottom.
The Basic Technique. Start by making a 30-foot upstream cast 15 feet out from your position (see illustration). Most of my casts are flips or roll casts.
As in traditional nymphing, your rod should be held over the water in front of you so you can retrieve (strip in) the line straight off the water so you don't get too much slack. As the line passes in front of you, don't pick it up and place it behind the strike indicator as you normally would.
Instead, lower the rod so the tip is just above the water. This forms a pocket of line — a loop — downstream of the indicator, approximately two feet wide and two feet deep. Once the loop is formed, keep the rod tip low and use the rod to flip more line over the water in front of you and out to the line traveling downstream. The line coming back upstream should be parallel with the line going downstream.
Next, put the line you have stripped in back on the water (by shaking it out of the rod tip) as fast as the water is traveling downstream. If you can accomplish this, the end of your line will not drag from the time it hits the water until you run out of line at the end of the drift, often a great distance downstream. This will keep the relationship between the line and the fly the same — perfectly straight — throughout the entire drift. To get a longer drift, you just need to feed more line to the loop drifting downstream. I have drifted my line well over 100 feet downstream and caught fish on numerous occasions at that distance.
It is important to keep the loop and the mended line in the same current speed to avoid drag on the line, as any movement of the loop will cause the fly to move. For example, if you are fishing a seam of fast water with slow water on either side, you will need to mend the line over the slow water out to the fast water; otherwise, your line will not travel at the same speed. If this happens, the water will open the loop, causing your fly to speed up and come off the bottom.
What's the best loop size? Usually, seams of different speed water are narrow, so a 2' x 2' loop will stay in one seam and all your line placed in that seam will move at the same speed. If the current is consistent across a stream, a larger loop may be used, but the more line used to form the loop, the greater the risk of drag and the shorter the drift will be. In slower water, which usually has a more constant current, you will need to open the loop to get enough water in it to push it downstream.
Mending the Line
Every summer I teach hundreds of clients how to use the extended loop. I have found that putting the line back on the water is one of the hardest things for students to master. The Kenai River is fast and powerful, and it's hard for anglers to keep up with the current speed. The current forces them to put line on the water as fast as possible to keep the line tip from moving and dragging the fly.
To get line on the water fast, hold three feet of line in your line hand as you drop the rod to form the loop. Immediately mend this line out to the loop.
Once you've thrown the first three feet of line, put the line between two fingers of your rod hand and pick up three more feet of retrieved line with your line hand. Holding the line with the rod hand keeps the line from being pulled back through the guides and moving the indicator.
As soon as you have the next three feet of line in your line hand, let go of the line in your rod hand and mend this line out to the loop by pointing the rod downstream and using the rod tip to throw the line out. This puts the line in a 90-degree angle out to the line going downstream and adds some slack so you won't inadvertently move the fly line. Mend the next three feet of line before the line comes tight. This allows you to keep up with all but the fastest water and not move the fly.
If you have too much slack floating down to the loop, slow down and allow the line to straighten out some before putting out more line. Excess slack can also be taken up by moving the rod upstream until the line becomes tight; then move the rod downstream with the current while you prepare another three feet of line for release. This method keeps you in contact with the fly because, although the line is not in a straight line, it will be tight, and you can feel the fish when it stops the fly.
Setting the Hook
This is where our lack of education paid off. If you make a long downstream presentation and try to set the hook by raising the rod, you'll make a slow hook-set because it takes too long to lift the line and move the fly. Because we didn't know this, Bob and I made our extended-loop presentations far downstream and then simply used the loop to set the hook.
As the loop drifts downstream, anything that touches the fly will move the indicator and fly line because the leader is tight. Since the tip of the rod should be down near the water as line is mended out, when the line moves, just strike low and back upstream. Don't raise the rod to strike. The water pressure pushing against the line loop keeps the line in the water as the rod moves back upstream. As soon as the line becomes tight, it pulls the hook to set it in the fish, usually in a fraction of the time it would take to raise the rod and lift the line. There is no problem with slack line.
When you get a fish on the line, don't raise the rod right away. Let the fish take up the line on the water, then fight the fish normally. Striking low instead of raising the arm to strike is another habit that is hard to break.
The extended loop also prevents break-offs when setting the hook. The water pushing against the loop protects light tippets by absorbing some of the shock of the hook-set. This allows you to use lighter tippets without worrying about losing flies to an overzealous hook-set on a big fish.
Wet or Dry
Whether you are fishing with a dry fly, near-surface nymph, or a weighted nymph, the technique is the same. It all comes down to better line control. If you can keep the fly line from being pulled under the water by drag, your dry fly will float longer and stay higher. You will be able to drift your flies into places inaccessible before, with little or no drag, and then set the hook faster and with fewer break-offs.
The Kenai River has few insects, and most of the trout are not interested in the hatches anyway, so I have just scratched the surface of using an extended loop with dry flies. However, some of my clients have used the technique successfully with drys. If you use this technique to fish dry flies in low, clear water, the line may alert the fish, since the line must drift over the fish first. This is not a problem with subsurface patterns. A floating or intermediate clear-tip or clear line may eliminate this concern.
I am no expert on fishing dry flies, but nymphing is something with which I have had a lot of experience. The trout on the Kenai usually refuse dry flies, but they will take a nymph or egg pattern almost any time. When I start fishing a new spot, I always fish in close (10 to 30 feet) with traditional strike-indicator methods because they work the best in close. Often I'm fishing to the spot where most people would stand to make their first cast.
After I've covered the water in close, I make longer casts to cover all the water I can reach upstream and across-stream and I use an extended loop to cover all the water as far downstream as I care to drift my line. With the extended loop, I don't spook fish by moving toward them; I just drift my line down to where they are and hook them.
Curt Trout operates Alaska Troutfitters. He lives in Cooper Landing, Alaska. This is his first submission to Fly Fisherman.