How to Fish Flies on a Dead Drift
October 01, 2019
How to move your fly (or not move it) so it looks like the real thing
So you’ve now arrived at an important early juncture in your fly-fishing journey. You’ve gotten yourself a fly rod and can consistently execute a few basic casts. You’ve read some books, watched some videos, and you have a general understanding of how to read the water. You can tie a handful of knots, and your fly box has a nice mix of dry flies, nymphs, and small streamers; maybe you even know the names of a few insects. And now you’ve carved out a weekend to go explore that stream you always stop to ogle at. It’s now time to think about how to fish it.
Part of the great joy of fly fishing is the subtleties of presentation. For our purposes we’ll define presentation as the delivery of the fly to a specific location, coupled with the deliberate embrace or negation of current, in order that our offering may dead-drift, swing, or skate—as we dictate it and not by accident. And while presentation is something anglers tinker with and refine throughout their angling lives—and in this sense fly fishing is no different than golf or tennis—it’s also not difficult to learn the basics. In this article we’ll look at three different basic strategies: fishing flies on a dead drift on the surface, fishing flies on a dead drift subsurface, and moving the fly actively below the surface.
But we’re not going to proceed in that order. That’s because while the ability to dead-drift is the most useful skill to have—after all, most of a trout’s diet is insect-based, and insects simply ride the current—achieving a dead drift requires a keen understanding of the interactions between moving water and your fly line. In other words, since a dead drift is the result of an angler very deliberately negating the forces of current working on the fly line and leader, we first need to know what those forces are.
The Fly Line
Let’s start with a few fly line basics. In fly fishing, it’s important to think of the line not as just something that connects you to your fly (and hopefully, a fish), but rather a presentation tool. The fly line is what sets fly fishing apart from all other sorts of fishing, not just because of the way you cast it but the way you manipulate the line and the fly after the cast is finished. It takes both the rod and the line working in concert to send a message to your fly. I like to think of it like this: Your rod tells your fly line what to do, and then your fly line tells your fly what to do. The fly line has the final say.
Now let’s think about the ways that fly line interacts with current. Since even a 2- or 3-weight fly line represents a substantial amount of physical material, the current has many opportunities to act on the line. From the moment it alights on the water, current grabs the fly line and doesn’t let go, pushing, pulling, and dragging it—and, by extension, your fly—all over the place.
To see what I mean, stand in the center of a stream, cast straight downstream, and let the fly dangle below your position on a tight line. You’ll see that even with an unmoving rod tip, the fly line will swish back and forth like a cat curling its tail. Now turn to face the bank and make a cast straight across the current so that it lands a foot or two from the bank. You’ll see that the faster current (right in front of you) will grab the line and drag the fly, which is in a position of slower current (right near the bank), creating a bow.
A bow in the line acts like a kind of sail, and the current is like the wind, blowing the sail and pulling the fly hard across the current. We call this drag, and it’s something we have to always be aware of, no matter what type of fly we are presenting, no matter where in the water column.
Let’s take a look at how to use our understanding of the fly line and current to actively fish wet flies and small streamers downstream. Both streamers and wet flies are terms used to describe subsurface imitations of insects, leeches, and small baitfish, depending on the pattern and size. And while they can indeed be fished with a dead drift (just about anything can) more often than not, these flies are fished actively or, as they say, “on the swing.” Let’s see what this looks like in action.
For ease of casting, I recommend starting with a small size 14 or 16 wet fly. First, make a cast with a fixed length of line at roughly a 45-degree angle to the bank or current. This is called “quartering downstream.”
When the fly lands, don’t do anything. Keep your rod tip frozen in the same position it was when you finished your cast. Watch the fly. It should land on the water, break through the meniscus, and sink about an inch before the current grabs the fly line and immediately begins swinging it across the current. The fly won’t gain any depth, but it will gather speed as the current pushes on the bowing line. Eventually the fly will slow down and come to rest fluttering in the current directly downstream of your feet.
While in some situations you might want your fly to behave exactly like that, more often than not fly fishers want to manipulate the fly’s depth, the line of its drift, and where and when it swings across the current. You do this by mending.
Mending is simply repositioning the fly line on the surface of the water in order to make the fly perform various actions. You basically pick the line up with the tip of your fly rod and move it either upstream or downstream.
The direction you mend creates different effects on the fly. When you mend downstream, you are amplifying the natural drag that the fly line exerts on the fly. Give it a try—mending downstream after your fly hits the water—and you’ll see that the bowing of the line becomes even more severe, and that the fly swings even more quickly across current. Because of the speed of the swing, it likely won’t sink. Quite the opposite: Depending on the speed of the current, it may even skate along the surface of the water, making a small wake.
An upstream mend is generally more common in achieving a drag-free drift. An upstream mend prevents the line from coming tight and swinging. It delays formation of the bow, and allows the fly to drift with the current for a second or two, gaining depth as it drifts.
When you throw multiple upstream mends in succession, it’s called stack mending—you are literally stacking the mends right on top of each other in order to allow a fly to sink on a slack line. Eventually the line will still come taught and the fly will begin to swing as it did before, only it will be swinging through water downstream of where it landed, and at a greater depth.
In addition to mending, there are two other presentation elements to keep in mind when fishing wet flies and streamers. One is to pulse or quiver the rod tip in an up-and-down motion as the fly is swinging. This delivers subtle motion to the fly line, which transfers the energy to the natural fibers in the fly, giving them a lifelike, pulsing movement. [Guide and author George Daniel uses the index finger of his rod hand to tap the rod blank and impart subtle motion to his wet flies. You can read more about this rod tap technique in the April-May 2019 issue. The Editor.]
Another way to move the fly is by stripping the fly line with your hand. In the case of wet flies, which resemble insects in various stages of emergences, these should be short, staccato twitches after your fly has completed swinging.
Streamers imitating baitfish can be stripped more aggressively and at various points during the cast—you can get that elbow involved. Whatever type of fly you are fishing, remember that the cast is not over after the fly is done swinging. Fish often follow a swinging fly to its resting point, stare at it for a moment, and strike once it starts to twitch again.
Speaking of strikes, when fishing downstream, it’s important to give the fish time to turn downstream with the fly in its mouth. Often the best hook-set in this position comes just holding onto the rod and letting the fish do the work.
Now let’s imagine all of these elements together in a fishing situation. There is a logjam you think holds fish, so you make a quartering cast downstream that lands perhaps 10 to 12 feet upstream of it. You stack mend twice so that the fly sinks a foot or so before it gets to where the fish might be holding. You come tight just as the fly approaches the wood, at which point the fly swings in front of it. You quiver the rod tip as the fly moves across the target zone, and perhaps you mix in a few short strips and another small upstream mend to give it an erratic, stop-and-go action. Experiment with different combinations to see what fish are responding to on a given river on a given day.
The drag-free Drift
Now that you understand how the fly line responds to current, and how to use that understanding to manipulate and move the fly, let’s take on the next presentation challenge—the dead drift. The dead drift is very important for both fishing dry flies on the surface, as well as nymphing. But what exactly is it?
A dead drift, also referred to as a drag-free drift, is best understood by throwing a small twig in the water and watching how it moves. It speeds up here and slows down there, rubs against a log, enters the bubble line and gains momentum as it curves around the riverbend. It has nothing connected to it; it simply goes where the current dictates. Now imagine tying this twig to your tippet and allowing it to do the exact same thing it did when it was untethered. It’s not easy. What was once effortless and natural becomes difficult and artificial—but it’s only through this fakery that a natural presentation can be achieved. Let’s look at a few different ways of achieving a dead drift with upstream presentations.
Probably the easiest way to present a dry fly or nymph without drag is to present straight upstream. No mending is required. When you cast directly upstream, all you have to do is strip in excess fly line as your fly drifts downstream directly toward you.
As convenient as this is, straight upstream presentations are limited in their utility. They are not great on slower, unbroken water, where the disturbance of the fly line hitting the water above a fish’s head can put it off or, worse, send it scurrying—this is called “lining” a fish. That said, on broken water such as a riffle, this can be less of a factor. Also, on very small streams only a rod length or two across, straight upstream is often your only option.
When fishing directly upstream, drag comes down to how much slack you can build into your cast, and then how much fly line you can keep off the water. You can do this in slightly different ways depending on whether you’re fishing a dry fly or nymph.
First, let’s look at creating slack in a dry-fly presentation. As you see in the photo on this page, I have cast straight upstream, but when my fly line landed on the water it wasn’t straight—it has a series of curves in it. I did this very deliberately by swishing my rod tip back and forth as my fly line approached its target. These curves act sort of as shock absorbers that extend your dead drift. Those curves have to disappear before the fly line starts to drag the fly. You can make the same cast by tracing a tight “Z” in the air with your rod tip, right at chest level, as the loop in your fly line is unfurling.
Speaking of curves, you can get more of this type of slack in the line by adding a foot or two of extra tippet. If you have a 9-foot 5x leader, simply add two more feet of 5x. Using the same casting stroke, your fly will land in the same spot, but there will be excess tippet and leader bunched up near it. Don’t worry: While it may not look pretty, this is a good thing. It buys you time. Coupled with a slack-line cast as mentioned above, you will get several more seconds of dead drift than you would with a straight cast and straight leader—and that can make all the difference. Nothing screams “don’t touch this!” to a trout like a fly dragging a pizza-slice wake across the surface of the water.
But what if you’re not fishing a dry fly? What if you’re nymphing upstream? Slack line and dead drifts are important when you are nymph fishing because you need the fly to get to the bottom ASAP and stay there. Drag pulls the fly up in the water column.
One type of slack-line cast I frequently use while nymphing is a tuck cast. Simply execute your regular cast, and when your rod tip stops, poke the tip of the fly rod upward as if you’re trying to stab the sky. The result is a hinge in the line, which drops the nymphs into the water before the fly line. With a tuck cast, by the time the fly line hits the water your nymph is already subsurface and gaining depth.
Regardless of whether you are fishing drys or nymphs upstream, you will need to collect the fly line coming downstream just as quickly as the current brings it. Simply strip in the excess fly line using your line hand. Do not let the line slip past you—this will create the very drag you worked so hard to eliminate in the first place.
When upstream presentations are not possible or inappropriate—which is much of the time on larger water—quartering upstream allows you to make a slack-line presentation while keeping your fly line away from the fish. This is really just the inverse of quartering downstream: Instead of casting at a 45-degree angle downstream, you cast at a 45-degree angle (give or take) in an upstream direction.
Quartering upstream differs from straight upstream presentations in that there is a little more broadside fly line interacting with current. This means that mending is necessary to prevent a bow in the line from forming and dragging the fly. However, the best way to accomplish this is before the fly even hits the water. If you can reposition the fly line before it hits the water, it’s called an aerial mend, and it’s terribly effective. You can make an upstream aerial mend by simply moving the fly rod upstream as your fly is in the air. This buys you time before your line begins to bow in the opposite direction, at which time you can make an upstream on-the-water mend.
Now let’s put all of this information together and imagine what a truly long dry fly or nymph dead drift might look like.
You make a cast quartering upstream and perform an upstream aerial mend right before it hits the water. The fly commences a dead drift, and you follow the fly with your rod tip. At some point a bow forms in your fly line, at which point you make an upstream mend.
Now your fly is about even with you. You could now pull it off the water and cast upstream again, but it’s usually far better to maximize your presentation by continuing the drift below you. As the fly passes you, make another large, upstream mend to reorient the fly line, keeping it well upstream of the fly.
Functionally, your fly is now behaving as if you’ve made a downstream cast. Remembering what you learned from the first part of this article, start mending and feeding line into the drift, which allows your dry fly or nymph to remain on its drag-free course, even as it moves downstream.
If you are fishing a nymph, let your fly swing upward on a tight line at the very end of the drift. This imitates what many insects do as they begin the process of emergence—they rise toward the surface. There’s even a name for this technique. It’s called the Leisenring Lift.
*Writer and photographer Dave Karczynski is a Robert Traver Award winner and writing instructor at the University of Michigan. He is the author of the Orvis book From Lure to Fly and most recently with Tim Landwehr Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Methods, Tactics & Techniques (Stackpole, 2017)