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Fly Fisherman Throwback: Joan Wulff's "Drift"

The right move between back and forward fly casts can make a world of difference in performance.

Fly Fisherman Throwback: Joan Wulff's "Drift"

The right move between back and forward fly casts can make a world of difference in performance.

Editor's note: will periodically be posting articles written and published before the Internet, from the Fly Fisherman magazine print archives. The wit and wisdom from legendary fly-fishing writers like Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Lefty Kreh, John Voelker, Al Caucci & Bob Nastasi, Vince Marinaro, Doug Swisher & Carl Richards, Nick Lyons, and many more deserve a second life. These articles are reprinted here exactly as published in their day and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age. This should be used for historical purposes only.

This article originally appeared in the December 1983 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. Click here for a PDF of the print version of "Drift."

Whether we are beginners at it or old hands, fly ­casting adds immeasurably to the richness of our sport. It includes a sense of feeling that is missing from most other sports. In golf or tennis, for example, the object of one's stroke–the ball–flies away on its own. But in fly-casting the surge of power that we impart to the line can be felt even as that power diminishes. Some days we cast better than others, but every cast, every presentation of the fly, calls for precise coordination of eyes, hands and tackle.

The beginning fly caster is caught up completely in the mechanics of moving the rod back and forth, back and forth, striving to sense the timing on the backcast–even though he can't see what's happening–in order to deliver a presentable line and fly to the fish. With time his skill develops and he stops thinking about the mechanics. They become instinctive reflexes. If his mechanics are good, the beginner will develop into an accomplished caster with almost limitless capabilities, using his tackle to make casts he couldn't have imagined in the beginning.

My mechanics were good because of my tournament-casting background, and after making thousands of casts over the years, I suddenly recognized that the part of casting that made it so pleasurable was an unconscious motion between the backcast and forward cast. Within this motion I was able to feel exactly where the line was at all times. And I could change line direction without losing my timing. It was drift. I had been aware of its importance in tournament distance casting as far back as 1947, but I hadn't realized how much drift was contributing to all of my casting until I began to instruct and write about fly-casting seriously.

Drift is a move without power. It occurs immediately after power has been applied on the backcast and just before the forward cast begins. It is an integral part of backcast timing and fills the time during which most casters just wait while the line is unrolling. Drift is a repositioning that can give you perfect timing and increased distance and help you to solve the problems of presenting a fly under difficult wind or obstacle conditions.

If you can accept the notion that the forward and backward casts need not be made in the same plane, you are ready to explore the possibilities of this magic movement. To understand drift you must first understand where it fits into the mechanics of fly-casting.

Here, step by step, are the mechanics of the backcast:

Loading the rod: As the line is being lifted off the water and brought toward the caster its weight bends the rod tip. This is called loading. All of the line, except the leader, should be off the water in this first move.

Power snap: The leader is lifted off the water with a sudden snap of the hand and forearm–the elbow acts as a movable hinge, the wrist is nearly straight. This move is ended abruptly as the fly comes off the water. When the rod butt stops–squeeze the rod hand to make it stop abruptly–the tip flips over (the instant of turnover) to form the beginning of the backcast loop. Power has been transferred from the rod and hand to the line, and line speed is at its peak.

Drift: As the line loop unrolls, the rod follows through in the same direction so that the line's constant pressure on the rod tip can be felt. By being aware of this pressure the caster knows when to begin the forward cast. The rod/wrist attitude does not change during this basic use of drift.

As seen in Figure 1, a dead stop in the casting motion between the backcast and forward cast causes the line to sag next to the rod tip. This prevents you from feeling the pressure of the line. With drift the rod tip feels as though it is connected to the line. With experience you can feel every inch of the line as it unrolls on the backcast.


Joan Wulff's Drift
Figure 1.

If you are a "dead-stop" caster and would like to experi­ ence drift eastly, determme the time between the backcast and forward cast during which you usually wait. Now, in­ stead of waiting, raise your hand four to six inches. You should get the "connected" feeling of drift.

Forward cast mechanics are much the same as backcast mechanics. Loading is accomplished by moving your hand forward in a straight line. The power snap follows, and then what was drift on the backcast becomes follow-through on the forward cast as the line unrolls on the water. If you are false-casting, the follow-through is drift, because it repositions your hand and lowers the rod so that you can again start an upward backcast.

In addition to the mechanics of fly-casting there are three variable factors in each cast: stroke length, power, and timing. Stroke length includes the loading of the rod and the power snap. It varies with rod length and the amount of line being handled, but the formula is simple: short line/short stroke; long line/long stroke. Power is generated during the loading of the rod and is transferred during the hand-snap in the same manner as power is transferred when a baseball bat hits a baseball. Power comes from your forearm and hand muscles as well as from the rod. The amount of power required depends on line length and wind direction. Timing is the element chat puts it all together and makes it work. Drift ensures perfect timing by feel rather than by mental calculation. Timing, too, must be adapted to line length and wind direction.

Joan Wulff's Drift
Figure 2.

Let's look at the drawings and diagrams of backcast mechanics when drift is used for repositioning. Notice that in the short cast–20 to 25 feet (Figure 2)–the hand and rod are drifted upward and only very slightly backward to follow the path of the unrolling line. In the longer cast (35 to 40 feet, Figure 3) the hand-snap is in a different place because of the longer stroke needed to lift the line off the water, and the drift is more backward than upward. A natural, slight backward movement of the upper body helps to keep the hand-snap from ending too far back and improves the angle of the line's path.

Joan Wulff's Drift
Figure 3.

The longest cast (Figure 4) is different. Here we are picking up 45 to 50 feet of line and shooting as much more of it as we can. The forward cast trajectory must be on an upward angle great enough to allow a maximum amount of line to shoot before gravity and diminishing power end the cast. A haul is used to take the line off the water. The line unrolls much lower than it does in short casts, and drift takes the hand and rod backward. The tip ends up in a low position (see illustration). Line is shot during the drift time to get maximum load on the rod, and a second haul is made on the forward cast.

Joan Wulff's Drift
Figure 4.

In each instance the forward cast starts from a different position than that in which the backcast ended–a better position! And it should feel like one. Drift will free your elbow from your side and give you the feeling that you can apply power smoothly. By starting the forward cast from a position farther back, you can make a longer straight-line stroke, during which you'll generate more power and build up more line speed than is possible in a shorter, more restricted move. When a stroke is too short, power must be delivered in a sudden punch that affects the form of the unrolling line and often causes tailing loops.

There are some variables that affect the use of drift. If on short and medium casts your hand-snap is made over a greater space than is necessary, you won't have room to drift and your backcast will probably be headed downward. The power-snap must be started and completed with the line moving on an upward angle, and it must be sharp. This is also true for long casts, even though the line's path will be at a lower angle.

On long casts the power-snap may be proportionately longer and drift may be relatively short. You also must recognize that you cannot drift into a rear wind. With wind from the backcast you need extra power on the backcast, not drift. Therefore, and also under rear-wind conditions, backcast timing is shorter than it would otherwise be.

Let's look at some of the other casting problems encountered while fishing. The wind is blowing from the right and you are casting right-handed. You can make the backcast without feeling the wind's effect, but when you make the forward cast, the wind will have moved the line over behind you and you'll probably get hit with the fly. Many fishermen use a backhand cast but an alternative is to make your standard backcast, drift the rod tip to your left side (but still overhead) and then make the forward cast (Figure 5). The line will go forward on the downwind (left) side of your body. Move your hand slightly and keep it in front of your face at about forehead level. Keep the hand/wrist attitude static, and move the whole arm slightly to the left. The rod tip will move several feet depending on line length. When one move follows the other smoothly, the form of the cast will be elliptical: long sides and short, rounded ends.

Joan Wulff's Drift
Figure 5.

A left-to-right drift technique can be used if there are obstacles, such as bushes, behind and to your right. A standard right-sided backcast will let the line come too close to the bushes for comfort. Bring the line in on the left, drift the rod tip to the right and make the forward cast. The line will not extend as close to the obstacle as when you cast conventionally. Drifting sideward can help shorten the space you need for a backcast (Figure 6, diagram from overhead–path of rod tip and path of hand).

Joan Wulff's Drift
Figure 6.

The best defense against a headwind is a low forward cast. But you don't necessarily want to make a low backcast. Make a normal, upward backcast stroke, drift back and down, then drive forward with extra power so that the line will unroll just above the water where the wind is slowest and will affect the line least (Figure 7). Crouching the body can help.

Joan Wulff's Drift
Figure 7.

Speaking of wind reminds me of Iceland, where 20-knot winds are common and you might be treated to several days of 40-knot winds as my husband, Lee, and I were on the Laxa Adaldal in 1972. One morning the wind was so severe from behind us that we couldn't make a backcast. We turned our backs to the river and, using our naturally more powerful forward stroke, cast into the wind. Then, during drift time we turned quickly back to the river and made the forward presentation with the wind helping. This maneuver saved the day.

Presenting a fly under overhanging branches can also be a problem, and drift can help to solve it. A vertical cast may unroll the line into the overhanging branch, so try changing your plane by turning your palm up and making an off-vertical cast. Make the backcast on an upward angle slightly above horizontal. Drift your hand and rod tip down below horizontal until the rod tip is on a straight line (180 degrees) from the target area under the branch. Time your drift with the dropping of the line. Put your eye back on the target, making a straight-line, forward cast from this low level, and the line will unroll parallel to the water and slip under those branches as pretty as you please–with a little practice (Figure 8 ).

Joan Wulff's Drift
Figure 8.

These examples should open the door to experimentation. The nine-to-one-o'clock, single-plane casting days are a thing of the past for today's dedicated fly fisherman. The full sphere of possible motion can be used to solve casting problems. In order to make the best use of drift you must know the mechanics well enough to follow your sharp hand­snap with that magic move in continuous motion. Eventually you won't think about drift. You'll decide where you want to put your next cast and automatically reposition after the backcast so that you can do it with the greatest precision.

At our fishing school, when we gather for group portraits, we don't say "cheese" or "sex." The photographer says "drift" and everyone smiles. May it do the same for you.

Joan Salvato Wulff, formerly an international tournament caster, is a teacher, writer and fisherman who lives in the Catskills.

Joan Wulff's Drift
Joan Wulff's "Drift" originally appeared in the December 1983 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.

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