Fifty Tips Tips/Tactics

Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #47 — See the Dead Drift

June 24, 2018

The dead drift. That’s what it’s all about, right? It’s the baseline for a good presentation and the starting point for real success in fly fishing. Oh sure, we strip streamers. We swing wet flies. And on occasion we may dance an Elk Hair Caddis on its hackle across the river. But by and large, the dead drift is our objective when fishing for trout — especially wild ones.

While fishing dries, I want a dead drift. Nymphs, same thing. Even my best streamer presentations have portions of a dead drift built in. Trout around here love what I call a crossover technique. I treat part of the streamer’s path as a dead drift (like a nymph) and the rest of it with some motion (strips, pops and jigs — like a streamer).

With some dismay, I realize that I’ve now been fly fishing for twenty-seven years. (Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not. — Stephen King.) And with each season on the water, with every trip to the river, my ability to read a dead drift improves. What I thought were good drifts at sixteen years of age were, quite simply, not quality presentations. And I say this without reservation — I’m certain that my own ability to truly recognize a dead drifting fly will be markedly improved once I’ve fished for thirty-seven years. It’s all about time on the water.

And that’s the point — experience is the only real teacher for things like this.

Photo by Bill Dell

I’m reminded of the young Little League players that I teach to catch fly balls. When they cross over to the Minors division, the strength of larger bodies suddenly makes fly balls hit to the outfield a real thing to be dealt with. And none of them can judge the distance of a baseball behind them until they’ve seen it hundreds — no, thousands — of times. Sure, they get lucky on occasion and get it right — the ball hits the mitt and they chuck it to the cutoff man. But it takes seasons for even the most gifted kid to judge the position of a fly ball.

It’s the same thing with seeing a dead drift.

We may think that our fly is traveling with the current, unaltered on its course by a tethered line, but if the trout aren’t responding, then a true dead drift is the first thing to look for.

Look closer.

What is a dead drift anyway? It’s when a fly is allowed to travel in one current seam without influence from the tippet. The fly then drifts like a real bug might. And as difficult as it may be to see or achieve, the dead drift is the baseline for success out there.

How do you see it? Look closer. It’s hard enough with a dry fly but even harder with any pattern under the water. The invisible fly requires more guesswork and calculation. There’s a disconnect with what we can see an analyze above the surface and what might actually be going on underneath.

So what can we do?

Think more. Fish harder.


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Dan Repella

Great article as always. It would be cool if the Modern Nymphing guys get true underwater footage, not just surveyors tape on a stick.

Domenick Swentosky

Hi. I'm a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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