Night Fishing for Trout — Drifting and Swinging Flies

by | Aug 5, 2018 | 3 comments

** This Troutbitten article is part of the Night Fishing for Trout series. You can find the full list of articles here. **

Night fishing with a fly rod isn’t for beginners. Rather, it’s for the well-seasoned angler who doesn’t mind feeling like he’s green again. Enough is different about the night game that your whole system seems turned upside down. Trout hold in peculiar places and behave in strange ways. Flies that you’d never consider in the daylight become your new confidence patterns after dark. And your tippet isn’t really tippet anymore — it’s a chunk of thick, stiff monofilament, designed for setting the hook hard and holding on.

Given all that, we haven’t addressed the obvious — that you can’t really see what the hell you’re doing out there. Yup, everything’s different at night, and fishing dark rivers will quickly make anyone feel like a rookie with a rod in his hand. That’s a good thing. Because, if you’ve day-fished long enough, you’ve been humbled and learned to take it all in stride. Long-term anglers are the ones who see failure as a matter of course, artfully blaming the trout when appropriate and using an empty net as a chance for contemplation, asking “What can I do differently?”

And the night angler needs that confidence. Success requires a long-range mentality to overcome defeat — because there’s lots of it. Night fishing challenges a steadfast angler’s resolve. It takes seasons of fishing after dark to get past the rookie stage again.

Since night fishing beats us down, we look for some stability. We grasp for familiar things. And then we strive to adjust them, to adapt our daytime tactics to the new challenges of a river in shadow.

Drifting and Swinging are Familiar

I night fish with five different fly types: surface flies, streamers, wet flies, nymphs and Harvey Pushers. Maybe that sounds like a lot. Maybe it is. Sure, I’ve gone through phases where I reasoned I might do better by sticking with one fly type and one tactic — and I’ve done that for seasons at a time. But I always come back to the philosophy of adaptation, because that’s where I’m most comfortable. Do what works. And if it’s not working, change.

So five fly types, but there are two basic ways to present them — either drifting or swinging. Everything we do out there is a variation of one tactic or the other. And for every fly type, I have a favorite match (drifting or swinging). But when the trout refuse the first presentation, I try the other.


This isn’t a dead drift. For night fishing, let’s cut the word dead away from drift. Drifting, as described here, is simply presenting the fly with the current and not against it. And that drift is not necessarily drag free.

It starts with an upstream cast, because you cannot drift flies by casting downstream. The cast may be directly upstream or up and across, and the rod tip stays ahead of the fly, allowing the currents to carry it downstream.

Some of us have spent so many years trying to perfect a dead drift that our aversion to drag is ingrained. But a moving night fly gets more looks (usually). It is motion, in so many forms, that attracts the attention of our trout after dark. And a bit of drag (or a lot of it) is a good thing.

That’s not to say the fly should be at odds with the current. No. A night fly, drifted well, flows with the current, having just enough motion to attract attention. It needs to move, but not too much. It’s a fine line. And finding the right side of that line is a nightly challenge. On good nights, trout tell you what to do.

“When drifting surface flies, wets and streamers, it’s helpful to imagine the head of the fly. Think about its orientation in the current. Keep enough tension on the line and work the fly enough to keep its head angled downstream.”

Generally, I allow more motion into the drifting of larger flies. I may drift big surface patterns or streamers, but I’m not shy about moving those flies with strips, jigs and pops along the way. I may also work with the belly of a fly line on the surface, allowing the resulting drag to bring the flies downstream faster than the current.

I do similar things with wet flies and Harvey Pushers. But if I’m drifting wets, I prefer less motion. And I stay closer, so I have more precise control over the drift. By trying for a dead drift, I may very well get just the right amount of drag.

When drifting surface flies, wets and streamers, it’s helpful to imagine the head of the fly. Think about its orientation in the current. Keep enough tension on the line and work the fly enough to keep its head angled downstream.

Finally, when fishing nymphs at night, I almost always drift them. And although a dead drift often produces, I’ve learned that the slightest animation to the nymphs can bring more consistent results.


A good drift may turn into a swing. When the fly passes downstream of the rod tip, the flies come under tension and a swing begins. This transition from drifting to swinging was a key concept in the minnow game of my youth. I was taught to position myself so the flip from drifting to swinging happened right in front of where I expected a trout. And it’s still a deadly technique, no matter what fly is on the end of the line.

Sometimes I fish long casts up and across, with drifts that turn into swings over long stretches of river. But most often, I prefer a targeted approach, and I swing the flies more deliberately.

Swinging flies results in better contact and strike detection. And if the trout are on a swinging presentation, the hookup ratio is far better than drifting. It’s an easier method to control, and it covers more water. Working downstream through a stretch of night water is efficient.

Swinging starts by casting across or quartering down and across. Once the flies hit the water, the leader and line create tension against the current, and the flies pull against it. We can adjust the speed and depth of the swing by changing the rod angle, by mending and by holding line off the water.

Motion is inherent in a swing, and again it’s movement that interests trout at night. So a fly swinging against the current is often enough to interest a trout. If not, try a hand twist retrieve mixed in with short mini-strips. Or try the hang-and-wiggle. (Lift the rod high, shake the tip sideways a few times and return the rod to the original position). In slow and moderate currents especially, a little extra motion to the swing can change the night.

Black Rogue. My best night streamer right now.

I swing all five types of flies, although I swing nymphs only rarely. Wet flies are perfect for a swinging presentation in most any water type. I like swinging surface flies near the banks. I swing a lot of streamers in the riffles, starting with a cross-stream presentation. And when I find slow water with feeding trout, be it a flat or a pool, I tie on a pair of Harvey Pushers, quarter down and across, and with a mixed hand twist and jig I’m alive with anticipation.


Under the cover of darkness, rivers come to life. An ecosystem that operates with reservation, hesitation and caution under the sun, now drops its guard. Crayfish emerge from streambed cracks while sculpins and schools of baitfish forage in the shallows. Mayfly and stonefly nymphs use the safety of darkness to relocate.

All of these available food forms move, and trout are looking for those patterns of movement. Trout too, are emboldened by the dark canopy.

Imagine a hapless mouse crossing a side channel to reach the next island. Or consider the trout fry, suspended underneath a bubbly bank current, swaying and kicking as it feeds on midges, just under the surface. With the fly rod, we may imitate these food forms by either drifting or swinging flies. And on most nights, it takes a combination of both to fool a fish.

Fish hard, friends.


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

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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  1. What are Harvey Pushers?

  2. This is great stuff! If I’d only had access to this about 20 years ago. At that time, swinging big wets was all I knew. Drifting has created so many more options for me over the last several seasons. Thanks Don for all the great discussions and tips on the night game over the past few years. This series of articles is dynamite information for anyone looking to get into night fishing for trout.

    • And I meant Dom. Sorry!


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