Quick Tips: Hold the Seam or Cross the Seam

by | Mar 17, 2019 | 14 comments

If you could plunge your head underwater and see what the trout sees, you’d have a much better idea of how to drift your flies. I once bought a wet suit and snorkel, with full intentions of doing just that. The experience was a bust, and my wife has some favorite anecdotes she likes to tell about that short period of our life.

Some of the things that trout eat can only dead drift, while others have little outboard motors for propulsion. Most trout foods have at least some wiggle to them, but which things can actually move across current seams at will? Bait fish can. So when we’re representing minnows, sculpins, small trout or crayfish with our streamers, crossing seams might be a good idea. Likewise, stoneflies have a lot more swimming power than most caddis and mayflies, but their ability to cross current seams is nothing compared to baitfish. All of this is something to think about.

In any discipline, a full body of knowledge is built upon a few key blocks, principles and truths that can lead interested students to all of the answers for themselves. That kind of discovery results in the stickiest kind of learning, especially for an angler. Because when you identify and uncover the river’s secrets by fishing hard and thinking about it with intention, what you eventually learn has the foundations of your own path — your own experiences — that got you there.


As fly fishers, the dead drift is our starting point — a baseline — for much of what we do. I’ve argued this before. Stripping streamers and swinging wets aside, an effective dead drift gets us into more trout, more often, than anything else. While watching dry flies at the surface, even a beginner can identify the moment when drag sets in. And most often, drag results in a fly being pulled out of its seam and into the next, or even across multiple currents. Trout see this as easily as the guy who holds the rod, and both parties reject the presentation as inferior. Recast, and try that again.

Let’s first acknowledge that most trout are facing into the current, and most often that is upstream. Good. Now, the same lanes and seams that we watch on the surface are also underneath the surface. They’re just exponentially complicated by three dimensions.

But things don’t have to get scientific or complicated, either. Here’s the bottom line — trout recognize when items in the flow are changing lanes under the surface, just like they do up top. And if you have your fly crossing those lanes, you should have a good reason to do so.

The art of river angling is the mastery of drifting through or across current seams — more or less. Recognizing that and fishing hard to achieve the right look with the right fly, is really all you need for building a stronger skill set.

So no matter how you are fishing a fly, whether swinging, stripping, or dead drifting the top or the bottom, how the fly is moving with or against the currents is the first thing to understand. Is it a natural presentation for the attached fly? Is it a convincing representation of what the trout see? Sometimes, of course, trout are attracted by the unusual, and they’ll eat the wrong presentation. But most times, trout ask for something believable. They are discriminating, picky, smart, educated or just really damn efficient. And that’s why we chase them.

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. As George Daniel said in Troutbitten, cross-stream presentations while Euro nymphing inevitably result in drag. And yet, many videos I see of comp anglers show them to be fishing cross-stream. For example, Lance Egan seems to prefer to fish cross-stream. This confuses me.

    • Right on. As you’ll remember from that Troutbitten article, GD’s answer is that some trout are more demanding than others.

    • It’s an interesting question and I think there is more to it than GD talked about.
      A few random thoughts out of many:
      1-The top comp guys, like Lance or Devin are truly incredible anglers, they can make things work most anglers can’t.
      2-Their leaders are often lighter than what many use. My personal cut-off for achieving reasonable cross-stream presentation with nymphs is the equivalent of 12lbs chameleon but even that is pushing it. I used to use a lot lighter but you loose versatility. In his recent Book Devin talks about the top European guys using the equivalent of 6lbs chameleon.
      3-The best are copied. For river comp technique, that’s the Spanish, French and Czechs (maybe the Italians)
      Their drift lengths are frequently short, under 5 seconds say, often under 3 secs. It’s much easier to keep nymphs in one seem if drifts are short.
      4-Some water is easier to nymph cross-stream than others. Turbulent areas of typical free-stone streams can be pretty forgiving. Smoother flows with highly available food sources can make presentation more demanding especially if the water’s clear. Cross-stream presentations get more challenging the greater the distance needed from the fish.

      • Excellent points, Justin.

        I’ve actually communicated with Devin about his rigs, and he told me that, for nymphing (i.e., not streamers, dries, or dry-dropper), he currently uses a 3x-4x leader.

        To me, this raises a question. Regardless of the conditions and the skills of the angler, it is still the case that an upstream presentation will, on average, be more natural than an across-stream one. So, I wonder if adding a bobber to tightline rig will be more effective (because, as Dom has pointed out, a bobber tends to straighten out the flies behind it, so, even if cast across stream, one ends up fishing one’s flies upstream), day in day out, when casting across stream than using the techniques you outline above.

        • Alex that’s another couple of fantastic questions. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer but for discussion I’ll give my thoughts.
          I think any time our flies are attached to a line we will have drag. Our aim is to decide on the drag direction, distance and speed that is most likely to allow those flies to trigger a feeding response in the water we’re fishing.

          For me the biggest benefit of an across-stream presentation is the ability to control depth, and slow the flies right down ie control drag parallel to the flow.
          With up-stream presentations we have less control over parallel-drag (especially after the initial sink phase of the nymphs) but greater control over cross-stream drag.
          An indicator can straighten the drift but it will also increase that parallel-drag again.

          I like down-stream presentations too and fish this way a lot but that has another set of pros and cons.

          If we can be proficient with presentations through a full 360 degrees then, as Dom says, we can let the fish decide.

          • FWIW, here’s a video of four time world champion David Arcay nymphing with what I think is a 5.5x “line:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSbLhl56R9w

            He fishes both upstream and across steam, but seems to prefer the latter.

            Also note how he punches his casts.

          • That’s interesting, if you hadn’t said otherwise I’d have thought I was watching someone fishing a dry on a conventional fly line.

          • I may be misunderstanding the question, but might the guys who seem to be fishing across currents, i.e. fishing somewhat perpendicular to the flow, still be dead drifting their flies? I’ve been reluctant to fish at much distance to my side, generally preferring upstream for longer distance casts, but in a few situations I’ve just had to cast off to the side, at some distance, as I’ve seen competition anglers doing. I believe I’ve usually tried this in relatively even flows, without too many seams, and sometimes I seem to get a pretty good drift, and from time to time a fish. One other possiblity for moving nymphs across seams–Isos. They move like minnows.

          • Oh hell yes the ISO’s! Dead drifted, striped, jerked or twitched they work year round.

          • In my opinion, an upstream presentation results in a more natural, drag free presentation, much more often. It is hard to argue otherwise. The physics of a cross stream presentation naturally bring the nymphs across the seam, if only a bit.

            I really like Justin’s breakdown of the issues above. And he differentiates between parallel drag and cross stream drag. I believe cross stream drag is much more of a turn off to trout than parallel drag.

            Hold the seam! That is basically my mantra.



          • Dom,

            Given your belief (shared by me) that an upstream presentation results in a more natural drift than a ross-stream one, would you be tempted to use a suspension device if you had to fish cross stream?

      • I think that’s a fantastic breakdown of important factors.



  2. “The experience was a bust, and my wife has some favorite anecdotes she likes to tell about that short period of our life.”

    I’m still smiling at this…good stuff.


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