Get Short and Effective Drifts with Your Fly

by | Jun 5, 2019 | 14 comments

Wild and wise trout demand from the angler a natural presentation of the fly. Trout are a difficult fish to fool. So the consistent fisherman learns to successfully drift flies that look like something the trout is used to eating — something that appears natural.

However, the most natural drift of the fly happens over a short portion of the drift. And usually, the angler who casts more often is more successful. Get a short and effective drift on the fly. Then pick it up to cast again. Forget the long, extended drifts that result in unnatural presentations to the trout.

The drift is the fly’s course in the water. It’s the fly’s short (or long) journey following each cast. It can be a dead drifted dry on top or a nymph near the bottom. Likewise, the drift can be a swinging wet or a stripped streamer. Whatever the fly does after the cast, while it’s on or in the water — before it’s picked up for the next cast — that’s the drift.

Most good fly fishing for river trout happens at short range. Sure, there are times when a booming cast of sixty feet or more is required. But for me, and I daresay for most of us, it’s a lot more effective to wade closer and cast a shorter distance. Because the closer your get, accuracy over the cast and control over the drift improves. So does your hookup percentage.

But regardless of how long the cast is, the effective part of the drift is quite short. Let’s take a drifting dry fly as a first example.

Dad and the boys. So green. So good.

The Dry Drift

We’re standing in mixed currents, facing upstream at the top of a flat where the water starts to break into the riffle. We’ve seen a few rising trout within range, but none that are making a habit of feeding on top. So prospecting with a dry, across the length of this easy riffle is a fair strategy.

Let’s make the first cast up and across at about thirty feet. The dry lands with some s-curves and slack behind it, and the mixed currents pull out that slack after ten feet of a ride. We see the dry start to drag. We can mend line here, and try to extend the drift. But instead, I say pick it up and cast again. Get another ten feet of good drift in the next lane over, and then pick it up for the next cast.

Mending on a dry fly can extend the range of effective drifts, and I use mends often enough. But mending brings its own set of problems. The easiest way to show the trout a drag free dead drift on top is to build enough slack into the cast itself. When that slack is gone, pick up the fly and cast again. Get short but very effective drifts.

Now let’s tie on a nymph . . .

In the same water, let’s fish a single #14 Bread-n-Butter nymph on a tight line. Cast upstream about twenty feet but across only ten feet, because we want the rod tip to lead the fly down just one current seam.

Tuck the nymph in, gain contact, read the sighter to help the nymph find the strike zone near the bottom, and then allow the fly to glide through that cushion of water where the trout live.

READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone

When the nymph gets across from our position, it can no longer dead drift. The rod tip is now downstream and beside us, and it will start to pull the nymph across current seams, lifting the fly. The effective drift on the nymph is over. So instead of trying to extend the drift, down and across. Pick it up and recast.

Bring out the streamer . . .

When the objective is not a dead drift on the fly, the effective range of a drift can be much longer. So streamers are a good choice for covering a lot of water, effectively, and moving fast. But imagine this . . .

“Put streamers on structure.” Everyone says it. But the only structure in this riffly section is the far bank. The near bank is a gravel bar in the sun. No good. This isn’t the best day for streamers anyway, but that far bank is shady with some undercut roots. Let’s wade into position, about twenty feet from the bank.

Now cast up and across, landing the streamer just inches from the dirt and the tangle of roots. Nice. If you do the standard thing here, and strip a couple of times with the fly angled back to your position, the streamer has only a few moments near the bank where we believe the trout are holding. But we don’t have to reel everything back in before picking up the fly and casting again. That’s the beauty of fly fishing. Once the fly is far enough away from the prime bank seam, and if we can be certain no trout is following the streamer, then pick up the fly, cast it into the next slot on the bank, and get another short, but effective drift.

READ: Troutbitten | Streamer Presentations — The Deadly Slow Slide

Incidentally, what I call a Slow Slide is arguably more effective in this situation. It shows the fly to more trout lined up on that bank, holding the bank seam, broadside, for a longer and more effective drift. But even with a Slow Slide, once the streamer is well off the bank, let’s pick it up and cast again, rather than trying to extend a drift.

And then the wets . . .

The way I fished minnows as a kid is a lot like the way I fish wet flies now. I like to choose a target — a place where I believe a trout is holding — and then setup a cast and drift that allows the wet fly to turn over right in front of the trout’s position.

What is the turnover?

Tie on a pair of winged or soft hackled wets. (But let’s think about only the point fly during the drift — imagine its position in the water). Now cast mostly across and a bit upstream. While allowing a slight belly in the line and leader, the point fly heads downstream and across. By keeping the rod tip up, eventually the wet fly turns over, underneath. It flips its position from heading down and across to facing upstream and across. That turnover — that flip — is everything! And I try to make it happen in a prime spot. Once the flip is complete, I pretty quickly give up on the drift. I pick up the line and cast again.

Dad and Aiden on the release

Fishing vs Hoping

After every cast, the fly drifts. But only a short part of that drift is truly effective. Eventually, the fly drags, rises too shallow, swings out or just runs out of good water.

I meet a lot of anglers who want to make the most out of every cast, mending and milking it all the way to the end. Occasionally, a trout eats on the backside of the drift, and so the angler believes it might happen again and again. It generally doesn’t.

Good fishing happens within the effective range of the drift — and it’s usually pretty short. Everything beyond that is just hoping that something will happen.

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. A thousand times yes. A short accurate cast to a specific spot, for a specific purpose, beats a long cast that drifts every which way. Every time.

  2. Dominic, thanks for this piece. It clearly has thousands of hours of experience behind it. This one article in a few paragraphs, nails dries, nymphs, streamers, and wets. Nice!

  3. Great read! Love to see the generations together enjoying life as it should be!

  4. Thanks for the tips. As a newbie fly fishermen your tips are clear and invaluable. I’ll be out fishing tomorrow to put them into practice.

    • Nice. Good luck, Mike.

  5. Dom,
    When fishing the bottom and extending the drift down stream in to the “hope” range, aren’t you essentially finishing the drift with a wet fly presentation?
    Thanks for sharing your years of angling knowledge, I’m most appreciative.

    • Hi Bob. Yes, I agree. It’s a lot like a traditional wet fly presentation at that point. And, sometimes that works. But usually it does not. Basically, I’m out there to maximize my time on the water. And, essentially, I’m wasting time by fishing below me. They may eat it sometimes, but they eat a dead drift upstream FAR more often. So that’s where and how I focus my short but effective drifts. Make sense?


      • Thanks Dom for replying. I’d have to be a fool not to take your sage advice. I’m sure I’ve been on the water a minuscule amount of time compared to you and by all means, I should maximize my drifts….but the problem is… I “accidentally “ caught my all time PB on a downstream swing at the end of a drift. Of course, who’s to say how many I may have missed with the time wasted.

        • Yes, that’s what I would say. The physics of the whole thing is inarguable, really. On a tight line, you can only get a true dead drift when the fly is upstream of you, and perhaps slighty downstream of across — if you’re careful. After that, the fly pulls across currents and then swings. Now, some fish may find that attractive. Most of the better fish, and most wild fish do not. So I maximize my time with the only true dead drift portion.

          Personal choice, though. And, like I said, every river can be different.


  6. There is a short riffle,next to trail in public park that gets hit by everyone,yet I have probably caught 100 trout here,up to 20 inches. Reason,I’ve fished it so much and know exactly where fish are and what fly has to do to fool them. And that’s about a perfect 15 to 20 foot drift,in exactly right spot and totally drag free,anything else might as well be in tree behind me,which often am from striking too hard!!


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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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