Fly Fishing Tips: Good drifts are about the leader — not the fly

by | Aug 4, 2019 | 13 comments

Flies unattached to anything make for a great lesson. Drop a dry fly into the current and watch the endless dead drift. With no leader to change its course, the dry might go on, drag free, for miles downstream. But weighted flies are a little different. Drop a tungsten beaded Walt’s in the river, and it’ll find the bottom in a few feet or less, even in heavy currents — same thing with split shot. For underwater presentations, then, the leader keeps a fly on its path.

The line and leader is in charge of the flies. And regardless of the fly type, tippet or presentation, good drifts are all about what an angler does with the leader. Wherever that last section of tippet goes, so does the fly.

Therefore, placing the leader in the right water is the key to getting good drifts.


It’s not enough to land your Parachute Ant on a dime. Because the river steals it away. If any straight tippet behind the ant isn’t in exactly the same seam, the fly quickly slides off course. You might land the tippet and leader across seams if you throw a good cast with s-curves built in. And on your best day you’ll get a few feet of drift before the slack pulls out in mixed currents, tugging the dry off track.

We know this stuff. We all do. And yet, most of us think about where to land the dry fly far more than we think about where to land the leader.

Good dry fly fishing requires an in-depth reading of surface currents. See where the fly will land before you put it there — but do even more. Ask yourself where the leader will land. How much tippet can you push into the faster neighboring current with an upstream arc? These are good questions.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Tips — Hold the seam or cross the seam


When our flies disappear into the water, new challenges arise. I’ve seen accomplished surface anglers lose all their fishing sense as soon as the nymph or streamer goes under.

Good fishing requires good imagination, and drifting below the surface needs it double. Things get complicated under there. The river pushes the subsurface leader in three dimensions.

First choose a target for the fly. How about riding the nymph in the strike zone near the bottom, drifting alongside a dead log? Or maybe aim for mid-column with a streamer, performing a slow-slide out of the shade of the undercut bank? Either way, the leader is in charge. Where you land the leader — and what you do with it after — dictates the course of the fly.

Take them fishing

I was halfway through this last Sping/Summer guide season when I said this to my guests. As they worked on nymphing skills, it seemed to resonate with anglers so well that I kept finding new ways to describe it in more detail, day after day.

“You want the nymph to travel in one current seam. Good. So keep the fly in just one lane, all the way through the drift. There it is. That’s a natural look. The real trick is to keep the leader in one seam too. The fly follows the leader. With everything lined up in one seam, you can show the trout what they’re looking for.”

The leader is in charge

It’s not enough to think about the fly. It’s not enough to see the target before the cast and even hit it with precision. Just as important (more, really) is where the leader lands and what happens with the tippet during the drift.

Cast the leader, not the fly. Control the leader and its position, and the fly will follow.

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. I agree with you, Dom, on the importance of “fishing the leader” instead of the fly. I always try to cast my nymphs upstream in order to keep my tippet in the same seam as the flies. And I try to keep as much of the tippet out of the water as possible.

    I remember an interview you had with George Daniels about this subject. During the interview, he said that fishing nymphs across different current seams works, but mainly for less educated trout. What confuses me is that many extremely accomplished comp anglers fish this way. For example, all the videos I’ve seen of Lance Egan fishing show him casting his nymphs predominantly across stream.

    Now, Lance is very successful in FIPS competitions, so his way of nymphing must work (otherwise he would adopt more successful strategies). And he’s not fishing for naive trout. Do you have a theory about why he, and other, comp anglers fish their nymphs across current seams?


    • Yes. I feel like I commented about this before. I know I’ve definitely written articles about it.

      First, I think there are too many assumptions made about how people fish, how many trout they catch, etc., based on books, videos, scorecards and other things. For example, none of you know if I can fish worth a shit or not. HA! Similarly, readers here may have a very different idea or concept of how I fish because they read a few articles that they really connect with and understand. But unless you read every single thing here, probably multiple times, then you wouldn’t have a full picture of what I do on the water day to day. I adapt constantly. I fish many different ways and angles, etc.. And I’m sure that other trout fishers do the same.

      Second, and really much more to your question, trout are different as much as they are similar. Example: Trout in places with short feeding seasons are more willing to eat imperfect presentations. Hell, they are probably attracted to flies coming across currents a bit — at times. But, attempting a true dead drift is hardly ever a bad thing.

      Third, to make the cross stream nymphing on a tight line look its best, you can set up your leader and flies with that in mind — to sag and drag less. But then your versatility is limited.

      One current seam is a guiding principle for me. It works here and everywhere I’ve ever fished for trout. All of the very good fishermen I know feel the same. And yet, we don’t all do it that way all the time.


      • What we need is a Bear Grylls style show/video. We take Dom and we drop him into a Central PA Stream and film his every action and word as we watch him attack the stream. At the end of the adventure, Dom does a quick recap over some solid local craft beers.

        • I like all of this except the “drop in” part. Sounds painful.

    • You can fish cross-stream without fishing across different current seams if you tuck cast and fish at close range (or potentially at longer ranges if your leader is light enough to hold off the water). The key is the tuck cast and having the fly and the leader enter into the same current initially with slack. That is what Lance, Devin, etc. do from what I can see. No expert here but my 2c.

  2. Dom, Trying to digest this article, it seems to me that casting across instead of upstream, complicates the ability to “lead the fly , or the leader, with the rod” as it moves downstream. Is there a solution?

  3. The real question is… How do I get one of those sweet Troutbitten hats??

    • Ha. They are coming, brother. That hat and others will be available pretty soon.

      I’m currently working on an online Troutbitten Shop, with some nice designs on apparel and stickers. Frankly, it’s a ton of work, as I do all the web design and development myself. I like the work, but it takes time to get everything just right. I almost had the shop done before my spring/summer guide season started back in March, but I didn’t. So I put it aside until after my guide season and after our family vacation. Today is my first day back to full time work on the shop. And I’m excited about it. My goal is to have it launch before my fall guide season starts in mid September. We’ll see how it goes.

      Thanks for the support.



      • I’ll be first in line!

  4. Really enjoyed your last two subjects.I catch more fish not dredging the bottom ( spring’summer & fall).I will fish across but mainly along straight foam lines.I will wade out if i can to get a straight drift.I probably catch as much or more pulling my nymphs through these straight seems as I do dead drifting.I hold a couple of backing barrels just above the surface.I then pull my nymphs through at the speed of the surface bubbles maybe even faster sometimes. I believe that’s what Vladi does.Really gets the fish bitting at times.


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