What happens to a fish when it dies? It usually sinks to the bottom. And I’ve seen enough trout carcasses or half-eaten and decomposing fish on the riverbed to believe this as a first-hand fact. But what happens to a fish as it’s dying? What of the small trout, sculpins, dace and other baitfish that reach the end of life because of injury or old age? For all the thousands of baitfish that inhabit your favorite stretch of river, how do they meet their end?
Surely, most of them simply sink to the streambed and surrender to the circle of life, becoming sustenance for smaller aquatic critters. But sometimes, a dying fish floats and struggles for a bit. And that seems like a pretty good opportunity for a hungry trout.
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Time on the water presents endless experience to the avid angler. The things we see out there are compiled into the stories we share with friends. “You’ll never believe what I saw yesterday,” is the familiar opener for so many of our tales. Because these rare events stand out. Placing yourself in a valley, far removed from an office chair or bucket seat is sure to introduce to you some eye-opening events.
A few years ago and sometime around the middle of a wonderful fall season, I stood midstream on a slow morning of fishing, gazing across the water and scanning the riverbanks. With the fly rod tucked under my arm, I dug into my vest pocket for another handful of sunflower seeds. As I spit the shells on the water, I noticed something unusual drifting toward me. From about twenty feet, I could finally make out its form — a small trout.
The four-inch fish was mostly dark, with pale patches mixed in. A baby brown trout had lost its luster. Its brilliant, wild colors had faded. The fish twitched and pulsed. Then it drifted a bit, before repeating the routine. All of this happened just a few inches under the water’s surface. And as the dying trout alternately convulsed and drifted past me, I watched it’s death-dance take place just underneath my floating sunflower seeds.
I stared downstream, and I watched the dying trout as far as I could, before the river-glare and the distance stole away my view. Then, just as I was about to look upstream and return to fishing — just as I thought, “Man, some big trout will surely see that free meal” — a big swirl mixed with my seed shells. The tail of a large brown broke the surface as he put an end to the struggling four-incher.
Of course he did.
And another rare event was added to the catalog of unusual fisherman’s stories.
I cannot tell you that I’ve ever seen it happen again. But I’ve watched similar events in stillwaters. Pond bass seem to relish the chance to swipe a dying shiner near the surface. But on the river, I’ve only seen it once. Maybe dying dace and trout, fallfish and suckers don’t float up and struggle near the surface very much. Or maybe, when they do die this way, they don’t last very long.
Either way, you can easily guess what I did next . . .
That fall, I was deep into my night fishing exploration. And I was searching for a tactic that would produce big trout with more consistency. Swinging and stripping floating mouse patterns returned spotty results on most nights, and the hits without hookups had become frustrating long ago. Fishing underneath, with streamers and wets, and even dead drifting nymphs after dark were all tactics that were bringing more trout to hand. But seeing that small dying fish drift by, before being swallowed up by a river beast, gave me a whole new idea.
And the positive return was immediate . . .
I walked into the night with a long leader and an unweighted streamer of about four inches. I cast it into the darkness, aiming for the invisible slack water just bank side of a moderate current. I knew my target. I knew my leader length, and I knew the distance, easily judged by the sound of the riffles to my left and the deeper shadows underneath the leafless sycamore.
Twitch, twitch, lift and pause. Repeat.
I felt the gentle tension on the rod tip. I was connected through a long line into the darkness, I felt the angle of my leader and judged the position of the fly. With the streamer in slack water drifting perfectly down the edge of the riffled seam, I performed the sequence again. Twitch, twitch, lift, and . . . the line tightened.
Of course it did.
I’ve always said that the first time out, a new fly needs a good showing. The same holds true for new tactics. Anglers are a skeptical bunch. And our fragile confidence needs some inspiration, or it fades quickly. But that first night with what I’ve come to call the DEATH drift locked in all the confidence I’d ever need.
I fine-tuned the fly over the next month, and the tactic of fishing light streamers in the first five inches under the surface became my primary method for night fishing. It still is.
Of course, a few days after that successful night with the DEATH drift, I had to try it in the daylight. So on a fine cloudy morning among the falling leaves, I tied the same fly to the end of 2X tippet. The fly was about six feet beyond my sighter and connected to a Mono Rig. Again, positive returns quickly followed. And after the first trout, I moved to cover water.
It was fun to see the fly near the surface and watch the precise effects of my rod twitches, the lifts and subtle strips. It was like fishing dry flies, but with a lot more leniency surrounding a dead drift. I learned that a bit of tension on the line, with some downstream drag or a slight swing, was a good thing — an attractive look. I learned to cross lanes and then stall the fly again. Twitch, twitch, pause, and watch the performance of the articulated fly. See it kick and then die. Let it drift for a moment and then activate the fly again.
The DEATH drift is one of my favorite ways to fish streamers. And while it lacks the excitement of long stripping across wide swaths of river and the fast chases of trout, the thrill of anticipation while mimicking a dying and vulnerable baitfish, all while drifting it right into prime holding lies with precision, is a unique feeling. And every trout that falls for it feeds my imagination and confidence for the recurring drifts.
The How To
Most of what you need to know about the DEATH drift is intuitively learned by imagining a dying fish near the surface. But having the right fly and leader is also critical.
The leader is long. I perform the DEATH drift with a contact system, tight lining the streamer with a Mono Rig. This allows me to control every movement of the fly without the influence of currents.
While most of the streamer tactics I use can be easily adapted to a standard leader and fly line or a Mono Rig, this one needs the long leader, because extra and unwanted line on the water causes drag that moves the streamer too much and through too many lanes.
This is a short range tactic, and I like to stay within forty feet of my target — often much closer. I use the Mono Rig formula, adapted to streamers, with a thicker sighter and 2X fluorocarbon. At short range, I may keep all the extra tippet and sighter off the water, or I can lay leader on the water and sometimes perform a slow slide, a head flip, or I mix in a variety of presentations, all because I have contact and control to the streamer.
I fish often enough that I have time to experiment out there. And I’ve tried many fly types with the DEATH drift. I like a light, articulated fly of about three to four inches.
Critically, the fly must sink under the surface but have a slow sink rate. Weighted flies do not work here. Likewise, flies built with material buoyancy like spun deer hair heads keep the fly too high, riding on or in the surface instead of under it. I’ve had some success with these types of flies, but asking a trout to rise all the way to the surface to take a large food form is usually too big of a reach. The target zone for the DEATH drift is one inch to five inches under the surface.
Materials matter. Soaked rabbit strips sink too much. Heavy hooks may accelerate the sink rate. Glass beads for articulation may be too heavy, and some dubbing, when wet, sinks the fly too fast.
So, build in elements that limit or slow the descent of the fly. Design a fly with a slow sink rate — something that can be easily held at depth with a bit of tension on the Mono Rig. Build something that breathes and flutters and kicks when twitched or pulsed.
Most times, I don’t fish large flies very slow. And I am careful not to build too much motion into a fly when a trout has a long look at it. But this is different. Because I’m asking a trout to come up through the water column and take a chance near the surface, and because I’m not moving the fly through the water very much, I like extra motion built into the fly.
The TB Rogue
I use only one fly for the DEATH drift. It’s the same pattern I used on that very first night, although I’ve refined it with a few additions and subtractions.
At heart, it’s an articulated wooly bugger. Hooks are usually Gamakatsu B10s. The tail is marabou. And instead of chenille, I dub a body mixed of Hare’s Ear and Ice Dub, chopped and blended together. Schlappen is palmered over the body, with a mono rib counter wrapped for durability. Rubber legs add a little extra wiggle, and I use plastic beads for the articulation, again to keep the fly light.
The head at the front half is the key to the Rogue. Just forward of the body is fox fur, spun in a dubbing loop. This is an idea taken from spey flies, mainly from the Intruder, where the spun fur props up and holds the shape of a hackle in front of it. But instead of finishing with hackle, I form a Lazar Dub head in front of the dubbing loop.
After much experimentation, I found the fox fur dubbing loop to be the key. Not only does it hold the shape of the head. But on a crisp backcast, water is expelled from the fly. Air is trapped behind the fox fur loop, and that slows the descent.
For me, the TB Rogue is perfect for this presentation. And I tie in in three colors: black, olive and white.
Fishing the DEATH drift is like nothing else I do on the water. And that’s why I like it. Success is a combination of fly and leader, target selection and patience with the presentation.
Do not move the fly too much. Imagine a dying baitfish and mimic that behavior.
At times, you may want to add a small split shot to the line if the fly is too buoyant or if you want the fly a touch deeper. There are no hard and fast rules here. It’s fishing.
For the most part, the fly should hold a seam, because a dying fish has little to no strength for propulsion. Instead, try animating the fly while keeping it in place. Make it struggle, with a twitch and pause. Give it a mini strip and a head flip. And keep the fly at the top of the water column. Stay in touch, with the long leader, and have control over every nuance of a dying baitfish.
Cover water and put it where the big fish are. Watch the performance, and enjoy the unique visibility of the DEATH drift. Hold on tight. And try not to strike too soon when the big yellow submarine charges from below.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N