That’s Not a Dead Drift

by | Apr 5, 2020 | 4 comments

Fly fishers talk a lot about a dead drift. And why shouldn’t we? So much of our time is spent trying to replicate this elusive presentation that the concept of drifting flies without influence from the leader dictates a large part of what we do. It’s what we think about. We plan for it, rig for it and wade into position for it.

A true dead drift is the ultimate goal of dry fly anglers and nymph fishers (most of the time.) And though streamers and wet flies are often fished with purposeful motion — imparting action or allowing the fly to swing through neighboring currents — a good dead drifts is a fine change-up for streamers and wets too.

So yeah, we talk a lot about a dead drift. And I’ve written about it hundreds of times here on Troutbitten. (Seriously, try the search bar and see the results.) So I’m doing it again here. Because I want to make a single point that seems often overlooked.

If you just twitched or stripped your fly, it cannot dead drift next. Anything under tension drifts with some influence from the leader. And that’s not a dead drift.

— — — — — —

I was out with my friend, Mark, a couple weeks ago. I waded nearby and watched him land a streamer up and across, toward the wooded bank. These were excellent, pinpoint casts. Mark can drop a streamer in at any angle. And dealing with low-hanging limbs is not a problem. He has an excellent soft-stop of the rod tip on the delivery. And it’s always fun fishing with someone who casts the fly exactly to the spot where you both are looking.

So Mark cast, and we talked. He told me he’d done quite well all winter long with a dead drifted presentation on his streamers, and that it was still working here in the early spring. Soon enough, I realized that what Mark was referring to as a winter dead drift were these same drifts he was showing me now.

“Hey Mark?” I said, with a bit of a question at the end.

“Yeah?” He replied, firing another dead-on cast into the slot behind a chunk of mossy limestone.

I pointed to where his line entered the water, and I followed it downstream for a few seconds with my outstretched arm.

“That’s not a dead drift,” I told him.

Anything Under Tension . . .

After delivering the fly upstream and across to the bank, Mark had gained contact with the streamer before letting it ride the currents. He’d done this over and over. He did it well, and because he started with such pinpoint accuracy, Mark caught a lot of trout this way. But just because he wasn’t stripping, jigging or jerking the fly doesn’t mean it was a dead drift. And because there was tension on the line, a dead drift at his angle was impossible.

Mark’s presentation was more of what I call a Slow Slide. But who cares what it’s called. And who cares if Mark’s presentation was really a dead drift. What matters most is that he was catching trout. Right?

That’s fair. But while fooling fish is the goal, it helps to understand what the fly is doing to entice a trout in the first place.

Further conversations with Mark clarified what he believed. He thought that anytime he stopped stripping the fly and let it drift, it was no longer influenced by the line. And there was his mistake.

Anything under tension cannot dead drift. A fly can ride down a current seam (and I do this a lot with streamers and other flies). But if it’s under tension, it is absolutely influenced by the attached tippet. Basically the fly trends toward the tippet. Think about that for a moment. Understand that if the tippet is in a faster, neighboring seam, the fly pulls toward that seam as well.

And that’s not a dead drift.

Visual Proof

The easiest way to witness this truth is up top. Cast a dry at any angle on the river. Cast it straight with no slack and no s-curves in the leader. Immediately, you’ll see the fly drag, and always toward the attached leader.

In multiple publications, I’ve read recommendations to twitch the dry fly and then return it to a dead drift. Go ahead and try this one. It’s impossible.

Because, when you twitch the fly, you tighten the leader. If you’re really good at the twitch, you may give it an inch or two of slack right after that twitch, but even that best-case scenario doesn’t last long. Twitching the fly destroys the dead drift. Sure, you can drift your fly after the twitch, but the true dead drift is over.

You might think that a mend right after the twitch can solve this trouble. And in a boat, with super-long, extended drifts, I’ve done this with success. But while wading, it’s simply not practical. Once the s-curves are gone, the dead drift is gone too.

READ: Troutbitten | Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: See the Dead Drift

Likewise, on a streamer, tightening up the line to strip, twitch, jig or jerk cannot be followed with a true dead drift. The only chance you have is if the streamer and all the tippet are in the same seam.

That leads me to the next point . . .

Aiden, wading to the best angle.


We like to talk about dead drifting our nymphs. And for most situations, that’s the goal. I advocate for contact-style presentations with a Mono Rig, a euro nymphing setup or a tight line, etc. But is a dead drift ever truly possible in a contact system?

In short, yes. The real magic of tight line nymphing happens by slipping in and out of contact with the nymph. Yes, we want to be in touch, but just barely. And the goal is a dead drift with a tiny amount of contact at key times throughout the course of the fly. (That’s doctorate-level nymphing.)

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Lining — Not All That Tight

What is it Really?

Again, I believe the terms we use — the concepts — are keys to our success. So first, realize that a dead drifted fly is one that travels down one current seam, uninfluenced by the attached tippet. That idea is easy to understand. But achieving it takes a lifetime of practice.

Anything under tension does not dead drift. And if you choose to add tension to your rig at any time (twitch, strip, lead) then the only way to return to a dead drift after that tension is to keep the tippet in exactly the same seam as your fly. That tippet must usually be downstream of the fly too. And you can achieve this with any fly type. But that . . . is not easy.

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. The problem with nymphs is that they have to be heavy enough to sink to the bottom (usually), or they have to be helped down by lead or putty. As a result, they can never drift totally naturally (natural nymphs are a lot lighter than even our lightest nymphs, since, for example, they don’t contain a hook). Our attempts at a natural drift is always a compromise between sinking and drifting. And, as Dom has said on numerous occasions, the best we can do with that compromise is to cast our nymphs essentially upstream. That won’t result in a natural drift, but it gets a lot closer than casting across stream.

  2. Dom, good on ya for being clear about terms, because they help us think more clearly about what we are doing. For me, the dead drift thing reminds me of working a drift boat, you can line up the boat for the seam you are going to run, but the minute you put your oars in the water to make adjustments, you are not dead drifting. Back ferrying to control your line is like the slow-slide. That helps me thing about what my fly is doing.


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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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