Nymphing — Free Fall and the Drift

by | Nov 29, 2020 | 5 comments

Aiden walked behind me on the bank after fooling around in the woods for a while. He’d been playing fetch and find-it in with our Aussie pup, River. Recent fishing trips have been just as much about hanging out with River in our favorite places as actually fishing. But while they played, I’d been working a piece of water pretty hard for ten minutes. It was a nice run with meaty pockets, even in the low, clear water on a fifty-foot-wide stretch of our home stream.

Over my shoulder, I felt Aiden watching — not for long — before he offered the following:

“You’re just fishing the free fall, Dad.”

He’s ten. He’s my youngest son. And his words struck a chord. They were my own sentences, my own concepts, now on their way back to me. Because on a trip last week, I’d taught Aiden about the free fall and the drift portions following every cast.

“You think I’m not drifting, Aiden?” I asked.

I stopped casting and turned his way. River saw my pause, and scampered down the bank to invite a chest scratch or a head pat. He got both. Smiles all around.

Aiden was right, and I knew it. But I wanted him to explain the idea, to hear the rest of my own words come back to me from a week ago.

Aiden motioned to the water and animated the fly with his left hand and the line with his right arm.

“Every time the fly hits the water, it drops down to the bottom, Dad. And you’re just setting.” Aiden told me this, with full confidence in the concept and the necessary corrections.

I nodded and began to ask, “So, you think when the fly get’s near the bottom . . .”

“. . . strike zone,” Aiden corrected.

“Sure,” I agreed. “Good point. So, once the fly gets to that strike zone, near the bottom, I should start drifting it downstream?”

“Yes.” Aiden said. Then he sat on dry leaves and soft ground atop the undercut bank. It was the perfect height for resting his wading boots easily on the wet gravel of the low-water river’s edge.

“You already know all that, Dad,” he told me.

“I guess I do, bud.” I paused and watched River circle behind Aiden’s legs, hop up on the bank and sit beside his friend.

“Free fall and the drift,” I said as a recap.

“Yup,” Aiden nodded. “Two parts.”

River and Aiden

Free Fall

Notice this, next time you’re nymphing. Are you setting every time the fly falls into position?

I see this a lot with my guided guests, especially on a tight line. The fly enters the water. It falls and then touches the riverbed. The angler sets, casts again and repeats steps one through five.

Over and over, without realizing what we’re doing, we may be fishing only the drop — the free fall part of what happens after a cast.

The drop is the time while the fly is descending. I call it a free fall, because most often, that’s my goal — an efficient drop, unaltered by my tippet (almost). With no direct tension — if I’m careful not to pull out the built in slack from a tuck cast — this can happen every time.

READ: Troubitten | Tight Lining — Not All That Tight

Trout often hit on the drop. It happens a lot. But the free fall is only half of what happens after the cast.


The Drift

The strike zone might just be the most important concept for a nymphing angler to understand. And it’s our goal to glide — or drift — through that cushion of water near the bottom that’s going slower than the currents above. We can read the strike zone on a sighter or an indy, when things are set up right. But that’s another discussion . . .

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

Point is, after the nymph falls into position, into the strike zone, we want it to spend some time there. But if we constantly set at the end of the fall, the nymph never has that chance to drift, and the trout don’t get an opportunity to eat on anything but the drop.

READ | Troutbitten | Nymphing — Set On Anything Unusual

Trout hit more often on the drift than the free fall. The drift is usually longer in duration — often much longer. And the drift looks more natural than the free fall, because real nymphs don’t plummet through the water column like weighted nymphs or split shot do.

A good drift should follow the drop. The free fall and the drift are a successful pair. And they work best together.

READ: Troutbitten | Short Series | Leading vs Guiding vs Tracking the Flies.

Tight Line or Indy

This concept holds not just on a tight line, but under an indy as well. In both cases, we want the fly to fall into the strike zone quickly and then, ideally, drift for some length until a trout eats it.

It’s easier to make this happen on a tight line, because we are in full control over the course of the fly, from beginning to end. Once the strike zone is achieved on a good free fall, we can influence the fly a bit to keep it gliding through the strike zone.

But the same can and should happen under an indy. After the cast, relieve tension from your leader to the indy by keeping line out of the water or mending the line to feed slack. Now watch the indy for contact. (The Dorsey Yarn Indy is particularly good at showing the moment that it actually gains the payload of the fly.) Next, watch the indy for the slow down. See the surface bubbles slide past the indy, ever so slightly. That’s the sign of the nymph in the strike zone. Often, the indy will tick and hesitate, as the fly touches some of the tallest rocks down there.

If it does all of this without sticking, that’s excellent. And there you have a great example of a drop and drift.

If you’re a next-level kind of angler, then you might already be thinking about how much slack you allow between the fly and the indy in the first place. With a bit of slack, the nymph can more efficiently fall into the strike zone, then gain tension with the indy, slowing it down a bit and gliding through a good drift. But with too much slack, the fly might fall and stick. These are the slight adjustments to consider, as well as changes made for weight and distance — sliding the indy up or down the leader.


Follow Through

So, on a tight line or under an indy, the best nymphing presentations include the free fall and the drift. Think about it. Watch for it. Adjust for it. Then repeat it, over and over. Trout will eat the fly if you trust the technique.

Fish hard, friends.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Nymphing

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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 have read quite a few of these Troutbitten articles over the past year. I always seem to learn something from each one. Sometimes it’s a small tip and other times an entire technique I should be trying or practicing. Recent pictures of “River” are an added pleasure. Thanks for the effort to improve our fishing.

  2. Dom is it wrong to use a heavier nymph say 3.0 or 3.2 let it hit bottom, note your sighter, lift it up say 6” and maintain that depth through the drift? Rather than changing weights to adjust depth?
    Thanks for your help.


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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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