Q&A: Active Drifting vs Dead Drifting

by | May 9, 2023 | 0 comments

Here’s another installment in the Q&A series. I’ve received a bunch of questions under this topic in the last few weeks, so here we go . . .


John Morrison emailed me.

Hello Dom,

In regard to underwater fishing, do you ever activate your dead drift? Whether on a nymph or a streamer, while dead drifting, do you ever move the nymph faster or jig it up? If you are dead drifting something like a Wooly Bugger, do you recommend moving across currents during the dead drift or swinging at the end?


Thanks, John.

First, I’ll say yes. I do all of the things you mentioned, and more, when trout won’t respond to a great dead drift. Finding what else might convince trout besides what they should take is one of the most intriguing parts of fishing. And with a fly rod in hand, we have so many options that we always run out of time sooner than we run out of ideas.

So try it all. In my experience, trout respond more to smaller animations and minor movement. These often convert to solid takes more than big animations or major movements. But remember, everything works sometimes.

What’s a Dead Drift?

That said, what you are asking about are not dead drifts. I think it’s important to understand the true meaning of the term and, more importantly, the look to the fly. Words matter, because they expand or limit our thoughts about the way we do things.

A dead drift means that the fly has no influence from us. Think about a dry fly, because it’s easy to see. If the dry fly comes tight to the tippet, in moving water, it drags across the surface, going slower or faster than its surroundings or crossing currents. As soon as our tippet influences that fly, it is no longer a dead drift.

READ: Troutbitten | That’s Not a Dead Drift

When fishing underneath the surface and trying for a dead drift, our goal is the same — we do not want to influence the fly unnaturally. This objective, though, is far more complex, because fishing underneath must involve weight, either built into the fly or added to the line as split shot. So, trying to keep that weight from influencing the nymph or streamer in an unnatural way, while also dealing with mixed currents, is the fundamental challenge of achieving a good presentation underneath.

It’s certainly possible, and the closer we get to the goal of having little to no effect on the fly, or appearing to have little to no effect, the more trout usually buy our presentation.

Back to your question: Do I ever activate the dead drift? Sure, but at the point where I start deliberately moving the fly, I stop calling it a dead drift. And do I ever lead a bugger across currents or swing it at the end? Yes, but again, I don’t call these motions a dead drift.

As soon as I influence the fly, I abandon the idea of dead drifting. The fly is now swinging, sliding, hopping, jigging or simply drifting. All of those motions might catch a trout, and I mix them in to see what works best for the moment.

Last Call

Final point here . . .

I often say there is only one kind of dead drift — a perfect one. And everything else falls short. Lucky for us, trout still eat imperfect dead drifts, because of course, we are most often imitating living things with our flies. And living things move. So, by aiming for perfection in our dead drift. we end up with small imperfections that might very well make the fly look alive.

Fish hard, friends.


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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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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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