Q&A: Long Drifts or Short — What’s Better and Why?

by | Apr 3, 2024 | 2 comments

The Q&A series on Troutbitten is an effort to answer some of the most common questions I receive. Here’s the latest . . .

Question

This is from Bryon Marongoni in Logan, Utah.

Hey Dom, I’ve read and absorbed Troutbitten content for a few years. On many days, I’m out on the water with your voice in my head telling me to find the strike zone or Bill Dell’s voice saying to cover more water.

Thanks to you and the crew for getting me into fly fishing much deeper than I thought was possible.

Here’s my question . . .

Why the short drifts? Why not cover more water with every cast? I think I’ve watched all of your videos and read most of your articles about this stuff, and it seems like you aim for twenty or thirty feet with the fly in the water and then move on. But I was with another guide that told me to keep the fly in the water longer, to just let it drift. This makes a lot of sense to me, because while spin fishing from a boat, we often get hits all the way back to the boat.

I hope my question makes sense. I’m not saying the short drifts don’t work for me. They do. But I often wonder if I’m giving up on the drift too early. Wouldn’t I catch more trout by having my fly in the water longer?

Thanks again for Troutbitten and all the insights.

Answer

This is a great question, Bryson. Thanks for asking.

There’s a big difference in my goals while fishing dry flies, streamers, nymphs or wets. And for this discussion, that matters a great deal.

With a streamer, I often aim for presentations that cover much more than thirty feet. In fact, sometimes, the fly is in the water for fifty feet or more, turning, flipping and drifting across lanes, as I’m stripping with or against the currents.

On a nymph, I get the shortest drifts, partly because I’m always looking for a reason to set and partly because I abandon the drift and recast as soon as my preferred look is gone. That look . . . is usually a dead drift.

The same applies with my dry fly presentations. I do everything I can with aerial mends to land the fly with the necessary slack to drift it drag free. I may mend once or twice, but as soon as the fly drags, I pick up and recast, because I rarely find trout eating after I try to reestablish a dead drift.

READ: Troutbitten | Get Short and Effective Drifts with Your Fly

Fishing the dead drift is a big part of my answer here. With dry flies and nymphs, trout eat a dead drift most often. But it’s tough to get. (No one is out there getting great dead drifts of fifty feet or more, cast after cast.) So I fish the part of the drift that looks good. Then I kick it into the backcast and put the fly right back in the water.

That’s another important point. I rarely waste time with false casts. I’ve learned to shoot line and get my fly back to the target with just one backcast. That kind of efficiency keeps my fly in the water almost constantly. It’s only in the air for about one second before it lands again. I have this same approach with dry flies and nymphs — I’m obsessive about the dead drift. Once it’s gone, I pick up, recast and retry. Therefore, my fly is not only in the water a lot, it’s almost always in a good drift.

Photo by Austin Dando

This is the mindset of having tight targets, of getting short and effective drifts. Over the years, I’ve learned that long drifts, where the fly actually drags for the majority of its travel, amounts to wasted time. I’ve learned where and when trout hit the fly — and it’s on the true dead drift the most. Certainly I’ll deviate from this, but for the most part, the true dead drift is the key .

With streamers, my mindset is similar — I fish the best part of the retrieve. Sure, we all have stories of a trout eating right at our feet, just before we picked up for the next cast. But I won’t let those rare memories tempt me into wasting time. The truth is, I’ve seen far more trout commit to the streamer when it’s close to structure, or just a few seconds into the drift. Trout eat the streamer or they don’t. And it’s uncommon for them to follow for long distances and finally attack. Again, I’ll try anything in slow moments, but I play the odds. I’ve seen what works best, so I repeat it the most. And I’d rather get two or three good casts against the next log for the next thirty seconds rather than just one cast to the log and twenty five seconds of stripping away from it.

It’s about stacking the odds in your favor.

You brought up fishing from a boat, so let’s think about that too, because however and wherever you’re fishing affects all of these decisions.

From a boat, I often fish nymphs under an indicator instead of using pure tight line tactics. So I’ll mend and reset the indy multiple times. If the boat is going the same speed as the indy, I might not pick it up for fifty yards or more. The same holds true with a dry fly. A boat traveling at the speed of the current changes what is possible, and if I can get unaltered dead drifts with a few well placed mends, then I may not recast for a very long time.

When I explain all of this to people, I sometimes hear the reply that their waters are bigger than mine. They assume the strategies should be different. I fish big water as well, and I don’t think the objectives should change. Fishing big rivers requires discipline. Our tendency is to cast longer and drift even further. But the actual effective range with a fly rod and the leader at hand does not change. Big rivers can lure you into big mistakes.

If the trout are there, then I keep the targets small and the drifts relatively short. Only when I’m searching for trout in a big river with low populations will I adapt my strategy to covering a lot more water with every cast.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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2 Comments

  1. Great question and nice response Dom! What I’ve taken away most from you and the Troutbitten crew and the methods I’ve learned from your content is that our goal is to fish more and hope less. The tightline advantage puts us in the drivers seat. When combined with good wading skills, efficient systems for switching between tactics, and time on the water reading seams and learning wild trout habits, “covering water” becomes “covering water with a purpose”, using short but efficient drifts/presentations and always being on the move (even if it’s just repositioning a foot or two) and taking a targeted approach. Hits on the swing and hookups on a dragging fly can happen, but we don’t rely on it.

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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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