Monday, November 15, 2010

Drifting Flies for Erie Steelhead

With the steelhead primer being so well received by the online community, I've been getting some feedback here and there, with comments, suggestions, and, in some cases, some questions.  Whether a reader is seeking clarification on something I wrote in one of the parts of the primer, or they're seeking new information on an area I covered briefly, or not at all, I do my best to get back to them with an answer as soon as I can.  In most cases, that means within 2-3 weekdays, but in one case was as soon as a few hours.

That said, I encourage anyone reading DotD who feels so inclined to send along an email.  In addition to using the 'Contact Me' button in the sidebar, you can also send an email direct to and I'll get a response to you as soon as I can.

Just recently, Dharma of the Drift reader Bob sent in the following question via email:

Just finished reading your 5 section steelhead report, and found it interesting that I seem to be doing things pretty much the way you suggest (with a few exceptions).  Now I am more prepared to feel confident about my tactics.  Thank you for sharing this info.  I guess my biggest question is how to get the "perfect drift".  Besides what you mentioned do you have any other tips regarding a good drift. I try to cast it out, mend right away, high stick and then bow down.  Does this sound right?  

I appreciate any advice. 


First of all, I'd like to thank Bob here on the site for reading DotD and for sending his email.  Interaction with readers helps me keep the content here relevant and helpful, which, in turn, keeps you coming back for more!

After sending along what I could offer on the subject, I also mentioned that I'd like to share with the rest of the reader base and Bob agreed that the information might help out some other readers.

Here's what I had to offer Bob:

Hi Bob,
Thanks for reading, and for the email as well!
The 'perfect drift' is really the one central thing that stratifies Erie steelhead anglers.  While ten anglers on a given stretch of water may all have the same rod, reel, line, leader, and fly, the thing that will separate them is their proficiency with the drift (and detecting the strike).  I won't claim to be any kind of an expert, as I prefer to fish dries and streamers for trout (meaning that I get very little practice at a subsurface drift), but this is what I can say:
There's a lot of variance in opinion as to what the perfect drift even looks like.  Conventional wisdom tells us that it'd be a drift where the fly behaves just like a natural egg, tumbling in the current, at the same speed as the water, but many guys feel that a drift that is actually 2-3 times slower than the current is best.  
Keep in mind that the 'perfect' drift is the one that gets a bite, so when I talk about a better drift it's one that's more likely to fool a fish, not necessarily the one with absolutely no drag.  With this in mind, getting a good drift becomes more and more difficult the deeper the water being fished.  You nearly always want to bounce your fly along the bottom, and deeper water means that there's just that much more current and drag to deal with.  Slow water also makes a good drift more difficult, as the fish get more time to inspect the offering, and you have to make flawless mends and keep the drift going for a longer period of time.  This, combined with resting, spooky fish, is why its much more time-effective to pass up the deep, slow pools and head for the fast, shallow riffles.
Fast water means you need the fly to drop quicker, but you can do this.  The faster water will hide your mend and will also allow you to place weight much closer to the fly than you could get away with in the slow pools.  In really fast water, I'll sometimes use a #8 or #10 glo bug (you can also use bigger flies in fast water), with lead at 6-12" and again at 12-18" from the fly.  Having lead 6" from your fly might seem like a mistake, but it will help get your fly down in the strike zone quickly, and in truly turbid water, it will help to keep your fly and your lead in the same currents.  Also in this water, having lead that close won't really spook the fish.
From your description, it sounds like you have a pretty intuitive understanding of how to drift.  When I do it, I basically try to walk the fine line of having no tension in the line but also no slack.  Any tension means that your line is preventing a drag-free drift (proponents of the 2-3x slower than the current method will have tension in their line), and any slack will make detecting a strike nearly impossible without extremely perceptive vision or a very obvious take (unlikely with Erie steel).
I hope this helped address your question, and maybe even will help you catch more fish.

So there you have it.  As I said in my email to Bob, I'm by no means an expert, and simply do what I can and what seems to work.  If anyone has any other questions or suggested additions to the primer, feel free to email or comment on any of the steelhead articles, and if I can help you out, I'll try.


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