The Undead Drift: Fly Fishing’s Spooky Secret

The Undead Drift: Fly Fishing’s Spooky Secret

The first day of school in a fly fishing education invariably involves discussion of the “dead drift.” This concept of allowing your flies to float unencumbered at the exact pace of the current is central to the art and crucial for early success. It also leaves out a lot of information in regard to insect and trout behavior. But you could understand why mentors would leave out zombie stories from early lessons.

In honor of Halloween, I’ll let y’all in on a trick that all the best trout anglers know but few talk about. And no, it’s not pumpkin-spice streamers.

I call it the undead drift.

Many of you may have unintentionally discovered this method on your own. Fly fish trout streams long enough and you’ll eventually stop paying attention for a minute—it happens to the best of us because rivers are places of great beauty. In those moments, your flies may begin to drag, skate, or swing in a decidedly not-dead manner. More often than you might expect, that motion triggers an attack from a trout. Plenty of times, that trout ignored your perfect drift only to hit once some motion was introduced.

Steelheaders and Atlantic salmon anglers have known about this for generations. Waking, skating, or swinging flies on a tight line downstream under water or across the surface is one of the most tried-and-true methods for triggering these often-laconic fish into feeding when they’re not actually hungry. Call it a predatory response or simply some glitch in the matrix, but motion will frequently activate fish that otherwise might not be interested. I equate it to many oddball tactics you hear with turkey or elk hunting, doing something differently enough that the quarry hasn’t seen it before and may be tempted out of pure curiosity.

Lazarus on the Line It makes a lot of sense—caddis rarely sit still on the surface of the water. Adult stoneflies and grasshoppers look like birds in a birdbath. Nymphs and pupae swim, crawl, and flick in the current, drifting along in a manner that is far more alive than dead. Impart that vitality to your imitation. Observe how the naturals are behaving and try to get your fly to act the same way.

It’s worth noting that mayfly spinners, drowned skwallas, and other bugs at the end of their life cycle are in fact dead, so some awareness of the ecology of the bugs you’re matching is important too. A universal truth of fly fishing is that you learn more by sitting on the bank for a spell with a keen eye and an open mind than you do flogging the water with dogmatic ideas and the wrong pattern.

First, let’s be real here: trout undoubtedly will turn up their noses at poorly presented flies. Make your rig look like a miniature jet ski and you aren’t catching shit. Subtle motions seem to have the greatest effects, and the undead drift requires delicacy and finesse. So, here are four specific tricks or treats for reanimating your dry and wet flies.

The Wiggle-Twitch You aren’t fishing a salmonfly, hopper, or beetle properly without a little action. Most serious fly anglers know that. Not everyone executes it well, though. That motion is even more fine and difficult with smaller flies.

With the big foamy bugs, you want to wiggle your rod tip with a tight side-to-side motion, throwing waves down the line to make the fly pivot in place without moving forward much. The idea here is to get the legs to wiggle and throw off some surface disturbance like a drowning terrestrial insect or stonefly. Trout are predators and respond to panic signals like any other carnivore.

That is well-worn ground in the fly fishing literature, but I’d encourage you to consider applying that common tactic to smaller flies as well. Caddis, mayflies, and midges—the primary categories of trout diet—are far more at home on the water’s surface than their larger and land-based brethren. They can move laterally, pick up and set down, and generally behave in a more active manner than the foundational dead-drift lessons might have you believe.

To be fair, it’s a lot harder to impart natural action to a CDC Midge than a Chubby Chernobyl. Oftentimes you are better off just letting it float along lifelessly instead of ruining your drift with some crazy motion. But when that dead drift fails a few times in a pocket, you can take a page out of Dr. Frankenstein’s book. That might be as subtle as exaggerating your mend or as bold as lightly wiggling your rod tip like you would with a hopper, but less aggressive. I’ve found that getting a mayfly or caddis pattern to push off some slight ripples can do wonders to differentiate it from the naturals on the surface and entice a trout to take.

The Skitter-Skate This method is less subtle than the previous, and you might think of it as the next phase of your effort to tempt a trout with dry flies after wiggling and switching patterns have failed. This is a direct borrow from steelhead and Atlantic salmon ideology, but with its own trouty idiosyncrasy.

As previously mentioned, trout are predators. We don’t usually think of insect eaters in those terms, but it’s still true. They’ll often chase something that appears to be fleeing simply because it is fleeing, like a lion to a gemsbok or a housecat to a laser pointer. Observe a Mother’s Day Caddis, green drake (mayfly), or chironomid (midge) hatch and you’re likely to see winged adults dappling, skimming, and buzzing lightly across the water’s surface tension. You can replicate that action much like traditional surface Spey swingers do with a greased-line waking or skating presentation.

This is best performed across or downstream of your position since pulling on upstream flies often makes them drown. Cast past the likely holding water, and with a high rod tip and line mostly off the water, allow your fly to skim across the surface at a controlled and realistic pace. With your rod high, the weight on your fly line is often all the pull you need. I also find it helps to implement a bit of the same rod wiggle motion mentioned in the above section to keep it skittering and looking buggy. Trout in a certain mood will react to the disappearing window of opportunity to eat that insect and will go for it with less caution than normal. This seems to work best in riffles but can also startle glassy-pool fish into attack mode.

Just like with the grease liners in Scotland and Norway, this method is aided by a lot of floatant on your fly and your leader. I also find it helpful to tie on any flies you want to breathe life into with a non-slip loop knot rather than your typical clinch. The loop allows the flies to pivot more than a hard tie.

The Swymph This terrible portmanteau gets tossed around steelhead camps where anglers are alternately swinging and nymphing—and sometimes both in the same cast. Steelhead are in fact trout, despite their glorification, so the lessons learned from seeing a chromer crush a huge plastic bead that’s unnaturally ripping across the current can be applied their lowly, non-anadromous kin.

I always encourage fly anglers to shake trees and flip rocks and just generally get to know the insects we’re all trying to emulate on the river. When you do, you’ll often find that mayfly and stonefly nymphs are very alive and often even hard to grab. This knowledge should increase your comfort with imbuing action to your subsurface presentation, whether that be exaggerated mends or deliberate wiggles. But perhaps the most effective method most people learned out of straight laziness or inattention: letting your rig swing across the current on a tight line at the end of the drift.

I’ve had so many big trout eat my flies on the soft, shallow, inside bend of a hole after the presentation swung out of the “prime holding water” that I now do it on purpose pretty much always. The shallow stuff that’s hard to access with a standard nymph arrangement opens up when the rig is under tension—and trout sit there more often than you might think. Yet again, there is simply something enticing about a dead bug that gets undead and starts running away. But, as you might expect, a measure of delicacy makes a difference here too. A slow, hovering swing with a high rod tip will look a lot more natural than a whip-crack.

The Leisenring Lift I made up names for all the methods listed here (or stole them from friends) except this one. It’s been around since my grandparents were in school. James E. Leisenring published The Art of Tying the Wet Fly & Fishing the Flymph in 1941 and described this method in the final chapter, which has endured these 80 years later—apparently alongside terrible word mash-ups in fly fishing culture.

Predating the ubiquity of strike indicators, Leisenring described casting a wet fly, soft hackle, or nymph well upstream of a feeding trout. He said to let it sink first, but then to check the drift a few feet before the fish, making the fly rise in the water column. This may emulate an emerging caddis or mayfly swimming toward the surface, or it just might simply grab a complacent trout’s attention. Whatever the case, it’s an old-school tactic that should have a place in every modern angler’s arsenal.

You don’t need a Pink Lady or other classic, outdated flatwing to perform this trick. Even with a big bubble indicator, split shot, and modern weighted nymphs, you can lift your rod or stall your drift to make the flies rise. This may make fish chase up off the bottom, or reach fish holding higher and eating emergers. It may instead spook picky trout. Either way, this undead drift will sometimes trigger fish that were otherwise uninterested in your offering.

Right now, brown, brook, lake, and bull trout are all dressed up in their Halloween costumes to spawn. You can get in the spirit of the season too by reanimating your dead drift, whether it’s in the River Stix or somewhere closer to home.

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