How to Dead Drift a Fly

Dead drifting is an important technique for any angler, though it can be tricky to get the hang of at first! Read on for some tips on how to master the dead drift!

A man wade fishing in a river.

Photo by Taylor Grote

When a hatch is occurring all around you and you just cannot seem to get a strike no matter which fly pattern you are casting, the issue is likely your presentation and not the fly. A lack of a dead drift fly presentation may be what is missing, and it could be the difference between catching fish and getting skunked. Dead drifting is perhaps the most sought-after presentation and a concept that beginners often struggle with, so in this article, I will explain what exactly this technique is and how to achieve it while fishing different styles.

What Is Drag?

To understand a dead drift fly presentation, you need to understand drag. Without boring you with an overly technical treatise on thermodynamics and water flow, drag is essentially how an object in the water interacts with the water and its currents. One way to look at it is to think about it as friction.

To further understand drag, you need to appreciate that water flow is not laminar, meaning it is not the same throughout. Rather, water is turbulent, and rocks, logs, and differences in water depth can all play a role in how water flows and the speed of the current. Even water temperature can play a role in flow as cold water (the water near the bottom) flows at a different rate than warm water (the water at the surface).

Although each of these factors may not directly influence your presentation, they can affect it to some degree. Remember, the effects of drag can be seen on everything that comes into contact with the water, be it your high-quality fly or your fly line. You may have the best fly presentation, but if the water surface tension is dragging on your line, your fly will drag as well because your fly is attached to it—and nothing looks more unnatural to a wary fish than a dragging bit of fluff attached to a line.

How to Recognize Drag

How can you tell if you have drag? This is not always an easy feat, but one way to tell is if you see ripples around your fly. A wake forming behind your fly is a clear indicator that it is being dragged through the water. Another way to tell is by checking whether your indicator or fly is traveling at the same speed as the foam bubbles often seen with turbulent water flow. If your fly is traveling faster or slower than the bubbles, then something is either holding it back or dragging it along—and it is likely your fly line. The approach to getting rid of this wake will depend on the style of fishing you are utilizing.

How to Reduce Drag

Dry Fly Fishing

A man standing in a river with fishing gear. He is holding a fish in his hands.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Drag in dry fly fishing is probably the easiest drag to see and as such, the easiest drag to correct. You might have that perfect dry fly but in order to get the fish to bite, you will need a dry fly presentation that dead drifts on the surface of the water. To do this, cast upstream or across the stream and note where the fly lands. If you are casting to a far bank, you might notice that this water flows slower than the water in the middle of the stream. In that case, you will need to make a mend in the line. Most often these will be upstream mends.

Upstream Mend

To do this, lift the fly line and move it upstream with your fly rod. You may even need to make a couple of upstream mends as your fly moves through your target zone. A reach cast can often help with adding the mend into the cast so that fewer mends are required while the fly is on the water.

Downstream Mend

A parachute and pile cast are two other types of casts that help you get that extra slack onto the water, especially in those rare instances when you make a downstream dry fly cast.

Lengthen the Leader

Another trick to decrease your drag is adding length to your leader. By tying on an extra foot or two of tippet, you can extend your cast and give your fly a little more slack for that dead drift.

The ideal way to combat drag is to set yourself up in the best position for a drag-free float. Before you cast, observe the water, and look for current seams. Look at the bubbles and the way they flow as well as how leaves or twigs are moving. See how they float down and imagine your fly doing the same. With some observation and practice, you will find yourself making mends automatically and adjusting your cast, and with that will come more caught fish.

Nymph Fishing

A hand holding up a fish. There is water visible in the background.

Photo by Joseph Smith

The other area of fishing that requires a dead drift is nymph fishing. Nymphs are immature aquatic insects that live under the stream’s rocks. They try to hide there to avoid being eaten by hungry fish. Occasionally, for whatever reason, they lose their grip on the bottom and tumble across the bottom of the stream. Again, they will be tumbling in a dead drift, not attached to a section of monofilament, so an angler will need to mimic this dead drift if they wish to be successful.

Unlike dry fly fishing, though, this is slightly more difficult. Not only do you have to deal with the water flow on the surface, but the bottom will also have a current flow that is likely different from that of the surface. You will also want to keep your nymph on the bottom of the stream for as long as possible and nothing makes a fly rise in the water column faster than a dragging fly line on the surface.

Euro Nymphing

To counteract all of this, rather than provide a slack line, as with dry fly fishing, a tight line is often best because the fly fisher needs to minimize the amount of fly line on the water’s surface. In fact, taken to an extreme, this is the entire premise of Euro nymphing. When making nymph fishing casts, again cast across the stream. Your strike indicator may be a good measure of how your nymph rig is moving relative to the current but remember, the current (and hence the drag) is different on the bottom than on the top. A mend of your line will often get your fly line upstream of your nymph rig but, if your line is tight enough, you will be able to feel the nymph bounce along the bottom. It will feel similar to the sensation of keyboard keys bouncing under your fingers as you type.

Fluorocarbon Tippet and Weighted Flies

Other strategies involve getting the nymph to the bottom as quickly as possible so currents in the other levels of the water column will have less of an opportunity to wreak havoc on your presentation. Using fluorocarbon tippet and weighted flies will help with this.

Tuck Cast

A tuck cast also allows your fly to enter the water first and get a head start on sinking, before any line has an opportunity to cause drag and lift it off the bottom.

Lengthen the Leader

Extra length on a fly rod will also help manage the amount of contact the fly line has with water. By using a dead sticking technique, the only line that is in contact with the water is the leader itself. By doing so, you can hopefully keep your fly and line in just one seam of the current, thereby making line management that much easier.

The Leisenring Lift

I should mention though that once your drift is complete and your nymph rig is below, you should pause for a second and let the current and drag bring your nymph off the bottom. This is known as the Leisenring Lift and mimics the emergence of the nymph as it ascends the water column on its way to becoming a dun. Trout, in particular, will often strike nymphs at this time. Again, as you practice staying in contact with your nymph throughout the drift, you will not only achieve a dead drift, but you will detect strikes easier and catch more fish.

Streamer Fishing

Streamers are baitfish imitators and as such are often overlooked when fishing dead drift. Although most streamers are fished with strip retrieves or swings, there are instances when a dead drift will yield fish. One very effective way to do this is to dead drift your streamer under an undercut bank. The dead-drifted streamer will mimic a dead or wounded baitfish and huge trout will take advantage of a free meal and end up striking your fly.

Non-Slip Mono Knot

The technique for this is like dead drift nymph fishing. Have as little of your fly line on the water as possible, and try to keep your line as tight as you can, to control or swim your wounded baitfish imitation into the mouth of lurking fish. Use a non-slip mono knot to give the streamer more action and reduce the drag from the leader and tippet for a more natural dead drift. As you try this technique more and more, you will start to see the results with larger fish being caught.

Final Thoughts

A hand holding up a fish as there is water visible in the background.

Photo by Michael Yero

As you become aware of the different currents surrounding you as you fish, your presentation skills will improve. It does not matter if you are fishing a small stream with an ultralight set up and a click and pawl reel or fishing large bodies of water with a modern fly rod set up, a dead drift fly presentation will always catch more fish.

Take some time to observe the stream around you, practice your casts, and learn to control your fly line. If you have any questions or need help with selecting the right gear for your next adventure, please reach out to me or another Fly Fishing Expert at Curated. We are more than willing to help. Tight Lines!

Like this article?
Share it with your network

Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

Read Next

New and Noteworthy