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Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Dead Drift

Bill McMillian's Paintbrush
       For as long as man has angled for steelhead he has presented his offerings in a downstream manner.  It should be no surprise that fly angling for steelhead this way should also be effective. So effective in fact that it is held in contempt by many. Recent developments in angler ethics and equipment give plenty of reason for this technique's maligned reputation. However room still exists within the technique for it to remain effective, satisfying and traditional.
      The tug of a steelhead while swinging a fly is the most exciting moment in our sport but there are times when that presentation simply isn't going to work.  Not every scenario we encounter with our fly rods in pursuit of steelhead lends itself well to the swinging approach, nor does the across stream presentation appeal to every fish we encounter. Dead drifting is a tool that a properly prepared angler can use in these situations.
      Before I start let me make it clear I am not talking about what is commonly known as nymphing which uses lead and a float.  I am talking about fishing tied flies on a floating line with little or no added weight,  no lead eyes no split shot and no indicators.  There is plenty of information on that elsewhere so I'm not going there.
        Anglers using a swinging approach with a floating line only need to alter their gear slightly to begin dead drifting. First you'll need a line with a belly long enough to allow you to stack mend.  A stack mend is simply and underpowered roll cast intended to stack slack line directly on top of  your fly. This allows your fly and leader to sink faster. Anglers that fish unweighted flies on a floating line for winter steelhead probably do this already. The preferred line is the double taper. Some weight  forwards such as steelhead tapers  have a long bellies and are also great.
     The  second alteration you may need to make is to lengthen your leader.  Mono-filiment has much less water resistance than a fly line therefore a 12-14 foot leader will give your fly a faster sink rate thus allowing you  to fish faster and deeper  water with effectiveness , something a 9 foot leader cannot do because of the fly lines buoyancy.  Though Fluorocarbon is less buoyant than mono I do not advocate it's use. Being non-biodegradable and causes a greater risk to wildlife when lost.
Bill McMillan's Silver and Orange
     Flies for the dead drift can vary by season and personal preference. For summer fishing a simple 1/0 skunk does most of my work whether fished across or downstream. In Winter I am  more concerned about getting down and staying down as the fish are less likely to move up. Winter flies should be sparse, tied with materials that absorb water and  that give the impression of bulk. Webby saddle hackles, tinsels and calf tail are great materials for tying fast sinking flies. Patterns developed by Bill McMillan such as the Paint Brush and Silver and Orange give an angler all that is needed. Both patterns adapt well to colors changes to suite to any conditions. The hook choice for these patterns is the Mustad 7970. It is heavy wire bronzed down eye hook that sinks like a rock. Sizes 1 and 2 are perfect  for most situations. The barb on this hook however does require some attention. It is large and often pinching it with pliers isn't sufficient. A file however easily removes any remnants.  Heavy wire hooks also require substantial sharpening. For this reason your flies  should be prepared before reaching the river.
     Dead drifting is not for every situation it is for those times and places where the swing has not or cannot produce. The North Umpqua is a wonderful river on which to use this approach as a back up or a follow up. On many occasions after having raised a  fish while swinging a wet fly and having repeated presentations refused brought the fish back to the fly by presenting it dead drift. Likewise many times I have pitched my 1/0 skunk upstream into a likely looking but un-fished pocket that cannot be approached for a proper swing and been rewarded with a take. It  can also be effective on visible  fish that have rejected a swung  fly however great care  should  be taken  not to harass a fish just because you know it's there. I grew up on the Washougal river where sight fishing was common even in very shallow water and saw  first hand the inevitable outcome of such harassment, foul hooking. If you dead drift your fly past a fish over and over again sooner or later you'll snag it, a bad outcome for you and the fish. Some runs, particularly on smaller rivers, just do not have wide enough holding lies to swing.
       The dead drift is great for small streams because of the speed at which depth is attaind and the length of time the fly remains in the strike zone. Dead drift presentations can develop into a swung presentations seamlessly with just a mend allowing you to effectively to cover the same water with two methods in one pass.  The dead drift is least effective on large rivers with the broad gravel bar runs that we all love so much to swing but even there a few extra casts into the buckets by a simple drift angle change can be rewarding.
     The dead drift will never replace swinging  for steelhead. It's not as pleasurable as or personally gratifying as the across stream approach but it has it's uses and  As every steelheader knows it never hurts  to have another trick up your sleeve for those times and places where the swung fly just  doesn't get the job done.


  1. Thanks for your post Rob! I appreciate your contribution to my blog. While the dead drift method is not new, it is a method typically overlooked by die hard swing fisherman these days. Of course, the technique was used and described by Bill McMillan in Dry Line steelhead and as you describe, used by necessity on small water like the Washougal where you and Bill both previously hailed from, It's good for us to be reminded to think outside the box and you've already got me psyched to get my 8 wt single hander with old SA Steelhead taper along with some paint brushes and silver and oranges to try some dead drift fishing in upcoming outings. You are also right that the method as you describe is not a nymphing technique in the sense where bobbers and lead are being used and the dead drift leading into the swing can cover alot of water, especially in smaller rivers. I'm anxous to try this out!

  2. I'll do a follow up with more how to content

    1. Sounds great Rob, I'll be glad to see your follow up.

  3. This technique...I think in a way is what us "old timers" would use as "101" method stacking up river or head of pool mending and following line down river with tip of rod low to the water as the line tightens twitch pull line from reel and empty two to three feet when taught strip in cadence of short strips......correct...or am I missing something here

  4. Michael:
    Rob Allen (who generously contributed this post) can chime in here as well, but sounds like you have the right idea.