|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.