See and Can’t See
Dead-drifting is most useful when the fly is fished to a specific trout. When sight-fishing, cast up and across far enough that you do not spook the fish. As the fly drifts toward the trout, use the rod tip to manipulate the drift into the proper feeding lane. Deeper and faster currents will require you to either cast farther upstream, to give the fly time to sink, or use a heavier fly that will sink faster to the bottom.
Once the fly appears to be in the trout’s feeding lane, deaddrift the streamer to ensure it will reach the trout at the proper depth in a natural fashion. The fish will either move out of the way or take the streamer. Pay careful attention, as you can often see the white of the fish’s mouth as it takes the fly. Do not set the hook until the mouth closes.
If the fly drifts past the fish, let it continue to drift, especially if there’s a deep bottom, run, pool, or overhanging bank. A quick retrieve can entice a fish to strike.
If sight-fishing is not an option, try drifting streamers through likely holding water. For example, dead-drifting a streamer deep through a dark run, pool, or undercut bank is more effective than casting randomly. It’s always a good idea to keep slack out of your drifting line, but it’s especially important if you are fishing a likely lie rather than targeting a specific fish. Reducing slack in the line is essential to detecting strikes from trout that are not readily observed. A sudden jerk or hesitation to the end of the fly line during a drift can also indicate that a fish has taken your fly.
My experiences have taught me that fish feeding up in the water column or near the surface seem less interested in a deaddrifted streamer than fish holding near the bottom. Occasionally, if the fly is rolling along the bottom, fish will turn on their sides to engulf the fly. The flash of the fish’s stomach or sides indicates a possible take.
Brown or black Woolly Buggers in sizes 4 through 8, dead drifted on a 7- to 9-foot leader beneath a floating line, have consistently produced trout through the years. Adding hourglass eyes or a cone head for weight and a little flash in the tail greatly improves the Bugger’s effectiveness. The extra weight, in particular, sinks the fly quickly to trout positioned along the bottom. A quick sink also can be useful to position flies more effectively under banks and into deep runs and pools.
McKnight’s Pig Pen Leech
Hook: Tiemco 5262
Thread: Olive, 140 denier
Tail: Olive and burnt orange marabou with black pearl flashabou
Body: Natural rabbit, dyed olive.
Bead: Black brass bead.
I typically use silver or gold brass hourglass eyes in sizes 7/64, 1/8, 5/32, and 3/16 inch, depending on the hook size. Use larger eyes with larger hook sizes. When using cone heads, I prefer tungsten, either silver or gold, in sizes 1/8, 3/16, and 1/4 inch. While I prefer Buggers, other patterns have also been effective, particularly leech patterns tied in dark green, brown, or black in sizes 4 through 8. A tungsten cone head tied into a leech pattern can add a deadly touch.
There are many types of crane fly larvae patterns, some with tungsten beads and others without. All seem to work if weighted with lead wrapped around the shaft of the hook. Crane fly larvae patterns are often overlooked by anglers and must be fished near the bottom at a dead-drift.
I rarely use baitfish patterns, such as Sculpins, Muddlers, and Clouser Minnows because they tend to be most effective when stripped rather than dead-drifted.
Numerous return trips to that same spring creek have produced similar results. I also have applied this method in other situations, such as tailwater and freestone streams, with great success. Still, similar to any other angling approach, dead-drifting streamers will not always work. Every stream and river is different from others in terms of width, depth, velocity, and clarity, and these factors are variable depending on runoff or drought. Each species of fish also feeds and behaves a little differently, partially due to genetics and partially due to the surrounding environment and fishing pressure. But dead-drifting streamers is simply another option—and an effective one—to add to your repertoire of trout-fishing techniques and help ensure success on the stream.
David Christensen is an assistant professor of aquatic biology at Westfield State University. He lives with his family in the Appalachian Mountains of New England.