Demand drag free drift – as if one reason wasn’t bad enough

Visible river currents
Pic courtesy of Tim Painter

From the moment we turn our attention to river fishing, the importance of drag free drift is a lesson that’s hammered into us repeatedly.

The moment your dry fly and leader are fully at the mercy of a river’s numerous currents and eddies, we’re told, the fly’s languid glide downstream is about to be disrupted by a sudden lurch sideways, as a cross-current briefly exerts itself.

While it’s not uncommon to see humans ambling down a high street suddenly speeding off at a tangent, having remembered there’s somewhere else they need to be, it’s a much more alarming look when it comes from a water-borne insect.

To any trout sizing it up from below, that tangential dart is nearly always a passion-killer. If you’re fishing sedge (caddis) patterns, you may get away with it, as the movement caused by drag echoes the fidgety actions of those natural sedges that are either making a commotion as they attempt to dry their wings after hatching, or else are skittering across the water to hatch on land.

If your pattern looks nothing like a sedge, however, then drag-induced alacrity across the top screams two words to wary fish. ‘Unnatural’ and ‘avoid’.

And your pain doesn’t stop there. I had thought that Upstream: Fly Fishing in the American West, was simply a photo-journalistic celebration of fishing, but Thomas McGuane’s words also offer educational pointers such as this one:

Trout push so much water with their open mouths when feeding on grasshoppers that they sometimes fail to engulf them. The slightest drag on line and leader will mislead them as to their trajectory and once their mouths are fully extended they do not seem to be able to see well enough for last-minute adjustment.

Oh crap. So not only does drag cost you the ‘floating voter’ fish, still sizing up your offering from afar, but it can also rob you of those fish who have fully committed to your fly and would otherwise be yours, all yours…

This is a sobering realisation. What’s an angler to do?

  • Drag avoidance is best achieved by keeping your drifts short
  • Drag can spook fish even when you assume it’s no longer relevant. Don’t yank your fly off the water to re-cast until it’s no longer visible to the fish, because that yank will inevitably create drag. The fountain of droplets from your line to the stream’s surface won’t help your case, either. Gently does it.
  • The more uniform the currents are between you and the fish, the less drag will be a problem.
  • Work on those mends. There’s more than one, you know.
  • There is a school of thought that says most drag concerns are eliminated if you cast, not across a current, but upstream, along the line being taken by that current, ideally with a little breeze at your back. Line and leader are ramrod-straight, goes the thinking, everything is moving at the same speed on the same current. Perfect.
  • Not so fast, say critics. No line of flow maintains the same velocity throughout, so your fly line could be moving faster than your fly (hello drag). Also, that ramrod-straight alignment of line and leader is like a taut violin string – very touch-and-go. The slightest, imperceptible micro-current and…hello drag.
  • No, it might not look so accomplished but a bunch of zig-zags in your line and leader beats ramrod-straight every time when it comes to beating drag. Those zig-zags absorb the current like car springs absorb the excesses of an unmade road. Only when the river unkinks everything can it begin to drag your fly.
  • So think wiggle cast and shock mending and pile cast.
  • And don’t think this is just a river problem. Breezy stillwaters can push at your floating line, causing a dry fly to drag, so the immediate post-cast reaction of many lake anglers – pulling everything straight “to keep in touch with the fly” – can be counter-productive.

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