Being Better – Drag Solutions

Peter discusses drag, and how to avoid it.

I recently returned from a 4 week flyfishing adventure to Cuba, the Florida Keys, Wyoming and Montana. When I travel and flyfish I always seem to learn much more than I do at home. Often these lessons are already in my head somewhere, but it seems when I’m exposed to another fishery and great flyfishers, the points are driven home more thoroughly than on my own turf during work hours. It probably helps that my mind is more relaxed when I’m on holidays.

What Trout Want
The subject I find lingering foremost in my mind, was highlighted again and again this trip. It was highlighted fishing the Snake River in Wyoming, and the Madison, Big Hole and other rivers in Montana. It comes back to this. For many years, I’ve maintained that if you want to have greater flyfishing success, all you have to do is deliver your fly to the fish so it’s noticed, yet in such a way that the fish doesn’t suspect you put it there.

That’s a simple statement, with two distinct parts.

The first part is, you need to deliver your fly to the fish. If you take lessons from a decent casting instructor – one who understands the casting requirements of your particular fishery – and you practice the relevant casting drills they set you, that would quickly go a long way towards achieving this part. I would estimate 3 months of focused practice could result in a tenfold improvement in your delivery of the fly.

However, it’s the second part of the equation I was so acutely reminded of when in Montana and Wyoming. While I could write books on the many ways to avoid the fish knowing you put the fly there, here I want to focus on just one, and a critical one at that: drag.

Let me go back a little. I’m lucky enough to have fished for 50 years. As a kid, I mostly bait fished off jetties and piers in the saltwater before I moved to freshwater streams, then lakes and then to lure and flyfishing.

Some of the great lessons you can learn early in your fishing career, come from watching how fish respond to your offering. Observing a fish’s response from an elevated position like a jetty or bridge (preferably with polarised glasses) is invaluable. It’s no exaggeration to say that what you observe here, has the potential to help your fishing for the rest of your life. For example, you very quickly learn to free-drift small unweighted baits on light line, rather than tethering a poorly-baited hook to the bottom with a huge sinker and thick line.

What I learnt very early in my fishing experiences, is fish mostly prefer the most natural presentation of their ‘food’.

The ‘D’ Word
There are many drag issues associated with flyfishing; and they all have in common this problem: we are offering a relatively small food imitation to the fish while it is tethered to a relatively stiff leader, which is attached to a very thick fly line, which is attached to a rod. Changes in tension on our line and leader caused by the vagaries of the water currents and/ or wind, have a substantial and often detrimental effect on the movement of the fly. It becomes so easy for the fish to know something dastardly is afoot!

Complex currents on the Bitterroot River - the angler needs to work hard here to avoid drag..

Complex currents on the Bitterroot River – the angler needs to work hard here to avoid drag.

Drag applies to wet flies just as much as dry flies. It applies on lakes just as much as on rivers (though less obviously). Don’t ever underestimate the problems that a dragging fly will cause you.

One obvious example of drag occurs when you cast a dry fly at right angles to the river current with a short leader which lands dead straight on the water. From the second it lands, the fly will drag sideways and toward you. This will cause an obvious V wake and the fly may even be pulled under. Most of the time, this will be a wasted presentation and worse, the chances of catching any decent trout from that area will severely diminish with each similar presentation. (Try not to cock up your first presentation to a good lie, let alone successive presentations!)

Drag Solutions

Once you’re aware of the problems drag causes, there are many ways to reduce it – and therefore, increase the chances of a fish eating your fly.

Tackle Solutions

Lengthen your leader
Simply lengthening your leader can go a long way towards reducing drag. For some reason, anglers in Australia are fixated with their leader needing to land straight and tight to the fly. Landing your fly accurately is usually important, but it’s often critical that it also lands with some slack in the leader/tippet, so that any fly line movement due to rod action, wind or current, doesn’t immediately pull at the fly.

How about this for an idea? If you continually lay out a straight leader when you cast, then I think you should add a further 5 feet of tippet. Learn to fish with an 18 foot leader.

Change the tippet
Try using thinner and softer tippet as well as longer tippet. It is unbelievable how thinning down your tippet can affect the way the fly moves in or on the water. Recently I watched several times World Fly Fishing Champion Martin Droz on a local river. When he changed from 0.11mm tippet to 0.10mm, he started catching fish after fish. I didn’t believe it until I saw it several times with my own eyes! I know it’s only a difference of 0.01mm but that’s also a 10% difference.

Position Solutions

Where you stand before you cast to a fish is so very important. For example, never cast across a current that you can wade across. Never cast downwind if you move and cast upwind. Never cast long if you can get closer and cast short: every foot of line not on the water is a foot not being influenced by current or wind.

Changing where you cast from can make a big difference to drag, so think about your position before you present the fly.

A good position solution on Wyoming's Snake River - the boat keeps pace with your fly!

A good position solution on Wyoming’s Snake River – the boat keeps pace with your fly!

Casting Solutions

These can be a little tricky to explain in words and maybe you need to come to a casting lesson to see how this works in practice. Let’s see how we go anyway.

Firstly, let’s get clear up some terminology. You may have heard people talk about fishing on the true left or true right bank of a river. These terms assume looking downstream, and as they’re the international convention, that’s what I’ll use here.

The unrolling delivery loop of your fly line
Imagine standing side-on to someone casting a fly line. They are right-handed and they are casting with the rod in a vertical casting plane (12 o’clock). As you watch their delivery loop unroll toward the target, there is a leader ‘leg’ of the loop (the top part of the loop) and a rod ‘leg’ of the loop (the bottom part of the loop). Let’s say this person is a pretty good caster and that the loop is 5 feet wide (the distance between the top leg and the bottom leg).

If the leader is short it, will fully unroll and land straight. If the leader is very long, then maybe their best effort won’t fully unroll the loop and perhaps 10 feet of leader and tippet will fall back on itself. It simply won’t have the energy to straighten – especially if there’s a bulky and wind-resistant dry fly attached.

Casting plane
The casting plane is the angle the rod is held on in relation to the vertical position (12 o’clock). Some degree of tilted-out plane is normal for most casters: if you were to stand behind someone fly casting, you would expect to see them tilting their rod at roughly 30 degrees from vertical; or to put it another way, at about 2 o’clock. On the other hand, a tilted-in casting plane is where the rod tip operates at, say, 30 degrees the other side of vertical (maybe 10 o’clock).

The information above is all crucial, for as we’re about to discover, depending upon the direction you are casting (and assuming you’re using a long leader) your casting plane can be manipulated to avoid drag.

So, picture wading or casting from the true right bank and you are making a presentation up and across the current. In this situation, you should use a tilted-out (2 o’clock) casting plane. The unrolling loop will not fully straighten but instead fall with a 5 foot V (the width of the loop) such that the fly ALWAYS lands downstream of the line and leader.

Then, when you are casting up and across from the true left bank, you will need to do the same cast but from a tilted-in (10 o’clock) casting plane. It’s that simple to avoid initial drag on your fly.

On true left bank, casting up and across with a tilted-in (offside) cast.

On true left bank, casting up and across with a tilted-in (offside) cast.

Mending Solutions

Reach Mend
In addition to the tackle and casting plane solutions detailed above, we can go even further to mitigate drag issues by moving the rod tip – or maybe more clearly, the back end of your fly line – to the furthermost UPSTREAM position you can get it. While the loop of line is unrolling towards your target, you should reach your rod tip UPSTREAM as far as you can reach it. The further upstream your fly line starts its journey on the water, the longer your drag-free drift is likely to be.

Hump Mend
A hump mend is a sudden movement of your rod tip up and down, say 2 feet. This will have the effect of spitting 2 to 4 feet of fly line out the end of your rod tip and onto the water. If you do this very late in the cast – the moment the fly line lands on the water and is gripped by water tension – then you’ll have 3 or 4 feet of slack line at the tip of your rod; on top of the further 4 or 5 feet of slack line behind your fly caused by the leader not fully straightening.

Add in the casting plane manoeuvre, and the leader end will be offset at the best angle for the direction of the current. Now you are in a really good position to provide a long, drag-free drift to your fly.

On-water Mending

Even with all the good work above, once your fly is delivered, your work is only half done. It’s now that you must become very active with your rod tip and your line hand, so your focus is keeping the fly from dragging whilst it is drifting. Fortunately, the slack you’ve already built in at the fly end and the rod end, will allow you to raise your rod tip and start flicking line in all sorts of directions without moving the fly.

Montana guide Chuck Ravetta - master of the long drag free drift -fishing his beloved Gallatin River.

Montana guide Chuck Ravetta – master of the long drag free drift -fishing his beloved Gallatin River.

As soon as you see the current pulling at a section of your fly line, then simply flip some slack toward the problem (always upstream). You will need one eye on your fly and the other on all of the floating line and leader. One requirement is to be in control of the slack so you can make an effective strike if you need to.

Drag During a Mend

Every now and then, and more frequently than you might realise, you will accidentally drag your fly while doing an on-water mend. The fly may jerk just a few inches or a foot across the current. Often a take is induced when this happens. I don’t see a short, sudden dragging movement like this as actual drag. It’s more an inducement to take. Always be prepared to strike if you accidentally jerk your fly and if this is working for you, then do it often when making presentations over a likely fish-holding area.

Other Drag

Drag isn’t just an issue for stream fishing and as touched on earlier, it can prove equally detrimental on lakes – a subject for another time perhaps. Meanwhile, work on the drag solutions above when you next hit the streams and watch your catch rates increase.