Getting the drift

It really is amazing how the behaviour of a fly in a stream’s current can affect whether a trout eats it – or not. Take two anglers fishing exactly the same stretch of water with exactly the same fly, rigged the same way on the same gear. The one who can most nearly cause their fly to behave as if it’s not connected to the line, will get the most takes. This ‘dead drift’ makes perfect sense from a trout-fooling point-of-view. It’s what most of the real bugs coming down the river do. However, with currents in faster streams being especially complex, achieving a natural drift is easier said than done. Usually, simply casting your fly upstream and letting it drift back down, is not enough. Instead, there are a whole lot of techniques flyfishers need to use to minimise the ‘drag’ of the tippet, leader or fly-line on the fly.

This was the challenge my son Daniel faced on the Rubicon River a couple of days ago. A nice run had produced a small fish and miss, but the best water – near the far bank and on the other side of two different currents – had it all. Or at least it did if you were a trout, including a conveyor belt of food nearby, overhead cover, and a tangle of roots to hide in or retreat to.

The best spot for 100 metres is right beside those half-submerged roots on the far bank, but note the messy currents between Daniel and that slot; plus the fly-trapping (dragging?) backwater if he casts a fraction too far.

For the angler, fishing this spot effectively would require a pin-point cast, and most importantly, a drag-free drift past the roots – all without snagging up. Adding to the challenge, Daniel’s Stimulator dry fly had a green caddis grub about 3 feet below it. Although the grub had caught the majority of the morning’s fish, we toyed with cutting it off to simplify the cast and the presentation. In the end though, Daniel felt he had to have a shot at putting the most successful fly through the best-looking spot we’d come across.

The first cast was just a fraction short, and even with a quick mend, the flies dragged past the root hotspot just a bit fast and too far out. The next presentation was perfect though. The flies landed right in the ‘slot’: just outside the far bank backwater, but over the main current. A quick upstream mend, and the flies drifted at that perfect pace which had us leaning forward in our seats, so to speak! The Stimulator was just passing the top of the roots, when it disappeared. Daniel lifted instantly, and one of the better fish of the morning was on. Of course, the brownie was hell bent on getting back into the roots, but Daniel has inherited his Dad’s aversion to light tippet, and he was able to bully it back towards us and into the net.

A just reward for a perfect drift beside the roots.

That fish was typical of the trip’s successes. Even on the great big Goulburn, the ‘just right’ drift through exactly the right slot, was the difference between multiple takes, and nothing at all. It occurred to me later that, if you were a casual observer, it might seem that we were merely searching the water.

Most of this big run on the Goulburn looks superficially similar, but in fact it’s full of mini features which vary from veritable fish factories, to almost barren.

Daniel, and my other son Sean (who couldn’t join us this time), have both become very good at fishing lakes, as well as the smaller and slower streams near our home in the central Victorian highlands. When things finally lined up for this trip up Eildon way, including a break in the persistently stormy weather and a vacancy in our friend JD‘s Presidential Suite (if we could clear the fly-tying gear off one of the beds!), it was one of the first times we’d fished really fast water together.

Hooked up to a Goulburn Express after a short but perfect drift through a likely depression in the gravel.

To clarify the key fishing points in your own mind, there’s nothing quite like explaining what needs to be done in real time on the water. After the best part of a lifetime doing this, most of my own drift management is intuitive – don’t think, just do. So, fishing with Daniel this trip emphasised a few things I hadn’t given a lot of thought to recently, including that for many flyfishers, it probably isn’t so obvious how superior certain parts of a fastwater can be, and how critical good drift is.

Eighty metres and 8 minutes later. Once again, thank goodness for good tippet!

I won’t pretend that learning to read and fish fastwater is a straightforward, binary process. But I am quite sure that accepting the importance of this stuff, is absolutely key to becoming a successful stream fisher.