The Perfect Drift



I can clearly remember those teenage years when I began fishing for trout, painfully discovering that they presented a real challenge and could be very difficult to catch. Other fishermen caught brooks, browns and rainbows around me, what was I doing wrong?

However, a good friend felt my pain and introduced me to Ed Prentice, a local fisherman who was known far and wide for his prowess on the stream.

Ed kindly agreed to tutor me, presenting a crash course on fooling the wily trout, what they look for and what they fear. The point he emphasized above all others is that any bait must be moving in a natural manner.

As instructed I purchased a 9-foot fly rod and Ed kindly took me under his wing. That fateful day we parked by a bridge on the upper Allegheny River and walked down to the stream where a beautiful deep eddy swirled.

Ed instructed me to tie on a 6’ leader, #8 hook and place 2 buckshot sized sinkers 12-inches above the hook and instead of fishing the obvious hole under the bridge told me to wade into the center of the rapids above it!


Doing as told I threaded on a worm and began working my way up the rapids in knee deep water. The rapids were bordered by willows, many bent over and leaning into the waters. I was instructed to toss the worm 15 feet upstream, lift the rod and keeping the sinkers on the bottom, but always moving, steer the bait tight against the overhanging willows.

An hour later I had a gorgeous limit of trout in my creel up to 15” in length. I was prouder than a peacock and so happy I thought I might burst. In the years to come I caught limit after limit using this technique.

Ed always emphasized the fact trout watch countless objects wash past them, a never ending procession. However, once numerous fishermen pressure them the survivors quickly learned the sight of humans and any potential meal acting unnaturally spelled danger.

Ed also taught me to seek out areas other fishermen overlook; deep runs and rapids, especially with undercut banks and overhanging willows which provide cover most fishermen avoid or don’t recognize as prime habitat.

My next lesson was fishing with live minnows. Again, I’d be using the fly rod. Ed slide the 6-lb test line mono down the minnow’s mouth until it exited the vent; tied on a nickel minnow hook with both points bent slightly out and pulled the shank up into the minnow, the hooks facing upward along the minnows sides. The monofilament leader had 2 small, high quality swivels where it met the fly line to avoid line twist and you used just enough weight to keep the minnow down.

Fishing downstream you kept the minnow 20 to 30 feet in front of you. Sweeping the 9’ rod left, right or by lifting the rod tip and flipping the fly line side to side you could steer the minnow within inches of your target. Minnows naturally move against the current without arousing suspicion, so giving an occasional injured twitch in fishy locations often provoked a strike; a deadly presentation, especially with brown trout.

Then ultralight fishing rods and reels appeared on the market. Learning to correctly use this brand new type of mini-equipment properly required developing a new approach, one which required additional finesse, skill and attention to detail.

Ultralight equipment gives the fisherman several advantages; its light line is often invisible and allows longer casts using smaller hooks and sinkers. Thus, your presentations are harder to detect, stealthier, less likely to alarm the skittish trout. This is all to the good, but we must master other skills as well.

Success depends on the fisherman studying the stream intently, learning to read the water, detect its secrets and deduct where the trout hold when resting, hiding or feeding.

Once this is mastered, you must position yourself correctly for each situation in order to most efficiently fish the area. Many times there’s only 1 small spot you can stand to attain that perfect drift.

For example, a larger hole with an eddy dictates you stand on the eddy side of the stream for 2 reasons.

First, trout generally hold on the eddy edges where they watch for feed to wash by, darting into the current to nab it.

Second, current from the eddy side of the stream naturally pulls your drift into the eddy, keeping your bait in the pool. If you’re on the far side the line will eventually catch in the faster current opposite the eddy and be swept downstream, away from the fish.

Always position yourself downstream of the trout unless working minnows. When you’re downstream it’s more difficult for trout to see you and allows your drift to be at its most natural, greatly increasing your chances of a solid hook set.

Setting a single hook with a trout facing you is difficult, usually resulting in missing the hit altogether or worse, lightly hooking and then losing the fish.

From the downstream position the hookset causes the hook to rotate and turn as it passes the corner of the mouth greatly increasing the odds of a solid hook up.

Remembering Ed Prentices rule: the bait must always be moving naturally and near the bottom, changes our presentation using UL equipment instead of the longer fly rod.

Now, we are unable to steer the bait with the rod tip directly over it, the heavy sinkers just touching the bottom. We must imitate the same type of natural drift when our presentation may be 20 or 30 feet away. This can only be accomplished by balancing sinker size and numbers to line drag, current flow and rod position.

Here’s how.

A basic set up uses 4 lb. test fluorocarbon line, a size 10 hook and 2 small BB size split shot 12” to 15” above the bait. I prefer a 6 ‘or 7’ rod. Cast 15 to 20 feet upstream of the spot you believe the trout to be. Allow your bait to sink to the bottom well in front of the fish, 3 to 5 seconds. Then lightly lift your rod tip up and feel for the bait, what’s happening? Pay strict attention, you must visualize by touch, feel and sight exactly what’s happening to your offering.

Remember, the currents constantly pushing your line and bait downstream toward you. You’ll need to watch and monitor the slack created as the bait moves toward you and remove when necessary during the drift. If the bait will not stay down add another sinker.

With the correct number of sinkers attached, your rod height/line tension controls the drift. Faster current dictates you lower your rod tip and exert little or no pressure on the line. Current flow alone is moving the bait, bouncing it along the bottom. In this case concentrate on the point your line enters the water, following it downstream with the rod tip, removing slack as the bait drifts. If the line twitches, set the hook.

If the current flow is slower, your bait occasionally stopping on the bottom some upward pressure is necessary to keep it moving. You must ever so lightly, delicately, raise the rod tip until you feel the bait come free, instantly drop the rod tip when the bait releases. Keep repeating the process whenever the bait stops, ever so gently coaxing the bait downstream. Ideally, you’re allowing the currant to do most of the work. If your bait hangs up too often, remove a sinker.

Casting accuracy is critical for success; you must be prepared to place the bait within inches of cover such as undercut banks, logs or overhanging tree. Many times your cast must land in a small area when complex, swift current patterns allow only a small window for the bait to sink and wash by the exact area the fish are holding, especially in higher water conditions.

As you can see, the keys to catching more and bigger trout are recognizing the areas trout hold and hide in, using the correct equipment for that day’s technique, keeping out of sight and managing your presentation so it appears completely natural.

This is not as easy as it sounds in changing conditions and overseeing each and every cast can be an exacting exercise, you’re constantly multi-tasking, each step must be performed perfectly. Once these skills are mastered though, the rewards are well worth the effort.