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Drag-Free Presentations

Question: Sometimes my fly drifts are too short, and when my fly starts sliding across the current a trout won’t take it. What can I do to get longer fly drifts without drag? —Brian L

Answer: Your question, Brian—a classic! Drag has plagued dry-fly enthusiasts since, well, probably ever since there have been dry flies and anglers enthused about fishing them. Before I get into this, though, I’d better provide some background information for new fly fishers.
So here’s the deal, newcomers (and by the way, welcome!). Dry flies often imitate insects that “hatch,” that is, wriggle from the skins of their underwater lives to free the wings for their above-water lives. While they’re hatching, most of these insects (mainly midges, mayflies, and caddisflies) drift quietly, naturally, freely, on the water. Other insects, that other floating flies suggest, drop to the water and then just drift: ants, flying ants, mayfly spinners . . . So, a floating fly imitating any of these insects must drift quietly and freely too. On a trout lake, no problem—there’s no current to deal with. On a stream, there are troublesome, stress-inducing, infuriating currents. They catch the tippet, leader, line, or perhaps even all three and drag the fly around so that the angler (like Brian L) utters bitter language while watching trout avoid the dragging fly.

Yes, they drag the fly, which is why we fly fishers call anything that draws a fly unnaturally, “drag.”

Are some insects lively on the water, so that a dry that imitates them should be twitched or skimmed on or across its surface? Yes. But we’re not talking about any of that today—when trout demand a drag-free drift of a dry fly, as they often do, you’d really better provide it.

At this point we should all be together, fly fishers new, old, and between: we now all know what “drag” is, when and why it’s a problem, and that it pertains not to trout lakes but to trout streams. So, we’re now back to your question, Brian, which asks, essentially, “How do you avoid drag?”

Here’s a list.

1. Long Tippets

Leaders are tapered, and the fly lines behind them are tapered too. Snap an arc down something long, slim, supple, and tapered and it’ll naturally straighten right to its tip. That’s just fine for some fly presentations, but lousy for avoiding fly drag—a stream’s matrix of currents draws on the straight line and leader right away, and the fly drags unnaturally. The trout watch the fly’s bad behavior, huff in disgust.

Tippet, though, is untapered, constant in diameter. Make it long, three feet, perhaps even four, and it’ll want to drop on the water in curves. In curves of slack. Slack is the primary cure for drag. A slightly high forward cast promotes slack in tippet: with some distance to drop, the tippet lags behind the leader, angles, and then makes its waves of slack.

Of course on small water, a stream or creek, two and a half feet might be long enough for a tippet to provide adequate slack—overlong leaders and tippets can become hazards on small water.

2. Slack Line Casts

There are a few standard casts that force slack into fly line, even into leader and tippet. If I go over them in detail here, this article will become a booklet on casting. It shouldn’t. It is, I repeat, an article. But I can name them.

The most common slack-line casts are the S or lazy S, the reach, the pile, and the shepherd’s crook (now usually referred to by the romantically sterile appellation “negative curve cast”). There’s another cast for making slack called the parachute cast, but it’s really for presenting a fly drag-free not upstream or across-stream, like the other casts I’ve mentioned, but downstream. Downstream presentations of dry flies are uncommon, but under the right conditions, deadly.

And I can describe them. The S cast is made by waggling the rod tip as the line goes out. The reach is made by an upright forward cast followed by lowering the rod to one side or the other, the pile starts as a high forward cast and then the rod tip is hurried down to the water as the line follows, and the shepherd’s crook is an underpowered cast made with a low rod so that the loop in the line drops on the water. The parachute cast starts with a high forward cast, the rod remains high, and the line and fly drop and drift off downstream as the caster lowers the rod-tip to feed line.

There’s another, and I’ll bet you haven’t heard of it regardless of how long you’ve fly fished (because it’s my cast and I revealed it for the first time in my new book 365 Fly-Fishing Tips for Trout, Bass, and Panfish): the crash cast. I’m surely not the first to use it, but am apparently the first to name it. Therefore it is my cast, I guess …. Anyway, it’s great for big dry flies whose weight makes them sail out and pull all slack out the tippet. But I’m using this cast ever more often with all sorts of floating flies of all sizes. It’s not a cast for flat water; the line really does crash down. Not a problem on choppy currents, though.

To make the crash cast, aim your forward cast low so that the line loop hits the water before it straightens. That kills the momentum of fly and tippet and leader and they all drop in waves of—wait for it…—slack. Try it.

3. Mending

Just before the currents that have pulled your line into a long curve take away the last of the slack and start dragging your fly, you can mend. A mend is a lift of the line and then a flip of it, so that whichever way it was curving, it’s now curving in the opposite direction. Some dry-fly aficionados may mend two or three times during a fly’s drift.

Slack-line casts, long tippets, and mending about covers it. I mean, there’s practice, of course—you don’t get good at these maneuvers without doing them over and over while giving them the care and attention that bring improvement.
Go out then, Brian. Use everything here to make those long, clean fly drifts your trout demand. May peace and many hookups lie in your path.