Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Stillwater Dead-drift Technique
By Fred Steynberg
An introduction to the stillwater dead-drift techniques
A friend of mine from KZN visited for a few nights to show his new lady friend the pretty valley in which our “forgotten village” of Rhodes lies. We had an afternoon to fish together and opted to fish stillwater and enjoy the catch-up time while driving up the pass to 2600m above sea level. It was one of those windless midsummer days – her and there fish were lazily breaking the surface as we arrived. We approached the water to see if we could identify what the fish were rising to but no hatch was apparent. We leisurely kitted-up while chatting about flies and inevitably went through the “let me see your fly box” routine. I have a serious thing against competing when fly fishing with a friend, but we, as always, had a friendly banter about what was inside our respective fly boxes. His box was something to behold – a colourful Bugger box that must have taken him hours to fill, while mine looked a little drab in comparison. I opted to fish a floating line and he a sinker of sorts and, after deciding on flies, we strolled off towards a hot spot. We were going to fish the bank and wade to drop-offs and weedbeds, so tubes weren’t even packed.
I watched my friend fish a stone’s throw away; he is an accomplished angler and effortlessly casts a long line. His fishing method was probably the most commonly used by Stillwater fly fishermen: a single fly, fished with a sinking or intermediate line, allowing the line to settle as deep as possible, and then retrieving back with a quick hand-twist or down-strip retrieving action. I often use this technique to prospect for fish, but prefer doing so in pre- and post-spawn seasons and especially during winter when most invertebrates, snails and such, are either dormant or inactive. If trout are feeding and conditions are favourable, this method can be very effective, especially when using attractor patterns such as Woolly Buggers, Zonkers and some of the old wet fly favourites like Walker’s Killers or Mrs Simpsons. These are undoubtedly great flies that have provided many anglers with much fun, since trout are predatory fish of the salmonid species and often find these large, stripped flies irresistible.
I did not feel pressured to produce fish and knew the fish in this clear water had so much food they did not have to react to moving prey, so I fished a #16 Flashback Nymph below an indicator using the dead-drift technique. Summer is a time of plenty for trout inhabiting stillwaters with a healthy natural food supply. Aquatic food like mayflies, midges, snails and daphnia can make up the largest part of a productive stillwater’s biomass, yet it is these imitations most anglers either choose not to fish or do not understand how to imitate. The Stillwater dead-drift technique is not new, but maybe more a technique lost in the fast lane in which we are trapped and in an age where fast fishing (to catch the biggest and most fish) instantly gratifies.
My friend put out numerous casts, working the weedbeds, channels and drop-off, but did not attract fish. While watching him accurately and methodically fish the correct areas, I recalled all the times I fished this technique under the same circumstances and with similar results. It is a frustrating feeling when hours of stillwater fishing produce few or no fish. All too often the moon or a distant thunderstorm is blamed and some anglers even complain “the fish have lockjaw”. I know the stillwater we fished pretty well, having fished it often, so had a little home-ground advantage in knowing how deep to fish on this specific occasion. My fly drifted or suspended without movement and I counted on fish moving within range to identify it as a potential food source )in this case, a mayfly nymph on the way up the water column to hatch), check and move to accept it. After inhaling the fly, the fish would simply continue with its search for food without realising it had been conned. The indicator disappeared seven or eight times during that short fishing session and I converted five into landed fish. Admittedly, fishing was slow and unfortunately we had to leave just before the golden hour – that period is summer just before and after sunset when hatches of midges, mayflies and caddis are most prolific and fish feed in a frenzy. As we packed away the rods, dense clouds of midges and mayflies started showing and fish moved aggressively to intercept the transforming insects on and just below the water’s surface.
Chatting to clients and other anglers, I have come to the conclusion that over-the-top technical articles on different rigs and methods to fish stillwaters often unnecessarily confuse anglers. Many end up fishing incorrectly or simply revert back to the old trusted sinking-line-and-attractor method. A basic understanding of trout habits in a specific environment is incredibly beneficial to ensuring a better result. Dead-drifting in stillwaters should start as simple, uncomplicated fun fishing. Once the technique is understood and success achieved, confidence will grow and you might never revert back to the chuck-and-strip method.
In the second part of this series, I will explain how to become a convert.
Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 1Kosie2022-10-21T11:18:03+00:00
Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Still Water Dead-drift Technique
By Fred Steynberg
In the previous introduction I hopefully was able to sketch a slight outline of the basic still water dead drift techniques. To get too technical on the subject is not at all necessary because it is simply not that complicated and if you have fished the dead drift once or twice then it should quickly start to make sense. For those that are relatively new to the sport of fly fishing, however, and who often find themselves caught up in the confusion across the counter ‘technical talk,’ I will start with the tackle suited for this technique.
Still water fishing often requires a slightly heavier rod than what is needed on our smaller rivers and streams. The weight of the rod is not necessarily chosen for the size of the fish targeted but rather to cast a longer line and leader more effectively and with less effort. A heavier rod should also, in trained hands, assist in casting the line into or across the wind, often to be encountered on still waters. In my opinion a 5 or 6 weight (9’ or more in length) outfit should be the correct choice. I have often encountered anglers who fish still waters with their 2 or 3 weight outfits and yes, by all means, this is possible but really not functional. Watching even the most competent of anglers trying to make a light rod perform the same job seems an impossible effort as the rod is forced to perform a function that it was not designed to perform.
A floating line with a weight forward taper should carry a fly a long way when hotspots such as channels, weed beds and distant drop offs have to be reached. Dispense of that old, cracked floating line that was on the real when you bought it in a job lot at an auction or inherited from your grandfather and invest in new ‘high floater’. A floating line, when fishing the still water dead drift technique, should not submerge at all if the setting of the hook, when the fish takes the fly, is to be effective. Striking or setting the hook when fishing a partly submerged line will result in the energy of the strike being cushioned against the line that lies below the surface. Striking against a dysfunctional floating line will hook the odd fish and prove the contrary, but more fish will be missed. It is important to remember that the hook, 99% of the time, needs to be set when fishing a floating line and the dead drift technique as the fish does not turn on the fly and hook itself (as when stripping a fly through the water column). The fish ‘vacuums’ the fly into its mouth cavity in a non- aggressive motion because the imitation appears to be an easy, vulnerable food source in a suspended state.
After the fish accepts the fly it simply continues on its food finding path but if the fly in its mouth does not have the correct texture the fish will ‘spit’ the fly out. The fly thus needs to be set and the easiest way to do so, or quickest route to the fly, is to pick the floating line off the water with the rod in an upwards striking motion.
The inability to pick the line up off the water, will the delay the hook-set and invariably cause missed opportunities.
Floating lines are porous and pick up a lot of dirt, not only from lying on the ground when stripped off the reel before a cast, but also from dirt and elements in the water and grime on anglers hands. If your new line starts sinking after a session or two it should be cleaned and then treated with a line floatant. I clean and treat my floating line at least after every other still water outing.
The choice of leaders should be straight forward but I have found that many anglers often over complicate the process. A 7’ or better a 9’, 3X (+-8lb/3.8kg) tapered monofilament leader will suffice for most of the dead drifting but if fish are as feisty as the ones we often encounter in the highland waters of the Eastern Cape, it might be necessary to up the diameter to 2X.
Attached to the weakest point of the leader, in this case 3X as mentioned above, a length of about 3’ or 90 – 120cm of 4X tippet should be attached. A loop to loop connection is an option but I often use a double surgeons knot to attach the tippet to the leader. It is important to ensure that the tippet is lighter (thinner diameter) than the weakest point in the leader. In other words if you are using a 3X leader then your tippet could be 4X or lighter.
Fly anglers often attach the fly onto the end of the leader without attaching a length of tippet; this shortcut can often cause some problems. The leader will shorten every time a fly is changed and the diameter of the leader will thus increase and the function of the tapered leader will be lost. If a strike indicator is used to detect the strike and needs to be attached at a specific depth on the leader (without a tippet attached) the diameter of the leader may be too thick and inflexible. A strike indicator attached on the thinner part of the leader will be more responsive or sensitive when the fish takes the fly.
The tippet diameter should be chosen with care and often a balance between a too heavy tippet or too light a tippet should be found. If you are going to match a hatch and imitate Trico’s , for example, and you decide to use an imitation that assumes the emerging insect then a fly size of between 18 and 14 should be close enough to the real thing. To have this fly appear as realistic as possible, tippet diameters of no more than 5X or at a push maybe 4X should be considered. This all sounds good but 5X tippet is, in most tippet material brands, very close to the 4 – 5lb breaking strain mark and that is running a little thin when targeting trophy trout that weigh above 6 lbs (2.5kg) in a ‘wild trout’ still water situation.
To handle a 10lb brown trout on a 5W rod using 5X tippet in a pristine New Zealand stream is quite possible as the hooked fish could often be followed along the bank and more care, not to over stress the tippet, can be taken. In still water however, hooked fish could make long runs across the dam or down deep to hide in weed beds and once entangled in weeds it is almost impossible to pull free. To stop a fish from lodging itself in weed beds when using light tippet, especially when a lot of line is dragging through the water, can be a chancy task and good fish will often be lost.
I would often use slightly heavier tippet material and try to avoid using flies smaller than # 16 or 14 in still water. I often fish a snail or large midge larva imitation (#14 – #12) and then I use a thicker or heavier tippet material, 4X or 3X.
I might be sacrificing more takes because the fly may appear less natural on the thicker tippet but if I do hook a fish then my conversion rate is higher.
Best advice is to start off using thinner tippet material and if you find that you cannot control hooked fish then step up an X at a time until the right diameter, under the conditions, is found. If you are worried about the effect of a fly stuck to a fishes lip or jaw then crimp the barb of your flies before fishing and the hook should dislodge within no time.
I prefer fishing a 9’, 3X leader with a section of 3’ or more of 4X tippet making the total length of my leader/tippet configuration then been about 12’. The length of a longer leader/tippet configuration (12’ – 13’) will keep the fly line away from the fly in clear water conditions. This length could be shortened a little if the water is slightly off colour or murky to allow for better handling or casting in windy conditions.
Fly fishing with or without a strike indicator is a matter of choice but in my opinion, if you are not fly fishing every other week then an indicator will improve your chance of detecting a strike by tenfold, when dead drifting in still waters.
The strike indicator, similar to fishing with an indicator in a river or stream, does not only detect the fish eating the fly but will also keep the fly at the desired depth in the water column. This is especially important when fishing into channels or onto shallow weed beds on gravel bars. A fly that hangs stagnant and too deep below the strike indicator will eventually settle on the bottom or on structure and not have the desired effect.
If you are not sure about the depth that your strike indicator should be set at, then start off by setting it a little deeper than what you think the water is deep, with a little observation on how the fly ‘floats’ and at what depth it snags you should allow for a quick adjustment. It is not at all necessary to ‘hang’ your fly right to the bottom because unlike in a river where currents will sweep away morsels that come up or swim within the water column, in still water food often suspends in certain stages of transformation and fish do feed at different depths. Because unlike in a stream or river, fish need not hug the bottom to economically avoid the currents.
In the next chapter fly choices for this style of fishing and the execution of the technique will be explained and conclude the subject.
Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 2Kosie2022-10-21T11:18:27+00:00
Understanding the Basic Fundamentals of Still Water Dead-drift Technique
By Fred Steynberg
Fly Selection When Using the Dead –Drift Technique
Southern Africa’s still waters support a vast number of aquatic food sources, many of which will, at some stage during their life cycle, suspend within the water column and become effective food sources which can be imitated using the dead-drift technique. Although some of these sources differ slightly in size and colour, they are pretty similar to those found in still waters across the world, making this technique applicable abroad with only minor fly alterations. Several of these food sources are great to mimic with a fly using this technique, but, for the sake of brevity, I will cover just three of them – midges, cainflies and fresh water snails.
Midges, often referred to as chironomids or buzzers, belong to the family Diptera (meaning two wings) and are similar to a mosquito in life cycle development and appearance. They are so prolific in some still waters that some experts say it is possible to count an astonishing 10,000 larvae per square metre. Yet, despite their abundance and importance as a food source, fly anglers may not always have the knowledge or sill to effectively imitate the stages of the hatch, and the fish ignore all other offerings during a feeding frenzy.
The midge’s life cycle can be divided into four complete stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult, of which the first three are aquatic and the fourth air-breathing. Only the larval, pupal and adult stages are really important to imitate. However, I will concentrate on just the larval stage, as this is the stage that is mostly predated upon by fish species such as trout and can be commonly found in the stomach contents of still water fish.
The wormlike larva sometimes attaches itself to structure on the bottom but is often free-swimming and suspended off the bottom. If not attached to some top structure, the larva hugs the lower part of the water column, which is why, when prospecting for fish, the depth that the imitation is fished at should allow it to hang as deep as possible (without snagging the bottom or weed beds). Many different midge species make for a great number of fly imitations, but in my opinion the most simple and effective are the San Juan or Atomic Worm.
In the late evening or early morning, fish can frequently be seen moving and feeding just below the surface. This is often a good indication that midge pupae are plentiful, having transformed en masse to the pupal stage and are moving up the water column on their way to transform into adult midges. Because this pupal stage happens within a specific time (with greater numbers in the early morning or late afternoon), it should not necessarily be a stage used to imitate when prospecting for trout, but rather when fishing the hatch. These pupae often suspend just below the surface in a vulnerable stage, so fish the fly shallow, just below the surface (this is for another article). Many anglers fish the San Juan and Atomic Worm in still waters because they have heard these are fish takers, but hopefully they will now understand why the pattern is so effective.
The second important food source to consider is cainflies, particularly the nymph stage. The Caenis mayfly (order Ephemeroptera, family Caenidae) is a small invertebrate that spends most of its life as an aquatic insect. The nymphs crawl around at the bottom of still waters and prefer silt or soft, muddy areas. They feed on rotting plant material and often flee from predators such as fish. Not unlike other mayfly species, they have five major life cycle stages: egg, nymph, emerger, subadult (subimago) and adult (spinner or imago). If is very difficult to imitate the air-breathing stages (subadult and adult), mainly because the flies are so tiny and are found in such masses that your little imitation gets lost in the mix (unless you cast directly in front of a rising fish).
To successfully imitate these tiny flying mayflies, you need to use a very small imitation such as #18 – #22. And to successfully fish such a small pattern, you would have to use 6X and even 7X tippet, which I feel is just fooling around. Not that fishing such small patterns and thin tippet is wrong on a small stream, but there are better ways to target fish. These insects need to hang or cling onto structure to shed their subadult (submago) shuck and transform into the adult (spinner or imago), and streamside plants, trees, rocks and the odd angler on bankside will suffice. Once they have become adults, they can be seen flying in clouds and spirals above the water’s surface, usually in greater numbers during summer.
The caenis nymph is approximately a #18 imitation but you can get away with using a slightly larger fly such as a #16 or even #14. The more technically minded among you can always first study the nymphal development and stages leading towards the hatch before imitating them, but I find the most effective patterns to prospect with are the PTN, PTN Flashback, brown Flashback Nymph, Hare and Copper Flashback or similar. Prospecting with such small nymphs can be done suing only a single fly, but fishing it below a slightly weighted or larger nymph in tandem works really well. Fish these small nymphs using 4X or 5XX tippet and a long tapered leader.
Fresh Water Snails
A third important food source to imitate when considering the dead-drift technique, and one that is seldom imitated, is the fresh water snail (phylum Mollusca, class Gastropoda) that is found in most established still waters. These aquatic snails feed on algae, weeds and other aquatic plant material. They often dislodge from the weeds when water birds such a scoots dive down and bring up weeds from the bottom, or when strong winds create water movement. Once they’ve lost their grip, they drift helpless within the water column and become easy prey for fish that constantly move around still water systems looking for food. Snails die en masse after depositing their eggs, and I have seen fish gorge themselves to a point where their stomachs bulge. Again I am not referring to hatch fishing or fishing in stages where snails are found in abundance, but rather when prospecting with these imitations.
Snail imitations can be fished in tandem at different depths in the water column below a strike indicator. Remember that the strike indicator does not only show when the fish takes the fly but, most importantly, keeps the flies from sinking to the bottom and/or snagging. The small, spiral-shell mollusks do not swim freely, and need to sink to the bottom or cling to structure so they can move to where they can feed. It is difficult to tie or buy an imitation that, to the human eye, resembles the snail, but, if fished using the dead-drift, impressionistic flies such as the Peacock Snail and Coch-y-Bondhu work well enough.
All three of the food sources discussed in this article are most commonly found in conditions where trout survive, without being fed, in still water systems. The first two (midge larva and Caenis nymph) can be fished using the dead-drift and occasionally lifted off the bottom when executing the wiggle lift or, for that matter, the Leisenring Lift. The snail cannot flee by swimming away, so when these lifts are performed while fishing a snail pattern, fish might react to the movement and not because they see it as a snail.
Before I started exploring the dead-drift technique in still waters many years ago, I would often hook the odd fish on an attractor pattern while fish were going crazy feeding just below the surface. This frustrated me immensely, as I knew that, if I could figure out what they were feeding on, then I should be able to match the hatch and hook many more. Later, and after pumping the stomachs of many still water fish, I started realizing that still water fish do not only feed on a hatch or when aggravated, but also constantly move around in search of food suspended in the water column or that hugs the bottom.
With this little bit of knowledge to help with the still water dead-drift technique, food sources such as the angler’s curse could eventually become the angler’s friend.
Stillwater Dead-drift Technique – Part 3Kosie2022-10-21T11:18:44+00:00