Extending your long-distance dry fly drift, or: When not to mend.

I don’t usually double dip my Instagram (stevecultonflyfishing) and Currentseams posts, but I thought this one was worthy of a more in-depth discussion. It’s a video of a smallmouth blowing up on a dead-drifted Wiggly about 70 feet across the river:

Now that you’ve seen it, let’s get to what appears to be a problem. One sharp-eyed viewer made a trenchant comment: “Mend!” He noticed the long downstream belly in the line. It’s a fair point in the abstract, but it doesn’t address the situation or the presention in its entirety.

Let’s begin with conditions. We have very low, clear, slow moving water. That usually means spooky fish. Now, smallmouth are not known as picky eaters, but the longer you fish for them, the more you discover that they can be as difficult to entice as the world’s most finicky trout. I was fishing a Wiggly, which, if you’re a Wiggly purist, is supposed to be presented on a dead drift. Any angler-induced motion should include the legs only. That’s a daunting proposition, especially at 70 feet. It doesn’t mean that the fish won’t hit a waking or stripped Wiggly. It just means that you’re only going to get hits from aggressive, willing-to-chase bass. And sometimes, that eliminates the bigger fish.

Now let’s talk distance and tackle. 70 feet away is a challenging length to dead drift a dry fly. The 5-weight I’m using, although 10 feet long, isn’t enough stick to make a 70-foot mend with an 8-weight, weight forward long taper line. I could, of course, lengthen the leader if I was concerned about moving the fly on the mend. But that’s a moot point if you can’t make that mend in the first place.

So, how did I handle this situation? I began by determining where I wanted the fly to have the longest period of dead drift. I aimed my cast about 10 feet above that point. I made an aerial upstream mend, then a hard, full upstream mend with as much line as I could manage. The fly moved a bit, but that didn’t concern me — I was simply setting it up for where I thought the strike zone would be, well downstream. (I had seen this fish sipping bugs off the surface, and it appeared to be one of the larger bass in the pool.) As the fly dead-drifted downriver, I made another upstream mend with about two-thirds of the line — this was about as big a mend I could afford without disturbing the fly.

That sets up the large belly you see in the video. It’s not ideal, but it’s a necessary evil to obtain the drift I wanted. What you can’t see is me tracking the drift with my rod tip, then pointing my rod downstream, and extending my arm as far out as possible to make that drift last just a…few…more…feet. (I could also have stripped out line and fed it into the drift, but that tactic makes long distance hooksets even harder.) And that’s the rub: with that much line out, and that much slack from the downstream belly, it’s a challenge to get a good hookset. You have to rely on a sticky sharp hook and hope the fish does most of the work.

When it all comes together, as it did here, you understand that while catching isn’t necessarily the best part of fly fishing, it most certainly doesn’t suck. In the end, we are presented with one of the most important questions in fly fishing: “What do you want the fly to do?” If you answer that question, and figure out a way to make it happen, you’re going to catch a lot more fish.

4 comments on “Extending your long-distance dry fly drift, or: When not to mend.

  1. Bruce Bartrug says:

    Speaking of leaders, I seem to remember you usually use floating line and a relatively short leader when fishing for stripers. Correct me if I’m wrong. A mentor (this is my first summer of saltwater fly fishing) has suggested 10-foot leaders or more, because he thinks the fish can see the fly line. Comments? I’m suspecting difficulty on windy days with such long leaders. Thanks!

    • Steve Culton says:

      Hi Bruce. Thanks for the question. I won’t argue with anyone else’s experience. I can tell you that I’ve been using leaders well under 10 feet long (and in the case of a full sink line less than 3 feet long) for years. You can see my results sprinkled throughout currentseams. Now, I do most of my fishing at night, so perhaps that’s a factor. But I’ve also caught a multitude of bass in the daylight with a shorter leader, and as I mentioned, very short with the full sink line. The bottom line is this: fish with the line and leader length that gives you the most confidence. Fish with the line and leader length that helps you correctly answer the question, “What do you want the fly to do?” I hope that helps!

      • Bruce Bartrug says:

        Thanks. I have discovered the longer leader is better when fishing sand flats with a crab fly, but something shorter lets the leader unfurl more quickly when throwing surface lures. Very much enjoy tying the flat wings you promote, as they cast more easily, and really move in the water.

      • Steve Culton says:

        You’re welcome, Bruce. I fear my first answer is rather incomplete. There are so many factors that determine what a proper leader length is. Certainly the potential (or observed) spook factor is among them. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that stripers (or snook, etc) may have a higher spook factor on a skinny flat on a bright, sunny day than those same fish on a beach break on the same day — even though you may be fishing a carb fly in both locations. As always, observe, make adjustments, and fish with confidence. Glad you’re digging the flatwings!

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