It was a blustery fall day and I was on the Green River with my buddy Ryan Kelly. The wind blew most of the late-season blue-winged olives off the water, and the fish weren’t interested in streamers. That meant nymphs were likely the best bet for putting fish in the net.
The Green below Flaming Gorge Dam is my favorite river in the world. It’s wonderfully varied, holds tons of fish, and plenty of big ones. It always presents a new challenge, regardless of how many times I’ve fished it.
That day, the challenge was getting a good drift in higher water, across multiple current seams. When we started, I didn’t think I’d have any problems getting a good drift. After all, I’d learned the ins and outs of indicator fishing on the Lower Provo River – a stretch of water near my home in Utah that’s famously a “nymphing” river.
Apparently, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and after my first few drifts, Ryan put me on the oars and demonstrated how I should have been fishing. What I learned was the first in many lessons on successfully mending long drifts.
Today, we’ll look at those lessons, as well as cases when you want a long drift versus a shorter one.
The first step to mending long drifts is learning what kind of drift you need to fish any given run. This involves identifying where trout are likely to hold, and your ideal presentation. For example, if you’re on the outside edge of a big bend, and think fish are likely holding on the inside edge in slack water, you’d want to set up a drift that delivers your flies there without any drag. And, you want your flies to hold long enough for a trout to eat.
And that’s where knowing how to mend a long drift really comes in handy. If we use the above example, you have a few options for getting your flies into that slack water on the inside bend.
First – you can cast across the current and hope the flies sink quickly enough, and don’t get yanked out of position, for a fish to take.
Second – you can stand downstream of the bend and try an upstream cast into the slack water, stacking line to avoid your offering immediately dragging out of the whole.
Third – you can situate yourself upstream and cast down in the inside edge of the bend, delivering your flies exactly where trout should be waiting for them.
While there’s not a “wrong” answer here, the option I’ve had the most success with over the years (and especially since that day with Ryan on the Green River) has been placing myself upstream, and mending long downstream drifts. This reduces drag and increases the amount of time your flies are in the best place for a trout to eat them.
So, how exactly do you manage and mend a long downstream drift? This is what I’d recommend.
I know when I first started nymphing, I never did mend my line correctly. I either moved it too hard, too soft, or too late.
The key to mending a long drift is to mend early and often. As your bobber, line, and flies move downstream, you’re trying your best to keep all three moving at the same speed. Drag on any component of your rig is a surefire way to not catch fish.
In a lot of the anglers I’ve guided – and in myself, when I first started nymphing – there’s a tendency to wait to mend until after the rig has already started dragging. Instead, you want to be proactive. Throw mends, even when you have 10-15 feet of drift left. And throw multiple mends, too – stacking your line on the water so as to extend your drift as long as possible.
When you’re mending drifts of 60+ feet, it’s a lot different than mending drifts of 30 feet. Not just because of the distance, but also because of the forces being applied to your rig. A 30-foot drift through a run that’s 20 feet away from you requires soft, subtle adjustments.
The exact opposite is true of long drifts. A flick of the wrist isn’t enough to move your line through the amount of water and hydraulic pressure being applied on long drifts. Mending is, in essence, the art of picking up and moving fly line without the need to re-cast. So, keep that in mind while mending a long drift. Lift the line up powerfully, and throw it upstream with purpose. It’ll take some getting used to, but it’s easy to figure out.
Finally, when you do hook into a fish, you want to make sure you’re setting the hook with enough force to make it stick. Again, you’re trying to move fly line, an indicator, and flies through a fair bit of water, current, and pressure. Lifting your rod firmly isn’t enough in that situation. Set like you’re trying to drive the hook home throughthe fish.
Just a few months ago, on a different trip with Ryan to the Green River, I lost a 25-inch rainbow because I didn’t set the hook hard enough.
At the end of the day, mending long drifts is a key skill to develop if you want to round out your angling game. While it applies directly to nymphing, you can also use these same tactics for dry flies or streamers.
Words by Spencer Durrant.
Spencer is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in multiple national publications over the past decade, and he’s currently the News Editor for MidCurrent. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.