Trolling and Drifting

Another excerpt from our upcoming book Long Flies. This story is “hot off the press” because it’s a story about a fishing experience I had last week in Alaska.

Some anglers have difficulty considering these actual fly fishing tactics, and that’s okay as long as they don’t try to make others stop using these tactics. The fact is both of these methods have a long and lustrous history in the annals of long-fly fishing. To suggest to the fly fishers of Carrie Stevens’ day that trolling for brook trout was not fly fishing would have brought a flurry of sharp rebuttals and perhaps even a fishing challenge or two. Certainly was, and still is, the only way to access these fish with any sort of chance for success. Trolling is a great lake tactic, and belongs just as much to the fly fisher as to the gear guys.

Drifting is a form of trolling in which the boat is powered by the wind in lake or sea and by the currents in streams, rather than by rowing, paddling, or using a motor. In Reading Waters, I wrote about Marc Williamson, Fred Foisset, and me fishing Big Lava Lake in Oregon, and drifting with a sea anchor to control our speed. Like trolling, it’s a great way to access lake waters (where fish are often spread out) in a way that cannot be duplicated by casting.

But what about drifting/and or trolling in moving waters? Well, they both work there, too, but the currents must be figured into the overall equation, as well. Both back-trolling and regular trolling work. Back trolling is dome by facing the boat into the currents and using a motor to keep the boat drifting downstream slower than the currents. The fly is usually cast and jigged off the bottom as the boat slowly backs down. One can use the slower-than-the-current drifting boat as a great casting platform, too. Trolling is usually done against the currents, with the boat going upstream at a slow speed. In the lower sections of streams influenced by the tides, anglers often troll on the high slack tide, motoring slowing in both upstream and downstream directions.

Stream drifting is another matter. In this instance, the boat is allowed to move at the speed of the currents, and the anglers tows a line that has been cast upstream of the boat. It can be used to fish at any desired depth. For example, in Alaska, fly fishers can drift for kings and other salmon, using a bottom bouncing method that is both effective and easily done. This tactic is adopted from the drift fishers that use a fluorescent orange, red, or pink, one-inch Styrofoam float pegged on the line about four inched above the hook. About 18 inches above the float, they attach a pencil sinker or slinky. The line is cast upstream and literally dragged along by the drifting boat. The sinker bounces along the bottom, and the “lure” dances and bobs in the currents a foot or so above. The kings take it most aggressively.

To adapt this tactic to fly fishing, one needs to tie a fly that simulates the float used by the drift fishers. This is easily done by using a cone-shaped indicator with a collar of appropriately colored flash material blended with marabou, fur, synthetic fur, and so on. The hook is tied in, stinger style, an inch or two behind the indicator.

In the discussion on the Baitfish from L, I mentioned fishing Alaska’s Nushagak for kings. It was a successful morning using my strangely concocted fly. I rigged up the 10-wt. with a 300 grain, 20-foot sinking tip line and 6 foot leader ending in a leader ring. To the ring I knotted two feet of 15 lb. test Maxima Chameleon, allowing about 4 inches to stick out of the clinch knot attaching this tippet to the ring. An overhand knot at the end of this “dropper” kept the four, size 3/0 shot from slipping off. The unnamed “fly” went on the end of the tippet.  Once in position to drift, I would cast about 50 feet upstream and shake the remainder of the line out into the currents. The drifting boat soon pulled the line tight. The shot served two purposes: (1) I knew from testing at the fly tying bench that three shot were necessary to sink the fly. I added another so that (2) I could feel the shot bouncing and hitting the bottom, telegraphing the movements of the fly to me most effectively. The sink tip alone would not do that. Hmmm, shades of Combat Fly Fishing.

As we drifted, I pointed the rod right down the line and only a few inches off the water. I held the line in my line hand in order to feel the movement of the fly along the bottom and to help set the hook. The strike was not a violent grab. Rather, the line just stopped and got tight. It felt just like the hook had caught on a snag. I used a Strip and Lift set to get the hook into the bony jaws of the big kings. They certainly can run off a bunch of backing–especially when they start with only a turn or two of fly line on the reel. After the first king fell to the fly, Caleb Hitzfeld, who was guiding Scott Snead and me, remarked that we should call it the King-a-ma-Bob. So it is.

The Nushagak lies about 30 minutes by Beaver nearly straight west of the No-See-Um Lodge. in the boreal forest of western Alaska.

The King-a-ma-Bob, designed to imitate the pegged float used by the gear fishers. The addition of a fur and flash collar at the front gives the "fly" extra action and flash appeal.

The big kings of the "Nush" loved the King-a-ma-Bob. I loved it too.