Dave Scadden's Downstream Drift

The river flows were up and the fish were holding tight to the edges. The casual observer would notice nothing but a focused glance would reveal a lot of activity along the broken shoreline. As I drifted down the heavy midriver current, I noticed the first signs of the impending hatch. Big bronze noses followed by dorsal fins announced the first stages. Emerging blue wings were struggling to the surface, some would make it, unfurling their slate gray wings and take to flight. Others would disappear in the ring of a rise. Within a few minutes the hatch was in full swing and bronze and olive noses could be seen in every direction. The heavy spring flow made it difficult to get a drag free drift. The fishing pressure of Utah's Green River has produced some of the most selective fish on the planet. Any drag whatsoever would produce a pronounced rejection.

Early season blue wing hatches are some of the most demanding hatches of the entire year. Small flies, light tippets and 4 weight rods are the name of the game. It is one of my favorite hatches. After months of sports shows and demanding schedules, it is nice to get lost in the flows of the river and match wits with some educated fish.

My favorite technique this time of year is one that I developed over the years I fondly call my pontoon boat downstream drag free drift. My good friend Mike Lawson made this technique popular back in the late seventies and early eighties on the fabled waters of the Railroad Ranch section of the Henrys Fork River in Idaho. Mike discovered that the super selective rainbows of the Ranch had become so conditioned to seeing leaders in the gin clear water that they were virtually impossible to catch from a "below the fish approach". The conventional technique of casting upstream to feeding fish and letting the fly drift back downstream to obtain a drag free drift would render nothing but rejections. The fish on the Henrys Fork actually became so leader shy they would even spook and leave at the sight of a leader.

Mike soon developed a technique of first spotting feeding fish then stealthily stalk into position from above the fish. He would then extend long false casts downstream and to the side of the feeding fish so they wouldn't spook from the flyline over their heads. On his final casts he would smoothly jerk back on his rod, dropping his fly six to eight feet above the fish. He would then gently drop his rod tip effectively drifting the fly directly over the fish. The success of this technique is realized when the fly drifts over the fish first. It sees no leader attached to the fly. The strikes are subtle and uninhibited.

I have implemented this same technique and enhanced its effectiveness with the use of a pontoon boat and a pair of fins. It produces a perfect drag free drift that presents the fly first and will fool even the most seasoned and selective trout. I initiate this technique by first floating for a short distance observing the progress of the hatch. I am looking for the feeding lanes. Are the fish feeding along the edges or in the main current? Are they orienting to structure or working back eddies? Once I have determined the attitude of the fish I then go to work. I use a 4 weight Sage TCR rod for rapid delivery. A Rio double taper floating line allows me to hold more line in the air and maintain better control at distance. I top it off with a supple Umpqua tapered leader in 10-12 foot length long 6x tippet section is crucial for a soft presentation.

My favorite pontoon boat for the downstream drift is the Outlaw 10'6" Rampage or 9' Renegade. The new frameless boats are super lightweight and agile on the water making them extremely effective when using fins. Their fully rockered hull designs allow you to spin and manipulate your drift effortlessly. As I drift downstream, I am looking for feeding fish. A good pair of polarized sunglasses are invaluable. I am scanning the water 30-60 feet below me as I float down. Once I have spotted my target, I quickly false cast line and extend my casts to 10' above the fish. This can be facilitated by having your fly line already stripped out along the side of your thigh on your seat, ready to go.

Once my fly hits the water I begin kicking my fins, moving my boat back upstream against the current to slow my drift. This moderates my speed in the current. I then hold my rod at a 45 degree angle and drift my fly right over the fish. The fish always sees the fly first. There is usually no hesitation. The takes are subtle with no reservation. I carefully raise my rod tip, being mindful of my light tippet and the fight is on.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to put this technique to use. The hatch was just coming off and the fish were very selective. I had been fishing big streamers all morning to big browns with good success. After the 10th rise form I couldn't stand it any longer and had to grab my 4 weight Sage. The fish were lined up along a rock wall on the lower section of river between the dam and Little Hole. The fish were tucked in so tight it was almost impossible to hit them from out in the river casting in. I quickly adopted my downstream drift and slipped my boat right in against the wall. The water was between 2-3 feet deep along the wall making it perfect to effect the second part of my downstream drift. With my long Omega fins I was able to lightly drag my fins on the bottom to moderate my drift. Using the fin drag technique I can easily and effectively slow my drift and even stop my drift if I find the need for multiple presentations.

As I worked my way down the wall I would hook a fish, drop my fins and stop while I played it in, quickly release it then begin drifting and hook another fish. It was amazing. In less than two hours I hooked and released more fish than I had hooked the entire day. One fish in particular stands out in my mind. It was getting dark and bigger fish were working the edges for an easy dinner. I spotted three fish below me. Three big bronze noses would surface at random. In the impending darkness I could distinctly see their big white jaws as they would slurp the tiny mayflies from the surface. One was noticeably bigger than the others. I lined my boat up and dragged my fins to slow my drift into them. My fly drifted over seemingly unnoticed. I dropped my fins to stop my drift. I re-cast....cast again, then again....nothing. I would extend my cast and throw big serpentine "s" loops into my line to ensure a drag free drift, still...nothing.

I strained to see what was going on. My fly would drift over them perfectly. Nothing. Yet they continued to rise. It was dark enough I couldn't see the naturals on the water. Then it hit me. Midges! I quickly clipped off my thorax blue wing and holding a CDC midge up to the silvery sky carefully threaded the 6x tippet through the eye of the tiny midge. My 4 weight TCR flexed to life and I extended 40 feet of line toward my target downstream. The big brown had separated himself from the other two and was tucked right in against the wall. I lined up my cast and at the last minute jerked back on the rod tip and waved it back and forth throwing big serpentine loops into the line.

The tiny midge danced toward the strike zone. I held my breath in anticipation. Right on cue the big bronze nose rose above the surface. It seemed like an enternity before I saw the white jaws close. I carefully raised the rod tip. The quiet pool below the cliff exploded. I watched helplessly as the old veteran made a beeline for a deadfall pine that lay at the waters edge below the run. All I felt was a thump, thump as we parted company. With a big smile on my face, I kicked my Rampage out into the heavy current and rowed for the boat ramp at Little Hole.