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Drift Fishing: A How-To Guide

Drift fishing is a time-honored technique that provides a realistic presentation while allowing you to reach fish you can’t possibly cast to. Popular for species as diverse as bluegill and steelhead, it’s an exceptional method to catch fish in rivers and streams as well as being applied on lakes and inshore from a boat drifting with the current.

And while it’s far from rocket science, knowing the ins and outs of drift fishing is going to make it far more productive, so if you’d like to learn more about this incredible technique, keep reading!


What is Drift Fishing?

Drift fishing is a technique used on rivers and streams. Often employed in conjunction with a weighted and floated rig, drift fishing can also be used with flies, simple bobber rigs, or slip floats.

The idea is to cast your rig into the current, maintain a tight line while letting your rig ride downstream, and wait for a hungry fish to hit your bait.

It works well because the presentation is natural, and the distance between the angler and the fish he’s chasing is large enough to avoid spooking even the wariest species.

Drift Fishing Basics

To help you better understand this technique, we’ll start with the most simple rigs. Now, since this technique can be used to catch everything from steelhead and blue catfish to trout and bluegill, line weights, hook sizes, and tackle are going to need to match your quarry.

There’s definitely no “one size fits all” approach to drift fishing!

The Simple Bobber Drift Rig

The first - and easiest- way to set up a drift rig is to attach a simple red and white bobber over your baited and weighted hook.

Typically, this setup is used for small fish like trout, perch, and other panfish like bluegill.

Start with a small hook, something between a #6 and a #10. I’ll often choose a baitholder-style hook, especially if I’m fishing nightcrawlers. Those rearward-facing barbs really do an excellent job of holding your worm in place and not letting small fish nibble it off.

I typically add just enough split shot between my bobber and my hook to get those worms to sink - any more than that will make fish less likely to take your bait.

Set your bobber at a distance that allows your hooks to clear the bottom by a foot or more, and cast, keeping your line tight as you allow your bobber rig to float downstream.

Watch it carefully, and when it gets pulled under, set your hook and begin the fight!

The Slip Float Drift Rig

Slip floats are superior to standard bobbers for one important reason: they allow for better casting.

A slip float is designed to ride all the way to your rod tip when you retrieve for a cast, allowing you to avoid slinging a long, trailing bobber and hook.

For drift fishing, it’s not terribly important that you be able to cast accurately, but it sure is nice to know how to rig this up if you do have a slip float or two - and you really should!

The basics work very much like the bobber rig: a small hook, good live bait, a slip float, and perhaps a bit of split shot to weight your nightcrawler or cricket.

Rigging a slip float is simple; just watch this excellent tutorial:

The Casting Bubble Rig

Spinning tackle doesn’t mean you need to skip on flies, and if you have a water bubble, you've got the perfect drift rig for trout almost ready to go!

A casting bubble is simply a clear ball that you fill with water. You can adjust the weight of the casting bubble, enabling long launches with no extra weights.

By attaching a leader to the bubble, you can attach flies to the end of your line, enabling fly fishing with spinning tackle.

To assemble a Casting Bubble Rig, follow these steps:

  1. Slide your casting bubble onto your main line.
  2. Using a Uni Knot, attach a small barrel swivel.
  3. Wet the knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  4. Cut 24 to 36 inches of leader.
  5. Using a Uni Knot, attach one end of the leader to the barrel swivel.
  6. Wet the knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  7. On the other, tie on the fly of your choice.

Be sure to check the legality of casting bubbles where you fish. Some locations only allow fly tackle; always follow local regulations.

All you need to do now is attach your flies and cast your rig, letting it float downstream on a tight line. 

This technique can be effective on anything that takes a fly - so trout to steelhead!

The Santee Drift Rig

For larger fish like cats, an option like the Santee drift rig is just perfect.

It has four basic components: a slinky weight, a circle hook, a small float, and a barrel swivel.

Each of these components has a logic in this rig, and choosing the right option makes a huge difference.

When you’re looking for a slinky weight, the typical trolling options are far too heavy for drift fishing, usually weighing in at more than 2 ounces. Instead, look for a slinky weight like the one we recommend that weighs just ¾-ounce. That’ll allow a heavy current to move your rig, just like you’d like it to.

Circle hooks are critical for a Santee Drift Rig because you won't be able to set the hook with the power that you’d like, and you need to let the fish have a second to take your bait. Both of these conditions push you toward self-hooking styles like the circle.

A good cigar float is perfect for raising your hook and bait in the water column, and they’re remarkably easy to come by.

Finally, choose a barrel swivel that’s strong enough for the fish you’re after. You don’t want failure at that point, and a strong swivel won’t cost you much more than a weak one.

Of course, strong leader material is critical, and I prefer a heavy-weight mono like Berkley Trilene Big Game.

To assemble this rig:

  1. Attach your leader to your main line using a barrel swivel and two Palomar or Uni knots.
  2. Slide a cigar float onto your leader.
  3. Attach your circle hook using a Palomar or Uni knot.
  4. Clip your slinky weight onto one ring of the barrel swivel.

You’re ready to go!

Final Thoughts

Most species of fish are susceptible to drifting, and it’s especially effective with wary species like trout.

If you choose the right rig for your conditions and the fish you’re chasing, you’ll be surprised by just how effective this technique can be.

We hope you’ve learned something from this article, and as always, we’re here to answer any questions you might have.

Please leave a comment below, and we’ll be sure to be in touch!

About The Author
John Baltes
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.