Streams are deeper in some places than others. They have currents that twist and turn. The wind blows up, down and across. There are rocks and chutes and riffles. Even in an apparently calm pool, unseen factors conspire to tip off the trout that this is no natural and your chances of getting that trout to rise to your fly become slimmer the less natural it looks. When a fly is traveling in an unnatural way, it is said to be “dragging.”
Another way to describe dragging is if the fly is making a wake. If it looks like it is water skiing, it’s dragging. That is, the fly is being pulled off its downstream track. It may be moving faster, slower or across currents that it couldn’t do naturally.
Many of us spend hours happily on the stream, dragging flies all over the place. You’ll see even the most experienced do it from time to time. But when we do it, we usually don’t catch fish. This is particularly true with duns and spinners. Streamers are an exception, as the bait fish they imitate can naturally dart here, there and everywhere. Skiddering a caddis is another, but more on that later.
Another exception worth mentioning is nymphing. As the fly reaches the end of its drag free drift, let it continue on, eventually straightening the entire line and rising to the surface in the current. Then twitch it a little. The reason is that during the transition stage from nymph to emerger to dun, as the nymph rises off the bottom and struggles to right itself, the trout very often hit. They also gulp nymphs off the bottom, when a drag free one comes by, so the first part of the drift must be drag free.
There are a variety of ways to avoid or limit drag, one of which is mending your line upon casting and continuing to mend it during the drift as necessary. But one thing is certain: Avoid drag as if catching a fish depended on it – because it usually does.
For more on how to deal with dragging see Chapter 8 – Drag, drag, drag – in How to Fly Fish for Trout, the FIRST Book to Read.
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