Drift Smarter to Catch More Fish

Content written by Zach Harvey

Outside the charter fleet, where rigid schedules and the need to catch on command force captains to lean on high-percentage methods, you won’t find many anglers singing the praises of wire-line or downrigger slow-trolling. Nor will you encounter many casual anglers with a powerful urge to spend their free time monkeying around with cumbersome ground tackle.

What that means, inshore especially, is that drift-fishing is the dominant boat-fishing method. It’s simple, quick, easy on the back and often effective, but there’s a great deal more to it than pulling the boat out of gear, coasting to a stop and sending a few gobs of bait brineward.

As with any fishing method, drifting results improve with forethought, intimate knowledge of bottom structures and their spatial orientation, and a thorough understanding of current influences affecting that bottom. The more pieces of the puzzle you can fill in, the more precisely you can present bait or lures to fish. That’s the theory, at any rate.

Mother Nature is the reason the equation is almost never quite that linear or predictable. If you’ve ever tried to duplicate the exact drift track that put a pile of good fish on deck by running back up to the original starting point, you know that prediction in drift fishing is closer to voodoo than to physics. Winds shift, come on and drop out; tides accelerate and decelerate, slack and turn. Fluctuations in these two larger forces in turn amplify or negate the effects of other, lesser influences — a tidal river outflow or a back eddy off a shoreline point, for example. Tide’s a-wasting. Always.

Push and pull

Understanding the way various wind and sea conditions interact with tidal current in key fishing areas is one of the more compelling reasons to maintain detailed logbooks, which can show you all kinds of patterns in both drift conditions and fish behavior over the course of a few seasons. A complete understanding of conditions and the big-picture movements of water affecting spots you fish can help you eliminate areas where you’ll struggle to get movement on the drift, or where odds are good you’ll take a beating as a strong breeze runs headlong into a boiling moon tide, seas building and troughs closing up — a saltwater washing machine in the making. When you’re in search mode between dependable shots of fish, eliminating probable duds is as helpful as identifying areas likely to offer ideal drift conditions.

Regardless of fishing implications, cross-referencing marine forecasts with tide tables or current charts in your GPS/plotter or a current copy of the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book is a good habit to pick up. Better still, take your findings from the former exercise and compare notes with recent buoy reports — a quick way to debunk many a botched forecast.

Force a quick decision

For the uninitiated, drift fishing is all about movement over ground. In the majority of situations, fish will line up on the down-tide side of high ground, facing the current, for ambush purposes as well as to conserve energy. Accordingly, the best drift scenario will be when the tide is strong enough to push the boat along at a good clip in a relatively straight line. At the micro level, the idea is to cover the maximum amount of ground, with baits moving along the seabed fast enough to force target fish into a quick decision — a slow-moving bait gives fish time to pick out anything suspicious.

Unfortunately, the windless night with plus-tides is a rare bird in the Northeast. Wind-against-tide is one of drift-fishing’s foremost hobgoblins — a breeze fending you off as the tide tries to carry you along. Weak tides are another cost of doing business adrift. On the quarters of the moon — the minus tides — a moderate breeze running with the tide can create choice drift conditions.

Of course, if you expect to put in a reasonable number of fishing days per season, you’ll find yourself waiting for one force or the other — wind or tide — to get moving or to prevail, giving you some movement, letting you showcase some baits to fish over a decent area.

Once you start to get a clear picture of your grounds and the forces that affect them, you can begin to put a finer point on your overall drift strategy. One worthy undertaking over time is to establish some productive drifts — starting and end points to avoid wasting time over dead bottom — and commit these to memory. Depending on the species you target, you’ll find that certain bottom fishes best under specific drift conditions.

Get the lay of the land

In fluke fishing, for example, fish typically bunch up along slopes and pick off goodies swept overhead by current. Some of my best drifts are those where I can drift parallel to — right over — the face of sharp, longshore drop-offs, so baits stay in the immediate concentrations of fluke for most of each long pass. However, the conditions that underwrite these long, lazy drifts are quite specific; more often than not, the natural drift angle is deep-to-shallow, the boat running quickly up the hill and then across a wide, nondescript shelf area that seldom gives up anything of substance.

The name of the game in drift fishing is to maximize the amount of time your baits spend in front of feeding fish to minimize wasted tide. When the drift is uphill, I’ll hit the place with very short, precise passes, working east or west along the slope with each successive pass to cover fresh ground. The trick, especially when the tide’s hauling and you’re fishing micro-drifts, is to be sure you set in far enough ahead of the “zone” that your bait will have reached bottom before it swings into striking range.

Play lags, dodge slack

Naturally, another goal over seasons is to scout out numerous spots within your range that fish best under an array of drift angles and conditions — leeward spots that salvage otherwise snotty days, spots affected by various tidal influences to give you some choices in the timing department. Speaking of, it’s critical to pay close attention to tide “lags” within your fishing range and keep an eye open for any current cheats, where you can steal a little drift while the rest of the fleet is riding out an interminable slack. When you really master the drifting racket, you may discover you can fish two full tides without having to drop a single bait into still water.

In the end, your drifting success will reflect the energy you invest in the undertaking. If the ground floor is coasting randomly to a standstill and riding the brine wherever it’s headed, the high-water mark is a matter of containing slack tides, drifting prime bottom precisely and planning smart to avoid unnecessary downtime. You’ll be surprised just how much an eye for this unnecessary downtime will show in your catches a year or two down the line.

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