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Drift fishing revisited.

Want to score mixed-bag action but don't know where to start? Let wind and tide be your guide.

While fishing Florida's Big Bend on the Gulf Coast recently, I was reminded of the advantages offered by drift fishing, a tactic sometimes forgotten with today's high-tech and go-fast mentality. In this part of the state, described by marine biologists as "one of the most extensive sea grass bottoms in North America," the fish are scattered far and wide over good cover and habitat and drifting is the only way to reach them. And the crowd knows it.

Anglers who drift fish can fire away all day without getting wet or walking even a few steps. Soft bottom, deep water, and saltwater hazards like stingrays or oyster reefs are passed right over while covering lots of ground. The power of the wind and currents is free and provides great mobility while searching for fish. A repeat drift over a hot bite is easily accomplished by idling back upwind for a repeat.

I first learned about drift fishing as a youngster in 1965, in Rankin "lake" out of Flamingo. Back then (and often the only boat out there), my great uncle would line up a distant tree or point, cut the motor, and we'd make our initial drift in his favorite area, throwing pop-corks with strips of pinfish or ladyfish as cut bait, along with MirrOlures. We always seemed to catch a dozen or so nice trout before moving on to something else.

Decades later and in a somewhat higher latitude, seatrout is also the main attraction in Florida's Big Bend region, where I guide these days. Anglers from Georgia and even guides from other parts of Florida are impressed and envious to see the rich grass bottoms stretching to the horizon for miles. Avoid Saturday mornings, and one can enjoy miles of open water with little to no company--and limits of trout. Granted, many are undersized, because young seatrout, well camouflaged against the mottled, grassy bottom, grow up in these waters, but plenty of legal trout, 15 inches and bigger are also caught along with a host of other fish. Our record here is 12 species in one day, while using lures.

We typically sling gold spoons, soft plastic baits and jerkbait plugs that swim at mid-depth. Even topwater MirrOlures, if the floating grass is light that day. Most boats use a rattle cork with plastic shrimp underneath. On typical days, we have floating grass above and a thick bottom carpet below, requiring lures that swim between the two layers. Standard gear is spin tackle with 10- or 12-pound line.

There's no need to horse a fish or worry about sharp structure here. Sharp teeth can be an issue however and a short 20or 25-pound mono leader normally takes care of that. If mackerel are prominent, 40-pound leader is a better idea. We have had great trips drifting for Spanish mackerel, especially during autumn. Recently, a guest in my boat pulled in the biggest Spanish I've ever seen; it looked like a king but had the telltale black dorsal fin of a Spanish--8 or 9 pounds, by the look of him. Lost at the side of the boat. Our record for mackerel was caught only two miles away, a nice fish weighing exactly six pounds.

Controlling the Drift

This slow fishing technique offers plenty of time to study other boats and their preferred drifting techniques. On a recent scouting trip with Miss Amy, we noticed every boat on the horizon had a different drift rate; some sailed along willy-nilly, bow pointed down-wind, the anglers casting over each other to reach new water. Guide boats, usually big Carolina Skiffs in this region, drift more sedately and were always perpendicular to the wind, allowing each angler an equal shot at reaching new water on every cast. From a distance, you couldn't tell if any were using a drift sock (also called a parachute or sea anchor), but judging by their perfect angle to the wind and their slow rate of speed, they must have been. Leaving the motor turned hard over while drifting also works, but not as well as a drift parachute.

Traditionally used to stabilize a boat in rough conditions, some clever angler eventually figured out they can also be effective at slowing a boat's drift for fishing purposes, keeping one in the strike zone for a longer period. After rediscovering it ourselves this spring, we never leave home without it when fishing the coast. Granted, it does require more work, deploying and retrieving the 3-foot cone-shaped contraption every time we moved to set up another drift but it was well worth it, providing outstanding success with trout on artificials this past spring.

These days, drift parachutes come in all shapes and sizes and are rated according to boat size. Some old-timers still use a five-gallon plastic bucket with holes drilled in it, which is cumbersome but effective. Our parachute may be a little big for an aluminum boat, but it certainly slows us down fast and keeps the boat stable when broadside to the wind. However, beware of rocks that can snag the parachute. Quick work with a push-pole has saved ours on several occasions when fishing rocky bottom. An inexpensive 12foot wooden push-pole has proven to be another "must have" on our boat.

Being aware of the speed and/or intention of the drift is important as well. A fair wind will catch a T-top boat and scoot it along, while a topless boat will drift slower. Aluminum boats with light draft also scoot along.

A boat captain should have a clear idea of how their boat is drifting and which way the wind is coming from, and where it is going. Not everybody seems to know this. There is also tidal flow to consider, which can alter the drift by varying factors, depending on wind and tide velocity. No tide? You're going where the wind blows you. No wind? The tide controls your drift.

A fast drift, sans parachute (if there is wind and tide), is used as to locate fish. Once a productive area has been identified, switching to a slow drift allows one to really work the surrounding water with lures, covering a prime spot thoroughly. There's even time to change lures, before blowing past the sweet spot.

We use the parachute tied amidships providing noticeable braking action. In fact, if you're standing, be ready when it pops open in the water. With 15 or 20 gallons of seawater, a parachute can swing a boat completely sideways in a matter of seconds, shifting the deck beneath one's feet with a considerable tug. However, once the boat has positioned itself sideways to the wind, it's game time.

We generally don't cast upwind behind the boat's drift, assuming we may have spooked gamefish during our drift. One would think a big white parachute in the water would scare fish. But that's not always true; if we drift quietly for some time, we get occasional strikes from quality fish, including seatrout, big Spanish mackerel, and bluefish. We've even had big tarpon hit with a colossal tail-walking splash, gone before we could even turn around.

A simple marker buoy fashioned from a water bottle can mark the sweet spot, and repeat drifts set up on either side. If a marker bottle is a bad idea in a congested area, then a GPS plotter will do the job. The plotter is certainly easier to work with, on a choppy day or in limited visibility. Early last March, fog settled in at noon and we then had fast action in limited visibility, also catching our biggest trout of the year. However, relocating our buoy was hopeless, though we found it a month later.

I use a half-gallon jug color-painted, and it's amazing how hard that jug can be to find. Make a quarter mile drift with the vagaries of wind and tide, and you'd best pay attention which way the jug went. Or use a GPS to find it. The hazard here is that other boats may notice the jug and fish around it. After all, that jug was thrown for a reason not hard to guess. I had one irritable captain tell me a market buoy is an old-fashioned tool and too easily spotted by other boats. And, once several boats gang up on the spot, such activity attracts even more boats likes flies to a picnic, and that stretch of water can take a serious beating.


Like most public interactions, there are unspoken rules when drift fishing:

If everyone else is doing the same, try not to anchor and block the rhythm and traffic; anchoring will limit you to a small circle within casting range. Often the fish can be stretched out for a half-mile or more, and drift fishing is all about covering ground without getting in another boat's way.

Worse still is motoring up or down another boat's drift, disturbing the water with propwash.

We're talking about water depths of only four to 10 feet on average, and gamefish won't tolerate the disturbance--they shut down or move.

Determine drift direction and ease around upwind or off to the side of other drifting boats. Don't zigzag through the fleet at high speed, looking indecisive. If s far better to circle around upwind of everybody and begin your drift. And be patient; don't make a few casts and speed off. If you hit a productive stretch, you could limit out fairly quickly. I had one boat (from out of state) drive straight up my projected drift and stop 40 yards away. Not only did it cut off our drift, but the other boat began drifting straight back down its own propwash through disturbed water. The same boat later stopped 40 yards straight upwind, following us exactly down the same strip of water we'd just covered with lures.

Another time, the only boat on a calm horizon idled up and stopped a shocking 25 yards away, within easy conversation range, right on our projected drift. We were set up to drift along a shallow sandbar dropoff. The two anglers pretended they never saw us. Oddly enough, less than a minute later and before we drifted a few yards, Amy had a wallowing strike and nailed a 20-inch trout with a Rapala X-Rap. As I took photos, there were furtive glances from the other boat. Well, johnboats don't get much respect. Some are even followed by bigger boats. Maybe we look like salty veterans, old guys with a johnboat out there with drift anchor, firing lures at grassy bottom downwind.

Caption: Collapsible drift anchor deployed amidship slows the writer's boat and keeps it perpendicular to the breeze, allowing one angler to cast at the bow, another at the stern.

Caption: Gulf flounder, above, and spotted seatrout, top, are two species which commonly spread out over wide areas on coastal bays and grassflats. Drifting baits while casting jigs or plugs is a great way to locate them.

Caption: Even when not called into service for push-poling, a platform makes a fine spotting perch while drift-fishing.

Caption: What may appear to be a uniform field of seagrass often yields scattered holes and trenches, where redfish like this are apt to post up. A topwater lure brought this one to the boat.

Caption: Stake pole along starboard gunnel will come in handy for temporarily halting the drift on a hot spot.
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Author:Richard, Joe
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Sep 30, 2017
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