How to Drift Fish

two men drift fishing from a boat

Drift fishing is a common and versatile fishing method used for fresh and saltwater fishing. It involves fishing from slow moving boat to drag or “drift” a weighted bait through the water. Drift fishing relies on the current or wind to propel a boat through the water. As the boat moves through the water, the angler can drag baits behind the boat at various depths. From rainbow trout to sailfish, drift fishing is an effective technique for catching multiple fish species with minimal effort and tackle.

A major advantage of drift fishing, and what makes it so effective for so many different kinds of fish, is coverage. By keeping your boat in motion instead of anchored, your bait travels through a much larger range of water and has much better chances of encountering a hungry fish.

A drift fishing rig can be customized to any depth. Use a weight to sink the bait lower in the water, or a bobber or popping cork to lift it up. Natural bait is preferred by most anglers for drifting, but in a pinch artificial lures will work too.

In saltwater, drift fishing can be used nearshore to land amberjack, dolphin, redfish, and king mackerel. Offshore, in deeper water, it will also capture tuna, wahoo and swordfish.

Catfish and crappie are two kinds of freshwater fish that are often caught by drift fishing. Lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers are all good spots to use this method, and in many places it can be done year-round.

Drift Fishing Basics

There are two basic elements to drift fishing: (1) Setting your drift and (2) Deploying your tackle. And because the boat is constantly in motion, always make sure to pay attention to potential hazards on the horizon.

Setting your Drift

The first step in drift fishing called setting your drift. Setting your drift involves drawing an imaginary line in your head to predict the boat’s drift course from the winds or currents. Setting a good drift is extremely important when drift fishing over structures or near hazardous shorelines that can jeopardize your safety. It’s good practice to keep the motor idling when fishing around hazards just in case you need evasive movements.

Controlling the rate of your drift is just as important as the direction of the drift itself; if you find yourself moving too quickly through the water, a drift sock can help. A drift sock is a parachute that drags in the water behind the boat, drastically slowing or increasing the drift rate. Use a drift sock in windy conditions to slow the rate of drift, or in current to increase the drift rate. A drift sock can be invaluable when fishing on days when the wind and current move in opposing directions.

An alternative method to slow drift in high-current conditions is deploying a rounded drift anchor to drag across the bottom. This anchor is unlikely to catch on a structure or bottom formations. However, if it does, be aware that it could jerk you drastically if it gets caught on something while you are in motion. A much safer option for slowing down a drift is using a trolling motor or your main motor to idle into the current slowly.

Deploying Your Tackle

A drift fishing rig can be customized to any depth or environment. Live bait is preferred by saltwater anglers fishing over reefs and other structures, while cut bait and dead-baits are great for dragging across the bottom for catfish and trout in freshwater. Artificial lures can be dragged across the bottom. However, they’re better-used for casting toward a shoreline or structure. Casting lures while drifting allows you target a new area with every cast.

When drift fishing over a structure, set your drift using a buffer of about a hundred yards upstream or up current of the structure, and then begin arranging your tackle. This buffer should allow you enough time to set a few rods and get your line deep enough so that the baits are presented near the structure at just the right time.

Drift Fishing Methods

When drift fishing, there are three ways you can present your bait: On the surface, Sub-surface, or bottom bouncing.

  • On the surface: this method involves using a bobber/cork/balloon or some other flotation device to keep your bait from sinking past a certain depth. This method is commonly used in shallow rivers and coastal tidal areas. It is a fantastic method for targeting predatory species such as brown trout, steelhead, pike, muskie, bass, jacks, tarpon, snook, mackerel, and redfish when paired with the live bait of your choice.
  • Sub-surface: This method involves using a small amount of weight on the bait to keep it dragging behind the boat at a desired depth. This method is commonly used in offshore saltwater fishing for targeting pelagic species such as mackerel, tuna, sailfish, and mahi-mahi when paired with live or dead baits.
  • Bottom bouncing: This method involves using enough weight to get the lure to the bottom of the water and gently bouncing the weight and bait off the bottom. Bottom bouncing is a great method to catch catfish in lakes and rivers or groupers, snappers, and redfish when fishing in saltwater.

Note: When fishing near the bottom or around structure, use rounded egg weights to avoid hang-ups with the structure or bottom.

Drift Fishing Tackle

Any combination of rod and reel can be used for drift fishing. However, planning and knowing where and what you will be angling for will drastically narrow down your choices.

Inshore Saltwater and Freshwater Tackle: Inshore saltwater species and freshwater species typically use similar tackle to fight fish. Spinning tackle ranging from 3000-6000 size reels are perfect and can handle most species paired with a medium to medium-heavy action rod. If you are fishing light for crappie, trout, or pinfish, size your reel and rod accordingly.

Offshore Saltwater: Here is where things get interesting, offshore drift saltwater species are as varied as the paint hues on the Sistine Chapel’s roof. Spinning reel sizes 6000 and up with ample line capacities are a requirement paired with medium-heavy to heavy spinning rods. Similarly sized conventional lever wind tackle should be deployed when fishing in deep water or over structures that require more leverage.

Drift Fishing Tips and Reminders

  • Use a cork or bobber to bring your live bait or artificial lure to a higher depth.
  • Remember to keep your boat in motion since this makes drift fishing different from bottom fishing.
  • Use rounded weights and anchors to prevent hang-ups
  • A drift sock is crucial in drift fishing, acting as an underwater parachute to control the drift direction of your boat.
  • Know your target fish, and choose the right rod, reel, and tackle to handle it.
  • Assess conditions beforehand and set a safe drift away from hazards.