Drift Fishing, a Very Efficient Angling Technique!

Drift Fishing, a Very Efficient Angling Technique!

Drift fishing is an effective and efficient angling technique. It allows anglers in boats to cover a lot of water in search of fish. Drift fishing also keeps the lure or bait in the strike zone for a longer period of time.

drift fishing

Drift fishing can be done in boats of every size, from small canoes to large offshore fishing vessels. No matter what the size of the boat or the species being sought, the general approach and techniques apply.

Capt Jim Klopfer is a fishing charter captain Sarasota, Florida. He fishes in a variety of ways, but almost always employs some type of drift fishing on just about every one of his trips. It is a very effective fishing technique, especially in waters that do not have specific spots where fish hold.

red snapper fishing

Drift fishing and bottom fishing

The basic premise is to identify a spot that might hold fish. This can be submerged vegetation, rocky bottom, ledges, reefs, wrecks, and any structure, cover, or bottom that will attract game fish. Taking into account wind and current, the boat is placed upwind and up-current of the structure. Ideally, a spot is chosen where the wind and current are in the same direction, this will result in a good drift. Baits are lowered to the bottom and the boat drifts through the area.

walleye fishing in Michigan

This technique works best when fishing an area of decent size as opposed to a small, isolated piece of cover. Those smaller spots are best fished by anchoring or hovering over that spot as opposed to drifting through. Larger structure such as wrecks are artificial reefs can be tough to drift as anglers will almost certainly hang up on the structure.

Best rigs for bottom fishing

bottom fishing rigs


Bottom fishing rigs are pretty basic for the most part. The high/low or chicken rig works well. It uses multiple hooks at various levels and is bounced along the bottom as the boat drifts. Anglers can try several different baits at one time to see what is productive. This works very well on panfish in both fresh and salt waters.

yellowtail snapper fishing

Other bottom fishing rigs use a sinker with a leader and a hook. The sinker can be inline as with the Carolina or sliding sinker rig. 3 way rigs use a swivel. Freshwater anglers use nightcrawler harnesses for walleye and other species. Saltwater baits run the gamut, with fresh cut bait fish and squid being used most often. The sinker weight will depend on the depth and current. Too much weight will hang constantly while too little will cause the lines to drift too far behind the boat.

drift fishing with bottom bouncer

Bottom bouncers are clever devices mostly used by freshwater anglers. They can be used while drift fishing as well as slow trolling. The wire arm tends to walk over structure as opposed to hanging up. A leader is used on the other arm to a hook. This rig keeps the bait just above the bottom as the boat drifts along. It is very effective on walleye.

Drift fishing in rivers

trout fishing

Rivers are ideal places to employ drift fishing techniques. The current of the river will naturally move the boat along. Anglers can cover a lot of water and also fish spots that are not accessible from land. In small streams and rivers, portable fishing boats such as canoes, kayaks, jon boats, and rafts are great choices. A motor is often not required. Anglers fishing larger rivers use bigger boats, just as they would in lakes.

Floating a river

One of the most enjoyable ways to go drift fishing a small river or stream is to do a “float trip”. This involves an anglers putting a small boat in at a point upstream, then drifting a stretch and pulling the boat out down below. No motor is needed as the current does all the work. Two vehicles are usually used, though some outfitters provide this service.

snook fishing

Canoes, kayaks, jon boats, and rafts are all fine for doing float trips. Trout and smallmouth bass are the most common targets of anglers, but just about any species that resides in rivers can be caught. The beauty of this system is that anglers cast to likely spots as they drift along and can also stop and wade to thoroughly fish a good spot.

Read this article by Capt Jim on the best lures for streams and small rivers

Most anglers choose to use artificial lures or flies for this type of fishing. Lures allow anglers to cover more water while eliciting strikes from game fish. Spinners and spoons are great choices in waters that hold trout. Plugs and jigs work very well for bass. Angler who prefer live bait will do well using a whole nightcrawler hooked in the front and drifted through the pools.

trout fishing blue ridge

These floats are a staple of trout fishing guides throughout the country and beyond. They use oars to keep the boat in the ideal position while the angler casts to fish holding spots. This is a very efficient and effective method to thoroughly cover a lot of water. Most anglers fly fish, though spinning tackle can certainly be used where allowed.

Drift fishing in larger rivers

Drift fishing works very well in larger rivers. Anglers fishing for a variety of species including bass, walleye, trout, and salmon use the current to present lures and live baits to game fish. The main difference is the ability to use the outboard motor to run up-river and then drift back down. Once a productive area is found, anglers can drift it repeatedly.

bass fishing in Michigan

Live bait can be very effective when drift fishing in larger rivers. 3 way rigs are often used with a lighter line going to the sinker. That way when the sinker snags, the entire rig is not lost. Nightcrawlers, minnows, leeches, and cut bait are all effective. Trout and salmon anglers often drift egg sacks or single salmon eggs.

The top artificial lure for this type of fishing in a jig with a soft plastic bait attached. In most cases, a vertical presentation is used, especially in deeper water. The lure is jigged off the bottom as the boat drifts along. Some anglers add a minnow to get the best of both worlds.

Drift fishing flats

Sarasota fishing spots

Larger flats are great places to employ the drift fishing technique as well. This is something that Capt Jim does on many of his fishing charters. Large areas of submerged grass hold shrimp and bait fish, which in turn attracts game fish. As the boat drifts with the wind and tide, anglers cast lures out in front of the drifting boat. A jig with a soft plastic bait is the top choice.

Read this comprehensive article on flats fishing

A live bait can be free lined behind the boat or fished under a float. In Florida, live shrimp are the top bait and are available year round. Bait fish will also catch fish and often attract larger fish. On deeper flats where vegetation is not thick, anglers can fish a bait on a jig head.

Carolina game fish

This type of drift fishing will produce on large flats in both freshwater and saltwater environments. A little bit of wind is required, otherwise the boat will not move much. Angers fishing large flats in lakes with submerged vegetation do well casting jerkbaits. These cover a lot of water along with triggering strikes. They are ideal searchbaits.

Read this article by Capt Jim on jerkbait fishing

Live bait works well on flats that are at least 8 feet deep. The boat will usually spook fish in water shallower than that. Nightcrawlers and minnows can be free lined behind or bounced along the bottom on a jig head or on a bottom fishing rig.

Drift fishing passes and inlets

best pompano fishing lure

Inlets and passes (“pass” is just another term for inlet used on the Gulf Coast) are natural spots to use the drift fishing technique. These really are kind of “saltwater river”, with the exception being that the current is driven by the tides. That means that depending on the tide, the water flows in both directions.

One of the most effective drift fishing techniques in inlets is to drift along while bouncing a jig on the bottom. Each time the lure hits the bottom it kicks up a bit of sand. This realistically imitates a fleeing crab or shrimp. Heavy, compact jigs are used in order to get down in the current. This produces pompano, permit, bluefish, striped bass, flounder, Spanish mackerel, jacks, ladyfish, and more.

flounder fishing in Florida

Live and cut bait can certainly be used, particularly when the tidal flow eases up a bit as the tide changes. It can be difficult to fish when the current is very fast. Strips of fresh cut bait work well as does live shrimp, crabs, and bait fish.

In conclusion, this article on drift fishing will help anglers understand how to use the wind, current, and tide to help them catch more fish!

Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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