Long before we had side-scanning sonar, high-tech global positioning units and modern bow-mount trolling motors, structure fishing was largely a guessing game. It consisted primarily of exploring what was visible to the naked eye or using a system of shore marks to triangulate a particular area or element. And although there were anglers who consistently put big catches in their boats, there were just as many who drifted aimlessly hoping to hook up. Drift-fishing remains one of the most productive ways to target a variety of species, especially during the spring months when the fish are active, hungry and frequent visitors to shallow water. It’s one of the simplest, yet deadliest methods of fishing. The difference is that today’s anglers are better equipped to fish efficiently and effectively while using the same basic strategies as our grandparents. There are virtually no limits to what can be done while drifting whether the location is a local river or a body of water the size of the Great Lakes.
Pick your presentation – jigs, rigs, bobbers or cranks – and there’s away to make it work with the tools we have at our disposal today. And one of the best things about drift fishing is that you can do it effectively from an innertube, canoe or kayak to a pontoon, flat-bottom or a larger boat. The fundamentals of drift-fishing begin with location. It’s all about structure this time of year, and that means wind-blown shorelines, breaklines, weed edges, reefs, rockpiles or humps on our lakes and reservoirs. The wind is an important factor because is stirs up the shallow water and makes it easy for predator species like walleyes, pike and bass to feed. Choose structure or shorelines the wind is blowing into rather than away from, and if there isn’t much wind, target the areas it was most recently blowing into. In our river systems, drift-fishing typically means sandbars, current breaks, the tips of wingdams and defined breaklines.
Two of my favorite drifting presentations are jigging and rigging. It’s hard to beat a jig and minnow in May on many bodies of water. Choose a heavy enough jig to allow you to keep a 45-degree angle in your line. When you lower your rod tip toward the water, you should be able to feel your jig hit bottom. If not, let out more line or go to a heavier jig. Tip it with whatever the bait of choice is on a particular body of water. In some lakes and reservoirs, it might be shiners or chubs. In others, it might be fathead minnows or crawlers. One of the things I like most about jig fishing is the versatility it allows. Try a slow lift and drop presentation as you drift along. Try snapping your jig. If you have more than one angler in the boat, experiment until you find what works. The fish will usually tell you how they want it. Sudden changes to a fish’s environment may dictate approaches with more finesse. I’ve seen situations (usually in water shallower than 10 feet) where long-lining a lighter jig was the most productive. I’ve also seen situations where cold fronts or changes in water levels or clarity put walleyes in a negative mood where they would only respond to a jig dragging lifelessly along the bottom. That’s when changing to a stand-up style of jig head can also pay off. I put my rods in my Tempress rod holders and sit back.
There’s no hard and fast rule regarding hook sets. It depends on how fast your are drifting, but also on the mood of the fish. If I’m jigging at a 45-degree angle with a fairly heavy jig like a 3/8th or 1/2-ounce and a hit occurs on the drop, I usually set the hook immediately. If I’m long-lining or dragging, I usually let my rod tip back as far as I can toward the fish before driving the hook home.
Live-baiting is another presentation I enjoy. I like the hands-on qualities of feeling a bite, feeding line and setting the hook. Lindy-rigging is a tried and true method of fishing everything from minnow species to leeches and crawlers. My basic set-up consists of a Lindy No-Snagg sinker followed by a barrel swivel and a six-foot leader with a colored bait hook, although I’ll extend my leader length longer in especially clear water or when I’m not getting bit as often as I think I should with the shorter length.
If there is moss or vegetation beginning to grow on the bottom, Lindy’s floating jig heads will keep your bait clean and in the strike zone.
Hooksets can be a little tricker with live-bait rigs. I usually keep a finger on my line and the bail open so I can let the fish run when I feel a hit. It may take a few bites to determine when to set the hook. Every day is different. Sometimes, it’s as easy as reaching back as far as you can with your rod before reacting. I’ve also encountered situations where I’ve let fish go for 20 or 30 seconds.
As with any method of fishing where the angler has a rod in hand, the quality of your rod and your choice of line are important to detecting bites and landing fish. I like a 7-foot graphite Quantum rod equipped with a Zebco spinning reel spooled with Yo-Zuri Hybrid line that gives me just enough stretch forgiveness so I don’t rip the hook free when the wind is moving me along. Whether you are fishing jigs or rigs, I’m a firm believer in setting the hook with an up-stroke rather than a sideways, sweeping action. I want to do whatever I can to bury the point in the roof of a fish’s mouth. A horizontal hookset can result in pulling the bait out of the fish’s mouth or in a precarious lodging of the hook in the corner of an angry fish’s mouth where it can easily rip free.
While jigging and rigging are the two most common methods of drift-fishing, it’s also possible to fish crankbaits and spinner rigs. During my walleye fishing experiences, I’ve had success using a slow-rolling crank like an Original Rapala or a spinner-and-crawler rig fished behind a bottom bouncer. I’ve also encountered numerous situations on the Great Lakes I’ve been on a trolling bite using Off-Shore planer boards when big, rolling waves have pushed me along fast enough to shut down my Mercury kicker or MinnKota bow-mount and be even more effective. Regardless of your presentation, your ability to repeat your drifts is critical to sustained success. That’s where my Humminbird sonar and GPS are invaluable.First, I can drop waypoints or icons at my starting point. Then, as I drift along a breakline, shoreline or piece of structure, I can pinpoint productive depths and repeat the pass by following my GPS trail or a line of waypoints. Without that precision, it’s easy to miss a target area by 30 or 40 feet and miss fish that might be holding tight to a transition on the bottom or a certain depth on a break.
Drift-fishing has been around forever, and for good reason. It’s simple and it works. And these days, anglers are more proficient at it than ever.Keep it in mind the next time you hit the water. When it comes to catching springtime fish, easy often does it.