Try Drift Fishing, It's the Only Way to Go on Saltwater.

News & Tips: Try Drift Fishing, It's the Only Way to Go on Saltwater....

Some days, drift fishing is the only way to go on saltwater. Especially when kite-fishing surface baits offshore, or deep-dropping baits as far as 900 feet, or back inshore, covering extensive shallow grass bottoms in Florida or South Texas. All three techniques critically depend on drifting in the boat. The wind is free and it’s nice to save on fuel during the day. And the technique is simple enough, with refinements.

shop saltwater gear banner2Controlling Your Drift

The most important factor is controlling your drift. Ideally, the boat drifts perpendicular to the wind, so that anglers from bow to stern have elbow room for casting at new water—or dropping baits deep. This can be done by shutting off the motor and leaving it turned hard to port or starboard. The boat should respond and turn sideways to the wind. Perhaps not a perfect 90 degrees, but fairly close. Each boat has different drift characteristics, however.

So far, so good. But if the wind is brisk, the boat may scoot along, depending on how much upper structure, such as a t-top, acts as a sail. Numerous anglers in the boat will also catch more wind. Too much drift speed can then blow a boat right through a choice area or “strike zone” before it can be fished thoroughly.  

When that happens, it’s a good time to pull out the drift control with that wind sock, drift sock, drift anchor or parachute that everybody has a different name for. Mine is four-sided and at least 36 inches across, traps a lot of water, and during a fast drift, when it inflates, will brake the boat rapidly. It has a floatation collar on the top and is simple to use. There is no collapse-line attached for retrieval; I simply drift sock diagrampull in the six foot cord slowly, dump the water, and lay it on deck before we move to the next spot. With it’s inflated in the water, three experienced casters can really work over an area with lures, even in a 12-15 knot wind. I get maximum benefit from the ‘chute because I’ve mounted an inexpensive dock cleat exactly amidships. Which side? Port or starboard doesn’t matter; either pick one, or mount cleats on both sides so you won’t ever have to swing the boat around for a parachute drop, when starting a drift.

Drift Fishing in Deeper Bays

Even on the deeper bays in Texas, drift fishing is highly popular. That where oyster reefs proliferate (when they’re not being commercially dredged), usually in depths of 10 feet or so. A finite reef has to be approached by boat from upwind and a drift set up. Preferably a slow drift, so the crew can pelt the Parachute-1LRplace with sinking artificial baits—usually jigs with plastic tails. Texas can have windy spring and early summer weather for weeks at a time, and so a drift anchor is highly advisable there. It’s up to the captain to decide; an early morning light breeze may be ideal without the drift anchor. Remember that courteous anglers finish their drift and motor slowly back in a half circle, so as not to run over the reef itself. They refrain from making excess noise with the outboard motor, because it will shut down the bite.   

In the deeper bays, with surface-feeding fish such as trout, redfish and ladyfish, (often marked by diving seagulls), try to judge which direction the school of fish is moving, and use the wind for an intercept. The trick is to drift within range without spooking the fish. Refrain from running up to the fish with an outboard motor, just to get in that first cast. The noise will send the fish deep and the action will be over. A quiet electric trolling motor can certainly help set up an effective drift.

offshore angler fishing tackleFishing Florida's Coastal Bend

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years drift-drifting along Florida’s Coastal Bend, which has perhaps the most extensive grass bottoms in America. Miles and miles of clear water and thick underwater grass meadows, with a good variety of fish scattered far and wide. The only conceivable way to catch them is by drifting, and on Saturdays, one can see dozens of other boats doing the same. Drifting all sorts of ways, too. When they finish their drift, veteran anglers idle slowly back upwind for another go. Or depart for greener pastures, so to speak. Rookies hit the throttle and may run right over productive bottom, invariably spooking fish in what averages out to about six feet of water. The really indecisive captains may actually zigzag through the fleet, uncertain where to stop.

Sea Trout-2LR

As a kid 50 years ago on my first boat trip, we drift-fished in far South Florida, catching some very nice seatrout. We didn’t have GPS of course, or even use a simple jug for a buoy, instead my great uncle judged trees on a distant shoreline before starting our drift. We didn’t drift aimlessly; he’d been there many times and knew the lay of the land. And which way to set up a drift according to the prevailing breeze that day. We slung popcorks with cut bait underneath, and also Mirrolures—just like anglers now do a half-century later.   

Around Florida's Big Bend on the Gulf Coast, virtually all of the smaller boats leaving port intend to drift-fish. Few pushpoles are seen for really thin water; boaters simply depend on the wind to cover ground. I keep a push pole on the boat for many reasons, and one of them is to dislodge my drift anchor if it becomes hung up on natural limestone rock in depths of four feet or so. Otherwise, the parachute could be torn or lost.  

We've caught up to 12 species of fish in a single day, sometimes using boats as small as 15 feet. That’s a lot of variety and action in small, affordable boats. We don’t use much gas either, because we might see action during a long drift of up to a mile, which can take hours. The local crowd’s favorite is seatrout, but a great many fish species utilize these grass meadows.

Fishing Lures for Floating Grass & Thick Grass Bottom

johnson sprite spoon lure
Johnson The Original Sprite Spoon

Some great fishing lures are Johnson Sprite gold spoons, Rapala X-rap jerkbaits and various soft plastics. Ideally, each lure runs between dead floating grass and the thick grass bottom without fouling the hooks. The overall local favorite is a cork with soft plastic suspended underneath, not quite as sporty as slinging lures. By far the most popular tackle is spin gear with 10- or 12-pound line. That’s gear that will cast a long ways without a backlash and get the sportiest fight out of seatrout.

Rules & Drift Fishing Etiquette

There are unspoken rules when drift fishing. Try not to anchor and block the rhythm of surrounding, drifting boats. Anchoring limits one to a small circle within casting range. The fish are widely scattered and drift fishing is all about covering ground without getting in another boat’s way.

Try to avoid motoring up or down another boat’s drift, disturbing the water with motor prop-wash. In water depths of only four to 10 feet, gamefish won’t tolerate the disturbance—it can shut down the bite. It’s best to try water that hasn’t been disturbed by outboard motors, reaching fish that haven’t seen a lure or bait.   

Determine drift direction and ease around upwind or off to the side of other drifting boats. It’s best to circle around upwind and begin your drift. And be patient; don’t make a few casts and speed off. If you drift over a productive stretch, you could limit out on trout fairly quickly.

Joe Richard runs several charter fishing vessels and also manages, a collection of several thousand fishing images taken during his 40 years of exploring the Gulf.