Dead Drift Steelhead Fly Fishing

By Scott Richmond

The traditional fly-rod steelheading tactic is a wet-fly swing. In winter, when steelhead hug the bottom, most anglers use a sink-tip line and a weighted fly to reach the fish. A swinging fly does a good job of probing a wide swath of water in which a few fish may be scattered about. But it is not as effective on a small stream, or on a stream where the fish are lying alongside boulders and ledges, up against the bank, or resting in narrow troughs or depressions. Under those conditions--pocket water--a fly that is dead-drifted near the bottom is usually the best approach. Here's how to do it.

Making an Indicator Rig

A floating indicator is needed to support the fly, guide the drift, and telegraph bites. My favorite indicator material is braided polyester macrame cord. To make one, cut off 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches of material; the length depends on the weight of your fly. Use just enough to support the fly without sinking the indicator. Separate the braided strands. Fasten the strands to a 3-5 foot leader (0X or heavier) with a clinch knot around the middle; the leader should be connected to a floating line.

Just above the indicator, tie a length of 1X or 2X tippet directly to the heavy leader with a clinch knot; ideally, this leader should be about six inches longer than the depth of the water. Dress the indicator heavily with fly floatant.

In this system, the indicator keeps the fly at a consistent depth. The right angle joint between the two leader sections helps the fly sink more quickly and drift more naturally. The thin tippet helps the fly sink faster.


Cast upstream of where you think the steelhead are. After your cast, stack-mend line behind the indicator; this reduces drag and lets the fly sink faster. Treat the indicator like a dry fly, mending line so it has a natural drift. Manage your loose line so you can strike quickly when the indicator goes under; try to keep your flyline upstream from the indicator.

This tactic is superior in pocket water, slots, and on small streams. It also works well when you're fishing from a drifting boat; you just cast to the side and downstream from the boat, then let both fly and boat drift naturally in the current. Of course, you need someone to handle the oars who isn't fishing.

One drawback to this technique is that it isn't graceful. The yarn has so much wind resistance that it's a pig to cast and requires a slower, open-loop casting stroke; and you'll need to lower your expectations about distance casting. Also, this style of fishing is more intense because you spend all day staring at your indicator instead of looking around at the birds and trees. That's the price you pay for catching more steelhead.

Finding the Right Stuff

The most difficult part of this tactic is finding suitable macrame cord. Macrame was a popular craft in the 1960s, along with the Beatles and bell-bottom pants. You can still hear the Beatles, and bell-bottoms are making a comeback, but macrame has faded. That means it's hard to find the cord because craft shops have stopped stocking it.

Fly shops carry medium thicknesses in orange and yellow so fly tyers can tie MacSalmon salmonfly patterns, but a lighter color works better as an indicator. Some shops carry short lengths of thick white cord, which they sell for $1.50. I know anglers who swear by AquaFibers (distributed by McKenzie Fly-Tackle; available in some stores). Some stores also have pre-tied polypropylene indicators; I prefer to make my own because I can tailor it to just the right size.

Good sources of bulk macrarme cord in Oregon are the Ben Franklin craft stores (Michaels, another craft chain, doesn't carry it). An online source is For under ten dollars you can get 100 yards, which should keep you in indicators until you're 235 years old.

There are two reasons for using macrame cord: it's synthetic, so it won't absorb much water and will float longer; and it's braided, so the the fibers are kinky (right! just like the 60s!) and don't matt together, which helps trap air and keep the rig floating. Glo-Bug yarn is a poor substitue because the fibers are straight and clump together.

Some anglers use a corkie for an indicator. It casts more easily and is more macho because it doesn't look you're fishing with a powder puff. However, the macrame cord works better, perhaps because it makes less splash when it lands and is more responsive to subtle takes.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).