Drift Fishing – The Pymatuning Drift
Story & Photos by Darl Black
Within any specific geographic region, anglers often popularize a lure or style of presentation for which a lake becomes known. Such is the case on 82-year old Pymatuning Lake in northwestern Pennsylvania where the headline technique is “drift fishing” during much of the year for several major species including walleyes, catfish and crappies.
The 17,088-acre impoundment on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border was dedicated in 1934. Built primarily for flood control, by the 1950s Pymatuning Lake had transformed into a renowned fishery for warmwater species. Today, Pymatuning remains a mecca for anglers seeking crappies, walleyes, bluegills, bass and muskies.
Pymatuning is a relatively shallow, wide open lake. Lacking large bays or creek arm fingers, anglers often find themselves at the mercy of winds from any direction.
Although the largest inland lake in Pennsylvania, the two controlling state authorities ironically maintained a 10 horsepower maximum for boats on Pymatuning – until 2008 when legislation passed by both OH and PA increased the permitted horsepower limit all the way to 20 HP. This isn’t a lake where you move around quickly by boat!
Horsepower restrictions, relatively shallow water throughout the lake, large flats with uniform depth and no fish-finding sonar during those early days, probably triggered the popularity of drift fishing. Rather than putt-putting along from spot to spot, anglers began drifting…simply drop the bait over the side and let the breeze be your propulsion.
Drift-fishing remains popular today because this style of presentation gives the casual angler the opportunity to catch a few fish while relaxing with friends in a rocking boat and enjoying a beverage under pleasant skies.
Rather than considering drift-fishing as solely a random presentation, proficient anglers seeking crappies can actually tweak this style of fishing to their advantage during the late summer and early fall. Instead of being pinned down to specific cover and depth during this time, crappies tend to roam – following young-of-year shad and alewife schools.
Crappies will hold temporarily on deep cribs or stump rows in a here-today, gone-tomorrow scenario. Not until late fall do crappie congregate heavily around cover again. Turns out drift fishing can be an effective presentation from mid-summer through October to catch gadabout crappies – especially in light of the PA Fish Commission and PA State Park’s deployment of man-made fish-attracting cribs dropped in somewhat of a straight line on flats.
Fortunately, technology has provided us with updated tools today that can enhance the “drift” technique.
Today’s down-scanning and side-scanning technology is such an improvement over traditional sonar that it is impossible to believe how much better it is until you’ve fished with the newer gear.
I run a moderately-priced Garmin GPSMAP 7608xsv (8-inch display) which provides the clearest images I’ve ever seen; sharp enough to identify – with practice – crappie schools versus other species. Coupled with built-in Lake Vu HD maps, I can mark a string of man-made cribs on a flat, or a series of rises/humps as waypoints. Then run back to the start of the track, set out lines according to observed depth of fish and baitfish, and begin a drift.
When crappies are roaming the area rather than holding tight to the cover, drifting is a wise option. The electric motor trolling motor (either bow-mounted or transom-mounted) is used to make course corrections to hit each waypoint. Should crappies be observed on a particular crib, stump or brushpile, use the trolling motor to slowly circle that cover several times before moving on.
Rather than leaning the rod against the gunwale, quality rod holders are needed. My Driftmaster Rod Holders ensure a rod/reel combo does not disappear should a large musky or catfish grab the bait – or when a guest angler inadvertently bumps an unsecured rod sending it over the side.
With a bit of practice, you can remove a rod from a Driftmaster quicker than any other locked-down rod holder. Use a two-hand grab, placing one hand on the rod blank in front of the handle and the other on the butt of the handle; lift the rod upward with the first hand while moving the butt downward and to the left with the second hand.
Rods, Reels & Riggings
Utilizing the proper rod goes a long way to increasing catch numbers. The B’n’M side-pulling rod named “The Difference” (designed by Roger Gant) is the perfect drift rod for pulling jigs; it telegraphs the slightest bite.
B’n’M ProStaff Spinning reels are spooled with 10-pound braid with a six-foot monofilament leader. Two jigs are attached to each line. Depending on the strength of the breeze, the anchor jig will be either a 1/8 or 1/4-ounce Road Runner head with a Bobby Garland Slab Slay’R. Three feet above the anchor jig is a 1/16-ounce Crappie Pro Mo’Glo head with a Garland Baby Shad Swim’R body.
I also carry a couple slightly stiffer Buck’s Ultimate 8-foot rods with slip floats so I can set a jig at the exact level of shallow baitfish schools observed on the sonar. Floats are particularly useful on near calm days when baitfish schools are riding within a few feet of the surface. The preferred jig is a Garland Baby Shad or a hand-tied white hair jig.
Being prepared for calm days also means you must also be prepared for breezy days when your boat may move too quickly along its drift course. That’s when you break out a drift sock. I carry two different sizes.
In a moderate breeze, it’s the bow of my aluminum boat that wants to move faster than the heavier stern of the boat. A small drift sock tied off the bow may be all that is needed to slow the drift. Of course somedays the wind and waves may simply be too much even for any drift sock. Then it is time for an alternative plan – like looking for the nearest café for an early lunch!
Right now on moderately shallow northern reservoirs, crappies are in transition moving from open water towards late fall and winter locations. Drifting jigs will continue to work until the water temperature drops into the lower 50s. Go Fish…Now!