How to Drift, Control, and Position Your Fishing Boat

Learn how to set a proper drift, operate a trolling motor to control drift speed, and basic boat fishing etiquette.

Fishing Drone Photo

Boat control is critical to consistently catching fish. You can be the best angler in the world, but if you are unable to put your boat where the fish are, you are going to struggle.

Once you have identified where you want to fish, whether it is a piece of structure you located on your chartplotter, a school of fish actively feeding on the surface, or fish you marked with sonar, you must decide how to position your boat to give the anglers on board the best shot at catching. Most of the time, unless the situation calls for anchoring or trolling that means setting up a productive drift.

Setting a Boat Drift

Drifting is allowing the wind and current to move the boat while actively fishing. Setting up a drift requires recognizing the wind and current direction and strength, positioning the boat up-drift of the intended area, and either turning off the engines or shifting into neutral. If you are dropping baits toward the bottom, you must start your drift with enough distance so your baits will descend into the strike zone by the time you drift over your mark.

Set a boat drift
  • Top Left: With no wind, simply cut the engines, or leave them in neutral to slide along the drop-off.
  • Top Right: With the current and wind both heading in the same direction, periodically bump the engines in gear to slow the drift.
  • Bottom Left: If the wind is working against the current, you will need to periodically bump the boat into reverse.
  • Bottom Right: In this crosswind scenario, a trolling motor is an ideal way to hold a steady drift.
  • Tip: When fishing live bait on the bottom and simultaneously drifting a channel edge or drop-off, it’s important to have your boat drifting at the same speed as the current.

To start an accurate drift, bring the boat to a complete stop by pointing the bow into the current (or wind), or by placing the engine in reverse until there is no forward momentum. Make sure your chartplotter is recording a track or trail so you can see the exact path your boat travels during the drift. Once you begin to drift, watch the vector line extending from your boat icon on the chartplotter to determine if you are on track to drift over the target. If your first attempt is off the mark, you can adjust your starting point for the second drift, assuming that your drift will be roughly parallel to the first track.

Fishing a Blitz

When casting to fish feeding on the surface, it is important to position your boat ahead of the fish so that you maximize your chances without spooking the fish. Before approaching the school of fish, try to determine if the fish are moving in one direction and note the direction of your drift. Fish tend to move into the wind, so most of the time you will want to position your boat upwind of the school of fish. If you are up-drift of the school of fish, you can stop farther away since you will be casting with the wind and able to reach them. After you have drifted below the school of fish, give them a wide berth when motoring above the fish for another drift. Also, remember that what you see on the surface is often only the tip of the iceberg. When approaching feeing fish, I will keep an eye on my sonar and side-imaging to locate fish that aren’t visible on the surface.

Using a Trolling Motor to Control Drift Speed

Using a trolling motor has completely changed the way I fish in saltwater. Without it, I was at the mercy of the wind and current. With it, I have complete control over how I want to drift and at what speed.

Autopilot

With the autopilot feature, I can choose a heading and stay on it just by pointing the motor head in the direction I want to travel and hitting the autopilot button. My boat will stay on the course I select while the motor corrects for wind, waves, and current. I often use this when there is a strong wind in the same direction as the current. I can eliminate the effect of the wind pushing the boat and keep the boat drifting at the same speed as the current. If you do not have a trolling motor, you can bump your outboard in and out of gear to slow your drift.

Spot-Lock

With Spot-Lock GPS anchoring, I can completely negate the effects of wind and current and hold the boat in position with the push of a button. There are many times when fishing from a stationary position will be more productive. For example, when casting a jighead and soft-plastic bait, I will cast it across current, allowing it to swing naturally with the current. It also allows me to quickly switch my technique without setting an anchor. For example, if drifting live bait is not working but there are fish in the area, I can set Spot-Lock in an instant and switch to fishing cut bait.

I can also use the cruise control feature to set a trolling path and speed that will remain constant regardless of wind and current. I can even create, store, retrace, and return to my most productive trolling paths.

Spot-Lock Jog 

The other advantage to the trolling motor is you can stay on a channel edge and control your boat in the wind, drifters have no control when drifting in or around the channels. With the jog feature it allows you to adjust your boat at the press of a button and move if debris or another boat not paying attention drifts down on you.

Boat Fishing Etiquette

If you are fishing a popular area and there are other boats around, practicing proper etiquette allows everyone to fish together successfully without conflict. The basic rule of etiquette is not to do anything that disrupts other fishermen who are already actively fishing an area. For example, it is not a good idea to set a drift that will carry you into a fleet of anchored boats. Similarly, it is not a good idea to set anchor down-drift of a fleet of drifting boats, effectively blocking their path.

Leapfrog Drifting

Once your boat is drifting with the wind and current, use the heading line (green) extending from the boat icon (center) to see your projected drift. If it shows you are going to miss your target, reposition the boat and restart your drift.On most well-known reefs and shoals, you will rarely be fishing alone. The most common way to fish these spots for fish like striped bass is by drifting and vertically presenting lures and live baits. The proper etiquette in this scenario is like a game of leapfrog. If there is another boat on the reef, you should start your drift up current of them after passing them with ample berth. By the time you are on the hot spot of the reef, the other boat will have drifted off and it will be their turn to start up-drift of you. If everyone follows this pattern, no one will ever be too close.

Marine Electronics Screen Grab
Once your boat is drifting with the wind and current, use the heading line (green) extending from the boat icon (center) to see your projected drift. If it shows you are going to miss your target, reposition the boat and restart your drift.

Short-Drifting

Avoid short-drifting other boats on a reef. Short drifting is when you make short runs up current and cut into the line, starting your drift down current of another boat. Also, try not to start your drift directly next to another boat; allow plenty of space so you can avoid tangled lines and have plenty of room to fight fish.

Charter Trip Striped Bass
Striped bass often feed more actively at night. Understanding and trusting your electronics will make you more comfortable in the dark.

On the reefs, you will also often see larger boats trolling. Be mindful that these boats typically have long lines stretching behind their boats, especially if they are trolling with wireline. If you are making long drifts, leaving plenty of space between your boat and the next boat down-current, there should be plenty of room for a trolling boat to make a pass.

When Not to Drift

I have a trick I use to let me know when to drift, when to anchor, and when to troll: I listen to the fish and let them tell me what they want. For example, if I am drifting live bait for stripers and I know fish are in the area, but they are not striking, then I know I need to change up my presentation. This can mean slow-trolling live bait or anchoring and fishing cut bait. You’ll find that in different situations there are techniques that will produce best from a stationary boat and others that work best when drifting. It’s all part of the fun of fishing and being the captain of your ship!

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1 thought on “How to Drift, Control, and Position Your Fishing Boat

  1. MC

    Otw, you should really look into who u have writing this article… I’ve never met him spoke to him or fished with him.. but I did have him run right thru a area we had 3 boats repeatedly drifting and slamming big bass in june in the CTR, all working together playing nice, when mike pulled in late, set up spot lock in the middle of the drift and proceeded to shut down the area… being with a better captain we moved to a new area and proceeded to start catching again… if captain mike would follow the etiquette hes preaching In this article, quite frankly hed catch more fish, have better reviews, n wouldn’t have to right articles to get his name out in the light..Conducting business in the nature he describes in the article would go a long way for Capt mike.

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