Get Your Drift On During The Off-Season

Published in the February 2018 Issue February 2019 Feature Captain Danny Lee

This off-season you might want to consider rigging your boat to go slower. You heard me right: instead of tweaking the fishing rig to net more speed, you should consider options for the opposite to net more fish. At least while trolling.

That’s because some popular Great Lakes game fish species, most notably walleyes, often prefer baits moving at speeds slower than most boats can proceed without their engine stalling. Go-slow power options include electric motors mounted on the transom or, preferably, on the bow or rigging a separate, smaller kicker motor, typically an outboard of 9.9 to 15 horsepower, on a transom bracket. But simpler, less expensive options exist.

I learned to slow my boat’s trolling and drifting speeds when fishing Great Lakes waters for walleye by dragging what were known as “pickle buckets.” I couldn’t afford a separate kicker or electric motor, so like many anglers whose primary outboard and sterndrive motors would stall at slow trolling speeds, I turned to the common five-gallon pails to serve as inexpensive drogues to slow the pace of boats down to the sub, two mph pace often required to catch walleyes on a consistent basis. The tactic worked well enough, and many Great Lakes anglers still drag buckets when “catching” conditions require their boats — and therefore their baits — proceed at a slow pace.

Sea Anchor Option

However, deploying and retrieving the bulky buckets is wet, back-wrenching work, and adjusting their resistance to match wind and water conditions was limited to adding a second bucket to the mix. Some anglers began experimenting with common sea anchors to accomplish the same thing. Serving as underwater parachutes, sea anchors made of canvas, rubber or nylon fabric are deployed on a line off the bows of boats to keep their bows pointed into the waves and to slow their drift in high winds. Anglers began using smaller-sized versions of traditional sea anchors and found that by dragging bags of various diameters or using conical-shaped, open-ended adaptations called “drift socks” or “drag bags,” their trolling speeds and drift rates could be fine-tuned to match the conditions. 

These days, buckets aboard my boat serve only as storage receptacles for a couple of drift socks of different sizes that I now own. Drift socks are available from more than a dozen manufacturers that specialize in making sizes specifically for trolling, and the devices have proven useful for doing more than simply slowing a boat down.

Pro Tested

Captain Mark Brumbaugh is a Great Lakes walleye pro and dedicated drift sock fan who claims that most of his pro peers carry at least one drift sock aboard their boats. Brumbaugh’s 2018 Lund GL Pro-V 219 holds at least five bags for use while fishing, in 25- to 60-inch diameters, which he uses for both boat control and speed reduction.

“I’ve used as many as four separate socks at one time to get the right drift,” said Brumbaugh, who noted that lighter aluminum boats with higher freeboard may require more or larger socks than comparable sized fiberglass craft might require to maintain the same amount of control in windy conditions.

Brumbaugh typically rigs a 20-inch drift sock to each of the Lund’s two forward cleats and is careful to set a tether line length that will keep the deployed socks forward of his outboard’s propeller. He uses socks with buoyed, quick-release buckles that allow him to quickly release the bag if required when fighting a fish and return to the floating sock-and-buoy rig after the fight.

“If I’m trolling in a side wind, sometimes I just use one sock at a time, the one on the windward side of the boat,” he explained. “It may drift off to that side a bit. If I turn around and troll back the other direction, I’ll pull that sock in and put out the one on the other side.”

To keep his rig drifting with its side to the wind, on whichever side of the boat he intends to fish, Brumbaugh deploys a large sock and a small sock, the smaller bag off a stern cleat and the larger tied off to a bow cleat, and explains that you usually need the larger bag on the bow because the front of the boat is higher, lighter and more likely to swing downwind than the stern.

“Sometimes you have to adjust the length of the tether line to get them to open up and stay submerged, and I like to have just enough line out to allow them to be open and under water,” he explained. “The average length of the tether I have out while drift fishing would be four to five feet.”    

Feel The Tension

Whether dragging a bucket or a drift sock, the tension on the tether and wherever it is attached to the boat is considerable. It’s important to attach the rig to a solid cleat that is secured with a backing plate. One way to test the holding strength of a particular cleat is to forget to bring the drogue aboard before throttling-up for a move. If it holds its own through that short-term excitement, which every angler who has ever employed a drag device has experienced, you’re good to go.

Meanwhile, take time to consider adding a simple speed control device to your Great Lakes fishing rig this winter and anticipate enjoying life — and action — in the slow lane this season.

For More Information:

Drift Sock & 5-Gallon Pail Sources

Bass Pro Shops




Cal-June Inc.




West Marine



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