A few years ago we stopped using a traditional down-and-across streamer technique and began developing more active presentations. We shed our passive, search-and-hope streamer techniques and attitudes and applied new methods with a calculated approach. This has made a world of difference.
We used to hook large trout on streamers only occasionally. Now we hook several large trout on each outing. What once was rare is now the norm for us because weﾕve learned how to excite large trout and make them take the fly. You can do this, too, if you rethink your approach to streamer fishing and modify your equipment selection. The jerk-strip retrieve technique is the way to start your hunt for big fish.
Flies and Gear
Before we detail the jerk-strip technique, let’s review the necessary flies and equipment.
The most effective streamers for triggering big trout are big flies, from #1/0 to #10—much bigger than most nymphs, wet flies, and surface patterns. A streamer must appear as a substantial meal, threaten a fish’s environs, and create the right “crippled” action. If it does all of this, it has a good chance of instigating an attack. It should also be easy to cast, otherwise you won’t use it for long.
Streamers fall into four groups: sculpins and Muddlers, baitfish, leeches and crayfish, and attractors. A few of our favorites include the Zoo Cougar (a sculpin), Woolly Sculpin (sculpin and attractor), Stacked Blonde (baitfish), and Madonna (crayfish).
Lines and Leaders. For ultimate efficiency in almost all situations, we use sinking lines. We believe the most effective line is a weight-forward, full-sinking line in a class V or VI (available from Scientific Anglers, Rio, Cortland, Airflo, and Orvis), and we use them for about 90 percent of our angling. These lines maximize the effect of the jerk-strip retrieve and are the most effective lines for keeping a streamer in the strike zone for the entire retrieve. Sinking-tip and shooting-head lines with a floating running line, such as the Teeny-style lines, have their place in streamer fishing and many anglers prefer them, but we have found these lines raise the fly during the retrieve more than the full-sinkers. With the full-sinking lines, the initial depth is controlled by the length of the pause before the first strip. The longer the pause, the deeper the presentation.
Whenever we recommend full-sinking lines to friends and clients, we hear the same response: “Those lines are hard to cast and I don’t like them because I can’t mend them.” Actually, full-sinking lines are easy to cast, especially when you need distance and accuracy. They shoot well due to their fine diameters, which also helps in windy conditions. It’s true that you can’t mend a full-sinking line once it is in the water, but as you’ll see, we welcome current-induced drag in the jerk-strip retrieve and use it to our advantage. An inability to mend the line is not an important concern.
Leaders should be short and simple. Aggressive trout focus on the prey and its movement, not the leader. Most often a 4-foot leader composed of stiff leader material to turn over big flies will get the job done. One simple monofilament leader formula looks like this: a 24-inch, 10-pound-test tippet attached to an 18-inch 20-pound-test butt section. Sometimes we go down to 6- or 8-pound tippets, or up to 12-pound tippets, depending on the size of fly. The bigger the fly, the larger the tippet.
Matching the tippet to the fly allows for better fly movement.
The ideal streamer rod has a medium to medium-fast action, a powerful butt section, and enough length to lift and steer sinking lines. The rod should also cast tight loops and load quickly for accurate casts from 20 to 60-plus feet all day without tiring your arm. Such a rod should cast well in the wind and have the muscle to set large hooks on heavy fish with strong jaws that can clamp down on a fly. We believe that the best all-around streamer rod is a 9-foot, 6-weight, but we both use 7- and 8-weight rods on occasion.
Reels. Large trout make strong runs, so you need a reel with a good drag to keep the fish from running into the cover of undercut banks or bolting downstream.
The Jerk-strip Retrieve
If we could use only one method of streamer fishing for any fish in any place, the jerk-strip retrieve would be our choice because it consistently produces large fish and generates excitement. This technique can give you the rewarding feeling of having successfully hunted, located, and then moved your fly to trigger a response from the fish. It will bring out your primal instincts, and you will keep your eyes glued to the fly throughout the retrieve.
When properly executed, the jerk-strip retrieve triggers aggressive behavior in large trout, resulting in spectacular charges that are almost always visible. It works well because it forces the fish to react to two basic instincts—territoriality and vulnerability. First, the fish sees prey that has accidentally trespassed into its territory and now must escape. Second, the prey seems to be slightly injured and has trouble swimming, but not to the extent that it can’t escape.
The jerk-strip is fast-paced and covers a lot of water. What you’re trying to do is aggravate aggressive trout by covering every three to four feet of the river, as you wade or drift downstream. Cast close to the bank as possible and retrieve the fly back to your position. It is not necessary to run multiple retrieves through the same area: If the fish sees the fly, it will generally respond on the first pass. The technique either creates the impulse to smash the fly quickly, or not at all. If a fish rolls or swarms around the fly, you can make another cast, but solid hits do not usually follow mock charges. It is, however, difficult to convince yourself of this after seeing an assault.
The jerk-strip presents your fly sideways to the fish, or perpendicular to the current. Understanding how your fly (the careless prey) would act in flowing water is vital. To escape, the prey will take the path of least resistance—a downstream or across-stream flight, not the upstream motion that a traditional retrieve mimics. Knowing that prey will take the least-difficult course for a speedy escape, you should pull the fly directly back to your position, allowing the bow that forms in the line as a result of current drag to work to your advantage.
That’s the beauty of the jerk-strip retrieve: It uses drag as a positive aid. Drag forces the fly’s head to turn downstream. The full-sinking line keeps the fly level in the water column throughout the entire retrieve, regardless of the depth you choose.
A streamer does not have to be fished deep to be effective. With this retrieve we usually fish a streamer less than a foot under the surface. We are looking for the most aggressive fish and attempting to trigger a quick, instinctive reaction.
There is nothing dainty about this method, nor is it an easy way to fish. It takes practice and strength to master. The cast is aggressive. The rate of retrieve is nothing less than feverish. The line control must be timed to perfection, but when it all comes together there is no more rewarding style of fishing for big trout.
Make the fly smack the water hard as close to the bank as possible. It has been said that this style of fishing is to dry-fly fishing what rock-and-roll is to the symphony. You cast the fly with force. This does not mean that you speed up your cast, but simply that you push all the way through your cast so the line energy does not run out before the end of your delivery. This is made much easier if you use a full-sinking line. The extra weight in the sinking line loads the rod quickly on the backcast, so that if you can get good acceleration on the forward cast you can push a fly hard to the surface with accuracy. Even intermediate casters can do this.
Because you are not trying to fish the fly deeply, there is no reason to cast it upstream. Normally, you’ll cast straight across the stream and attempt to keep the fly coming directly back to the boat. This is not a steadfast rule, however, because there are times when you must cast directly upstream and/or directly downstream. You have no control over the way the river flows or how the structure is lying in the water, so you just have to present the fly from the best angle available. You should never pass up a good-looking spot because you cannot get the perfect cast. You can’t catch fish if your fly isn’t in the water. Big fish are unpredictable and you can do many things to turn the odds in your favor.
The initial impact on the water is the first thing the fish responds to. You want to startle the fish and make it feel crowded or trespassed upon. A hard entry also tells the fish that whatever hit the water could be injured. Think like the injured prey. Knowing there is something below you that could make you into lunch should give a sense of urgency to the moment.
Once the fly hits the water, it is time to begin its “escape” (see illustrations). Keeping your rod tip very close to the water, almost touching the surface and pointing at the fly, jerk the rod tip 12 to 20 inches downstream aggressively. At the end of the jerk, quickly return the rod tip to its starting position and strip in the excess line.
Be aware that the rod tip is moving the fly, so you must move your rod more than the 8 to 12 inches you want the fly to move, because the rod is going to flex and absorb some of the movement.
You also have to deal with the current pushing your line. We have found that a rod movement of 12 to 20 inches moves the fly 8 to 12 inches. We fish the jerk-strip in all water types—slow, deep, and fast—and adjust the speed of the retrieve accordingly. The faster the water, the more aggressive the retrieve.
It is imperative to maintain good line control. Stripping in the line is not intended to move the fly; it only allows you to maintain line control as you return the rod tip to its starting position so you can repeat the rod jerk. This must be done very quickly. You want to move the fly like a fleeing minnow, so repeat the jerk as fast as you can strip in the excess line.
We have found that the most productive method is to keep the fly moving at a pace that lets it pause just long enough for you to strip the line back to the starting position and then repeat the rod jerk. This gives the fly a momentary pause, which signals to the fish something could be wrong, and in turn triggers the instinct to kill the crippled prey. A pause of more than one second will tell a trophy trout that the prey has either died or is no longer a threat, so there is no need for it to attack or defend its territory.
This technique plays heavily on the fish’s inability to shut off its basic predatory instincts of fight or flight, defend or die, and kill the weak to eat. Keep the fly moving: We are constantly amazed at how fast a big fish can appear and how little cover, if any, it takes to hide it.
Continue your retrieve all the way back to the boat or, if you are wading, until the fly is within a few feet of your rod tip. Always keep it moving.
Kelly Galloup owns The Troutsman fly shop in Traverse City, Michigan. Bob Linsenman is author of Great Lakes Steelhead, The Au Sable River, and Michigan Trout Streams. He lives in Rose City, Michigan.