Fly Fishing With Streamers
May 09, 2014
One of my favorite quotes comes from T.S. Eliot, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." I believe he was talking about individuals who push boundaries, and allow progress to occur in all walks of life. For example, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first climbers to officially reach the top of Mt. Everest in 1953. Both climbers broke a physical and psychological barrier, showing everyone it was possible to reach the top of Everest. Individuals like Hillary and Tenzing are in all life disciplines, including fly fishing.
But while I admire people who constantly push the boundaries, I also believe you can push it too far by ignoring the rules set by nature.
As it relates to fly fishing, this phenomenon of going "too far" has occurred with the size of streamers in popular use today. I used to be one of these people, and many people have heard me repeat the mantra of "go big or go home."
It's also fair to say that in those days, I talked more about the large trout I moved on a streamer instead of the ones I landed. I made excuses like, "trout weren't committed" or "fish were just playing with their food today." Sometimes the thought of a fish tugging your streamer becomes so overwhelming, anglers fail to acknowledge their streamer patterns may be excessive for the conditions they're facing.
I hang out with fly fishers nearly seven days a week (it seems) and instead of hearing about new techniques related to streamer fishing, I hear more discussions on streamer size—and some of these discussions come almost to the point of bragging. Even more alarming, I've seen multiple anglers place their streamers side by side on fly counters comparing sizes—a condition I refer to as "streamer envy." In some cases, I feel it's become a contest on who's fishing or carrying the biggest streamer.
I'm all for pushing the limits, but there comes a point when huge flies become less productive for some trout waters.
My streamer addiction began while fishing Michigan's Manistee River in 2002 with Russ Madden. Russ was the first to introduce me to articulated streamers, including his original Circus Peanut. After two boat rides, and fishing large 6- to 7-inch articulated patterns, I landed a handful of browns pushing 17 inches. It was the first time I'd fished flies longer than 4 inches and I thought I had discovered how to catch big fish everywhere.
Trying for similar results on my home waters in Pennsylvania, I threw the same large streamers but failed to land many fish. Time after time, the trout struck short, and very few actually committed to eat the fly. For the next two weeks, the trout showed me how wrong my thinking was. I was pushing the big fly theory too far for my home waters, and had to step back and reevaluate the situation. Mother Nature creates big trout—not fly fishers. I was trying to create a large trout fishery by throwing large patterns in waters with generally smaller trout.
I wanted to throw a big fly to catch a big fish, but I failed to first see that my home waters didn't harbor the same population of large predatory brown trout as the Manistee River. While it's exciting to see a trout move on a large streamer, I still prefer to feel the surge of the trout as it completely inhales my streamer and I come tight to the fish. Getting a "follow" simply isn't good enough.
The first steps to determining what size streamer to use are to better understand the population of large trout, and the most common size of the forage fish. There are a number of resources out there to better understand the size of trout in a fishery. Most state fish and game agencies publish biological studies on the trout size and density in popular waters.
To demonstrate the difference in big fish populations, let's compare two rivers in Pennsylvania—The Boundary Waters of the West Branch of the Delaware, and Spring Creek. Although catching a 20-inch trout does occasionally happen on Spring Creek, several biological field surveys failed to capture a single trout that size. In the West Branch, similar surveys turned up a handful of 20-inch trout.
This information tells me there's a higher concentration of fish in the Delaware that are large enough to feed on 5-inch and larger forage fish. As a result, I have more confidence fishing large streamers there. Spring Creek is a great streamer fishery, but I have to fish more 3- to 4-inch streamers to better match the trout population.
Remember, I'm not looking for a territorial response where the trout is simply trying to chase an invader away. Instead, I want to fish a properly sized fly, where a trout looks at my fly as a food source. And bigger trout do indeed feed on larger food items. This is why there are some rivers, like the White River in Arkansas, where I still use 7-inch streamers (or larger). I believe anglers need to strike the balance between using a large enough fly to obtain the fish's attention, yet small enough so the trout will fully commit to eating the pattern.
Besides the size of the trout, you need to identify the primary forage fish within a stream, which could include smaller trout, dace, sculpins, darters, minnows, chubs, and others. Knowing the forage fish population on your favorite streamer waters will provide a natural direction on the approximate fly size you should use.
One thing you can do is talk to local bait anglers—the guys who fish with live minnow and sculpins where it's legal—to put fly size into perspective.
A good live minnow fisherman is a large trout's worst nightmare, and there's plenty we can learn from them. For example, my father-in-law has fished live minnows since he was young. His favorite minnow length is 3½ to 4 inches, and he says he gets far fewer short strikes with a smaller minnow. Also, I should mention I've never been able to match the number of big fish he catches with his small, natural-size minnows.
My father-in-law's smaller minnow approach isn't an anomaly—it's a widely adopted approach by the majority of minnow anglers I cross paths with near my home waters. So if live-bait guys are catching large fish with 3- to 4-inch live minnows, why do some fly fishers feel the need to toss 6- to 9-inch streamers?
When a streamer reaches a certain length (dependent on the population of big fish), I believe trout strike out of aggression rather than hunger. For example, can you recall playing a smaller trout, when all of a sudden a large trout comes from the depths and begins chasing the hooked fish?
On a few occasions I've seen larger trout actually try to eat the hooked fish, but most often, the larger trout merely attempts to move the smaller fish away from its territory.
For me, the same phenomenon occurs when fishing large streamers. Most trout chase away large streamers, rather committing to eat. Trout are excellent hunters, and when they're hunting for food they don't miss too many opportunities.
It's mesmerizing to watch large, 7-inch streamers swim through the water because they are more visible (to us), and the idea of seeing a trout chase down a large streamer is extremely attractive.
However, trout can still see a small 3- to 4-inch streamer (even if you can't) and are more likely to eat it. It's so easy to get locked into watching trout chase down and short-strike a large streamer that it has some days taken me hours of watching short strikes before I've switched to a smaller fly and found actual success.
I'm not saying that you can't hook a fish through an aggression strike, because anyone who has fished large articulated streamers will tell you about the 10-inch trout they caught using an 8-inch streamer. But do you think the 10-inch trout was actually trying to eat the 8-inch streamer? While aggression works some of the time, I'd rather depend on higher-percentage hunger strikes than on aggression strikes.
There are times when I intentionally use oversize streamers as teasers. I've already mentioned that aggressive strikes are often short, but at least they move territorial but nonfeeding trout from their daytime holding areas.
I sometimes use these types of short strikes to help me locate big trout in their daytime holding areas. Once in a while I hook these fish, but more frequently I note their position and come back later to catch them with a smaller fly pattern.
If you do decide to fish large streamer patterns, consider keeping the tail short or using a trailer hook to increase your hooking percentages when a trout just nips the tail.
Match the Bait
On a recent trip to northern California, I had the opportunity to swing for steelhead on the Feather River. I heard the resident steelhead were eager to chase smaller streamer patterns, and I wanted to swing a size 8 Sparkle Minnow.
Although my guide quietly suggested using a size 12 salmon fry imitation, I wanted to test out my larger streamer first. After several hours of no fish activity, my guide again suggested switching to the smaller pattern, and this time I took his advice.
Within 15 minutes, I hooked my first California steelhead—not with a medium-size streamer, but with a shorter size 12 fry imitation. Salmon fry had just started hatching in the Feather, and the resident 4- to 8-pound steelhead were focused on the fry as a food source.
Because of the small fly size, my hooking percentage was 80 percent (4 out of 5), which is excellent for streamer fishing. In comparison, while throwing larger patterns, I consider 50 percent to be a good number.
You've heard it said many times that you need to toss big streamers to catch big fish. But I have to disagree, as I've found that smaller flies also catch large fish, and in most cases a large trout is more likely to commit to a smaller streamer. So don't worry if your streamer length doesn't match up, as a smaller streamer will get you more tugs in the long run.