May 20, 2016
Traditional streamer fishing for trout usually involves a sinking-tip line, a short leader, and a wide variety of weighted and unweighted flies. Most fly fishers cast and then either swing the fly through likely holding water, or retrieve it with a variety of cadences. The line is fairly straight between the rod and the fly, and since the fly is usually moving quickly, when a fish strikes you feel it immediately and set the hook.
These traditional techniques can be effective, but they don't allow you to be overly creative in the manipulation of the fly, and sometimes just thoughtlessly ripping streamers through a pool doesn't work.
I've found that to be most successful when streamer fishing, I need to be versatile and show the fish something different, and this is especially true in highly pressured waters. One of my favorite approaches is what I call the passive streamer technique. It is an unconventional fly fishing retrieve where the fly moves slowly with numerous pauses, allowing the fly (most often my Meat Whistle) to undulate and move naturally. Often, I get strikes during the pause, when the hook is not moving at all, and the lifelike materials that create the fly come alive. It has made me more focused, has increased my takes—especially with larger fish—and has made my streamer fishing more fun.
Roots of the Technique
The idea for the passive streamer technique is patterned after some conventional tackle tactics that I used during many years of bass fishing. Two of my favorite "baits" (conventional bass fishermen call any type of lure a "bait") were plastic worms with a weight at the head, or a skirted lead-head jig with a plastic or pork trailer.
I usually fished these baits by casting, and letting them immediately sink to the bottom. Many strikes occurred while the jig or worm was sinking. If a fish didn't grab on the drop, I began a slow retrieve combined with lifting the rod to cause the bait to rise. Then I dropped the rod tip and reeled in only slack to allow the bait to drop. The pace of the retrieve varied but it was generally slow with frequent pauses. I got most of my strikes when the bait was dropping or sitting on the bottom.
The strikes were not a "slam!" like you feel when reeling in a crankbait or spinnerbait on a tight line, or with a streamer using a conventional technique. The takes were subtle. I often couldn't feel them at all, and detected them mostly by watching the line where it entered the water, or by the slight tension on the line.
It took many years before I took this conventional tackle technique and tried it while fly fishing for bass. Even back then, most of my topwater fishing was with a fly rod, but for years I had no confidence that any sunken fly could compete with a jig or a worm. When I fished subsurface for bass, it was usually with conventional gear. First I tried plastic worms with a fly rod, which was effective but also kind of stupid and not really fly fishing.
Fly fishing has always been my greatest passion, and I became increasingly frustrated that I kept reverting to gear when fishing subsurface for bass. Eventually I decided that I needed to come up with a fly that could go head-to-head with jigs and worms. It had to have the same tantalizing action and profile in the water as a jig, and it had to drop in the water column and hop along the bottom like a jig without getting hung up. In fact, I decided to use a skirted jig and trailer as the template for my new fly.
My friend Cliff Watts developed a lethal steelhead pattern called the Kilowatt, and it is tied on a jig hook with bead-chain eyes. I wanted my fly on a similar hook so that it would ride hook point up. I developed the Meat Whistle using the same 90-degree jig hook as Cliff, but with a tungsten or brass cone to get a strong falling and jigging action. I dress it with rabbit, marabou, sparse flash, and Sili-Legs.
I love rabbit and marabou because the materials move and undulate. It's key to have a fly that moves by itself—even if you're not retrieving it.
The Meat Whistle suggests a crayfish or sculpin, both of which move in short bursts, then drop to the bottom and rely on camouflage to protect them while at rest. This is the movement I attempt to replicate with my passive streamer retrieve. My belief is that these food items are rarely eaten while they are fleeing evasively. Predators most often attack when their prey stops to rest or hide on the bottom.
The combination of the hook, the cone, and the dressing causes the Meat Whistle to ride with the hook point up, which allows you to fish near the bottom and through weeds and debris where sculpins and crayfish hide, with far fewer hang-ups than a traditional streamer hook.
After producing the Meat Whistle, I had to figure out how to fish it with the same result as a jig. After trying sinking and floating lines, and leaders of various lengths, I've found a floating line with a long leader is the best way to deliver and fish the Whistle.
The combination of the floating line and long leader is the most important element of the passive streamer technique, and separates it from most standard streamer tactics. The floating line helps lift the fly when you retrieve the line, and the long leader keeps the line on the surface while the fly is near the bottom. The floating line also serves as an indicator when a fish takes the fly, so you should regularly clean and dress the line so that it floats well.
My standard leader is 9-foot nylon monofilament tapered to 0X. I cut off the last 2 feet and depending on the water depth, I add anywhere from 2 to 6 feet of 0X fluorocarbon tippet. Fluorocarbon may not be required, but decreased visibility and increased abrasion resistance can't hurt. To cast the fly and leader I use a fast-action 9-foot 6-weight rod and a floating RIO Clouser line.
I detect strikes with the passive streamer technique by watching the line and by feeling line tension—just like I did when I fished a jig with conventional tackle. After the cast, I watch the floating line while the fly sinks. I try to watch the tip of the line, but if the tip isn't visible, I watch the line where it angles down into the depths.
Usually there are parts of the floating line on the water that are not straight. Watching for these little curves to straighten is another good way to detect strikes. If the line twitches or moves unnaturally I strip-set hard.
Detecting takes by watching the line is fairly straightforward, but detecting them by feeling subtle changes in line tension is challenging. While the fly sinks I hold the rod grip with my last two fingers and my thumb. The line rests on the crease of the first knuckle of my middle finger.
I tried different line positions on the stripping fingers of my rod hand, but find the easiest and best position to detect subtle takes is just draping the line over the middle finger of my right hand during the retrieve. I feel for any changes in line tension—anything slightly different from what I feel when the fly is merely sinking or slowly swimming. If I feel a "tick" or if the line tightens slightly against my finger, I strip-set hard. If I don't hook a fish, I merely continue my retrieve.
This passive retrieve isn't a constant stripping of the line, and includes many pauses where the fly is sinking or sitting on the bottom. Most takes on semi-slack line—when the fly is not moving—are subtle and tricky to detect so it's important to watch closely and manage the line so you can feel subtle strikes.
Sometimes I feel faint takes with my stripping hand while I'm moving the fly, and in that case I strip-set and then follow with a tip set as well.
After countless hours on the water, the technique of watching and feeling the line became second nature to me—not mechanical—and I began to have unbelievable success catching subsurface bass. I was feeling great about developing what I now call the passive streamer approach.
The real test for me was to pit the Meat Whistle head-to-head against a jig and trailer. I spent a significant part of one year from March through October fishing both a conventional rod with a jig and trailer, and a fly rod with a floating line and Meat Whistle. I traded the rod every other fish. As the season progressed, my excitement grew as the Meat Whistle matched the jig and trailer for both size of bass and numbers. Mission accomplished!
Since then I've expanded the technique to fish for not just bass and panfish, but also for trout all over the Rockies and in Alaska.
Breaking it Down
There is no wrong way to retrieve using the passive streamer technique, but there are some guidelines. The tempo should be slow with many pauses. Big fish normally don't like to chase fast-moving prey.
The "do nothing" pause portion of the retrieve may be the most important part of the retrieve. You can make slow, short, or long strips, always watching and feeling your line, while ready to strip-set.
My favorite movement is a hand-twist retrieve with a sharp snap at the end of the twist, followed by a healthy pause. This retrieve uses the hand and wrist, with little arm movement. It is like the familiar chironomid hand-twist but at the end, you quickly increase the speed and finish with a quick snap of the wrist. During the twist, the fly slowly rises and the snap gives it a short darting movement followed by a drop. There is something about the rising, darting, and dropping motion that triggers takes from both bass and trout.
Besides being deadly, the twist-and-snap retrieve has an advantage over a standard retrieve because your left hand is always holding the line, which allows you to strip-set the instant you see line movement or feel something different. The line is just draped over your finger and not pinched against the cork, and if you get a subtle take at the end of a traditional strip you have to reach back up to grab the line and set.
Toward the end of the retrieve I sweep the fly through the water with the rod tip before picking it up.
This gives the fly a burst of speed which can trigger a "don't let it get away" response from following fish.
Bass and trout spit out most flies quickly if you aren't swift to set the hook, but I've found they tend to hold onto the Meat Whistle longer, which gives you a little extra time. I've had bass move the line 4 or 5 feet before I set the hook.
It took a few years before I realized that the passive streamer technique might also work on trout. I always thought bass and trout fishing existed in different worlds and had little in common, but I decided it was worth a try to see if trout liked the approach.
When I first tried the technique on trout I was tentative, and did not fish with much confidence. The current in rivers also added a new dimension.
Most fly fishers are used to feeling the hard jolt when a trout takes a streamer, and it takes awhile to gain confidence detecting takes with a more passive retrieve.
After many hours of using the passive streamer technique for trout in both stillwaters and rivers, I found that trout and bass had something in common: they both liked passively fished streamers. As it turned out, dealing with the current wasn't that difficult.
Trout love to grab a falling fly, just like bass. While the fly is sinking, watch the line for any movement, which can signal a fish taking the fly. The movement can be a quick jerk or a subtle twitch. The line acts as an indicator while the streamer is sinking. It's similar to using the tip of your line as an indicator while nymph fishing.
As the fly sinks, use your middle finger to feel for strikes, just like while bass fishing. The takes while the fly is sinking are usually subtle, not the slam you get with a swung or stripped streamer. If something feels different during the retrieve or drift, strip-set hard.
If your line twitched or you felt something, but didn't hook up on the strip-set, allow the fly to continue to drift and sink. The same fish may come back for another grab.
Ideally, you want the fly to sink to the bottom, where trout prefer to feed on crayfish, sculpins, and large nymphs. I have watched trout come over to a Meat Whistle resting on the bottom, look at it, and then pound it like a bonefish tailing on a crab.
However, if the current and depth don't allow your fly to reach the bottom, this technique still works. If you are fishing in moving water, the fly dead-drifts and falls like a large nymph or sculpin trying to reach the safety of bottom structure.
I like to let the fly dive down in front of and behind boulders, into depressions in the river bottom, or in the heads and tails of runs. Trout can be anywhere in a run, but these areas can be especially productive.
I use the same rod, floating line, and a leader for trout as I do with bass. A 0X leader may sound too heavy to many trout fishermen, but I have not noticed a problem getting takes, even in low, clear water with pressured fish.
Maybe trout get a little bit more excited when they see a substantial meal, and they don't notice heavy tippet like they often do with nymphs and drys. The heavier tippet allows me to turn over the heavy fly, set the hook hard, and land the fish quickly for a safe release.
Another advantage is that highly pressured trout get conditioned to traditional streamer techniques and retrieves. This passive retrieve is often something new to trout in catch-and-release areas, and a fly sitting or hopping along the bottom can be irresistible.
Choosing the Water
The passive streamer technique is ideal for slower water in rivers and for stillwaters, but you can trigger strikes in any water speed.
Slow, deep pools are often passed up by fly fishers but "frog water" can hold large trout, as bait fishermen prove regularly. Using the passive approach, frog water, slow side channels, back bays, and eddies can become dependable producers.
In shallow water or a short pocket, the sinking portion of the sequence is short and the retrieve starts soon after the cast.
If conditions allow, it's a good idea to let the fly sit on the bottom after it lands in shallow water. Fish there may spook briefly when the fly hits, and then come back and take it.
The technique isn't suited for all types of water. Heavy deep runs are not great for the passive technique, but I use it where I can, and in deeper water I cast more upstream and make longer pauses to try and get the fly down—almost like I'm more nymph fishing than streamer fishing.
Throughout a day of streamer fishing, I mix in all the streamer techniques I enjoy: swinging, actively stripping, and passively fishing, and then emphasize whichever approach seems to be the most productive.
Pattern selection for streamer fishing is simpler than dry-fly or nymph fishing. Fly fishers often try to correlate our dry or nymph patterns to what we think the trout are keying in on. This is why we all carry a fairly large selection of nymphs and drys.
However, I think most streamer bites are a result of opportunistic feeding, not the result of trout focusing on a specific prey. As a result, my streamer boxes tend to have less variety and are more heavily stacked with favorites. The Meat Whistle was designed for the passive technique, but it is equally as effective when fished with other techniques. I carry it in a few sizes and three or four different colors, and it's all I use.
Some fly fishers promote the idea that the best time to fish streamers is in the spring and fall, when the rainbows and browns are spawning.
During the spawning period, streamer strikes may be the result of hormone-fueled aggression, combined with territorial behavior. That's all true, but when the hormones aren't flowing, big trout still prefer substantial meals.
The passive approach is productive all year, and at any time of the day. Streamers aren't just for early mornings and late evenings.
Successful fly fishers should be skilled in all disciplines including streamer fishing. You will catch fish with traditional streamer approaches of course, but to add another dimension, and make fly fishing more fun and productive, think about incorporating the passive streamer approach. It takes time to learn, and you need to hook a few fish to develop confidence, but if you stick with it, positive results will follow.
John S. Barr is an Umpqua Feather Merchants contract tier and Fly Fisherman contributing editor. He is the author of Barr Flies (Stackpole Books, 2007), and creator of the Copper John, Barr Emerger, Tung Teaser, and many other patterns. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and is an avid birder and bird photographer.
Line Handling Tips 1/3
A) During the retrieve, keep the rod low to the water to eliminate slack and improve your contact with the line, leader, and fly. To detect strikes, watch the floating portion of the line. When a fish picks up the fly, the line often moves to the left, right, or just twitches. Watch for curves in the line to straighten when a fish picks up the fly. Photo: Bill Schmoker
Line Handling Tips 2/3
B) During the retrieve, drape the line over the first crease in your middle finger to feel for subtle changes in tension. You may feel one or more 'ticks ' or just a slight increase in tension against your finger when a fish makes contact. The author prefers a slow hand-twist retrieve with a short snap at the end. After the snap, allow the fly to sink to the bottom to rest. The pause should be at least as long as the retrieve. Photo: Bill Schmoker
Line Handling Tips 3/3
C) If a fish strikes during the drop or during the pause, strip-set with your line hand to set the hook. If the fish takes during the retrieve, and part of your hook-setting motion is already consumed, strip-set and then follow with a tip-set by raising the rod. Photo: Bill Schmoker