We have all been there . . . casting a meaty streamer in narrow water to a dark shape lurking in a deep run. You make what you think was an awesome presentation, and just as the hulking trout speeds toward the fly, it makes a last-second retreat. Frustrated? You're not alone.
Conventional wading streamer tactics teach you to fan a run with long swings or cover the water by casting toward the center and stripping the fly back toward you. These are great methods to produce results in large waterways, but are ill-suited for small creeks, tributaries, side channels, and the small spots in and around fish-holding structure. Like a quarterback threading the needle with a laser pass between two defenders, catching fish on streamers in these spots requires a more specific approach and delivery, not to mention specialized flies, rigging, and retrieves.
When you're streamer fishing at close range, you don't have the luxury of swimming the fly over long distances, giving the trout plenty of opportunity to follow the fly and make a decision. You need to instantly trigger an aggressive reaction, and a good starting point is to use streamers that imitate food sources the trout are familiar with.
In a big, brawling off-color freestone river you're likely to use beefy black or flashy attractor patterns, but on smaller spring creeks, tailwaters, you'll often find clearer water, and pickier fish, so imitations with natural, imitative colors work best.
The weight and density of the fly may be even more critical, as controlling the sink rate of the fly—not the fly line—is key. In a larger pool or run you can count on a sinking-tip line to gradually sink the fly to the level of the trout, but if you're trying to drop your fly into a bathtub-size dark spot between two boulders, you must count on the fly to drop into the target zone all on its own.
In situations like this, look for patterns like Matt Wilkerson's Lawn Dart or John Barr's Meat Whistle with tungsten cones to get to the fish in seconds, and give you a chance to add a retrieve before it moves out of the target zone.
And speaking of target zones, don't forget about the shallow water. Too many streamer addicts associate big fish with big, deep runs but in truth, big fish in low-light situations prefer to hunt baitfish in the riffles and shallows. On waters with a lot of fishing pressure, large trout often move completely out of the hard-hit pools and into the shallower, less obvious, and less disturbed places.
In these shallow waters, weight is not your friend, so flies with no weight like Mayer's Mini Leech, or lightly weighted with aluminum eyes like Hoover's Animal perform better.
The diameter and length of your leader can also help you control the fly depth. The butt section of a tapered leader doesn't sink well because of its diameter, but sadly, many fly fishers merely "cut back" their leader when they choose to fish a streamer with a floating line, and end up with a short, thick leader that hinders the ability of the fly to sink into the target zone.
To sink the fly quickly, what you actually need to do is lengthen the leader using 1X or 2X fluorocarbon, which is both thinner and denser. With a floating line, I use leaders from 8 to 12 feet long, which also prevents the fish from seeing the line or movement from the line such as when you are casting, mending, or stripping. That might not seem like a long leader when most packaged leaders are 9 feet, but in the world of streamers—where I commonly see people using shortened leaders from 4 to 8 feet—it's a required anomaly to get into those tight, fishy little deep spots.
Your fly's exposure to the trout is brief in tight quarters, so it's important to maximize the movement of the fly while it is drifting and swimming. Lefty's nonslip loop knot doesn't tighten around the hook eye, allowing the fly to move without being restricted by the heavy tippet section.
Too many fly fishers associate streamer fishing with the same steady, arm-pull stripping motion many of us learned when we tied on our first Woolly Bugger, and they don't really try to mimic a specific food source, or match the retrieve to the specific location. They simply pull line from underneath their index finger, slowly stripping the line back without any erratic movement. This doesn't supply the abrupt movement that a streamer needs to make it look like it is injured or escaping.
The Johnny Cash. To keep the fly in the strike zone, and still make it come alive, you need a short, sharp, erratic stripping motion. The best way to generate quick fly movement is to use the same motion used to produce a chord while strumming a guitar. With your thumb, middle, and index fingers, grab the fly line behind the index finger of the opposite hand. By mimicking the strum of a guitar with a pick, you flick your wrist down to quickly retrieve 3 to 6 inches of line at a time. The short "strumming" strips produces a jigging effect over short distances without too quickly pulling the fly out of the trout's field of vision.
Stop, Drop, & Roll. My favorite spot in a small creek is usually the head of a pool. Most of the time there is a fast shallow riffle at the top, which provides a constant food supply to trout waiting in the deeper water below. Using streamers in this quick transition point can feel impossible because you need to let your fly sink while also matching the movement of a natural food source. And normally the feeding lane is quite narrow, which means with a very active, constant retrieve you move out of the strike zone too quickly.
The best retrieve in this situation is one that moves the fly into position, and then lets the water supply the movement and bring the fly to the fish. I call it the "stop, drop, and roll."
I cast beyond the target zone well up into the shallow riffle, put the line under my index finger, and make two or three long strips to position the fly directly above the drop-off. Then I stop the retrieve and allow the fly to drop into the bucket, drifting through the best holding water below. Fish the entire drift and allow the line to come taut below you. Sometimes a trout will grab the fly as it stops drifting and starts swimming again.
The retrieve perfectly mimics the action of fleeing crayfish, which swim aggressively (backward) over short distances, then drop into crevices along the bottom.
Strip & Give. After witnessing many large trout chase a streamer to the edge of the river, then spook and disappear I began to think that the fish weren't merely refusing the fly—they gave chase well out of their comfort zone and suddenly became alarmed by their shallow, vulnerable position. It often had nothing to do with the fly at all. I needed a retrieve that got the fish excited, but at the same time kept the fly in the prime area for the fish to eat.
With the strip and give, I cast at a 45-degree angle to the other side of the river. With the rod tip at the surface, I swing the fly into the feeding lie, give one or two short strips to move the fly, then feed that amount of line back into the drift allowing the current to again pull the line tight and move the fly. Strip again, then give line. The strip and give keeps the fly in the comfortable feeding range of the trout for longer, and also imitates the flee-then-drift action of an injured baitfish.
Using these flies and retrieves can help you get those big trout that live in water you normally think of as dry-dropper water. Streamers aren't just for fishing in big river and lakes, they can help you find the big trout that live in the tributaries, tailwaters, and spring creeks where you fish. It only takes one fish to hammer your streamer, and you'll quickly develop confidence that will last a lifetime.
Landon Mayer is a guide on Colorado's South Platte River and is the author of Colorado's Best Fly Fishing: Flies, Access, and Guide's Advice for the State's Premier Rivers (Headwater Guides, 2012) and most recently 101 Trout Tips (Stackpole Books, Headwater Books, 2014).