February 10, 2020
By George Daniel
Not too long ago, fly fishers looked at streamer fishing as a backup plan. It was a last-ditch effort to salvage the day when all other tactics failed. It was the fly-fishing equivalent of a Hail Mary pass at the end of a football game. However, in recent years that negative perception has been flipped upside down. Today, many people tie on a streamer first when they arrive at the river. We are in the age of streamer junkies, where fanatical anglers are looking to hunt underwater predators with flies imitating larger forage items including baby trout, sculpins, minnows, crayfish, frogs, mice, and suckers.
Streamer junkies are not after fish numbers—we are after quality. And let’s face it, other than seeing the head of a large trout come out of the water to inhale your dry fly, the visual of seeing a big trout chase down your streamer, and the physical sensation of it smashing your fly, are tough to beat. In fact, it becomes an addiction for many of us.
Contrary to some popular beliefs, streamer fishing is more than casting a Woolly Bugger across-stream, stripping like hell, and hoping for the best. To consistently feel that tug in all waters and for all species, there are very precise techniques and tackle you’ll need to employ.
Good technique is by far the most important factor, but having the right tools for the job can also swing things in your favor. Good tackle will certainly never hinder your efforts.
With more and more anglers getting addicted to the streamer tug, fish are also becoming more educated to our streamer approaches, so everything we do needs to be constantly tuned and upgraded to stay ahead of the curve.
Protect the Eyes
My most memorable streamer experiences for trout have occurred during low-light periods. Dusk, dawn, or periods of sustained heavy cloud cover, rain, or snow can bring larger predatory fish out from their resting areas, and put them in prime hunting grounds. This is why I spend good money on multiple pairs of sunglasses that allow me to see well in all light conditions, especially low light when the streamer bite is on.
Everyone knows that streamer fishing is often best in lousy weather, yet many people only have sunglasses for bright sunny conditions. When the weather turns bad, they take off these dark sunglasses, exactly at the moment when they need them the most.
One of the best tips I can give anyone when streamer fishing is to have a target, and this doesn’t always mean casting to the bank. My target might be a midstream drop-off, a cut on stream bottom, a piece of submerged timber, a boulder, or any likely ambush spot a predatory fish may be holding. If you can’t see these targets in low light, your chances of hitting them drop drastically. It’s especially critical in a moving boat where you only have one shot, so you better make it count.
As the saying goes, if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit every time. Spend the money to buy a good pair of glasses that will allow you to see well in lower light.
Having the right lenses for low-light periods not only improves your success, they provide critical eye protection when casting large flies at near dark, or in passing storms when the wind is blowing sideways. Your eyes are not replaceable. My wife Amidea lost most of her vision in her right eye due the blunt force of a Dremel tool causing a detached retina. I’ve heard of many other anglers sustaining serious eye injuries because they were not wearing eye protection. If you can’t afford top-quality low-light sunglasses for your streamer fishing, at least go purchase a $10 pair of clear safety glasses from Lowe’s or Home Depot. You might not catch as many fish, but at least you’ll have intact vision for your next outing.
You don’t always need a 7- or 8-weight rod to fish streamers. In fact, most of my central Pennsylvania trout stream fishing is done with a 4- or 5-weight. I fish with 2- to 4-inch flies for trout averaging in the mid to upper teens. I don’t need a 7-weight line to cast these flies. A 5-weight rod can handle the fight of almost any trout, and a lighter rod gives you the option of using other tactics like nymphing and dry-fly fishing later in the day.
My “one rod for all tactics” is no longer valid when I fish larger rivers and have the luxury of carrying multiple rods in a boat. It also goes out the window when I start fishing truly large streamers 5 inches and larger for trout, bass, and other species.
When you’re using large streamers, you don’t match the rod to the size of the fish, you match the rod to the size of the fly. Don’t get me wrong, a stout rod helps you fight big fish, but a true streamer rod has a line weight and action intended for large flies.
For example, I’ve landed a number of smaller muskies on my home waters using 9- and 10-weight rods, but recently I’ve switched to an 11-weight. These mid to upper 30-inch muskies aren’t huge. They can easily be landed with a 9-weight rod. The reason I switched to an 11-weight rod is not to increase my fish-fighting ability (although it does help) but instead I found the heavier line weight helps cast larger muskie flies more effectively. Although the rod is heavier, I’m less fatigued at the end of the day because the heavier line mass makes the task of casting squirrel-size streamers that much easier.
It’s the same way with 6-inch articulated trout streamers. A rod designed for these flies will help you get the fly on target while expending less energy.
The length of the rod is a personal choice, but I prefer to fish a long, stouter rod. A longer rod allows me to manage line more efficiently. Streamer fishing isn’t just laying line on the water and stripping. A longer rod gives you more ability to mend, adjust, lead, and reposition the line. I use a floating line for most of my streamer tactics as it lets me mend and reposition line during the presentation—just as I would while fishing indicator rigs or making aerial mends with dry-fly casts.
Longer rods also allow me to add distance to my cast, which is an important part of the streamer game. Although I’m an advocate for keeping your casts as short as possible in most fly-fishing situations, I do believe the ability to make longer casts, and cover more water, is important when streamer fishing. The more water you cover, the greater your chances are of encountering a trout that is aggressive or hungry enough to chase down your fly.
For example, I would compare a trout eating small nymphs to a human snacking between meals—we don’t think too much about grabbing a small scoop of peanut butter or sneaking in a few pretzels between meals. Trout are also often in the mood to snack on small food items, especially if you drift your fly directly to them. However, streamer tactics often depend on the fish to chase down and hunt larger food items. If the trout isn’t aggressive or hungry, there’s a good chance it isn’t going to chase your streamer. In order to find those few super-aggressive/hungry fish, we need to cover water, and I feel a longer rod provides the ability to make longer casts.
Another characteristic I look for in a streamer rod is fast action, as I use the rod tip to animate my streamers during the presentation. When you use the rod tip to move the fly, you want to be able to make it dance. A softer rod tends to dampen any action you’re trying to create while working from the cork end of the rod.
What good streamer anglers often do is create the appearance of a dying or crippled minnow, and you can use a stout rod to twitch or kick the streamer (side to side) by thrusting the rod tip off to the side during the presentation. This tactic is called a jerk-strip retrieve, and it was first popularized by Kelly Galloup.
If you’ve ever seen a dying or crippled minnow in the water, you’ve noticed that it drifts downstream, but occasionally kicks off to the side. This indicates that something is wrong. Predatory fish prefer easy meals like this. A faster-action rod tip, in combination with the jerk-strip retrieve, makes your presentation much move convincing. The better you sell the injured tactic, the better your chances of catching a larger fish.
Just as important, a stiff rod provides a more secure hook-set. When you’re dry-fly fishing with a size 20 Trico imitation, you have a totally different set of expectations. You want a soft rod that will protect light tippets and cushion the fight of the fish so the tiny hook stays in place. Streamer hooks are much heavier wire than dry-fly hooks, so you need to apply more force for a secure hook-set.
Switch it Up
Although switch rods have been used by steelheaders for many years, this tool is opening up new frontiers for trout, smallmouths, and other species. Inflatable watercraft allow you to gain access to just about any section of water, but often high water, trees, shrubs, steep banks, and other obstacles create wading and casting challenges that are difficult to overcome. Fly fishers with single-handed rods might just walk past these spots. But if you have a two-handed rod, and know how to make a roll cast or any of the more advanced Spey casts, these spots are your own private paradise.
Switch rods are great for tight spots in smaller rivers, but they also have a role in large rivers. For example, switch rods have opened up new water for me while wading the Susquehanna River for smallmouths. Some of my favorite water is near slow, deep pools, where it’s impossible for even my 6'2" frame to wade and access water on the opposite side. However, switch rods have added great distance, and allow me to fish waters I would never have been able to reach with a single-handed rod.
Longer, more flexible switch rods are not ideal for stripping streamers or using the rod tip to put movement into the fly. But coupled with the correct line, a switch rod can bomb out long casts and allow great coverage when swinging streamers. Sometimes that slow, deep swing is the best way to find trout in wide tailouts, and the switch rod is not just for big streamers, either. Swinging smaller flies like soft-hackles during some caddis and mayfly hatches can be deadly.
Choosing fly lines can be challenging, given the wide variety of lines available on the market. However, we are currently living during a wonderful time to be a fly fisher, as most major line companies have created streamer-specific lines to handle any streamer scenario. Floating lines, sink tips, shooting heads, sinking lines, and other specialty lines offer a match for just about any imaginable streamer scenario.
Although the number of options can seem daunting, take the time to think about the waters you streamer fish, and the options will quickly dwindle. You’ll probably find that there are just a handful of lines out there that perfectly match your streamer pursuits. If you’re still unsure, you can speak to your local fly shop, local guides/anglers, or check out fly line manufacturers’ websites on how to choose the correct fly line.
Although sinking lines are synonymous with streamer fishing, I believe floating lines deserve more attention. The ability to manage line and mend during the presentation, especially on streams with pocketwater or midstream obstructions, is a big advantage.
I may be biased, because where I live in central Pennsylvania many streams are too shallow or may have too many submerged snags to fish sinking lines. A favorite floating line design for streamer fishing is a weight-forward steelhead taper. A good example is the Scientific Anglers Anadro, which has a 60-foot head with a long rear taper, and allows me to mend from long distances. If you find yourself in tight quarters, this taper allows for easy roll casting.
Sink tips. As the name implies, sink tips are fly lines with a short sinking tip section (Scientific Anglers Sonar Titan Tip sections run 8' to 16' long). The remaining belly and running line sections are floating. This line type is great when you’re working pocketwater or casting close to the bank, since the floating belly section allows some mending.
I’ve found this line type to be perfect for fishing rivers like Montana’s Madison River, where currents are anything but uniform. Often a shorter/slower retrieve is best for this line type, as the floating line section lying on the surface along with the submerged sink tip section creates a steep angle. The streamer will follow this angle during the retrieve, so go with short strips if you want your streamer to stay closer to bottom, or use a faster retrieve if you want the streamer to appear as if it’s escaping toward the surface.
Finally, these lines are excellent for wading rivers as the rear floating belly section of the line floats on the surface at your feet when you are stripping line. Full-sinking lines often drop and get tangled around your feet and other obstructions.
Sinking streamer lines. Today almost every line manufacturer has a full-sinking streamer line. Compared to older/traditional full-sinking lines that had a uniform density along the length of the line, today’s full-sinking lines are tapered and have gradated sink rates, where the running line may sink at 1" per second, the rear belly sinks at 3" per second, followed by the aggressive head that sinks at 5" per second. This transition creates a shallow retrieve angle, so you can retrieve the fly fast or slow and still keep the fly close to the bottom. If you fish streamers in lakes, or slow, deep rivers with fairly uniform currents (where little mending is needed) with buoyant or neutrally buoyant streamers, this newer generation of streamer lines will help you get deep.
On a side note, these lines are best suited for fishing from a boat or wade fishing with a stripping basket. Since the entire length of these lines sinks, the line you strip in tends to get caught on everything, including your wading boots.
Specialty shooting heads. Although shooting heads are normally associated with two-handed rods, specialty lines like OPST Commando Heads and RIO MOW tips can also be used with single- or two-handed rods. I’ve used the 225-grain OPST Commando Head with a Commando Tip on my 9-foot 5-weight Orvis Helios 3, and cannot get over the distance I achieved with a short-modified roll cast.
The key with this setup is the weight in the short Skagit head, which is attached to a thin running line. This setup can be used with single-handed rods as light as a 3-weight, and allows you to cast large streamers with incredible distance in tight quarters—pretty cool stuff.
Just as with other streamer tools, you need to pick the right fly for the conditions and water types. Yes, you can catch fish on just a plain Woolly Bugger, but you’ll be missing out on fish-catching opportunities if you don’t carry at least a small variety of streamers. I break streamers into at least three basic groups:
Jigs. These heavily weighted streamers contain a heavy head constructed of a bead, lead, or tungsten eyes, or a conehead. These patterns are smaller in size or designed so they drop quickly to the stream bottom and remain there during the entire presentation.
Jigs are excellent choices for pocketwater fishing with a floating line and long leader because they sink quickly and the floating line can be mended or repositioned to reduce drag and allow for a deep presentation. When you retrieve them, they kick straight up and then drop straight down.
Buoyant streamers. The Muddler Minnow was perhaps the first streamer tied with trimmed deer hair, and the originator discovered that this buoyant material could be trimmed to many different shapes. Fly tiers have since learned that shaping the head gives Muddler-type flies exceptional movement, and breathes life into the body fibers that follow.
Deerhair-head streamers like the Drunk & Disorderly or Zoo Cougar are two popular Muddler-type flies today. Their wedge-style heads sculpted into the deer hair make the fly act like a deep-diving Rapala.
The buoyant deer-hair head on these patterns needs a sinking line—or weight built into the leader—to pull the streamer under. After you cast, pause to allow the line to sink. When you strip the line, the motion swims the fly down toward the leading sinking line. A long pause after the strip creates slack, allowing the buoyant streamer to rise back up toward the surface. This up-and-down movement is tantalizing to trout and creates the illusion of an injured baitfish.
After fishing with several top Michigan streamer guides, I’m convinced that the pause (after the cast and line hand strip) is the key to fishing buoyant streamers. You need to let the line fish the fly. Be prepared for some vicious tugs with this tactic!
Neutral buoyancy. I first heard the term neutral buoyancy years ago while watching Larry Dahlberg’s The Hunt for Big Fish. The concept is simple—these patterns don’t sink or float upward in the water column, they merely follow the path of the fly line. Although they can be retrieved fast, their hovering characteristics allow you fish the pattern slowly with lots of pauses, without worrying about snagging the bottom.
One of my favorite patterns in this category is Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer. These jointed articulated patterns are the closest thing fly fishers have to a live minnow. I use this design when fishing long, flat pools where fish have more time to investigate your patterns—so your pattern must look more natural in the water.
As I mentioned previously, more anglers are fishing streamers these days, and fish are more aware of false baits. As a result, we need more lifelike movements in our patterns, and Chocklett’s Game Changer provides exactly that type of advantage.
George Daniel is the author of the new book Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole Books, 2018). He owns and operates the company Livin’ on the Fly and presents schools, seminars, and private lessons across the country.