13 Tips for Fly Fishing Streamers

Did we mention the giant Pike that live in the rivers around Missoula Montana?

-Tip #1 Rod Tip Low

Keep your rod tip low. Keep your rod tip pointed at the fly. Read that again! The biggest and most common mistake we see when fly fishing streamers in Montana is retrieving the streamer with the rod tip to the side or in the air like a spinning rod. Both these techniques create slack in your line, so you can’t feel the take. A little twitch to the side is okay to activate the streamer, then right back to pointing the rod tip directly at the streamer with a strip to insure your line stays tight. We often say point your rod tip straight at the streamer with the tip of the rod in the water. Shake the rod side to side for action- never pull up or back. You create slack, and lose power on the hook set.

-Tip #2 Change Colors

If you’ve ever been to our fly shop in Missoula, MT, you’ll see we have one of the largest, if not the largest streamer selections in Montana. In every size and color. More important than style or pattern is size and color. If you’re confident in the water you’re fishing and nothing seems to be eating your streamer, then switch colors until you find one they’ll eat. If you ask ten streamer fishermen, you’ll probably get ten different answers when it comes to streamer color. Many of our guides switch colors every 15 minutes until we find one the trout are interested in that day. Could take 5-6 tries! Again, lots of theories, but conventional wisdom states start light, like white, and progressively change to darker flies. Start with white, go to tan, then light olive to dark olive to brown to black is a great strategy to use. In our opinion, this holds true regardless of lighting conditions.

-Tip #3 Switch Up Your Retrieve

Just like switching colors, it’s also a good idea to change your retrieve. Some days the trout want it stripped slow, other days they want a fast-moving streamer and some days they want a lot of action with twitches and fast bursts. During the day of fishing, switch up your retrieve until the trout tells you how they want it. Water temperature has a lot to do with how you retrieve your streamer- check out Tip # 8.

-Tip #4 Strip Set

Trout can be very aggressive when chasing smaller fish, which is what you’re imitating with a streamer. Often fish will slash multiple times at your streamer without actually eating it. It’s so difficult to leave the streamer in the water, but that’s what the strip set does. A strip set means setting the hook with a big strip of line backwards, rather than the traditional trout set which lifts the tip high above your head. Because the strip set doesn’t lift the rod and jerk the fly out of range, the fish can come back to eat again and again. When fish are slashing first, and eating on the second or third shot, the strip set keeps you in the game a lot longer.

-Tip #5 Size Down

Big flies take big fish. That’s the mantra. Many Missoula anglers get caught up in that mindset, saying you must fish big streamers to catch big fish. While that statement is true, some of the biggest trout we’ve taken in Montana have eaten small streamers. Big articulated streamers can be fun to throw and you can catch some giant trout on them, but they’re tough to cast and not always necessary. Many anglers, especially waders, only carry one rod. Size your fly to the line weight you have. If you want to fish streamers but only carry one rod, our advice is carry a 6wt that easily throws a dry/dropper or nymph rig if the streamer fishing isn’t productive. A smaller streamer is easier to cast, which improves accuracy. Big fish live where they live- if you get the streamer to them, big or small, there’s a good chance they will eat.

-Tip #6 Match Fly Sink Rate To Fly Line

We see many Montana fly fishermen throwing neutrally buoyant or floating streamers on a floating line. They often come in and ask if they should be using split shot when fishing this fly. The answer is, you’re going to need something to sink that fly! Please note certain streamers are designed to be fished on a sink tip while others are designed to fish on a floating fly line. The more buoyant streamers, those with deer hair heads or lots of bulk, should be fished on a sink tip. The fly line goes deeper while the streamer suspends up off the bottom, a very enticing action. Heavily weighted streamers, using beads, lead or coneheads, perform better on floating lines because they sink rapidly. If you fish those heavy streamers on a sinking line, they will tend to snag up as the line and heavy fly gets too deep.

-Tip #7 Lengthen Leader As Water Clears

June fly fishing around Missoula often involves water that’s a bit high and off colored. In these conditions, the fish are not line or leader shy. A simple leader made of 4-6 feet of heavy tippet, like Maxima 15- 20 lb, is ideal. As the water drops and clears, you’ll need to size down and taper your leader. Trout see better in low, clear water conditions and will spot your rig more easily when fishing a heavy short leader. Extending you leader to 9-12 feet, tapering down to 3x (don’t be afraid to use fluorocarbon leader), will increase your strikes in clear conditions. Think stealth!

-Tip #8 Pay attention to Water Temperatures

Water temperatures play a huge role in how trout react to your streamers around Missoula and throughout Montana. Very cold water (33-45 degrees) and warmer water (60 degrees and above) will slow fish down, and they won’t chase a streamer as aggressively as when the water is between 45 and 60 degrees. During winter and early spring, the water is typically too cold for a trout to aggressively chase a streamer, and same said for the warm temps we sometimes see in August. During these conditions you need to fish your streamers slow- either dead drifting, slowly stripping or swinging your streamer. The sweet spot is from 45-60 degrees. This is when you can begin to be a little more active with your retrieve, moving it faster through the water with a lot of action. But remember, trout are trout. Sometimes trout will slam stripped streamers in colder or warmer weather, or demand a dead drift in the optimum temperature range. While this is an excellent jumping off point, always listen to what the trout are trying to tell you. Vary your tactics till the fish start eating.

-Tip #9 High Water Means Tight To The Banks

During high water in Montana, the fish will be pushed close to the bank to the only soft water in the river. This tip is more for floaters, but helps all anglers find fish in these conditions. When fishing high water, bang the banks and stay there. Cast as close to shore as possible. Strip the fly about 6-7 feet off the bank, then pick up and do it again. Since the fish are pushed to the edges of the river it’s often pointless to strip more than 5 feet from the bank, as fish don’t like to venture into heavier water. This technique has you delivering more flies where fish are hanging, and ignoring unproductive water. As the water drops, your retrieves will lengthen, as fish move from the banks to their summer holding water

-Tip #10 Strip All the Way In

Guides see it all the time. Guests strip their streamer about halfway to the boat, and when starting the next cast, a trout charges the streamer but it’s gone. Other than high water conditions (see Tip #9), it’s wise to retrieve your streamer all the way to the boat if floating, or to the bank if wading. Fish often follow a streamer for a distance before eating, and fishing out your cast will add some fish to your count. As an added bonus, it’s awesome to watch a huge trout crush your fly 10 feet from the tip of the rod. One last thought. If a trout charges your fly as you start the back cast, they might be telling you to move the fly faster during your retrieve. Just saying…….

-Tip #11 Skinny Patterns

Big flies catch big fish, but there is a limit! Think about it, how many baitfish in Montana rivers are 5 inches long and 2 inches wide or 4 inches long and 2 inch wide? Not many species in Montana rivers fit that profile and neither should your streamers. There are many streamers on the market that are too bulky to be effective. When these huge streamers were introduced, they took some fish, but as the fish see more and more, their effectiveness is dwindling. Now it seems like fish are more willing to eat smaller thinner flies that represent the baitfish they naturally see in Montana. These thinner profile flies are what we typically get the most action on.

-Tip #12 Swing It

There are three main methods to presenting streamers- stripping, dead drift and swinging. Swinging is often overlooked, yet can be one of the most productive ways to catch trout. Instead of stripping your fly toward you, try casting your streamer straight across the river, or quartered downstream and hold on tight. Allow the streamer to swing through your chosen water and straighten out below you. It’s a good idea to twitch or shake the rod tip to give your fly a little movement. This strategy covers a lot of water effectively and often times will put the fly suspended in front of the fishes face for a longer period then stripping it across.

-Tip #13 Night Fishing

If you read our Mouse fishing page, you know we love night fishing with rodents. The big slash, the crushing rise, Mousing is just an exciting, fun way to fish! It’s easy to overlook streamer fishing at night. It’s simple math. How many mice are in the water? How many fish are in the water? There’s more little fish than mice, so trout are more attuned to taking a streamer. Night time is when the big Brown Trout come out to feed, and a well presented streamer will take these fish with more regularity than a floating imitation.  We typically fish black streamer patterns creating a strong silhouette during the darkest nights.  If the moon is full and bright,  then flashy patterns can produce, but black makes a great silhouette at night and has been our most productive. Focus on shallow water and inside bends as nocturnal fish hunt their prey in these areas.

Missoula Montana Guided Fly Fishing Trip

Come enjoy a day on the river with Missoula’s best fly fishing guides. We float the Bitterroot River, Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork River. All gear, lunch and transportation provided.

Montana Guided Fly Fishing Float Trip

Additional Streamer Resources