For novice fly fishers, learning how to fish streamer’s can feel very intimidating. Which is strange, because as a technique streamer fishing is the easiest to master. Nymphs and dry flies demand a drag free drift, which is not always easy to obtain. Because a streamer imitates a minnow or leech- creatures which can control their movements in the water- they do not require the subtleties of the dead drift. They can be tugged and pulled through the water in any desired direction. Instead of searching for no drag, you’re creating drag that will entice the fish.
The number of streamers available to the angler is absolutely mind-boggling. They’re found in every color under the sun, and range in size anywhere from 1” in length to 7”. Start to add variables like weighted v. weightless, articulated v. single hook and other variations, and it’s enough to send you back to the nymph section!
Choosing streamers is not as difficult as it looks. There are considerations to take when choosing your streamers. The first is the size of the streamer. It needs to be compatible with the line weight you’re using. The lighter the line weight, the smaller the streamer should be. Think of it this way. If you attached a fly to a Ping Pong ball and threw it, it would go a certain distance, and land fairly lightly. In comparison, if you attached a fly to a baseball, you could throw it much farther, and land with much more disturbance. The Ping Pong ball will carry less weight and travel less distance than the baseball. In a nutshell, that’s how fly lines work for streamer fishing.
If your main rod for trout is a 4 wt., you’ll need to choose flies small enough to be controlled by such a light line. However, if you’re using a 7 wt. for trout, you will have access to much larger streamers. The 7 wt. is a much heavier line, and will be able to control a much larger fly. If your fly line falls between, adjust your fly size accordingly.
The leader also plays a critical role in streamer fishing. With nymphs and dry flies, anglers try to use the lightest tippet possible for a better drift. In streamer fishing, a light tippet is counterproductive. Trout taking streamers are not leader shy- they are slashing at a moving target with very little concern for tippet size. If you decide to fish streamers, a spool of 1X tippet, or a 7.5’ 1X tapered leader will prove to be very helpful. The thicker leader will transfer more of the casting energy to the fly, allowing you to straighten line and leader with less difficulty. The thicker tippet also resists abrasion, which is important, as larger trout often live in some pretty gnarly spots!
Once you know the correct and approximate streamer size, you need to decide what colors you’re going to carry. To simplify matters, we’re going to fall back on some classic thoughts on streamers from the 40’s and 50’. Dark day, dark fly- light day, light fly- bright day, bright fly. Which means on a cloudy day, or in stained water, a black fly will provide the best silhouette. On a lighter day, try a tan or white fly. On a sunny day, try a fly with a lot of flash. So as you choose your streamers, choose with that in mind. The other thing to keep in mind is size. Have a big and small fly in light dark and bright, always remembering the limitations in size as defined by the line size you’re using. Now you have your flies, it’s time to go fishing!
If you’re floating the river, tactics for streamer fishing are quite easy. Since 80% of the fish are found within 10’ of the shoreline, you will be casting your streamer to the edge of the bank, and moving your streamer away from shore. Correct streamer technique has the angler pointing the rod tip directly at the fly, and manipulating the fly with your line hand by pulling on the line. If you use the rod tip to move the fly, the tip is moving backwards, and if the trout strikes near the end of your rod’s backward swing, the rod tip will not be able to move further back far or fast enough to set the hook. The streamer is a large hook, and it takes a lot of force to set it it. Additionally, the trout is slashing at the fly, and the time you have to set the hook is very brief. Having the ability to sweep the rod its entire length while yanking on the line gives the angler a better chance to hook the fish in that brief moment.
A wading angler has a different approach. You will be fishing your streamer across the river, casting at approximately a 30 degree angle downstream. The fly will swing down downstream through an arc. Allow the fly to extend almost straight out below you. The line should extend for two reasons. One, if you’ve attracted a fish from mid river, the extension of the cast allows the fly to stay in the water longer, allowing the trout a longer time to decide to eat. Second, since most fish live next to the bank, the full extension allows the trout by the shore to get a look at the shore.
Once you’ve completed a cast, take a step downstream and do it again. Streamer fishing is about covering water. You want to give as many fish as you can a chance to see your fly. Standing in the same spot limits how many fish will see the fly. As you cast downstream, again, you will be manipulating the fly with your line hand as you follow the path of the fly with your rod tip. The manipulation should be arrhythmic, imitating a wounded or injured baitfish. As a strategy for manipulation, start with small, slower movements, and as you progress, make the movements bigger and more forceful. Don’t worry, you can’t move the streamer so fast a trout can’t catch it if it wants your fly. Let the trout tell you how they want the streamer moved, so make sure you vary your retrieve throughout the day.
Streamer fishing is never the “wrong” way to fish, though the results will vary widely from day to day. At any given time in a body of water, there are smaller fish available for larger fish. So the streamer is never wrong. However, biologists say a trout needs to be at least 3 times larger than its intended prey. That means if you use a 3’ fly, the smallest trout that will eat that fly is 9”, and will probably be larger than that. When you fish a streamer, you are removing approximately 60% of the trout population from eating your fly. It’s too big for those trout to eat/attack. Which means streamer fishing can be slower than other types of fishing, but the rewards can be very big!
A last thought on steamer fishing. When thinking of dry flies, nymphs and streamers, the least intrusive type of fishing is dry fly fishing. Since dry fly fishing only disturbs the surface, it affects the least amount of water. Nymphing, because it’s underwater, disturbs the stream a bit more. Streamer fishing is the most intrusive style of fly fishing, as the streamer is subsurface, and pulled vigorously through the water over a longer distance. So if you’re planning on fishing a section of river for an extended period of time, don’t start with streamers. Work the water with a dry, move to nymphs, and then try streamers. Unless you plan to keep moving all day, the streamer may not be your first choice when you approach the river. But when you decide to dedicate some time to the streamer, you’ll find the size of the trout you’re catching will get much larger. Big fish eat little fish!