Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lackluster Fishing Advice - Things I've Learned About Streamers

Streamer fishing. 

It's all the rage these days.  Walk into any reputable fly shop and you are likely to find dozens of crazy concoctions of fur, feathers, eyeballs, rubberlegs, and god knows what else.  There are no shortage of patterns out there to try and attempt to tie.  Unfortunately tying more than a few of these patterns require nothing less than the entire Feathercraft material catalog and a P.Hd in rocket science.

Fishing streamers is an awesome way to chase trout and if you've never done it it's sure worth a try.  There's nothing quite like it when a big brown slams your fly.  It's true, (most days at least) if you want to catch bigger trout you should be fishing streamers.     

I've in no way shape or form a master streamer fisherman, however in the many years I've been working at this technique here are some of the few things I've learned:

1.  Switch up Your Retrive:  I've found more often than not, it's not the fly you are using but how you are fishing it that matters.  A lot of guys are content to as I call it "grip it and rip it," for hours and hours.  By grip it and rip it, I'm talking about slamming that fly into the bank and stripping it back to you roughly perpendicular to the current.  The timing of the strips is steady like a metronome, strip, strip, strip, etc...  While this may be the most effective approach at certain times, often there are more effective ways to fish your fly.  The following are a few retrieve methods that I like to use.

              - The Jig:  What's the most effective lure ever created?  That answer is easy - the jig.  The bouncing, jumping, diving action of a jig is hard to beat.  Jigs imitate all sorts of wounded and/or dying creatures, easy targets for predators.  Most of the streamers I like have heavy conehead or dumbbell eyes so I can jig the fly.  To accomplish this retrieve channel your inner bass fisherman.  Twitch the rod upward and then drop it, take up the slack each time with a strip or two.  Jigging, at times, can be deadly.

              - The Strip Pause:  This is somewhat similar to the jig but imparts a little more swimming action to the fly.  This may be my go to retrieve.  I love a strip, strip, pause cadence, keeping my strips short and fast.  This gives the fly a darting action similar to how sculpins swim.  With this retrieve a lot of fish will chase the fly on the strips and then on the pause, pounce on the fly when it is dropping in the water column.   

              - The Swing, Dangle and Drop:  Not often my first choice but at certain times, particularly in colder water temps, this technique can be very effective.  Also a good choice for fishing the fast/slow current seams that you find in freestone streams.  This is basically the traditional down and across wet fly swing approach.  When your fly gets to the end of the swing let it hang downstream for a few seconds often a fish will slam it when it is "dangling" downstream.  I also like to lift the fly and then drop it when it is dangling.  Sometimes that extra little bit of action does the trick.    
              - The Fluff:  An especially effective technique for fishing from a boat and can be deadly during high water conditions.  For this technique I use a floating line and a 9ft. leader.  This setup allows me to mend my line  and impart a lot of action on the fly without stripping.  The reason for this lies in the fact that in high water most fish are pushed tight to the bank to escape the fast water in the main river channel.  By casting your fly tight to the bank and then initiating a series of downstream mends you can impart a great jigging action and keep the fly on the bank where the fish are.  When you are doing this right when you mend you should be able to see the fly for a second and then it will drop out of view.  This technique is also extremely effective for fishing streamers under and around structure such as trees, logs, and rocks.   

              - The High Stick Lead;  a great technique for fishing pocket water, small streams, or in places with lots of structure (logs, rocks, etc.).  Think of this almost as Czech nymphing with streamers.  By keeping a high rod tip you can "lead" your flies throw tight boulder filled slots or thrgouh channels between the weeds in spring creeks.  You can jig and twitch the fly as you lead it through a run.  One warning about tight line streamer fishing.  Since you have a tight line to your fly you may miss a few fish, try to resist the urge to yank up when a fish eats.  Often the fish will hook itself if you can keep your cool and give him a second to eat it.   

2.  What Flies Work Best? aka Does your fly swim?:  No silver bullets here.  There are thousands of patterns out there and I'm sure they all work.  I will give you a few of my favorites in a bit but first.  What makes a good streamer?  I believe every effective streamer pattern ever tied has these important elements.  
             - Materials and construction that let your flies move and breath in the water:  A fly may look great dry but what does it look like when wet?
             - A realistic profile:  Again, what does it look like when wet, does it look like a sculpin, a baitfish, an old sock?
             - Flash:  I'm a believer in flash and most flies that I ever have had success with contain at least a few strands of krystal flash.
             - Weight:  I believe streamers should be weighted enough to allow the fly to jig and dive.  Medium sized lead dumbbell eyes usually do the trick.  A modest amount of weight allows me to fish a fly with a floating line, a sink tip, or full sinking line as conditions dictate. 

Okay so here are some of my go to streamers. 
Karnopp's Space Invader - size 6. 
McKnight's Home Invader - size 6. 
Urchin Buggers - sizes 8-4. 
The Kreelex - size 6. 
Double Bunnies - sizes 4-6. 
Skiddish Smolt - size 4.  
Sheila Sculpin - size 6. 
Garrett's Bellydancer - size 4-6. 
Sculpzilla - size 4. 
Kelly Galloup articulated stuff. 
Cheech's leech - articulated.       

3. Color matters more than patternA lot of folks are always searching for the killer fly.  While some patterns certainly are more effective than others (see above) I think it's most important to have a few patterns that you have confidence in and have them in multiple colors rather than say having twenty different sculpin patterns that are all olive.  On any given day or for that matter hour, color can make or break you.  If I had a dollar for every time I switched colors and immediately hooked up I would be a man of modest income. 

3.  The big fly doesn't always catch the big fish:  This has to do a lot with the water you fish.  Knowing what kinds of forage fish live in your water goes along way to helping catch fish.  It is my experience that many times a size 6 streamer will outperform a six inch long articulated pattern.  Why?  The benefit of the smaller fly is that fish will almost always tend to eat it, not just swipe at it or smack it broadside but eat it.  If you are only fowl hooking fish with larger flies and/or getting grabs but no hook ups, try switching to a smaller fly.  On a piece of water I like to occasionally fish that holds many browns over 20 inches, I rarely fish a fly bigger than a size 6 and I am rarely disappointed by the results. 

4.  It's good to be Impatient:  Experience will teach you more than anything as long as you take the time to learn from the past.  If I know where a fish lives and I don't catch him on my first or second cast I do one of several things. 
                1. Change my retrieve. 
                2. Change colors. 
                3. Change the size of the fly.  I rarely will go more than 15 minutes without changing if I'm not getting good responses to my fly.  

5. To Sink or Not to Sink?:  Sink tips, full sinking lines, weighted vs. unweighted flies, there's too many options to choose from.  What works best and when can be the subject of much debate.  What setup I choose to use is largely determined by the conditions and whether I am wade fishing or in a boat.  The majority of my streamer fishing is done with a floating line.  My second most used setup is a 5ft. fast sinking or extra fast sinking polyleader.  I prefer the Airflo Polyleaders (see A Bum Gear Review - Airflo Polyleaders) but companies like Rio are making very similar products.  I tie on the end of the polyleader an 18inch section of 1 or 2x tippet and have at it.  I have a 300 grain sinking line but honestly I find very few reasons to use it.         

6.  How the fish see the fly is important:  Have you ever seen a bait-fish flee upstream?  Me neither.  Given the choice spooked and scared fish will almost always run downstream.  The reason for this is simple, current.  A fish can swim faster downstream than up due to it using the current to aid in it's escape.  For this reason I like to fish my streamers running downstream or parallel to the current.  Fish your flies directly downstream back to you can be very effective at times.

7.  Think like a hunter:  Many times you are not looking for a "bunch of fish."  Instead you are looking for one or two big ones.  I've had days where I've gotten that "bunch of fish" fishing streamers and I've had a handful where those "bunch of fish" are big ones.  When you have a day like that simply enjoy it.  If you want to be a successful streamer fisherman however, it pays to think like a big game hunter.  Where is that trophy going to be holding?  How do we get into position without spooking it?  How do we make that one shot count?  More often than not your first cast through a run is the one that produces so it pays to make it count.  Plan your shots, take a few moments to analyze the situation, (structure, current, casting technique) and you will catch more and bigger fish.  That I can guarantee.        

8.  Final thoughts:  If there's a way to summarize what I've learned it would be this.  Avoid becoming a creature of habit.  What color, size, and retrieve that worked last year, yesterday, or even an hour ago may not get you into fish.  Don't get locked into only fishing one fly one way, be willing to experiment, take risks, and do different things.  Don't make streamers your back up plan, make it "the" plan once in a while.  Instead of nymphing all day try throwing streamers.  That first two foot long brown you land will make it all worth it. 

If you are just getting into fishing streamers or are interested.  Remember you don't need a hundred different patterns.  Pick 5 or 6 and have them in multiple colors.  Double bunnies and wooly buggers are always a good start and are simple and cheap enough to tie in various sizes and colors. 


  1. Bob, nice job on this post. Looks like you've had some productive streamer days.