Fishing Streamers for Big Fish
It is a fact that streamer fishing can produce the largest of trout. Unfortunately very little has been written about when to use them and how to properly fish them. Those who use them, swear by them and most anglers fish them by casting and stripping, swinging or jigging them. There is no wrong way to fish a streamer but by following a few simple guidelines, anyone can know when to use them and how to have great success fishing these producers of large trout. I use 3 criteria when I fish streamers that allow me to fish a wide range of water types very relaxed and with a high level of confidence that allows me to completely enjoy my experience.
Streamer flies evolved from the original Atlantic salmon style of fly tying in an attempt to create a fly that looked like a small fish. As modern anglers have come to understand the aggressive nature of larger trout, streamer flies have evolved into other things that can trigger aggression using color, movement and/or size and shape that will move water and create vibrations that the fish can sense. There is definitely a time and a place for all types of streamers.
Fish will eat a streamer for one of a two reasons. Either the fish will be fooled into eating the fly because it looks like the food that the fish is used to eating, or it will eat the fly because the angler is able trigger an aggressive response from the fish. This aggressive response can be triggered from the size of the fly, the color or combination of colors of the fly, the manner in which it is presented or a combination of fly and presentation. In the common world of fly-fishing, the fly is often chosen by the angler because it looks like the food that the fish is eating at a given time. Nature produces an abundance of food, fish begin feeding on it, the angler observes it, chooses an imitation of it, rigs up his or her line properly and delivers the imitation in front of the feeding fish. The problem with streamers is that unlike a mayfly hatch that may be in progress for 30 minutes to several hours, it is very rare that fish are actively eating baitfish for more than a few brief moments. And unless the behavior is taking place with regularity and the angler can be prepared for it, there is very little time for the angler to observe and react making it difficult for the angler to capitalize on the situation. Therefore, in order to hedge ones bet with streamers, it is best to identify when to fish them and then do so in a manner that will trigger an aggressive response. Fortunately by following a few simple steps, anyone can learn this without much heartache.
When to fish a streamer
Trout may eat a streamer on any given day and on any body of water but there are certain times when we can predict the likelihood of trout being prone to taking these flies. There are times on some streams, when due to very low food availability that trout seem to go into a lethargic, energy saving mode in which they may not be willing to move much at all. These are often during cold winter months on streams that just don’t have great winter hatches… Avoid those time periods on those streams for streamer fishing. Aside from that extreme, trout will be more likely to hit a streamer in low light conditions and during the several weeks preceding spawning. This means fishing streamers on overcast days, mornings, evenings and at night will typically mean more fish. During periods of pre-spawn, trout undergo hormone changes and become very aggressive and territorial. Fishing streamers during this time is a great bet but when the angler encounters low light conditions during pre-spawn periods, it is a golden opportunity.
How to fish a streamer
As I mentioned previously, there is no wrong way to fish a streamer. Conversely, there is no one right way to fish a streamer either. Instead of pre-determining how you will fish a streamer and consequently seeking out water types that are conducive to the fishing technique that will be used, I have 3 criteria and a couple of basic rules that guide my decisions. By fishing streamers this way, I am able to adapt and fish streamers in any water type. I no longer need to seek out certain water types, depths or current speeds. I only need to have an idea of where there may be a fish that I’d like to catch.
There is nothing wrong with having a pre-determined technique and seeking out water that works with it but depending on the method and the water type, there will likely be limitations. I don’t want to be limited to where and how I can fish streamers. I only want to identify that the time is right, and after that, I want to be able to fish effectively to any fish in a river.
The 3 Criteria
First and foremost, I want to fish my streamer at the fish’s depth. I often see anglers fishing streamers with a floating fly line and a long leader. The streamer can be seen moving just under the surface of the water. This may produce a few fish but I do much better when my streamer is deep. In my opinion there is no more effective way of fishing a streamer in a river than with a sink tip fly line. It is easy to get the fly deep and the floating portion of the fly line can be mended easily to allow the angler to adjust the flies depth, change the orientation of the fly or adjust the speed of the fly (faster or slower). If you do not have a sink tip fly line and do not want to buy one, there is a less expensive alternative in the form of a sinking tapered leader. It is not as good as an integrated sink tip fly line but it will get the job done in a pinch.
Secondly, I want to fish my streamer so that the fish has a broadside view of the fly. I do not catch as many fish on streamers when I am casting a streamer straight toward a fish and stripping it back so that the fish only see’s the fly from directly behind it. I prefer to position myself in a spot where I can cast and mend the line so that the fish sees the entire profile of the fly. The use of a riffle hitch is also a great tool here but I will leave that topic for another day. I could not do justice to the subject of fishing a riffle hitch in the confines of this article.
After the streamer is deep and broadside to the fish, the third criteria is to present the streamer with erratic movement. This can be achieved by stripping line in, jiggling the rod tip, mending or any combination that the angler deems appropriate. The key here is that the streamer has random erratic movement as if to simulate either a wounded minnow or a small baitfish darting about. Stripping the line is best done with the rod very low to the waters surface (the lower the better) so that the fly has sharp movements and distinct starts and stops.
When stripping the line back, with the rod tip low, point the rod toward the fly but about 15 to 20 degrees to the one side or the other of the fly line. Do not point the rod directly down the line because the rod will not be able to absorb any of the impact when the fish hits the fly. Yet if the rod is held too far to one side or the other, depending on the rod and the angle, the rod may absorb too much of the pressure to set the hook firmly in the fishes mouth. 15 to 20 degrees is perfect!
Keep your leader short. I prefer 3 to 4 feet maximum, including tippet! I use a tapered leader to 0x or 1x with a total distance from fly line to fly at about 3 feet or so. Some people do not taper the leader. It is not necessary for fly delivery provided that your leader is heavy enough but I prefer to use a tapered leader so that the weakest part of the leader is very near the fly in case I break off.
If you want to add weight to help the fly sink faster, twist on lead is the best I’ve found for streamer fishing. Far superior to split shot, it stays put, it’s easy to add or remove weight and it casts like a dream.
Finally, when the fish takes the fly, it will be explosive! If you are not ready, it may even pull the line out of your hand. DO NOT SET THE HOOK! If you set the hootipsk in the traditional manner, you will land a few fish but you will likely have many strikes while only landing a portion of them. When the fish hits the fly, simply do nothing. It takes nerves of steel not to react by raising the rod but trust me; you will hook up more fish if you just let the fish set itself.
Identifying when to fish streamers and following these criteria is fun and rewarding. Many people wait a lifetime to catch the size of fish that will readily eat a properly presented streamer fly.