Hucking meat. Or at least that’s what I call throwing streamers for trout. Because when you really break it down, we are, for all purposes, using flies that are the equivalent of filet mignon for a hungry fish. Whether you criticize modern streamer fishing or are, like me, a self proclaimed streamer junkie, there is no arguing the effectiveness of these patterns both large and small. Simply put, fish eat other fish. More specifically larger fish eat smaller fish.
A few years back on the Arkansas River I was out swinging a few wet flies and caught a feisty little brown trout, and though it was full of life, it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for so I tried to land it quickly so I could return to chasing the larger fish that lived in the run I was working. While striping line in I suddenly noticed that my 4wt felt like it hit a snag, I looked to see if somehow I had gotten tangled and immediately saw the silhouette of a massive brown trout that had decided the peppy fingerling looked like a tasty treat. After a minute or so of fighting and almost netting the larger fish an evolutionary trigger must have kicked in because bigger brown decided to let go. At the time I was already pretty far down the proverbial rabbit hole that is streamer fishing, and this experience ruined any chance of escape. I had seen videos and heard tell of this sort of thing, but to witness it first hand was an experience that very well may have lead to my current status as a fishing bum with a guiding problem.
Now that I have made using streamers sound like some demonic cult that requires ritual sacrifice, I would love to share a few tips to enhance your streamer fishing experience and who knows maybe even get you to join the club (we are trying to get away from the whole cult thing, its a PR nightmare).
The following are five tips that I have found to increase success with both my clients and my own personal fishing.
Use a streamer you can see.
White is, in most river conditions, the easiest color streamer to see. Whenever I am taking out a client who is streamer fishing for the first time I typically something that is highly visible. This visibility is helpful for a few key reasons. First and foremost it allows us to see when fish chase our fly, which is without a doubt half the fun of streamer fishing. Furthermore, it allows the angler to see how the action they are giving the fly looks in the water. I’ve found as a guide that nothing beats having your client actually see the fly swim, I can explain all I want about the presentation, but actually seeing the speed, pulse and movement of the fly is the best tool for teaching the various retrieves we use.
Vary your retrieves.
One of the biggest mistakes I see on the river is anglers using only one style of retrieve when fishing streamers. This applies not only to the speed of the fly but also the angle of the retrieve. To truly and thoroughly work a good piece of water, especially when trying to figure out what presentation they are after, I will typically try several retrieves/angles in succession before moving down a few steps to cover the next piece. I’ve found it helpful to think of the water in terms of latitude, longitude and depth. In order to cover the water efficiently, we want to try to swim our fly so that it covers multiple courses through each spot. As with all river fishing, there are certain spots that would seem “fishier” than others, but you shouldn’t overlook water when streamer fishing. Some of the biggest fish have caught have been in very shallow water close to shore.
As for retrieves, typically I will run variations of a “strip twitch” which is simply a combination of stripping line and twitching the rod tip. When done correctly this method leaves your rod in a perfect position to set the hook. When working a run I will typically start out a bit slower, allowing my fly to pause/swing for a good bit, followed by increasing speeds and pauses of varying lengths. I’ll also vary the angles I retrieve at, starting with a few upriver retrieves and working to where I eventually am retrieving perpendicular to the current. As you work your local waters, you’ll develop your own tactics, but be sure to always try multiple retrieves until you are able to key in on what the fish are after.
Tuck and twitch immediately.
A bad habit that seems all too common with anglers new to streamer fishing is the quickness where they, firstly, tuck the line under their finger after the cast and secondly, twitch the fly. I am a firm believer that a streamer, unless its being swung, should have movement imparted immediately upon landing. I can’t tell you how many eats I’ve had after the first twitch of a streamer. What happens all too often is that anglers let go of the line as they cast and as a result, they spend the next crucial seconds trying to find the line in order to start the retrieve. The best way to remedy this is to practice tucking the line under your index finger on your forward cast. More specifically as you are about to do your final cast, don’t let go with your line hand, but rather let the line shoot through your hand and as you follow the cast with your rod, tuck the line under your index finger (preferably right as your fly is about to land). By doing this you are able to twitch the fly as soon as it lands, which ultimately increases the time your fly is fishing. Being able to tuck the line is a skill that will improve every aspect of your fishing because it allows for immediate control of your fly regardless of what style you are fishing.
So often when streamer fishing sub-surface the depth of our flies can be the difference between failure and success. I am a big believer in getting streamers into the “zone” as fast as I can and keeping them there for as long as possible on the retrieve. For that reason, I typically use an Airflo Streamer Max Line. The ability to swim our flies closer to the bottom will greatly increase our odds of hooking up. In addition to a full sinking line, there are a variety of sink tips in various rates that can make any rod with a floating line more versatile and also improve the odds when stripping streamers. I’ve also used a few split shot about 2-3’ above the fly when in a real pinch. Regardless of how you get your flies down, be sure to always try adding some depth, especially if fish seem to be unresponsive higher in the water column.
Is that a two fly rig?
You’ve heard of double nymph rigs, hopper droppers, a brace of wets – well streamers are no different. Double streamer rigs, although they can be a bear to cast, can be incredibly effective. The beauty of two streamers, is like many other two fly rigs, that we can cover different sizes, action, and color on one rig. When rigging for streamer fishing I typically run 4-5 ft of either 1x or 2x fluorocarbon, one thing trout aren’t when eating streams is leader shy. Also running a shorter leader allows for heavier flies to turn over. In order to add a second fly use your knot of choice to add a tag that ensures your flies have about 2-3 ft of distance between streamers so you avoid snagging fish interested in the top fly. In general, and for casting purposes, it helps to put a heavier fly as your lead/point fly (bottom fly) and a smaller streamer of the tag. I like to have a lot of variation between my two streamers, light and dark, zonker, and marabou. Running a Cheech Leech as a point and a Fish Skull Bugger as a tag is a great combo. Often the first fly can act as a trigger for the second fly inciting a vicious take.
I hope these tips have shed some light on the dark underbelly of our sport that is streamer fishing. In all seriousness though the next time you get a chance to huck some meat you absolutely should, just like every other aspect of fly fishing our ability to be versatile and adapt to various conditions is often the difference between failure and success.