Streamer fishing is an activity that rings synonymous with fall fishing. The Yellowstone River has been attracting streamer junkies for decades, since the formation of this specialty. Indeed, many of the household name streamer patterns that are known worldwide originated in our windy little town.
What is it about streamer fishing that not only works so well, but is so appealing to so many anglers?
Continuous food source
Streamers imitate smaller bait fish, a food source that is always around. It doesn’t matter what time of year, what the conditions are, those bait fish are always there. There is literally not a single day in the entire year that trout aren’t chasing bait fish. This omni-presence of the food source means that fish are eating streamers every day.
Of course, there are days when the bite is better than most. But the theory holds that every single day of the year, you can coax a fish into eating a streamer. This is unlike other times of year when you are fishing a specific hatch that is only on certain times of day and the year. Bait fish are always around.
Targets aggressive fish
Throwing streamers elicits a very strong reaction from fish. It’s not the careful look that picky fish feeding on tiny dries are going to give you. Trout will either eat a streamer or not. If they’re hungry and they’re liking what you’re casting to them, you’ll know it. Streamer eats are never delicate, never gentle. If you’re used to watching brown trout gently sip mayflies, you’re in a treat.
Unlike during many dry fly hatches where trout barely move out of their feeding lanes, aggressive fish will move for a streamer. The reward for expending the energy to chase down and eat a baitfish is a lot more than for a small dry fly! Watching a dark shadow move six feet through the water to chase your fly is a sight that you can’t help but get excited about.
More active fishing style
Many people prefer fishing streamers because of its more active fishing style. You are constantly casting, looking, stripping, and working your fly. It can be physically taxing, but it definitely keeps your head in the game! After long days of staring at a strike indicator, actively casting and stripping streamers back is a great change of pace.
How To Fish Streamers
Fishing streamers is not rocket science. It’s more about methodology than exact inputs. We’ll talk about three of the most popular and effective ways to fish streamers, but before we do, here are some general rules of thumb you should be aware of.
Streamer Fishing Gear
It’s easy for a beginner to become overwhelmed by “streamer specific” gear. While it can benefit the diehard, you can absolutely use the rod and line you have right now. The most common rod weights for streamer fishing are 6, 7 and 8. These heavier rods can handle larger flies better. If you want to be fishing heavy, double-articulated patterns a 7 or 8 weight is the way to go.
One of the most common questions is “Do I need a sink tip to fish streamers?”. In short, no. You don’t. A generic, multi-purpose weight forward taper works just fine. You want a line with a lot of weight in the front end, to help transfer the weight and energy of the cast into casting the large flies. A sink tip helps get unweighted patterns down, but many streamers have enough weight to get down to the optimal depth on their own.
Tippet is another common question. Don’t bother with the common trout tapers. If you’re buying a pre-made tapered leader, 0x or 1x is your best friend. If you want to go another route, try a length of 12 or 15 lbs Maxima or other leader material. You don’t need too much - 6 or 7’ will work just fine. This isn’t delicate dry fly fishing!
Carry a variety of colors, sizes, and profiles.
While we all have our favorite patterns, there are days when they just won’t work. If you’re not getting anything, try mixing it up. Use bigger flies, smaller flies, articulated or single hook, different materials… There are an endless array of options to choose from!
There are days when a small change in size or profile can make the difference between catching fish or not. Carrying a few different patterns, profiles and sizes allows you to mix it up when things aren’t working. Different conditions call for different choices, and being able to adjust to what’s happening in the moment will pay dividends.
Dark Day, Dark Fly. Bright Day, Bright Fly
This adage is pretty self explanatory. When the sun is out and it’s a bright day, use a brightly colored fly. Darker day, fish a darker fly. Not a hard and fast rule, but a great starting point. This can also be applied to water clarity - clear water use lighter flies, murkier or darker water, use a darker fly.
Close, But No Cigar
When you are getting attention like follows or looks but no takers, you are close. Generally that means they are liking something about your fly. Try the same pattern in a different color. If that doesn’t work, try changing size. If they turn off of that, try a new profile or shape.
When you are getting “short strikes” or what happens when the fish isn’t fully committing to the fly, instead just nipping at the back of it, you should do one of two things. Trimming the material on the back of the fly down to a shorter length can often solve this issue. Or, switch patterns to something with a stinger hook. This style of fly has a small hook attached by wire to the hook shank. There are several advantages to fishing flies with stinger hooks, and fixing the short strike problem is the main one.
Fish the Right Water
As with any kind of fishing, knowing where to fish can make all the difference. Going out to the local fishing access and casting right into the middle of the river might get you a few fish, but it’s certainly not a high percentage move. You will up your success considerably by fishing the right kind of water in the right way.
Streamer fishing targets aggressive fish that are waiting to ambush prey. Undercut banks, rock gardens, current seams, underwater structure and shelves, and buckets are all good spots. Fishing streamers from a boat does allow you to cover more water and get more opportunities in the “right” kind of streamer water. That doesn’t mean that wading isn’t an effective way to fish streamers, but you do have to work a bit harder for it.
The best advice for fishing streamer water is keep moving and cover water. Give each good looking spot a couple of casts and if you aren’t getting any action keep moving. Fishing streamers is about provoking a reaction. They’re there or they aren’t.
Now let’s talk about specific techniques. How do you actually fish streamers?
Stripping streamers is the most common and arguably most effective method of fishing streamers. This technique involves casting your fly, then stripping it back. Sounds easy, right?
Well, yes and no. On the most basic principles, yes it is very simple. Cast into good water, and strip the line back in. Where it gets more complicated is the stripping patterns. There are endless combinations of ways you can strip a streamer back. Fast, short strips. Long, then a couple short, then long again. Slow and steady. Big strips. Short strips. Quick strips. It’s endless.
Try a pattern for a few casts, and then continue to mix it up until you find one that works. Try varying depths as well based on current, river depth, and feeding behavior. Don’t get locked into one thing all day if it’s not working. Keep changing it up until you figure out what works.
This method of streamer fishing is less popular since it’s less active, but it can be deadly. Dead drifting streamers is basically nymphing with a streamer. Fished under an indicator, it allows the streamer to be presented as a wounded or dead batifish. Single hook patterns with materials like bunny or marabou do well here - this technique doesn’t work quite as well with the heavy articulated patterns.
Fish the streamer exactly as you would a big nymph. This is one time when a bit of drag on your indicator and line doesn’t hurt your chances. Throwing mends will give a bit of a bobble and some movement to the fly. It’s always a good idea to hang a smaller nymph off the back. You never know what might see the streamer, come investigate, and eat the dropper!
While dead drifting isn’t as exciting as the other methods, there is a time and a place it works very, very well. Don’t overlook it.
On The Swing
Swinging streamers is something more often associated with steelhead and big spey rods, but is becoming more and more common on trout streams. It allows an angler to cover more water, at varying depths, in a very effective way. With the proper gear, you can fish far more of the river with far less effort.
While two-handed trout spey set ups are the optimal way to fish streamers on the swing, it can be done with a single handled rod as well. The basic principle involves casting at an angle downstream, a big mend upstream to allow your fly to sink, then coming tight and letting the current carry your streamer downstream.
This allows for a very natural presentation, especially with flies made with materials that move very naturally. Any streamer pattern can be fished on the swing, but those that have a natural, flowy motion work best. Modified intruder patterns are always a solid bet. Many swing flies are weightless, since the depth is controlled by sinking tips or leaders instead of weight on the fly since a weightless fly has the best movement.
Learning the fish streamers opens a new world for anglers. It’s exciting and productive, and an effective method to stir up fish all year long.