Some days it seems like you can do no wrong throwing streamers. You are seeing trout on almost every cast, hooking more fish than you can count, and landing almost more than you can remember. You wonder why you ever bother fishing with nymphs or dry flies. On these days, you are a streamer shaman. But what might you do on those days when you feel more like a streamer charlatan? What follows is a combination of insights into trout behavior and suggestions regarding streamer techniques and equipment. Even though we will be talking about fishing streamers to trout in a moving body of water, much of our discussion applies to fishing for trout in still waters as well.
Why does a trout eat a streamer anyway? The answer to that question could be a thesis for a PHD-dissertation paper. That said, a trout generally eats a streamer because of either its prey drive or protective instinct. It either eats your streamer as food (e.g. leech, sculpin, trout fry) or as a way to protect against an intruder (e.g. a threat to a trout’s lie, an egg stealer, a food or spawning competitor). We can generalize that streamer fisherman are appealing more to a trout’s protective instincts during spawning season and appealing more to a trout’s prey drive throughout the rest of the year. On days when the trout are extremely predatory or protective, you can have a magical streamer experience. On these days, almost any presentation of your streamer gets the job done. But on those less than stellar streamer days, presentation may be the key to triggering a trout’s prey/protective drive. A trout is used to a certain behaviors from baitfish: baitfish flee if approached, baitfish keep their distance from trout, and baitfish rarely approach trout from behind or swim directly towards a trout. So as streamer anglers, we want to mimic the behavior of the trout’s prey.
Most days you need to convince the trout that your streamer is food. Throw your streamer across, or slightly down and across, to the river’s flow. This will allow the streamer to be presented to the trout in a way that is “expected” by the trout. The streamer will neither sneak up on a fish from behind nor will your offering swim directly towards a bewildered trout. In addition, since trout are almost always faced into a river’s current, an across the current presentation helps insure that the trout will be looking at your streamer broadside. A broadside presentation is both very realistic in nature and the large profile provided by the broadside presentation gives the angler a greater chance that the streamer will be seen by a willing trout. We also want a fleeing presentation: a streamer tossed to the bank that lies motionless, even for a few seconds, doesn’t imitate fleeing prey. It doesn’t trigger a strike. So try to start your retrieve as soon as it hits the water. A cast that fully extends and doesn’t collapse is essential if you want to start moving that streamer as soon as it hits the water. Even if you want to let the streamer sink some, a bit of a twitch as it sinks may be enough to trigger a strike.
Streamer selection is very important. We all have our favorite streamer. It is hard to cut off your favorite streamer to try another one. Why not throw 2 steamers? Just tie about an 18” piece of heavy tippet (at least 10 pound but up to 20 pound) from the bend of your favorite streamer to the eye of the one you want to use in your experiment. Try varying your experimental choices by: length, overall shape or “bushiness,” and color. Many guides favor trailing a smaller streamer behind a larger one. Conversely, many guides want the smaller streamer in front of the bigger streamer so as to simulate a larger predator chasing its prey. Try using both the realistic looking streamers as well as the impressionistic ones. Trout are also notorious for striking short which results in poor hook-ups. Fly selection is important here as well. Try using an articulated streamer with two hooks. The second hook should be hidden in the “tail” area of the streamer for it to be effective. Or try adding a “stinger” hook to your single hook streamer. In addition, short strikes are sometimes not “short” at all but, rather, a product of lifting your rod on the hook-set. In this case, the short strike is actually a miss on the angler’s part. When fishing streamers for trout think saltwater technique; keep your rod low and set the strike with a strip-strike instead of lifting your rod. Another remedy for short strikes is to try leaving your streamer in place after a short strike. The trout will often treat your streamer as a stunned baitfish and come back seconds later to “finish the job.” Executing these two tips alone will greatly increase your hook-ups!
Are you fishing deep enough? Pros know that the depth of the fly in the water, and this is true with both nymphs and streamers, can make a huge difference in the level of success on any given fishing day. Many days, all that is needed to be a successful streamer fisherman is using a streamer that is “close enough” in size and color to trigger a strike. Some days the trout seem to be “looking up”; they seem to prefer a streamer that rides high in the water. But on those days when you aren’t having much luck “chucking and ducking” with your floating line, think about using something that will get your fly deeper. Often, throwing two weighted streamers will be enough to get your fly deeper. You can also add split shot. But both of these remedies can get tricky to cast. A better option is to use some variation of a sinking fly line. Rio’s “VersiLeader” converts a floating fly line into a relatively inexpensive sink tip line. The “VersiLeader” comes in 2 lengths and several different sink rates. It attaches via a loop to loop connection to the end of your floating fly line giving you a sink tip that can be easily removed for indicator or dry fly fishing. Of course, there are a host of streamer tip lines, sink tip lines, and full sink lines available to the streamer angler. Choosing the perfect sinking line for the conditions is a matter of experimentation. However, just getting your streamer deeper “somehow” is usually enough to improve your cast to strike ratio.
Are you a “one trick pony” when it comes to your streamer fishing? We are all creatures of habit; same flies, same river, same spots on the river, same time of day, same retrieve, same clothes, same beer, same cigar. You get the idea. Pros don’t always know what to do when the fishing slows down but they know that they better try something different if they want to catch fish. Sometimes that something different is simply switch tactics altogether. Maybe they try dragging nymphs under an indicator or throwing dries tight to the bank. But if you are committed to using streamers in spite of experiencing poor results try to think outside your box. Try changing up your game. Do you always fish streamers regardless of the light conditions that day? Many pros feel that fishing streamers is more productive in low light conditions. If you always fish streamers in high, direct sunlight perhaps it is your timing rather than your technique that is at fault. Try different retrieves: Long pause, short pause, long strips, short strips, long and short strips linked together, let your streamer swing. If you are only fishing only the 15 feet nearest the bank try staying with your retrieve longer; perhaps even continue the retrieve until it is at your feet. Conversely, if you are retrieving to your feet, but getting the majority of your strikes near the bank, perhaps you should focus on just the “fishiest” water near the bank. If you are getting strikes but few hook-ups, try leaving your streamer in place like a stunned baitfish. Perhaps the trout will come back to “finish the job.” Try covering more water. Since you are having a tough streamer day already, you need to concede that, on this day, the trout’s prey/protect instincts are not in high gear. Therefore, you should cover more ground in order to show your offering to more fish. When the streamer fishing is slow, don’t spend more than 5 minutes in water that you have covered already. Also, try fishing water that hasn’t been very productive in the past. Most likely, the reason you have “never caught fish there” is that you have never really fished there; you gave up too easily in favor of your “go to spots.” This is one of the huge advantages a boat angler has over the wade angler. A boat angler can easily float miles of water and present a streamer to thousands of fish. A float angler will throw a streamer almost anywhere because float anglers will fish the water that is right in front of them without regard to whether they caught fish there in the past. A boat angler can easily float miles of water in a day and present a streamer to thousands of fish. A wade angler would do well to cover a mile or two in the same time. A boat also enables an angler to consistently present their streamer in the desirable “across the current” manner. Try fishing streamers early or late in the day. We all know that the biggest brown trout are low light feeders. Get out there. Even if you don’t catch a monster trout you’ll experience little fishing pressure and probably better than average fishing success.
I want to leave you with the best piece of advice my father received during his fishing life. Once, while visiting a famous fishing lure company, he came face to face with the owner, and master fisherman, of the company. “Finally”, my father thought, “I am going to know what to do when the fishing gets tough.” My father didn’t beat around the bush. He blurted out, “Any of these lures you sell catch all kinds of fish when the fishing is good. What do you do when the fishing is slow?” The master didn’t miss a beat, “When the fishing is slow, I go home.” So go fishing. But don’t forget to bring some different beer and different cigars.