We were standing with a morning cup of coffee in hand surveying the creek running alongside our campsite. As we were turning to head back to get ready for the day’s fishing, Paul (the professor) suddenly asked me a question. “If you could only fish one fly today what would it be?” Great question I thought and replied “my favorite killer fly, a streamer.
If you could fish only one fly what would it be? Streamer. Streamer fishing is about swimming prey. Swimming prey such as smaller trout, baitfish like sculpins and minnows, or leeches and anything else that swims. Streamers play into a trout’s aggressive and curious behavior whereby they love to chase things.
Not every fly is capable of catching fish year-round and every day, but a streamer comes mighty close. Streamers are easy to fish and have a big fish catch-ability built right in. My favorite killer fly is a streamer and here’s why and how to fish it.
What is A Streamer?
A streamer is a fly designed to be actively fished in the water column below the surface or near the bottom. Streamers are usually bigger flies than nymphs or dry flies. They are long, and very fluffy looking when dry. These flies imitate baitfish, crayfish, leeches, and many swimming “critters” in the creek and rivers. They are in many ways like fishing a lure because they are actively fished like a lure would be, often stripped or jerked through the water. When a strike occurs it can be very explosive.
Older style streamers like bucktails made from deer hair and feathered streamers are still in use and work very well. The famous Wooly Bugger is another form of streamer and is a popular and very productive fly. Another variation of the streamer is the sculpin style streamer. Maybe the most popular of these is the Muddler minnow. The head of the fly is made of trimmed deer hair making it easily recognizable.
Streamers are also tied in an assortment of colors and as the old adage goes bright day, bright colors, dark days dark colors. But for me, I tie my streamers in colors that best match the baitfish I find in the streams I fish. I also tie them in a size that matches as well.
Streamers generally attract the attention of aggressive trout and an aggressive trout will normally take a streamer simply because of the motion of the streamer. But that said, experiment with colors and size because you just never know exactly what’s on a trout’s mind.
When to Fish A Streamer?
The real answer to this question is “anytime” but there are times when the conditions seem to just scream streamer. Murky or stained water is a great time to fish a streamer. The motion of the streamer gives off a vibration, especially streamers with larger heads. Trout will hone in on the vibration before they see the streamer, which is why streamers work so well in murky water.
Another key to deciding on a streamer as “If you could only fish one fly today what would it be”, are those days when no bug activity seems present. These are the type of days when searching for trout, that a streamer really shines. Using a streamer to probe near structures such as rocks, logs or deeper pools, where trout tend to lay, is a good choice. Often a streamer’s motion will pull a trout out from under a log to snatch a morsel.
Right after a rain shower is another opportune time to fish a streamer. Rain stirs activity in the creek and will trigger trout to search out baitfish on the move. The rise in water levels and the turbulence created pushes baitfish from the shallow water sanctuaries into deeper water where trout have the advantage.
The least productive days are bright sunny days typically. But if you downsize the streamer and fish it a little slower you’d be surprised at how well you will do. Personally, I don’t get too concerned regarding sunny days. If you put a streamer where a trout can grab it, he usually will.
Time of Day
Although a streamer will produce any time of the day it’s a good idea to consider getting out of bed and hitting the creek early. Daybreak early. Big browns have been cruising the stream most of the night and early morning you’ll find them still on the prowl. Browns are night feeders and during the day they tend to hide and lay low. Early morning or dusk just before it gets dark are good opportunities to catch big brown.
General Rule of Thumb For When to Fish a Streamer.
I’m not sure why a cloudy day seems to produce more when using a stream but it does. It could be the barometric change, incoming weather or less sunlight on the water, but streamers always seem to work better on cloudy days. I also have found that on sunny days easing a streamer into the shadows, cast by trees onto the water brings some rod jarring strikes.
Trout seem to enjoy high water or at least seem more comfortable when the water is higher. Additionally, baitfish are pushed out from the shallows making them easier prey for a trout. This, of course, plays into your favor as a streamer is representing these baitfish. The bigger profile a streamer gives off catches the trout’s eye as well as the vibration produced by the streamer. This vibration is picked up by the lateral line of the trout. This is another advantage a streamer has because it can be detected two ways by a trout.
Trout are vulnerable to predators in bright light. Bright light keeps trout weary forcing them to hide in the shadows, under rocks, or undercut banks. Low light works well because most trout prefer to feed in the dark hours of the night and early hours of the day. Low light condition offers the angler a good opportunity to catch trout and a streamer is a good choice for the reason mentioned before.
MURKY OR STAINED WATER
This is the classic, “can’t mention it enough” situation. We talked about a trout’s ability to utilize two detection devices, his eyes, and lateral lines. He can either see or feel things in the water. Streamers are able to produce vibration and are a bigger presentation than say a nymph. Because streamers cover both sight and vibration, they are awesome when used in murky or stained water. Darker colored streamers seem to offer an easier detectable profile in murky water.
Do I Need Special Tackle?
Here in Pennsylvania, as I have often mentioned in other posts, I fish small streams the majority of the time. Many of these streams are shallow streams consisting of deeper holes and not very wide. Wading them is easy, for the most part, allowing me to cross the stream, back and forth, whereby I can access a likely spot from differing angles to fish a fly.
A 4 or 5 weight rod anywhere from 6 to 9 feet is all one needs. I fish a 4 weight rod regularly and use a floating line with a tapered 5x leader. Because of the motion of the streamer, a heavier leader won’t spook trout like dead drifting a nymph on heavier line might. Also, strikes aren’t subtle on streamers and many times it’s a bigger trout that’s grabbing it. I wouldn’t go lighter than a 6x tippet for this same reason.
Leader length is another consideration. I have found that a shorter leader works best for me. 7 ½ foot and even less. A shorter leader means, better control and when the strike happens, a better connection. Additionally, as I said earlier, leader-shyness or leader stealth is largely a non-factor when fishing streamers.
I use a floating line because, as I pointed out, Pa. streams are typically shallower than other streams, say, out west. But that said we do have a few bigger creeks or even rivers like Penn’s creek or the upper Delaware where the water depth is substantial. On streams like these, a longer leader may help in order to get your fly to sink properly while using a floating line.
How to Fish Streamers
We could be here all day on this subject because there are a lot of productive ways to present and fish a streamer and this is another reason for “If you could only fish one fly today what would it be”. Many guys simply cast across and downstream and “strip” the line in 6” increments as the streamer “swims” its way across the stream. This can be an effective approach for sure.
Casting across and fishing the streamer as you would a wet fly is also a good technique. Simply letting the streamer cut across the current, as the line goes tight, slow and lazy.
Casting upstream lets the streamer sink faster and as you strip the line towards you, you are mimicking a sculpin, who often swim downstream when disturbed. Changing angles while fishing the same current is another good technique because it will look to a trout as if a baitfish is injured or caught in the current.
Trout sometimes strike a streamer by biting the tail, called a “short strike”. If this happens, stop and just let the streamer drift. This emulates a stunned baitfish. As the streamer sinks to the bottom be ready, because the trout may pick it up as he would a stunned baitfish.
Speaking of current, remember trout like to sit positioned in the seams between faster water flow and slower water flow. Often these seams are referred to as “edges”. (click to Learn about “edges”) Casting into the faster side of the seam and swimming the streamer into the slow water along the edge brings some fantastic strikes. No trout in his right mind wants to let that getaway.
Although I don’t care to fish a streamer on a “dead drift” I have heard of guys who do and claim to catch trout. I do know on larger western streams this technique is used but in conjunction with a nymph tied to the streamer. They use an indicator as well and fish it as you would a nymph. The trout are attracted by the streamer but instead may choose the nymph.
There are two things that I’d like to point out when using the term “cover water”. The first is to fish every part of the hole or current you are positioned on to fish. Try different angles, depths, and retrieves. Fish both up and downstream through that section of water.
The second thing, move. Here is another “If You Could Fish Only One Fly What Would It Be?” situation. Streamers are not like other flies. For example, if you are nymphing or dry fly fishing, often it’s a matter of changing flies or waiting until the fish turn on. But streamers are different. If you don’t get a strike in the section you’re on and have fished it well, move. Head out to the next hole and start again. Streamers attract aggressive trout usually and if you don’t hook up, you most likely won’t. So, as they say, “cover water”.
How to Work a Stream Using Streamers
If you have ever played golf or even miniature golf, each hole you come to is different. There may be bunkers or sand traps to avoid or that clown face you have to putt through. Granted you shouldn’t have these things in a trout stream but none the less there are trees, rocks, logs, and currents all too ready to steal your streamers and ruin the hole. The point here is each hole on a stream is similar to golf and has to be “played” accordingly.
I like to fish my way downstream when fishing a streamer and upstream when fishing a nymph. This combination works out well for me through a day’s fishing as I often fish a streamer down and a nymph back up. As I approach each section of the stream I intend to fish, I take the time to more or less study the hole. (Read the water) (Click to Learn about “Reading Water”). I try to figure out where the trout may be holding and how I’m going to make the cast to present the fly.
Additionally, I consider how fast the current seems to be running through the hole and how deep the hole itself may be. The reason for this is to calculate the weight adjustment needed to get the streamer down as quickly as possible to the trout’s holding level. “Weight adjustment” is the fancy term used to describe adding or removing split shot.
Anyway, I use a split shot of various sizes and attach them to my line 6 to 15” up the line from my streamer. Ideally, if you must use weight, I like it to be just one split shot if possible. But sometimes a big split shot isn’t as good as two smaller ones. You’ll need to experiment with it to find what is comfortable.
What’s is the Best Streamers Size?
I’ve heard people ask this question often and the usually “depends” answer seems to be the normal response. But for me it’s simple. My streamers are tied on a 3x shank hook size 10 and 12. I tend towards the 12 when it’s a sunny lazy day or if the trout seem spooky. As I said before, Pa. streams aren’t that big for the most part and I have had success fishing even bigger streams with these sized streamers. But don’t forget, part of the beauty of fly fishing is experimentation. It’s what I love about the sport. Trying things, playing around, and discovering things. So don’t get caught up in “what’s the perfect” whatever.
Paul and I often debate the use of streamers and nymphs. Nymphs are by far Paul’s favor fly and he will argue that in a season of fishing the nymph will out produce the streamers. As the title suggests, “If You Could Fish Only One Fly What Would It Be?” you can see we still have the on-going debate. 35 years of fishing together and this discussion still rages, but interestingly enough, when we fish together we have an approach that employs both the streamer and the nymph. It’s a simple approach. We fish a streamer downstream and fish a nymph back upstream through the same water. The problem with this approach is, we catch fish both down and back. This tactic doesn’t help settle the debate in any way but instead fuels it even more. It seems to be a nice problem we have. Fish on!
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